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Aspen’s pocket power lifter

Photo courtesy Karen Stoller
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The lone competitive weightlifter in Aspen is 5 feet, 4 inches tall, weighs a svelte 114 pounds and packs a pair of X chromosomes. Don’t worry. Karen Stoller raises a lot of eyebrows when she tells people about her new, favorite hobby. Some people think she’s a body builder, even though Stoller appears more like a Baywatch babe than a beefcake. Some people think she’s foolish for competing in a sport that attracts macho males like discarded fruit attracts ants.But there’s much more to Stoller and her weightlifting passion than meets the eye.A full-time physical trainer in the valley for the past seven years, Stoller is an expert on biomechanics and kinesiology, and a savant when it comes to improving bad posture. She says Olympic lifting – an all-encompassing term for the two platform lifts of power clean and jerk, and snatch – is arguably the best complete body workout known to man. It strengthens the legs, the arms and all of the core muscles. It’s also great for posture, she says, and not at all boring like Pilates or Yoga.Stoller says she knew relatively nothing about weightlifting before she attended a clinic at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs three years ago. She went to learn the benefits of an Olympic lifting regimen to help with her roster of physical-training clients.

She ended up discovering that the sport, which requires balance and explosive strength, was perfect for someone like herself – a former gymnast with a high anaerobic capacity. For the past three years, she has honed her technique in the two lifts while working toward her senior level certification from USA Weightlifting. After she became only the 10th woman to receive the certification in August, she still wanted to learn more about the sport, and figured the only way to do so was to experience competitive lifting. So, yes, Karen Stoller is a competitive lifter. And a pretty good one, too. In the first two competitions she has entered, she took the gold both times amongst women in the over-35 Masters division.At the State Games in Colorado Springs earlier this month, she lifted 100 pounds in the clean and jerk and 80 pounds in the snatch. Both platform exercises begin with the lifter resting in a static squat position, before driving with the legs, arms and core muscles to push a plated barbell up over the head. In a power clean, the lifter hoists the barbell to a resting position at the chest; the jerk is then a press – using the arms and legs – to a full extension above the head. The snatch uses a wider grip, and is one continual motion in which the lifter yanks the bar off the ground to a full arm extension over the head. Olympic lifting is scored on a strength-to-weight ratio – meaning, for her weight class, Stoller was able to lift a higher combined amount of weight than anyone else.

Soft spoken and introspective, Stoller says she always been an active person, and that competitive lifting is just the latest in a long line of athletic pursuits. She admits, however, that as a young woman growing up in Pittsburgh, she was unaware of her body’s strengths and weaknesses.Weight training was unheard of for females, and organized sports were a rarity. There were no girls soccer leagues, no club volleyball teams, no after-school practices for the basketball squad.Stoller did gymnastics because there wasn’t much of a choice. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, she became an avid cyclist while working for a high-profile architecture firm in Manhattan.In spite of her devotion to road biking, Stoller says she was always “average” when it came to endurance sports. After a knee injury pushed her off the bike, she took up lifting free weights, which immediately flipped an internal switch.”I went in the gym and started lifting and – boom – all of a sudden, the light bulb went off,” she says. “I realized I was much better at anaerobic exercise. I was like a lot of girls from my generation. What happens, I think, is that there weren’t any coaches to help women realize what their attributes are.”The lifting led to a mid-life makeover. Stoller grew weary of the big city and the 60-hour work weeks, and moved to Aspen seven years ago. She then shelved the architecture career to focus solely on personal training – a personal passion since she began working with weights.Her background in engineering was a good foundation for the kinesiology of personal training, but Stoller says she has continued to seek new ways for her clients to increase strength and flexibility and improve posture. A friend from New York urged to take the course at the Olympic Training Center, and though she was a bit hesitant, she signed up. When she arrived, she found she was only one of two women in the class with 37 men.



“Lots of football players, lots of football coaches and strength and conditioning coaches from all over the country,” she says. “It was pretty intimidating. There were guys from USA Track and Field, college basketball, field and track, the FBI – you name it. It was like girls didn’t learn this stuff.”Once she overcame her anxieties about all that testosterone, she quickly realized that, in fact, women could learn a lot from a training regimen that includes Olympic lifts.”People talk about core movements to improve posture,” Stoller says. “These are the oldest core movements in the world. As women start to age, our posture starts to go forward. I was going to Yoga, but I didn’t really love it. I liked Pilates, but it was slow. All of the sudden, I started learning the Olympic lifts and my posture straightened out. It wasn’t without a lot of hard work, but I was able to move things that didn’t want to move and correct imbalances in different directions.”Shifting people’s perceptions about what still tends to be a male-dominated sport proved more difficult. Stoller says she continues to get funny looks when people see her training on the lone platform at Altitude Body Performance Center, located in the basement of the Mountain Chalet on Durant Avenue. It’s the same thing when she tells people that she competes in weightlifting contests.”Everyone gets it confused with body building,” she says. “People don’t realize the difference. They’re like, Oh, you’re a body builder, but you’re not that big. First off, women don’t have the testosterone to get really big. And second, body building isn’t an Olympic sport because it’s not predicated on sports performance. Olympic lifting is predicated solely on strength.”

Stoller is a strong woman – in both mind and body. Strong enough to forge on with her training, despite lacking numerous resources away from the Olympic Training Center. Strong enough to leap into competitive lifting, despite taking up the sport in her 30s. In the basement of one of the smallest gyms in town, on the only platform that exists for miles, she pushes herself through her rigorous routines alone.And she does so only when she is allowed. Olympic lifting, when done correctly, is a graceful to watch, but it’s not ballet. There is grunting and moaning and the collision of the barbell – loaded with rubber plates – against the platform when it is dropped after a heavy lift. Stoller tends to gently set the bar back down on the ground when she lifts with low weights, but right before a competition she must push herself to the limit, which means low reps at high weights. The customary technique when lifters work out with high weights is to drop the bar, instead of risking a trained back by trying to set it down.”I try to be respectful of the other people around, but if you’ve never heard weights drop before it can be pretty shocking,” she says.So shocking, that Stoller has to coordinate times with the staff at Altitude so that her training doesn’t interfere with Pilates classes and other club offerings. She recognizes that there’s a tinge of irony in her situation – especially in uber-healthy Aspen. “At the Olympic Training Center, everyone does Olympic lifts,” she says. “You’ll see these tall, beautiful volleyball players doing snatches. You’ll see these tiny girls lifting huge amounts of weights above their heads. Everyone does them because they know that they are the perfect lifts for so many things. It’s a great full-body workout.”As yet, however, Stoller hasn’t ignited a new fitness trend in town. If she wants technical feedback on her training, or a partner to help her rack plates, she has to hit the road. During the warmer months, she drives down to the training center about once a month to work with the best strength coaches in the United States, and observe Olympic athletes in training.She also has a good relationship with the strength coaches at Denver University, where she often trains in the winter instead of driving the extra hour to the Springs.




Paul Fleschler, the resident men’s head coach at the Olympic training center, says he has admired Stoller’s persistence since he met her three years ago.”It’s not a sport that attracts a lot of guys. A lot of people get involved with our certification courses; they do so to get more money at work,” Fleschler says. “Karen was someone who really wanted to learn this stuff for herself. She wanted to understand why these lifts are so good, and she was intrigued by how difficult they are. She’s constantly working to improve her knowledge of the sport.”Stoller admits, even after three years, that she is still a work in progress. Even after receiving her senior certification, which allows her to coach anyone in the sport, she still feels like she has a lot to learn.”It’s so amazing to me, because you can coach all day long, and have all the credentials and do all the studying in the world,” she says. “But there is nothing like getting up there and experiencing those butterflies in your stomach yourself.””You can’t really appreciate this sport until you try to do a snatch or a clean and jerk,” Fleschler says. “It’s extremely difficult.”Of course, Stoller adds, if anyone is interested in learning, she’s easy to find. Just look – or listen – for the lean blond woman in the basement gym on Durant Avenue who likes to drop heavy weights between Pilates classes.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com


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