“You have to be ready to die on the platform”

Interview with Master of Sport Chris Doenlen.

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Photo by Sergei Merkulin
What is your athletic background?
I’ve never been much of an athlete – this whole kettle-life has really shocked my friends from growing up. I was definitely the least athletic out of the group, warming the bench for most of my little league soccer matches growing up. Also like all teenage Florida boys, I grew up surfing and skateboarding, but was never really that good!
I started lifting weights during my senior year of high school and just never stopped. In college I became obsessed with Gym Jones and their style of training. I also dove head first into cycling during my last years of college and grad school. Shaved legs, spandex, tan lines.
 
What do you do for a living? 
I work part-time doing finance and accounting, HR, and odds and ends at a small, but growing online publishing company. I have a finance degree and a master’s in international business. When my company found out I was going to Hamburg, the CEO made me their first sponsored athlete.
On the fitness side, I teach classes and have a handful of personal training clients at the gym where I train. I also do nutritional coaching and online Kettlebell Sport coaching.
 
How and when did you start Kettlebell Sport?
When Emily and I moved up to DC after we graduated, I kept up with the cycling. However, without a car, you’re forced to ride through the city to get out to any real riding and it’s just so dangerous. After so many close calls, I was looking for something new.
Emily used to do kung-fu when she was in high school, and her teacher, Ed Coughlin, was in the first group of IKFF CKT’s way back when. He had shown me some exercises during one of our visits and once I bought some ‘bells for myself, he emailed me literally dozens of ebooks, manuals, and videos.
I was training in our 500 square-foot apartment for months, looking up stuff on YouTube for inspiration, when I came across Sport lifting. I decided to try a Biathlon test set, barefoot on the carpet, and did something like 75 jerks and 200 snatches with 16kg’s that first time. I fell in love with the idea – the perfect marriage of weight lifting and endurance training.
A few months later, in August 2011, I did my CKT with Ken Blackburn in Hoboken, NJ (Shout out to Dave Cabral for being the most gracious host ever!). Ken encouraged me to compete at Nationals that November and I decided to give it a try. Three months later, I competed for the first time since playing soccer in my freshman year of high school. Ended up with 78 jerks and something like 136 snatches with the 24kg ‘bells, which was CMS. After that I was hooked!
 

Why do you lift kettlebells? What keeps you motivated?
I initially started for the convenience — it was easy to do in my small apartment and I didn’t need a ton of time to get in a great workout. I fell in love with Kettlebell Sport because it gave me clear, objective goals to work towards – and competition was the deadline. Having goals like this was completely new to me and I found myself pushing harder than I ever had before. Today I’m still driven by seeing how far I can go. 

What is/has been the hardest part about learning how to lift kettlebells?
Right now the hardest part is correcting some bad habits that I’ve developed over the years – mistakes that have held back my results. This process is as mentally exhausting as it is physically, but I’m confident that the attention to detail will pay off!
 
How long did it take you to get up to the 32kg bells?
I think my transition to the 32kg bells was a bit rushed. I started working towards this goal after my first competition and had only 28kg’s to bridge the gap. My body was not yet ready for the weight and the volume and I started to have some nerve irritation in my right elbow. I saw a sports doctor who found the problem to be quite a bit of scar tissue that had built up in my forearms. Went back to lifting and then a few months later of working with 32’s, I had developed some pain in my left arm! Back to the doc, back to the soft tissue work but it really wasn’t helping. He sent me for an x-ray, which didn’t show anything so I kept lifting and seeing the doctor weekly. After the pain became too much, he sent me for an MRI which revealed a stress fracture in my radius – I had been lifting on it for weeks!
From there it was six to eight week’s rest and lots of squats. I also bought two 30kg kettlebells to make the jump from 28 to 32 more manageable. This whole experience lasted about 9 months and I competed with the 32’s in November 2012, just one year after my first competition. Looking back, I really needed a less aggressive transition so that my bones and joints could adapt. Not only could I have seriously injured myself, but I just need more time to develop my technique with lighter ‘bells.
 
What is your favorite competition memory?
Cali Open, February 2014 – I had just stepped back on the platform for my snatch set. To my right was Paul White and to my left was Ivan Denisov, doing a 5 minute jerk set with the 36kg’s. And in front was Denis Vasiliev – my judge. As I was trying to clear my head of my terrible jerk set just an hour ago, I locked eyes with Sergei Merkulin and he winked at me. It just put me at total ease! I smiled, took a deep breath, and went on to set a new personal record.
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It’s a memory I try to pull up every time I step on the platform and wait for the clock to start.
 
What did you learn from competing as part of Team USA in Germany in 2014?
I had a few important takeaways from Hamburg. First was I just loved all the little moments of seeing how different athletes carried themselves, what they ate for breakfast, what they did during downtime at the sports hall, etc. It humanized a lot of lifters that I’ve watched and studied for years.
Second, I learned what having a team in this sport actually means. Teammates chalk bells for each other, keep them on track with warm up, help with stretching, sharing snacks, etc. And then while on the platform, it was more than just “you can do it!”‘s and other meaningless hurrahs – there was guidance with pace, for example. I remember listening to Denis Vasiliev call out target numbers for each minute of Aleksander Khvostov’s jerk set, doing quick math on his phone to keep him on pace!
The US had one of the biggest presences, which was awesome. It’s fantastic to see so many lifters who love the sport so much that they’re willing to travel abroad to compete. And along that first point, everyone was very generous and willing to help each other out. But to really call ourselves a “team”, we need more professional lifters (men lifting 32’s and women with 24kg) to fill each weight division for each discipline.
 
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What is the best piece of advice you have ever received (with regards to kettlebell or just life in general)?
“You have to be ready to die on the platform.”
I’m not sure this is the best advice, but it sure as hell fires me up.
 
What is your ultimate goal in Kettlebell Sport?
Self-actualization. This sport has changed me more than just physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.I’m already way deeper down the rabbit hole than I ever imagined and I just want to see how far it goes.
I also want to contribute my own talents and skills to the Sport that has done so much for me, which means coaching my own students, teaching about nutrition, sharing my ideas and opinions, and promoting the Sport through my writing.
 
Do you train alone or with others?
I’ve always trained alone. Every now and then I get to visit my local kettle-friends, Marty Farrell, and Sara Moore and the Underground Athlete crew, but they’re 30 minutes away in the best traffic conditions. While I’m a firm believer in a surrounding yourself with people better than you, sometimes it just isn’t possible.
 
How many days per week do you train? 
I train 6 days per week, 3-4 days lifting and 2-3 days running, with one complete rest day. It depends on if I’m training for Long Cycle or Biathlon and how close it is to competition.
 
What mental tactics do you use to get yourself through a 10-minute set with the 32kg bells?
I try to focus only on technique and breathing, and avoid getting fixated on sticking to a strict pace. It’s important to remain flexible and not pay too much attention to the clock. But most importantly, you just have to know deep down inside that no matter what happens – no matter how bad it gets – you’ll never put the ‘bells down before 10 minutes is up.
 
What are your best results?
24kg – Jerk 121 / Snatch 220 / Long Cycle 90
32kg – Jerk 65 / Snatch 130 / Long Cycle 48
 
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One thought on ““You have to be ready to die on the platform””

  1. Great article ! I’ve had the honor or watching Chris compete live and am always amazed at the amount of weight he can move. I train alone most days and draw inspiration and technique advise from online sources such as this. Thanks

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