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Competitive Weightlifters Ursula Garza Papandrea and Vanessa Frost

One Team and Lofty Goals: Interview with Ursula Garza Papandrea and Vanessa Frost

Ursula Garza Papandrea currently coaches for Texas Barbell Club, which won the Men’s Team Champion title at 2014 USAW Nationals. She is a two-time Senior National Champion, two-time Olympic Festival Champion, five-time World Team Member (1992-1996), for former record holder in both snatch (masters) and clean and jerk (seniors and masters). She is the first and only woman to attain USAW’s highest coaching level, Senior International Coach (Level 5).

Vanessa Frost is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for Southern Illinois University. She recently took third place at the 2015 American Open. She also placed first at the Illinois State Weightlifting Championships and the USAW Regional Championships, and eighth at the USAW National Championships.

First of all, thanks to Vanessa for joining us for this interview. Vanessa—would you mind introducing yourself with a bit of your background in weightlifting and how you wound up working with Ursula? 

V: So, I started CrossFit in 2010 and I did that for a couple years. I got into collegiate strength and conditioning in January of 2013 and decided to start competing in 2014. I had a coach for about a year, but he moved and got out of the industry. I needed a good coach—a great coach, so I stalked Ursula until she decided to coach me.

U: She kept sending me messages, and she was going to be at Regionals in St. Louis. I met her there, and we talked, and we got to be around each other a little bit. And, yeah, I decided to coach her. The first meet that I had with her was last Nationals, and then I coached her for this year’s American Open, where she got bronze.

Though I’m sure demographics have shifted in recent years, the sport of weightlifting does seem to be still a male-dominated sport. I was wondering if I could get a bit of your perspective on that, given the experience both of you have both competing for and coaching in strength sports.

U: You know what Vanessa and I talk a lot about is that it’s not just the world of Olympic weightlifting. I think it might be even worse in strength and conditioning. For me, I became a USAW Level 5 coach in 2003. There still aren’t any other women that are any even near that. It wasn’t easy to attain… Most of the men sitting at Level 5 were grandfathered in—as in when the whole system was created, they were already on board. They had substantial qualifications, but still… not that many people have been added.

Obviously in terms of visibility, there are more women now coaching at the national level, but we’re still not where we need to be. For me, a lot of that has to do with how mentoring and networking works—or doesn’t work. I coached for John Coffee since ’93, and at any given time anywhere from 2 to half the team were athletes whom I coached, but because I was coaching under someone else’s name, I didn’t get credit. John didn’t do that intentionally at all—that’s just how the system works. If there’s a male coach, people tend to assume that he’s running the whole shebang.

To grow the sport, we have to have more coaches (men and women) who do more than build athletes. We should be not just taking more people under our wings, but developing them and allowing them to flourish as coaches in their own right. We need to mentor without standing in their way or hogging the credit. John Coffee was willing to help me in that way. Now, I have the luxury of saying that, if Vanessa wants to go ahead and coach people, she should coach people and I can help her program without taking credit. Coaches must be willing to bring up new coaches and then trust them to work with athletes on their own and to advance. Until people have that generosity – that I will help you even if it means you will outperform me someday—we’ll stunt our own growth. For me, I expect my athletes to outperform me. Theybetter outperform me.

All the guys that I coach, I tell them not just to be athletes, but also to coach. Almost all my athletes have their own team. That has to happen in a female network for us to get more women at a higher level.

The other thing that Vanessa and I talk about is the field of strength and conditioning. I think it’s tougher for women in S&C than it is in Olympic Weightlifting. I left really early on. I did a year at UT and like half a year at Texas State. That’s all it took for me to realize that I wouldn’t bang my head against the wall like that. Vanessa still does it.

V:  So, I work at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. I work with football, women’s basketball, volleyball, and men’s and women’s swimming and diving. For the first year of my graduate assistantship, I only worked with football. 90% of my day was with football. When I showed up, they hadn’t had a female coach for I think three years or so, and the one before me hadn’t been effective. As soon I showed up, the attitude seemed to be, “Well, she’s a chick, and the last chick we had wasn’t great, so we expect her to suck.” I had a lot of proving myself to do—not even necessarily to the coaches, but especially with the athletes, especially guys who show up from high school football thinking they’re the shit. It wasn’t until a lot of them finally saw their own improvements that they understood that I know what I’m doing.

U: I’m not going to prove myself like that. You can bite me. I wasn’t going to beat myself against the wall. At least in weightlifting your merit as a coach is more individual. My athletes chose me. Vanessa’s thrown into a situation where she comes up against a lot of larger cultural expectations about women in strength sports. It’s also important that the head coach there is willing to give her credit—to signal to the athletes that he respects her and that she knows what she’s doing.

V: Urs and I were talking in the car, and we think it’s sad that our merit has to come from a male coach in a higher position. It’s bad that you need to start with that validation, but until larger cultural shifts happen, that’s going to have to be the case.

U: I know a lot of the respect that I get comes from other male coaches showing me respect. It’s a kind of roundabout way. You recognize it, but getting upset about it doesn’t really help. You just keep doing what you do and wait until the world changes—and I’ll tell you, in my time the world has changed a lot. In the last 30 years, both weightlifting and S&C have changed a lot, but it’s still frustrating.

V: When I was starting to look for a job, a lot of my co-workers assumed that I would get a job more easily because I was a woman.

U: The affirmative action thing—that unsettles me. You don’t want that accusation to be true. It sucks to be on the receiving end of that when there’s no basis, when someone happens to be a woman and is also a fantastic coach. But also, I’ve seen people try to bring in a token woman without considering her qualifications. That helps no one. I get accused of “not being feminist enough” when I say these things, but I just think that you need to be able to do what the job/skill requires—men and women both, obviously. Otherwise you make things more difficult for all women. The goal is to get more women recognized as head coaches and doing good work in that capacity.

I mean, it’s not all negative. I get to talk a lot of shit as a woman. I get away with saying stuff that any man would get punched in the face for. I mean, there’s notoriety, too. I get called a bitch. When a woman succeeds, it must be because she’s a bossy bitch—not because she’s good at what she does. (*laughs*) For me, those two things just happen to coincide.

Rewind for me a bit to the first time you programmed for a group of lifters—where did you begin? What questions did you ask yourself? Where did you look for answers? 

U: Oh my god, the first programs I wrote were so basic—and I still use fairly basic progressive overload. My repertoire was not very broad in the beginning, so I really just stuck to the basics, just snatch, power snatch, snatch pulls, power cleans, power jerks, clean pulls, etc. Now, because I’ve read more – Russian training manuals have been by far the biggest influence for me – I know almost too many exercises.

I’ve evolved to where almost all of my beginner programming is geared towards fixing technical errors, and I’m less worried about the strength cycle. I’m teaching them how to move. I can usually address technical errors more quickly because I know which ones to pick for that person. For my competitors, their programming is geared towards major competitions. I still try not to be super fancy.

It’s a lot of experimenting. Your first lifters are your guinea pigs. If you think you know everything, you’re a fool. I always hope there’s more to learn – you always have somewhere to go. My main goal now in programming is to work them as hard as I can without hurting them, while providing them appropriate amounts of time to recover. One of the things for high level lifters is pushing them without pushing them over the edge. I know I’ve done my job if they’re all complaining and nobody’s hurt.

That’s another question I had for you. How do you recover from high-level training like that? In our last interview, you mentioned that you recommend adaptogens. 

U:  I usually recommend to the guys that they take Siberian ginseng and rhodiola rosea. When I was competing, I was a big proponent of HMB, and inosine—just to assist in recovery. There used to be some supplements that had leuzea carthamoides, but I think that’s hard to get ahold of and they didn’t put enough of it in the supplements anyway.

V: Also, sleep.

U: Sleep. If you’re a competitive athlete, you need a minimum of nine hours of sleep a night. Your goal in life should be to get to a point where you can sleep 8-9 hours.

Back in Arizona, August asked me “what do you want to do in life?” and I realized… I probably have less of an answer now than I ever did. Something I admire about you a lot is that you balance a lot of different responsibilities all so well. 

U: And you know, I don’t optimize what I do in a business sense. I try to meet my goals in terms of quality and results. And maybe there’s a way to do everything so that all those things coincide, but I have a very small group of paying clients. I’m unfortunately too well-known for putting people off for months on end after they’ve reached out to me. For a lot of them, they wait at least three months after they’ve contacted me. When I bring someone in, I have to spend a lot of time with them and I can’t ignore everyone else when I’m doing it. I dunno, I don’t do big groups very often, I don’t do very many seminars. I have never been money-oriented, and money is never my goal. I wish I were different, I swear. My life could be so much easier if I made money a goal, but it’s not me, and even if I try, it’s a flop. My heart is not in it. My t-shirt sales failed. I‘m probably the only person in history who failed to make money on t-shirt sales.

Back when I was going from gym-to-gym teaching, I was making three times what I now make being in one gym with my team. The problem was, back when I was traveling, I didn’t have time to watch the few guys who were with me to train. So, I gave up a more substantial income so that we could have a home base. It meant that my business got substantially smaller, but I’m a lot happier. The people that I do have—I can really work with them in a meaningful way, and I know that I can help them get better. Being a coach is a contract—they swear they’re going to do their best to get better, and you swear to do your best to help them. The month that I left that job, though—going from gym to gym—I made less than 1/6th of what I had made before. You just have to bite the bullet. So, that means that my teaching job (at Austin Community College) is my steady income.

I have to say, though, I am impressed with the caliber of coaches that I see at Nationals every year. These are people who know how to teach and athletes who know how to lift. That’s really exciting. So it means I can be just in one place, and there are more coaches out there doing what I was doing.

So, what can we look forward to from both of you? What are you working towards?

V: My big weightlifting goal is the make the World Team. I’m fortunate enough that right now, where I am, my boss supports my competitive career and the fact that I have to travel. Things are maybe in flux, career-wise, but I’m going to work to make the World Team and see what fits into that, professionally.

U: When you’re competing, you give up something on the career side to achieve your competition goals, and then you can switch that later. To do both is possible, but it’s hard. I like security. I like stability and predictability. I just got to a point where I didn’t have enough time in my day because I was working full time, teaching part time in government, part time in kinesiology, coaching, and then I had a kid. CrossFit came along and that opened a lot of opportunities, but even then it took me a long time to pull the trigger, to leave the stability of my job and take a risk. It took me a while to leave the circuit of going from gym to gym and to settle into one spot. I get set in my ways. I pretty much plan and predict things. I think they call that a control freak. But, as for what I’m going to do now…

V: Take Vanessa to the World Team.

U: Take Vanessa to the World Team. My goal is to get everyone that I have anything to do with to be the most successful weightlifter/person they could be. I’ve never looked to weightlifting for some sort of reward.

Well, I’m on the board of directors. This organization has a lot of opportunities right now because of CrossFit and the amount of growth we’ve seen recently. I have one more year left on the board and one of my biggest goals is to feel like when I leave, we’re on the right trajectory. I want to see us take advantage of the opportunities we have – to even recognize the opportunities we have. A lot of our recent growth is incidental, and we could do a lot more to further it.

To me, everyone who’s on Team USA is on a team with me. I’d love to see more of that camaraderie and to find ways to make that happen. It’s like when I see CJ Cummings—I have nothing to do with him—but I’m proud because he’s an American weightlifter. Figuring out how to get everyone to that same place is going to be a turning point in our federation. When I see Mattie Rogers lift, I’m super pumped. She’s not my lifter, but I’m pumped.

At the end of the day, we’re all part of Team USA and we have to figure out how to get everyone on that boat. And that’s the thing that’s fantastic about CrossFit—they’re all diehard. Everyone’s all about it. They have such loyalty to the sport, the organization, to all other athletes. Weightlifting gets that wrong. We need to be fans of not only our own lifters, but of other people’s lifters. Weightlifters need to be fans of other lifters. In terms of goals, that’s lofty as fuck—but I’m not one to shy away from a lofty.

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