#STRONG
Pete Kelley

May 8, 2019

Written by Rachel McCoy | Photography by Jessica Stewart

CHARACTER TRAIT: Strong

DEFINITION: Having the power to move heavy weights or perform other physically demanding tasks. Able to withstand great force or pressure.

Olympic weightlifter and USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame member Pete Kelley has seen some impressive views from around the globe. From Bulgaria, as a Junior World Championships competitor…to London, helping with the training center for the summer Olympics. His vantage point includes the mountaintops of Colorado at the U.S. Olympic training facility. Add in the view of the Middle Eastern village from his bicycle as a child in the early 1980s, while living abroad with his family as part of his father’s pipefitting career.

But one of his favorite views is still the racks of weights and bars at the Wesley Weightlifters program, where he spent so many hours as a local high school student and as a young adult. The brick walls and worn wooden floors of the original InterServ and Wesley Center have been replaced with a multi-million weight room and recreational center in the South Side of St. Joseph, but for Kelley, the place still feels like home.

For the past two years, he has lent his Olympic expertise and skill as a volunteer coach for the Wesley weightlifting youth program, held twice a week at the recently rebuilt InterServ building on King Hill Avenue. He helps lead a group of approximately 20 youth, across a span of grade school ages, as part of the Wesley Weightlifters. Middle school and high school students arrive later in the evening, but Kelley’s mission is to show the right technique and build the right attitude for those just starting the sport.

“Since I was a kid, it was my dream when I had kids one day to teach them the sport of Olympic weightlifting,” says Kelley. “And now that dream has become a reality.”

Kelley explains that as a sport, weightlifting remains dominant in the Olympics worldwide and continues to gain power in the United States.

“People in the U.S. are learning more about it all the time,” says Kelley. “A lot are intimidated by moves like the snatch and the clean and jerk. They’re more used to power lifting or bodybuilding, because that’s what they see on TV. But Olympic weightlifting is growing and more colleges are putting it into their athletic programs now.”

Local knowledge of Olympic weightlifting seems forever connected to Pete Kelley and a handful of others. In 1996, Kelley competed in the Atlanta Olympic Games. In 2004 he broke the record for the American snatch, with a 172.5-kilo snatch at the U.S. Olympic Trials at the St. Joseph Civic Arena. More recently, Kelley became a member of the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame. Friend and fellow two-time Olympian Wes Barnett is also a graduate of the Wesley Center weightlifting program, earning both a Silver and a Bronze Medal in 1997 at the World Championships in Chang Mai, Thailand, and competing alongside Kelley at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Kelley and Barnett had the same coach, St. Joseph’s Dennis Snethen, who continues to work with students and guide the program today with a new generation of athletes. Snethen recently accompanied local Olympic alternate and 2020 hopeful Marissa Klingseis, a national champion and 2016 Summer Olympics alternate, to a qualifying meet in Thailand. In the spring of 2019, she adds another meet to her list of six qualifying meets, traveling to Columbia, South America – part of Klingseis’ journey toward the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

She’s also pursuing a medical career, although that is somewhat on hold while she continues to train as a stipend athlete for USA Weightlifting. But today, she’s reminding an 8-year-old girl in the Wesley weightlifting room to correct her form – and to clean up the chalk she’s let fall out of the bowl.

“Everyone should come and try. It’s one of the safest sports out there, and it translates to all kinds of other activities,” says Klingseis. “I love the sport. It’s amazing how strong these kids are, once they get the technique down. I don’t think enough people know about it. We continue to bring awareness to it, and what it can mean for kids and communities.”

Kelley agrees about the importance of expanding awareness. “It’s exciting to see it reach so many different ages and demographics today,” says Kelley. “You see Olympic moves as part of the off-season training for every sport – from volleyball to football to baseball. A lot of coaches across the nation have been exposed to the benefits of it and continue to add it into their programs as they become professional coaches.”

In St. Joseph, Kelley sees advances and changes on the horizon. USA Weightlifting is working with national high school associations to adopt it as a varsity sport. It’s already a high school varsity sport in three states, with more states to follow.

“This is a sport that’s really for kids and adults and everyone, because it’s a total body workout that develops speed and power. I’ve seen volleyball athletes out-lift other athletes on moves like the clean and jerk,” says Kelley. “But it’s also about patience. The kids have to learn the process and they have to work at the process before they can max out on any lift. They need to work at the results they want.”

You can see the enthusiasm for weightlifting as the kids move from station to station. Kelley’s son, 11-year-old Cole Kelley, is a multi-sport athlete and has been participating in the Wesley weightlifting program for a few years. “This is everyday life for me, and my dad’s a pretty good coach. He even makes my friends work out with him when they come over to hang out,” says Kelley, before returning to another set of box jumps.

Fifth-grader Maksim Berg says, “It’s kind of crazy to have an Olympian as your coach. It can be hard and a little confusing at first, but Pete expects us to work hard,” says Berg.

For fifth-grader Dustin Duke, “The best thing is getting stronger and getting muscles.”

All are invited to participate in several competitions throughout the year, but these are optional. “I see improvements every week with the kids,” says Kelley. “It’s a good opportunity for kids who are active in traditional sports and also kids who maybe haven’t tried a sport before. It’s universal, and anyone can learn the techniques and then continue to build their strength and speed across their whole lives.”

At the Wesley Weightlifters program, it’s not uncommon to see kids as young as age 7, all the way through college-aged, and even adults who want to know more and compete. “Team Wesley,” as the program is also called, is offered throughout the school year during after-school hours and is funded in part by the United Way of Greater St. Joseph, among other resources.

“All kinds of kids come to the Wesley Center, and we want to teach them how their body moves and how to be flexible and focus,” says Kelley. “We can start them off and develop that knowledge of technique, and they can continue to build on that for years.”

Olympic weightlifting moves are similar, says Kelley, to what you might see at a Crossfit gym – but not similar to what traditional “bodybuilders” would work on. The difference is in the emphasis on speed and form, with quick movements across power cleans, power jerks, presses, back squats and clean and jerks. Students work on individual improvements each week, but also incorporate a series of stations designed to build speed, agility and strength at the same time. There’s serious work to be done, but Kelley helps create a very positive and low-key environment.

He has goals for lots of areas of his life, including where he wants to see Olympic-style weightlifting in St. Joseph. “I’d like to see this as a high school event, and if not an official sport, then to have the coaches continue to use the components to help their athletes across every sport. The technique is beneficial for everyone in a sport, and everyone who isn’t.”

And then he’s off, setting the timer and giving another “Ready. Set. Go!” command to a group of young weightlifters, including his son. And to Kelley, this is the best view of all.

Note: InterServ opened in St. Joseph in 1926 and has nearly a century of service to local families. The original location is just a few feet away from the recently renovated InterServ building. Current programs include an after-school program with hot meals and a gymnasium, weight training, summer sports activities, senior services and early care and education programs.

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