Natalie's Meet Recap: 2018 IPF Open World Championship, Sweden

This was originally written for the LVD Blog and has been repurposed for Corvus Strength Co.

There can be a lot of stress wrapped up in carrying the title of reigning world champion. The first time I won IPF Open Worlds was in 2017 and I had a near-perfect performance. Going into the meet, I was healthy and had my head on straight. I finished that competition in 2017 with three World Records – two in the squat and one in total – and the win by a landslide of 28.5kg. It felt amazing and powerful, but I knew in the back of my mind that it would not always be that way. With a performance like that comes pressure and you become the one with a target on your back. I felt just as I had achieved my dream of several years, I had also opened up Pandora’s box of textbook sports psych issues.

Nothing is ever the same in this sport. No competition, training cycle, or year is like the previous, no matter how much you feel you are in control of variables. About mid-way through the year, I started experiencing nagging back and glute pain as a result of compression in my lumbar spine. One thing we all know about pain is how it can be all-consuming, and that is especially the case when you are just a couple of months out from an important competition. My daily activities, thoughts, and just about everything I did began to revolve around the near-constant pain I was experiencing. My expectations of training performance dropped and that began to cause stress. When I was in pain, I was weaker, which all fed into a feedback loop of negativity. Occasionally, there was a day where I didn’t have pain and even that was a challenge because I was afraid of “overdoing it” before the next training day.

If I have learned one thing over the last few years, it is the importance of being honest with myself. I am the only one who knows what I am feeling, whether that is physical pain, stress, demotivation, pressure, etc. So that’s what I did… I took a step back from the huge objective goals and prepared myself for reality.

There were a few things I knew to be true:

1)    My number one goal, above all else, was to win my 2nd world championship

2)    Based on my experience with training the last several weeks, there was a good chance that I would not feel great physically on meet day

Rather than stubbornly bang my head into a wall with my sights set on a total that was unlikely for this competition, I reframed my mentality: get the W, don’t get any more injured, and try to have a good time. Check, check, check.

Now, for the actual meet recap.

When it comes to competing, I’ve found the best way to perform optimally is to have a short term memory. That goes for both the positives and negatives. After a big squat PR (or missing a key lift) on the 3rd attempt it’s okay to feel it for a moment, but it’s time to move on to bench warmups. That applies for every attempt on meet day. Celebration, frustration, analysis, etc. are for after the final deadlift. Successful performances in competition require intentionality and self-awareness, which are developed over time with experience. It took me about 5 years to feel like myself on the platform, some people may be quicker and others may never feel it, which is okay. It’s about getting to know yourself and figuring out what you need to do to perform best.

During the training cycle leading up to Worlds, my heaviest squat was 272.5kg (601lbs). The way it moved that day suggested I had the strength for 280kg or more. Last year at Open Worlds, I broke the World Record in squat with 273.5kg (603lbs) and then in early 2018, the Ukranian hit 275.5kg (607lbs) at Europeans. I knew coming into this meet that she would be gunning to re-break that World Record and, along the way, she would be hoping for me to make a mistake or two, so I was mentally prepared to see a big opener from her on the board. Remember everyone, openers really don’t mean a damn thing unless that’s all you plan on lifting… I opened with 257.5kg (568lbs) and it did not move as well as I would have wanted. Normally, we’d jump 12.5-15kg to my second, but we just went with 10kg to be safe. My second attempt at 267.5kg (591lbs) moved better than the opener, but still not great. We just went up 5kg for my 3rd and I was not successful with it. Meanwhile, Tishakova from Ukraine bombed with her opener of 265kg (573lbs) and then packed her bags and left. She was my only real competition, so I knew at that point I just needed to keep plugging away. 

In training, I had benched 192.5kg (424lbs), which tied my all-time PR and exceeds the current World Record by 1kg. The thing that seemed to be causing my back the most pain was big-arched heavy, tough benches where I had to push on them pretty hard, which makes sense. The plan going into the meet was to chip my current World Record by 0.5 or 1kg, but my opener of 180kg (396lbs) showed us that we needed to make some tweaks to the plan. Instead, we just went 185kg (407lbs) on the second and 187.5kg (413lbs) on the third because that’s really all I had that day.  

Onto deadlifts, which had been giving me the most trouble because of my back pain, we kept the opener a very light 190kg (419lbs) and really only had time for 3 warmup sets. When I’m healthy, I can handle the big jumps and minimal warming up, but I could tell right away that was going to make things troublesome. Based on my training, the plan was 10-15kg jumps to my 2nd and 3rd attempts, but my body had other ideas in mind. After my opener, I came off the platform and asked the coaches, “is anyone close? Don’t lie to me!” – remember, goal #1 was to win – and they all laughed and said no. I’m not sure what I would have done if they had said yes, but I’m the type of lifter who likes to know what is going on around me, so that felt like important information. Based on how my opener moved, we just went up 7.5kg – I got it but struggled at lockout, when the glutes help push the hips through. I missed 202.5kg on my 3rd attempt, which is less than my raw PR. While I’ve never been a great deadlifter, it still feels disappointing to have ended the day so far off from my best on that lift (for reference, my competition PR is 215kg, and my best in training is 222.5kg) and the total (my total was 652.5kg, and my competition PR is 671kg)… however, I keep coming back to that #1 goal and I remind myself of how much worse off I could have been given how things were looking a few weeks out. 

For a multitude of reasons, progress will not always be linear, but I would be lying if I said that I am unphased by taking a step “backward” or by not objectively making progress this time around. However, what I will say is that I am happy with a win, that I will live to fight another day, and this experience makes me hungry to be the strongest version of myself the next time I step on the platform.

Natalie Hanson