Well, I thought I should do a little write up of our time in Russia, spending time in Saint Petersburg, training with Aleksander Khvosotov and Anton Anesenko at Eurofitness, and of course competing at the IUKL European Championships. So, here are some details and pictures from our amazing, fun, exciting, eye opening, and educational trip to Saint Petersburg Russia!
We left the USA on an overnight flight on a Monday evening, overnight flights are pretty much the only way you can get to Europe and Russia for a reasonable price and it is the best way to go if you can actually sleep on a plane. We flew Lufthansa, and I would highly recommend flying this airline or Korean Air or Virgin as all three have amazing service; do not fly United or any of the other major US airlines as their service just is not up to par. The interesting part of flying to Russia is that you will have a layover in Germany or Finland or Amsterdam, but if you were to book a ticket to one of those destinations it would cost you even more! Our tickets were about $850 but a ticket to our layover city would have been $1,400! So strange! Once we landed in Russia, we had to go through customs which is a bit unnerving, nobody speaks in line, the security agents are mostly yelling in Russian but you may catch some English here and there. Most of the customs agents speak English be it a bit rough, and even though our customs agent seemed a bit harsh, once we were done answering questions we were waived through and then she came out of the booth to double check some paperwork she gave us and she was very kind and smiling and welcomed us to Russia. This was to be one of many encounters with the Russian people, seemingly harsh or cold at first and then ending with a warm smile and the feeling that you were welcomed in the Motherland. I would highly recommend going to Russia with someone who speaks Russian, it is not like German or Spanish were you can kind of figure out what they are saying, it is almost like trying to understand Japanese, just totally different from English. I also recommend taking some time and learning to say please and thank you and hello and goodbye and at least a couple of numbers 1 to 10 (it took me all week to master 1,2,3). Once you learn to say hello and please and thank you, watch out, because the Russian people will think you can speak Russian! If you kindly ask in English they will quickly realize you do not speak Russian, but they most certainly appreciate being thanked in Russian.
Next up was our cab ride to the hotel. We read in many places to not trust the cab drivers as there is no official cab company and there is no cab regulation by the government, it is mostly just people with a car and they negotiate prices with you but you can get ripped off easily. So, before leaving the airport we booked a cab to the hotel from a legitimate business desk for a reasonable price. We also noticed on our cab ride that there are no speed limit signs! I asked Yuri about this a few days later and apparently in Russia there is a national speed limit, 110kmph highway and a lower one in the city, so since everyone knows that is the speed limit they really don’t post it. But we also noticed there were no police around so that “known” speed limit was not really obeyed or enforced! Be prepared for your cab ride to be…very…fun. Because of the lack of police enforcing the speed limits, and the rise in upper middle class wealth in Russia, we saw more high end sports cars and super cars in one area than we have our entire lives, and they were racing at almost every stop light in the city after 9pm! It was crazy!
Once we got situated into our hotel we went out for food and found a couple places with English menus. We ended up eating at a place that was kind of like a cafeteria but with very fresh food and it was wonderful, tasty and cheap. Super cheap. $12 for both of us!
We were very tired and even though we just wanted to sleep we tried to stay up as late as we could the first night. We walked around a little before eating, we saw the famous Church of the Savior on Blood. The inside is spectacular!!! The entire interior is all mosaic tile and everything you see that is gold…is real gold.
The following day we managed to figure out the subway/metro. Compared to NYC this metro is a piece of cake. We figured out how to get a metro card, put money on it and we figured out the map and where to go. Once we made it down the 2 minute escalator ride into the third deepest metro in the world, we noticed something we would continue to notice all over the city, the cleanliness. There were people cleaning the floors inside the terminal. Something else we noticed were the lack of homeless people and people begging for money. We saw only two or three homeless people on the street level and none underground, and the people on the street were bowed with their head down and on their knees and all three looked to be handicapped in some way not enabling them to work a normal job. We began to put a couple of things together; everyone in Russia works, this is why their are people cleaning the streets and the metro, and because everyone works, if you do not work you are ashamed. The metro itself was beautiful. The residents and citizens and the workers are very proud of their metro and it shows. The floor was sparkling granite, the walls were tiled and gleaming, there are chandeliers hanging from ornate ceilings, the pillars had Russian symbols of pride and some had small statuettes on them. There was zero garbage anywhere and the stations and the train cars were brightly lit. We had read that rush hour 5-7pm in the metro is crazy, and it is. A lot of people work in the city and live just outside the city and they use the metro everyday. At 5pm it was packed. But we managed to get through the crowds and get around the historic areas of the city with relative ease thanks to google maps.
One our third day Yuri arrived and we had our guide! But I had to go train and Yuri would not be in until the evening when I got back from training. I got in contact with Aleksander Khvostov who patiently waited for me as I took the metro half an hour outside the city into the sprawling apartment buildings of the suburbs. When I walked into Eurofitness I was in absolute awe, like a kid in a candy store. I paid a small day charge to train and met Aleks at the kettlebell rack. Aleks is a super nice guy, who speaks very good English and is always happy to help people. It was amazing to see him talk to people for a few minutes and then walk over to the rack and grab a 32kg and throw a quick couple minutes of snatches effortlessly and then return to walking around talking to people. I was not looking to train hard and did my warm up and then 5x 2:00 sets on the 24’s. It was my first time handling Ural kettlebells and let me tell you, they are amazing. People outside the kettlebell sport world look at a kettlebell and think they are all the same but we sport people know there are major differences. I will save my opinions on different brands of kettlebells for another article though. I went over a little bit of technique with Aleks and then he was going home. I thanked Aleks for his help and for letting me come workout. In between my sets I soaked up the feeling and aura of the gym, and even though I was horribly jet lagged, very sleep deprived and dehydrated, I was feeling good. I finished up my workout and left to go back into the city to meet Yuri for dinner.
On to the food! The food in Russia is amazing! Everything is fresh, you can tell the quality of almost all the food is so much higher than a lot of the processed garbage you see in the states. Even the desserts, you can taste and small the difference, the flour and texture is different, and even though you’re eating sweets you don’t feel like garbage after because even the sugar is different. We had meats, potatoes, and yes of course we had borscht! And we were introduced to the Russian dumpling, “pelmini”. We couldn’t get enough of it! We ate at several cafeteria type places, many cafes, and some more traditional sit down places. Not once did we have a bad meal. A note on service; the service in Russia is amazing, we were told it is culturally different than the US, in Russia the wait staff is there to wait on you and while they are not going to kiss your ass, they are there to serve you and you are not expected to be super nice to them or thank them endlessly and most of the time the tip or gratuity is only 10% and is included in the bill. Also, you have to ask them for the check, it isn’t like in America where they are trying to get you out of the place to seat new guests to make more money, they will let you sit there all night long talking with your friends and loved ones, especially if you are a young couple or a group of friends, they will not rush you out.
We were also introduced to some amazing drinks (non-alcoholic) called “morse”. Morse is a drink made from boiling down jam or jelly and then adding it back into a pitcher of water. There are several kinds of morse but the ones with cherry in them are the best. I also had a special kind of morse made from buckthorn juice, which is said to be the favorite of royalty in Russia for many years and thought to have powerful antioxidants and thought to promote vitality. With the talk of all this food, we also noticed there were not a lot of overweight people in Russia, and those that were only had a few extra pounds on them, most people looked to be in excellent health and very fit from work or working out and just from moving around or walking all day.
It was now a couple days before the competition and I had another training session to get done! Lindsay and I made the train ride out to Eurofitness again and this time met not just Aleksander Khvostov but also Anton Anesenko was at the gym! Having met Anton a couple of times before we knew each other and talked for quite awhile before he had to leave. I was again happy to be training in this amazing place with these amazing athletes. Both Aleks and Anton gave me some more tips on improving my technique. When these guys talk, you listen, thank them and do everything you can to try and do what they’re telling you to do! I have issues with the speed on my second dip and they kept telling me it should be easy, I was thinking “this is isn’t easy guys!”, but what they were trying to get through my thick skull was that is should be easier than I was making it, I was using too much effort and muscle and I just needed to move faster and in the right way and it would become easier. I really didn’t understand what they were trying to get through to me until I got back to the US. Aleks had me practicing my jerks on a piece of PVC and this has now become a part of my warm up. I really cannot thank both of those guys enough. Lindsay even got in some snatches, while wearing jeans, as she was not about to travel to the greatest kettlebell gym in the world and not get some reps in! After some easy sets we headed back into the city for another amazing dinner.
The next day, Friday, was suppose to be a rest day so we did not walk around as much and we spent a lot of time at some nice cafes and then later that night we all went on a nighttime boat cruise through the river and the canals around the city to watch all the draw bridges go up at 1am. In the old days that was a defense practice of the city, they raised the bridges at 1am and did not lower them until the morning, so if you were outside the city and didn’t make it back in time you were out for the night!
Saturday was weigh-ins so we took a boat ride out to the amazing Peterhoff summer palace and walked around the grounds before going into the town. The palace and the grounds are simply amazing. It was pretty much destroyed during WWII so it was rebuilt years ago and turned into a national museum. I weighed in after we met up with Velentyn from the Ukraine. We went back into the city to rest for the remainder of the evening to get ready to compete the next day!
Sunday Sunday Sunday! Competition day! I had a huge breakfast before meeting Yuri and taking the metro to the country side and then a taxi to the venue. We arrived and I checked the flight schedule and I was on flight 8 so I had plenty of time to warm up. I met up with the girls from Ireland who were the first girls to compete in an IUKL international World Cup event in OALC, they were so excited but it was very amusing watching the judges and event staff prepare for the female lifters asking them if they were lifting one or two bells, they even had to go find a third 16kg bell as there were only two on the floor. I started warming up well ahead of schedule, just moving and stretching and getting the blood flowing but trying to keep my nerves down. I will say that all my American friends should be very thankful for the setups that Yuri and the AKA and most other organizations put on for their events in the states…there was only one set of 16 and one set of 24 and two sets of 32 in the warm up area…nothing smaller and only a couple of each and no in between weights. A couple of flights ahead of mine I started putting in a few reps on the 24’s, and then it happened, Ivan Denisov, world record holder in every lift walked in smiling and laughing and started warming up right next to me, joking with Yuri and Denis Vasiliev while he was doing some single arm work. I couldn’t believe I was lifting right next to the best in the world! Ivan’s heels hitting the floor were like thunder, his speed in his movements is amazing. I was ready to lift and they called us out to our platforms, Yuri and Lindsay came out with me and Lindsay prepped my bells for me, which got a lot of looks as I think some of the other lifters were jealous that I had my wife and assistant chalk my bells for me. I stepped on the platform as they announced my name and country and I was ready to go! I had been training for a 7rpm set and I maintained pace for the first 5-6 minutes and then almost lost my mind in minute 7 as my legs were fried and my heart was going to explode, my second dip was getting slow and Yuri was yelling at me to catch up to the Russian lifter next to me. I mentally got my shit together and got my breathing under control but the Russian to my left was ahead of me by 5 reps, but I was ahead of the lifter to my right from Kazakhstan. I tried my best to pick up the pace my last 90 seconds but I was still at 6rpm for minute 9, I managed to get 8 reps in minute 10 though. I finished strong, not as strong as I wanted but not bad. While I wanted 70 I hit 65 and won first place. It turns out the Russian lifter to my left was in the next weight class up so it was just USA vs Kazakhstan and I won. I had not slept well all week with the time change and the sun being up til 11pm and rising at 4am and all the cigarette smoking in the streets while we where walking around had wreaked havoc on my lungs. Overall though I put in a decent set. After being injured and unable to even pick up an 8kg just three months before this competition I would say I was pretty successful.
After the competition was over we talked awhile with other lifters, the sales reps from Ural Kettlebells, some of the judges and other people. I finally met and talked with Denisov and got a picture. I must say, physically Ivan is a bit intimidating and he is the absolute king of the sport, but he is very nice, always smiling and joking around. When it is time to lift he leaves the smile and he destroys his sets and his competition, but he is a good guy and I was very happy to meet him. I got to meet some other lifters who are coming up in the Russian team for Long Cycle. It was a great day and I was happy to represent the USA!
We left the gymnasium and headed back into the city, stopping at a nice little sandwich shop to get some food, pelmini and mors and bread and chicken. Once we got back into the city we rested for awhile and then we went downtown to meet up with the lasses from Ireland for a nice sushi dinner. It was wonderful hanging out with Sine, Shannon and Tanya and we were happy to make some friends from across the pond we can hang out with when we go to Dublin this year.
The next day we packed up to head back home. We had a layover in Frankfurt and we left the airport and saw some really cool old world German buildings and plazas. We were absolutely dead tired so we couldn’t venture out for very long and the metro system is beyond impossible to figure out but we got back to the airport, got some sleep and then hopped on a plane to get home. We were very happy to return to the USA and our house and the gym and the dogs and all our people. Our trip was amazing, and we will never forget it!
I’d like to thank some more people for their help: BJ Bliffert and Amanda Wagner for their help and advice on what to bring and what to leave home, and what to expect, and BJ’s help getting me in touch with Khvostov to help me train at Eurofitness. Thanks to Yuri for all his help in registering me for the competition, translating, preventing us from getting ripped off and for keeping me out of trouble. Thanks to my coach Chris Duffey for preparing me. Thanks to Brand New Travel in NYC for getting me a 3 year VISA. Thanks to Matt Hooker, Ryan Fontaine, Vincent Sullivan, Jen Broome and Cara Yakimik for holding down the gym and running all our classes while we were gone. Thanks to my momma for her gift to help us on the trip. Thanks to Aleks and Anton for their technique help at Eurofitness. Thanks to my team and all our clients for all your support. And thanks to my wife Lindsay for joining me on this epic trip, and for putting up with me being sick and dehydrated and irritated, I am so happy we got to do this together and I cannot wait to do it again!
Thanks to my sponsors Kettlebell Kings www.kettlebellkings.com
If you are considering going to Russia to compete, GO!!! Russia is an amazing and beautiful country with so much history and it is filled with awesome people. We are already making plans for 2016…so who’s coming with us?!