First female Master of Sport talks Valery Federenko and changing standards for women


Hi everyone! This interview with Catherine Imes, the first American female Master of Sport in Snatch,  is the second in a series of posts about U.S. Kettlebell Sport history. While many of us are only a few years or just a few weeks/months into lifting kettlebells, there is a small group of American lifters that were competing back in the early 2000's who were the real trailblazers of the sport.  These posts are meant to educate and inform about the roots of Girevoy Sport in America. 

Shoutout to John Wild Buckley for sparking the idea!

What is your athletic background? I was involved in team sports all throughout school, and I threw shot and discuss in my junior year of high school. I had long periods where I didn’t do much, and then I got into martial arts when I was in my 20’s. I’ve always been really attracted to strength training; I had a fair amount of natural strength so it came easily to me. The endurance aspect of Kettlebell Sport was something I struggled with.

What do you do for a living? I’m an IT manager at AT&T. I’ve got a software development team of 45-50 people.

How did you get into Kettlebell Sport? I was really involved with martial arts and powerlifting in 2002. I wanted to bolster my strength-endurance and mobility for grappling, so I read about kettlebells on the Dragon Door and RKC websites. For a long time I just did the movements with dumbbells, until I bought a couple bells about a year later. I was pretty self-taught. I have the book and video from Pavel. Initially, Kettlebell Sport was an avenue to better my martial arts and grappling.

When did you do your first competition? I found out about my first competition (January 2004) on the Dragon Door forum online. The competition was held in a racquetball court at a fitness center. I did jerk with two 16kg kettlebells and snatch with 16kg. I did 30 reps of jerk and 95 reps of snatch. At the time, those were Level 1 numbers in IGSF. There was one other woman and about 15 men competing there.

What are your accomplishments in Kettlebell Sport? First U.S. female Master of Sport in 16kg Snatch (April 2007). 187 repetitions were required, and I did 192. I competed in San Diego in 2006 and I did 200 repetitions, but it was a Dragon Door style 16kg kettlebell, so it didn’t count. More so than my own results, I’m proud of the students I have coached. I’m the first female coach that was doing online coaching with some measure of success. I coached the first Australian male and female Masters of Sport: Anthony Stojak and Emily Friedel.

How long did it take you to get Master of Sport? I would say 2 years. I had been lifting and competing for 3.5 years when I got MS, but without much knowledge of programming and with bouts where I wasn’t lifting so well.

How did you feel after obtaining your Master of Sport? Did you have any idea you would set an important milestone in U.S. Kettlebell Sport history by becoming first female Master of Sport? It was nice to be the first at something, but I put it in the context of “well, there weren’t that many people doing it”. I was happy I did it. I’ve got an athletic background, but I wasn’t a college athlete and have always been a workaholic, so I was definitely proud of my accomplishment. I knew it wouldn’t be long before other women would take the stage and start surpassing my numbers though.

Who was your coach? I’ll always call Valery Federenko my coach. At the time of getting my MS, he was coaching me. He was really supportive. He would call me up and we would talk. Having a coach has a different meaning for me than for other people; Valery was somebody to talk to and bounce ideas off of, not someone writing me a program.

Did you travel internationally to compete? I traveled to Latvia in 2006 to compete.

Any lifters in the sport that you look up to? Tatyana Potemkina from Kazakhstan. She is almost as old as I am (early 40’s), and she’s very tough. She was at the competition I went to in Latvia in 2006, and she did 240 reps with the 16kg. I was told she was already doing 140 reps with 24kg, and doubles with 24kg. Somebody said she had done 70 jerks with 2x24kg. She competed with the men at small meets. I always admired her, especially since Kazakhstan does not have the money and resources that Russia and the U.S. do to train so she’s gotten by on pure grit. She’s been around a long time, and still puts up high numbers with the 24kg.

I’ll always like Ivan Denisov, Anton Anasenko, Denis Vasilev, Ksenia Dedyukhina. In the U.S., I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Melissa Swanson and her work ethic. Abigail Johnston in Scotland; it’s amazing what she can do. Lorna Kleidman also has a great work ethic. Marty Farrell as well and he is just a helluva guy.

What are your goals in the sport now? My main goal over the last year has been to lose weight. This sounds counter-intuitive, but I have a hard time losing weight and training intensely for the sport. With the combination of work and training stress, I couldn’t lose weight. Since changing my diet last October, I’ve lost 45lbs. I’ve been strength training and competed in St. Catharine’s in June. I made 10 minutes with 16kg Snatch and that was my goal. I like competing, even if it’s just 16kg or 20kg. I like to go to meets if for nothing else to see people I haven’t seen in a while. I’d like to do better than the 85-89 snatch reps I’d been hitting consistently at meets with the 24kg. I used to beat myself up that I didn’t do more with the 24kg, but I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore.

What do you think about the changing standards for Master of Sport? I think it’s a good change. As long as women are doing only Snatch, it’s a fair change to move from 20kg to 24kg. If women were doing true Biathlon with doubles, I don’t think the 24kg (for women) and 32kg (for men) are equivalent. If they were, we would have women doing 240 reps in 24kg Snatch by now. I don’t mean the 24kg is too heavy, I just don’t think it’s equivalent to 32kg. The 16kg was definitely too light - you get women doing 270 without really bringing the bell overhead.

How do you feel about double bell lifting for women? For Biathlon, I think it will be telling to see what women can do with 20 and 24kg kettlebells. I competed in doubles when I first started, and I’ve worked up to 70 jerks with 2x20kg. I did 25-30 with 2x24kg before I hurt my back in 2011. I think women are very capable of lifting doubles. I don’t think most female body types lend themselves to an easy rack, but sports are sports - you don’t play in the NBA if you’re under 6’5”, so I don’t think that should be a limiting factor to women doing doubles. It’ll be interesting to see if the Eastern Europeans change their mind about women lifting double bells - they don’t control everything, but are still looked to as the standard and measure of accomplishment at the international level.

When/why did you split from Valery Federenko and the World Kettlebell Club (WKC)? What do you think about him? I still talk to Valery. I aligned myself with the WKC a long time ago, but I’m not big on organizations. I’m big on people. I don’t agree with everything my friends do, but at the end of the day we’re still friends. I don’t agree with everything WKC did, but I am loyal to people. That’s how I have always approached things. At a certain point I had issues with jerks being hard on my knees, so I started going to meets (other than WKC ones) that had a Snatch only component, and Valery was cool with that. I love a good debate, but I think if you take things so seriously that you end friendships over them, then it’s time to reevaluate. Or maybe you were never friends with those people to begin with. I’m happy to say that by and large, I’ve kept the friends I had. The sport has given a lot to me in that regard and I don’t have any regrets.

Any thoughts on how to resolve the issues different federations have with each other? I’m for multiple organizations. I don’t think everybody has to be the same. You’ve got OKC with double bell lifts for women, you have Bolt with a wide range of events, and AKA that has backing of the IUKL. I do think there has to be a strong leader for each of these organizations with a clear vision for where the organization is going. The WKC had that in Valery. His vision didn’t align with a lot of people, but that’s the risk you take. If an organization is going to be successful, they need a leader who’s not going to cave to pressure. You need strong leadership to make the hard decisions that may not be popular with everybody, but are in the best interest of the sport. I’m not saying nobody’s doing that, but I think that’s what it’s going to take to move the sport forward.

What do you like best about Kettlebell Sport? I like the strength-endurance qualities of it. There is an aspect to mastering your breath and your emotions and how you’re moving that all play into your set. Even when I don’t lift or train often, if I can get my breathing under control, I can still have good sets. Controlling your breath and emotional state when you’re uncomfortable, and then being able to hit a goal is a really big benefit of the sport. You won’t have any amount of success if you can’t coordinate your relaxation when you’re lifting - you won’t last. I’m not sure anything else, for me, has had that impact, or enabled me to do that. I’ve been able to translate those aspects of the sport into jogging and rowing.

What do you not like about Kettlebell Sport? I’ve got a body type that doesn’t lend itself to long jerk sets, but that doesn’t stop me from doing them. I will do some stupid things to work a rack position and it’s not good for my back. From a longevity standpoint, jerks are not the best thing for me to train.

Looking back now, what do you wish you had known when you were first starting? When I first started I was very regimented with my stretching and mobility, and I don’t think I appreciated how much that contributed to having good kettlebell sets. I also had the strength to deadlift 280lbs x 5 reps, and bench press 210lbx x 3 reps. I don’t think I had an appreciation for what that enabled me to do in the sport. If I could go back, I would have kept a better balance of the flexibility and strength in addition to sport training. I would have tried to become a bit more of a cardio person too, which would have helped my endurance. You can get a long way just training kettlebells, but the mobility and the cardio helps your longevity in the sport.

Any advice to lifters that are just starting the sport? Put your ego aside and focus on the technique before numbers. I believe you have to go the distance before you get the reps. Holding onto the bell for 10 minutes is an extremely important aspect of the sport. If finances allow, find a coach. Find a coach you trust and understand, and that works with your physical or personal limitations (kids, a demanding job, etc). It makes a big difference if you have someone there guiding you through those initial steps.

If you liked this post, be sure to read my interview with the first male American Master of Sport, Scott Helsley.