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Weightlifting shapes Aviano soldier’s career and Olympic aspirations

Staff Sgt. Crystal Pittman, an animal care specialist and non-commissioned officer in charge at the Aviano Veterinary Treatment Facility, lifts 90 kilos during a training session at Pesistica Pordenone gym, Pordenone, Italy, Feb. 22, 2019.

NORMAN LLAMAS/STARS AND STRIPES

By NORMAN LLAMAS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 25, 2019

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — In high school, Crystal Pittman set local weightlifting records, but it wasn’t until years later in the Army that she began competing in the sport, becoming one of the top weightlifters in Italy late last year and now training for international competition.

“I liked lifting weights. I had the highest lift in the 135- to 145-pound category in my high school,” the 27-year-old Army staff sergeant from Dawsonville, Ga., said. She lifted because it made her a better wrestler, and she thought that when she graduated she’d go on to continue wrestling at college.

But that didn’t go as planned. College was expensive, leading her to “check into the military,” said Pittman, now a veterinary technician at the Aviano Veterinary Treatment Facility. It was during a previous assignment in the Army that she started getting into fitness competitions.

Now, she’s setting her sights on tougher competition, the Olympic games and a military career that complements her training.

“First, I want to be ranked in the top five in the U.S. for my weight class,” she said. “In order to have a shot at ever competing in the Olympics, I need to do that first.”

The Army and other services have long cultivated the careers of international-caliber athletes through the Armed Forces athletic programs, which date to the late 1940s and allow servicemembers to compete in sporting events such as the Olympics and Pan-American Games.

Army Recruiting Command is also banking on the popularity of newer fitness competitions to attract fitness buffs like Pittman into the ranks. Earlier this month, the command named 15 soldier athletes its first Warrior Fitness Team, which will compete in CrossFit and strongman competitions in the United States.

For her part, Pittman plans to pursue a new Army career specialty that will incorporate what she’s learned in the gym into her day job.

“I no longer want to be a vet,” she said. “I now want to go into the nutrition field or into physical therapy, something that has to do with physical fitness.”

To do that, she plans to apply for the Green to Gold Active Duty Option, a two-year program that lets enlisted soldiers complete a bachelor’s degree or a graduate degree and earn a commission as an Army officer.

She also plans to apply for the Army’s Master Fitness Trainer Course and, if successful, to become an instructor in the course, which trains select soldiers to advise units on physical readiness issues and to monitor unit and individual physical readiness programs.

Before her current job, Pittman served as a prison guard with stints at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and later Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where she was introduced to competitive CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting. While serving in Cuba, she competed in a test of fitness, endurance and soldiering skills to earn honors as U.S. Army South’s Best Warrior Soldier of the Year in 2014.

“By the time I was on my third assignment, at Fort Irwin, Calif., I was ready to get serious about Olympic weightlifting,” she said.

Soon after finding a coach to help her improve, she entered her first official competition in 2016. She went on competing and eventually qualified for the American Open Finals in December 2017, where she finished tied for 25th place. She has never officially been ranked nationally in the U.S.

“There’s such a huge payoff that comes from competing in high-profile competitions,” Pittman said. “My confidence, resiliency, and mental agility all went up.”

Despite not placing higher than she would have wanted to in the 2017 competition, she knew there was more she could do to improve. That’s why, upon arriving at her current assignment in Aviano, she promptly sought to find a new coach and a new gym.

In her most recent competition in December, the 2018 Italian Absolute Weightlifting Championships in Caltanissetta, she finished second in her weight class. Her personal bests are a lift of 216 pounds in the clean-and-jerk, where competitors lift a weight in two different movements, and 176 pounds in the snatch, where they lift a weight over their heads in a continuous motion.

Posting those marks at the most recent U.S. championships in December in Milwaukee, could have put her in 12th place, based on national finishing data from the USA Weightlifting website. A big improvement in a year, but still not enough for Pittman.

“I watch other women lift twice, or three times their body weight,” Pittman said. “It’s insane how effortless they make it look. They have perfected their technique. That’s my motivation.”

Twice a day, three days a week, she trains with a coach at a local gym, Pesistica Pordenone, for a total of up to four hours. Pittman also follows a rigid diet. “I monitor my food intake and put in the workouts, which I have to fit around my work schedule.”

The gym she trains at is well known across Italy. Since it opened in 1984, many Olympic weightlifters have called it their home gym. Dozens of trophies, newspaper clippings and photos depicting the gym’s successes are displayed on its walls.

“I think that Crystal has a very good chance to finish in first place,” said Luigi Grando, head coach at Pesistica Pordenone. “Not only at the upcoming regional qualifiers in April, but also at the Italian National Open competition in June.”

When Grando speaks about all the accolades the gym has amassed since its opening, Pittman can’t help feeling thankful for having found him and his gym, she said. She feels that his coaching provides her a good chance to succeed and she plans to take full advantage of it, she said.

And after achieving her competitive and career goals, she wants to keep on lifting, even if it’s just for fun.

“I want to be the oldest weightlifter in the world,” she said.

Llamas.norman@stripes.com

Staff Sgt. Crystal Pittman lifts 90 kilos during a training session at Pesistica Pordenone gym, Pordenone, Italy, Feb. 22, 2019. In her last competition, Pittman posted a clean-and-jerk lift of 83 kilos. Her next competition will be in April.
NORMAN LLAMAS/STARS AND STRIPES