Melissa Swanson, MSWC Interview
Master of Sport World Class, Melissa Swanson, is not only one of the fiercest GS competitors to grace the platform on U.S. soil, but also a successful restauranteur and a dedicated mother of two young boys. Undefeated in Biathlon since her induction into the sport in 2010, Melissa holds the North American record in both the 22kg and 24kg divisions. Her recent accomplishment at the 3rd Annual Victoria Kettlebell Sport Classic (24kg Biathlon: Jerk 66/67 + Snatch 56/65) solidified her place as one of the best female kettlebell athletes thus far in American history. Here Melissa reveals what first led her to kettlebells and also what keeps her motivated to continue reaching for new heights.
What led you to kettlebells?
Melissa: Before I joined the IC, a good friend of mine (Sherry!) showed me Steve’s highlight video of the ICKB girls and their journey to MS. It was such an inspiration. Also, I had watched Surya’s physical transformation firsthand – she was the Director at my son’s preschool – and that was equally motivating. I joined the IC shortly thereafter!
Melissa: My first month was so frustrating! I wanted to lift heavy right away but struggled with the technique. I realized I’d have to “work out” for exercise separately and use class to focus on form. Some of my first memories are teammate Sarah Mac holding my feet as I learned the triple extension in jerk – my body wanted to actually jump! I also warmly remember the encouragement I received from early team member Samantha Greenwood – she saw potential in me and wasn’t afraid to tell me so. I got hooked!
How would you describe the commitment it took to get to your first twenty-minute biathlon with 16kg?
Melissa: Intense! At that time, it was sort of a triple effort: building my fitness to do high-rep jerks followed by snatches, concentration on technique with both lifts to increase efficiency, and preparing to do all of it on the platform with several people watching. There’s an art to competitive lifting, and I was learning a lot about that from coach Steve in preparation. It was a devotion of both physical and mental effort on a daily basis (that part hasn’t changed)!
Every lifter has some sort of pre-competition ritual, tell us about yours.
Melissa: In the week leading up to a comp, I try to include lots of meditation/visualization, as much sleep and water as possible, at least one meal of spaghetti & meatballs, and an energy-balancing session with my body worker. For me, the visualization is crucial – imagining success but also preparing for failure. As a natural planner, this helps me to feel ready.
You were recently the first American woman to earn 60/60 (120 reps) in the 24kg snatch event. What is going through your mind during rep 47-53? Tell us about the process leading up to number 60.
Melissa: Snatching the 24kg has required a reorganization of both my technique and mental approach. As our coach Steve always says, it’s a different sport from 20kg or 22kg snatch. Since it’s currently the heaviest bell a woman can snatch in competition, I’ve had to re-shift my hopes for progress in terms of years, not months. More patience than ever has been required to lift it each week, and I’ve had to be easier on myself – at this level, there are more hard days then victories. That being said, I’ve hit the area of 120 a few times now, and rep 47-53 is about where I realize I have it! I can see the finish line and know I will cross it – it’s an awesome feeling. Other times, I hit a wall around rep 30 on the second side and think “how will I ever finish this?” There are times when this is too overwhelming and I put the bell down. Most of the time, I fight through it, which has proven that the intense discomfort I experience has nothing to do with whether or not I can keep going. Finding the focus to realize I can still breath and move despite the pain is always a huge challenge.
How has competitive kettlebell lifting affected other areas of your life?
Melissa: It has complicated things, because now, in addition to the duties of being a parent and owning a business – which are demanding on their own – I need to fit in training five days a week and time for active recovery (body work, Epsom salt bath soaks, etc). Travelling for comps means reaching out to my village, both at work and at home, to cover for me. However, I wouldn’t have it any other way! Lifting makes me a better parent, partner, and person. It’s taught me a bit about letting go and trusting others. And it’s really fun to be able to confidently give athletic advice to my sons, who are burgeoning athletes themselves.
What are the best and worst qualities of the kettlebell snatch?
Melissa: As a bit of a claustrophobe, I love the open body movements of the snatch – when I’m snatching, my body feels comfortable and free. That’s the best part – no tortuous rack! The worst? What it can do to your hands! My palms are not pretty.
You recently switched gears to focus on Long Cycle training for a month. Tell us about the transition from jerk & snatch over to clean & jerk only?
Melissa: To do it well, long cycle requires an incredible amount of fitness, technique, and strength. In some ways, biathlon prepares the body well for this, allowing me to begin, without previous long cycle training, to successfully complete 10-minute sets with heavier bells. However, the timing of long cycle makes it a completely different ball game – to make ranks or records, you have to go fast, and there is little room for error. It’s like a sprint uphill, carrying a heavy load, without stopping. I’m used to having time for rest in both jerk and snatch because there is time to make up reps if need be, so whenever I enter into a long cycle set, I have to change modes.
Music is a lifeline for kettlebell lifters, give us five of your top songs for kettlebell lifting?
Melissa: It could be any five on any of Nicky Minaj’s albums, she’s pretty much exclusively what’s in my ears these days. Her story inspires me and her music pumps me up during training and before comps. I think these 5 are my favorite:
Whip It, Pound the Alarm, Va Va Voom, Roman Reloaded, Champion (all from the Pink Friday album)
To give us all perspective on what it takes to excel in this sport, give us an example of one of your weekly workouts.
Melissa: Here was a pretty tough recent one, I slept really well this night! 30/30 24kg jerk, 60/60 22kg snatch, 60/60 26kg swing x 2, 3 sets of 20 Push-ups/Sit-ups/Box Jumps, Run 1 mile.
Why do you love kettlebells?
Melissa: Kettlebells are great mirrors. They show me honestly both what I’m good at and what needs improvement, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally too. I love that many aspects of kettlebell lifting are applicable to life outside of the gym. Also, I feel lucky that in training and at comps, I get to witness great feats of grit and spirit from teammates and fellow lifters. This is deeply inspiring, and not just athletically speaking – it’s a true display of the human spirit.
What do you wish people outside of Kettlebell Sport knew about this method of physical training?
Melissa: I wish people knew all the ways in which kettlebell sport differs from just using a kettlebell during a Crossfit or other fitness class. I wish they knew how technical each lift is and the difficulty, mentally and physically, in executing these lifts in the span of ten minutes. Ten minutes is so much harder than even eight or six, and no one knows this better than seasoned competitive kettlebell lifters.