Pulling Weight: Lecturer Sabatini Also Lifts Fellow Monarchs
December 16, 2015
Even as Old Dominion exercise science lecturer Phil Sabatini shoulders his own Olympic weightlifting dreams, he boosts multiple University peers as their coach.
A former Team USA member and Olympic Trials finalist, Sabatini, 33, remains a highly ranked national competitor. But he devotes equal time to training members of his own weightlifting club, whose ranks include ODU staff and alumni.
"Just in six months, I've made tremendous improvement from where I started with Phil," said Nicole Fiorella, a Norfolk fitness coach who directs the University's Dynasty Dance Team. "Phil has a way of lighting you up and making you want to push yourself to get better."
Two weeks ago, Sabatini's lifting performance in the 105-kilo weight class (231 1/2 pounds) helped the elite club team for which he competes, East Coast Gold, win another team championship at the American Open in Reno, Nev.
That same weekend, Sabatini also dashed about the Silver State Pavilion venue coordinating the warm-ups and lifts of four more ODU-connected athletes - alumni Mary Hall, Tyler Lonjin and Chance Valentine, as well as Regan Young, a Navy veteran studying exercise science.
It wasn't big-league baseball, the goal that once drove Sabatini's athletic dreams. But while the transition from throwing baseballs to tossing serious iron seems uncommon, Sabatini has found it joyous.
"When I played ball, it's what we trained for all day, every day," said Sabatini, who was raised near Pittsburgh and played outfield at Ohio University. "It's similar in weightlifting; people get hooked on the technique and then it becomes part of them. That's how it is for me. I love the feeling of a barbell in my hands. And I've worked really hard to perfect the technique."
The strength coach at Ohio U. helped Sabatini uncover a natural talent that put him on the fast track to national-caliber Olympic lifting. The sport involves two moves with weight plates loaded onto a barbell.
The first is the snatch, lifting the bar from the ground to overhead in one continuous motion. The second is the clean and jerk, a combo move where the bar is lifted to beneath the chin and, after a pause, pushed overhead.
In competitions, athletes perform three lifts of each move, combining their top weight in each event to determine their final standing.
Sabatini, who is 5-foot-10 and weighs 220 pounds, became good enough quickly enough to qualify for the American Open in his first competition nearly a decade ago.
He progressed to earn a spot on Team USA and competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials, where he placed fifth. But Sabatini, then the strength coach at Virginia Military Institute, took a three-year break when he and his wife Erica had the first of their two daughters.
Looking for more consistent work hours than Division I sports provide, Sabatini landed his teaching position at ODU in 2014.
Steve Knott, who runs Old Dominion's health and physical education teacher prep program, is glad he did. A former triathlete, Knott, 61, was searching for a new competitive outlet when he signed up with Sabatini.
Much like his mentor, Knott has proven a precocious Masters-level lifter, qualifying for international age-group championships after less than a year of meeting multiple times per week with Sabatini.
"Phil is always positive and knows how to break stuff down really simply," said Knott, an ODU graduate. "Lots of people from other teams want him to be their coach. When we're working out, local lifters and coaches will come in and watch us lift and Phil coach, just to kind of learn from him."
Yet Sabatini remains an impressive lifter. In Reno, he pulled 324 pounds in the snatch and 414 pounds in the clean and jerk to finish sixth in his class. And as he drives the two dozen athletes in his club to greater heights as their tutor, he plans to ramp up his own training for one more Olympic run. The odds are long: based on recent competitive results, the United States will have only one berth in next summer's Rio Games.
Sabatini's more immediate goal is to simply qualify for the Olympic Trials. More long-term is his wish to bring more and more athletes into the weightlifting tent.
"I encourage people who ask me about lifting to come to the gym and meet everybody," Sabatini said. "The people and the relationships are encouraging and motivating. You walk in there every day saying, 'Let's get something done.' And you leave feeling you're better for what you did."