Brian Oliver ©ITG

The last American to lead the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) before this year was Clarence Johnson, a devoutly Christian accountant who spent 50 years of his life serving the sport in various administrative roles.

Johnson, who raised huge sums for church projects and charities throughout his lifetime, had already spent many years on national and international boards before he was elected IWF President for the first of three terms in 1960.

When he was laid to rest in 1998, at the age of 92, he was wearing his IWF jacket.

The man who replaced Johnson in 1972, the Austrian Gottfried Schödl, had already founded a weightlifting newspaper and, with the help of a small group of colleagues, the European Weightlifting Federation before he took charge of the IWF.

Schödl, who first became involved in Austrian weightlifting administration in 1950, was at the IWF for eight years before he became President, a blink of the eye compared to Tamás Aján, who had six years as a vice-president and a 24-year warm-up as general secretary before he took over in 2000.

Ursula Papandrea provides quite a contrast to those three, not least because she is the first woman to lead the sport’s governing body. Papandrea had never served any role at the IWF until she was elected vice-president and chair of the Women’s Commission on May 29 2017.

Less than three years later she has taken over from Aján, the 81-year-old Hungarian who resigned during an ongoing investigation into corruption.

Within a week of Aján’s departure on April 15, Papandrea was unanimously approved by the IWF Board to remain Acting President until after the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Ursula Papandrea is Acting President of International Weightlifting Federation ©Lifting Life/USAW
Ursula Papandrea is Acting President of International Weightlifting Federation ©Lifting Life/USAW

Papandrea has founded no newspapers or continental weightlifting federations along the way: to many who follow the sport it might seem as though she has come from nowhere.

One of her critics at the top end of the IWF, envious of Papandrea’s rapid rise, was insultingly harsh in saying: “She knows absolutely nothing about running an international sport federation, and nobody knows her."

Artie Dreschler, a former President of USA Weightlifting (USAW) who has known Papandrea for many years, spoke up against any such suggestion.

"Yes, her ascent was quick but Ursula been busting her rear end in the sport for decades and she’s earned it. It’s surprising how quickly it happened but it’s a confluence of events, a whole bunch of things happening around the same time that led to this."

Papandrea shrugs off the criticism. "I am from a totally different era from past leadership.

"My contributions look much different as I come from a different time in weightlifting history. My experience is working in the trenches - 33 years as an athlete and coach. 

I have spent extra time promoting weightlifting in the USA, established and contributed to dozens of websites for weightlifting and a variety of online magazines. I have spent my time writing and teaching and growing our coaching base in the USA, to grow the sport."

So how did this 50-year-old Texan academic - former international lifter, highest-rated female coach in the US, mother, linguaphile, exercise science and political science graduate, clean sport-, athlete- and gender equality-campaigning oboe player - end up quitting her lecturing job to lead the IWF?

"She was primed for this new job before she ever wanted it," said her long-time friend Robin Byrd-Goad, a multiple champion who competed at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

"I was not surprised at all when it all started unfolding. She’s the right person at the right time."

Papandrea was born and raised in Houston, by working-class Hispanic parents. She captained her school cheerleading team, started weight training at 14 and tried Olympic lifting for the first time at the University of Texas, where she graduated with a major in exercise and sport science, and a minor in Russian from Texas State University.

That was followed by a Masters in political science, minoring in political philosophy, with a career split between lecturing and coaching in Austin in Texas, where she now lives with 15-year-old son Joaquin.

Ursula Papandrea, left, with her friend Robin Byrd-Goad in their athlete days ©Ursula Papandrea
Ursula Papandrea, left, with her friend Robin Byrd-Goad in their athlete days ©Ursula Papandrea

At a time when weightlifting had only just ended its men-only rule, Papandrea was lucky to find the sport available to her at university in 1987, coincidentally the year when the United States hosted the first-ever IWF Women’s World Championship.

Her first coach was a Hungarian, Mike Huszka, who competed at the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games before moving to the US.

"My parents would drive three and a half hours from home to pick me up, then drive another three and a half hours so I could train with Mike’s son at weekends," Papandrea said.

"Then they would drive me back. I was 18 at the time, and very grateful."

A year later Papandrea competed in her first national championships, and by the early 1990s she was an international athlete, though a "second-class" one because of the attitude of some men.

"Women in the pre-Olympic era, prior to 2000, were definitely second-class and treated on a par with junior men in most ways," she said.

"We were sparingly outfitted, not eligible for any programmes, and my personal experience was that we weren't very welcome at the Olympic training centre by some male athletes, although we were allowed to have our world team camps there.

"There were many influential men who were opposed to women's lifting."

Papandrea won national and international titles, represented US in four IWF World Championships, and learned much from her mentor John Coffee, one of the top coaches in the country at the time.

She learned so quickly that by the age of 24 she had already become an accomplished coach too - good enough to coach Stacey Ketchum into the 1993 IWF World Championships team, of which she was also a member.

It was during her days as a student, and as a teacher at Austin Community College, that Papandrea made a number of friends from the old Soviet Bloc, many of whom she is still in touch with. Fellow teachers on physical education courses at the Community College included Olympic athletes from Georgia and Kazakhstan, and a 4x400 metres relay gold medallist for the Soviet Union. She was also coached by a Bulgarian for a while. 

This was when she realised her love for other cultures and languages. "I studied everything in Russian culture," Papandrea said.

At the 1993 IWF World Championships in Melbourne in Australia, Papandrea met her first husband Oleg, who lifted for Belarus.

Ursula Papandrea, left, and competition announcer Sally van de Water, centre, on a visit to Iran ©Brian Oliver
Ursula Papandrea, left, and competition announcer Sally van de Water, centre, on a visit to Iran ©Brian Oliver

"He barely spoke English so I became fluent in Russian," she said.

While he would compete for Belarus at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Papandrea made the US World Championships team four times between 1992 and 1996.

As the two of them travelled the world, Papandrea met more and more athletes and coaches, many from the old Soviet Union, and gained a deeper understanding of the culture of eastern European weightlifting.

"She was working with two of the very best United States coaches, John Coffee and Ben Green, and she was also exposed to that eastern European culture - she was in a unique situation," said Dreschler.

"That has been a huge thing for her."

It also gave Papandrea a very good insight into doping, which has been an even bigger bugbear for her than gender inequality.

"I feel for the athletes that are beating their heads against a brick wall trying to perform at the highest level in a persistent dirty playing field," she said a few years ago, pointing out that doping was more of an issue to her than "the attitude that women can’t coach men".

Looking back at that time in the 1990s she said: "The mentality was that other countries were only good because of doping, which was definitely a huge advantage.

"But I recognised the importance of studying the sciences of the sport and the technique differences were stark. The smooth finesse of a Russian athlete was notable and I wanted to learn more to become a better athlete and coach.

"There was incredible diversity about how to approach coaching in the United States because everybody did their own thing, and would sit around talking about it at competitions. Sometimes I would just listen in on conversations of the best American coaches and the leading American biomechanist, John Garhammer.

"On the European side they were very well educated in weightlifting, they had a system that was proven to work and enabled them to produce many high-performing athletes. I read everything.

"The negative of that system is that people accept it as the the best one, the only one you can think about. I wanted to learn about all successful systems.”

Papandrea’s lifting career ended before women were accepted into the Olympic Games in 2000 and although she was part of the campaign for gender equality, she was injured and lost her chance at the biggest prize when it came.

"I was so happy though to see other women live my dream," she said. "I felt like I was there with them and they were amazing representatives for women’s weightlifting."

In 2003 Papandrea became the highest-rated female coach in American weightlifting history, after another struggle against intransigent males. When her abilities were questioned "it was very stressful for her", said Byrd-Goad.

Ursula Papandrea, second left front row, with John Coffee's team in her early days as an athlete ©Coffee's Gym
Ursula Papandrea, second left front row, with John Coffee's team in her early days as an athlete ©Coffee's Gym

Coaches could be upgraded on their athletes’ performances, one of the measures being selection for the World Championships team.

When her athlete Jodi Wilhite Vaughn was selected, Papandrea was able to apply for senior international status, a level no other woman has attained before or since.

Some of the male Board members offered her international level without the "senior" element. They accepted that Wilhite Vaughn was Papandrea’s athlete but insisted Ketchum had been coached by a man.

"There was still a mentality that women couldn’t really coach so it had to have been some man that had done it, I couldn’t have done it," said Papandrea. "I said no, I should be senior international. I had to push for them to give me what was rightfully mine."

By now she was divorced from Oleg and had not spoken to him for three years. Both Ketchum and Papandrea provided documentary evidence proving their athlete-coach relationship - yet the USAW President, Dennis Snethen, sought confirmation from others.

"They wouldn’t take my word for it, or even Stacey’s, but they would take my ex-husband’s, a Belarussian weightlifter who hadn’t spoken to me for three years," said Papandrea, who is hopeful that a few more women will very soon attain senior international status.

"I wasn’t doing it to break some glass ceiling, I did it through hard work and focus."

Dreschler said it was "unfair, unpleasant, the way she got grief from the Board."

In 2014 Papandrea achieved another landmark feat when she became the first female coach of the national champion men’s team.

"The team we beat was very well funded and expected to win, and when we beat them it led to a lot of comment on social media saying we cheated, that I was a liar," Papandrea said.

"We beat them with strategy, in one class pushing everybody else to raise their openers - then a bomb-out made the difference."

By then, Papandrea was an established member of the USAW Board herself, and on her way to being elected its President in 2016.

She resigned from that post in January this year after being voted in as Acting President of the IWF, initially for 90 days but now for much longer.

In 2013 she met Phil Andrews, who was events director of USAW at the time and is now its chief executive. The two struck up a strong working relationship. "Phil is amazing," said Papandrea.

Getting right down into the details is a priority for Papandrea at the IWF, where for a couple of months she will have the assistance of Andrews as deputy director general, a temporary role.

"Governance is the big thing for Ursula, as she said herself in January in her column for insidethegames," said Andrews.

She has experienced governance reform before. In 2009 the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) gave USAW an ultimatum: reform or we will shut you down.

"There were bad governance issues, there was infighting, conflict of interest problems," Andrews said.

"USOPC said, ‘You must reform, and here’s how, or you will no longer be a governing body under our auspices.'"

Under Dreschler’s Presidency the necessary reforms were carried out, with Papandrea on the Board, first as a technical director elected by her mostly male coaching peers.

Since Andrews became chief executive in 2016, the year when Papandrea was elected for a second term as President, there have been new policies and more modernisation.

All the while this has been done with no state funding - weightlifting must raise its own revenue in the US.

Given the IWF’s reliance on funding from the Olympic Games, Papandrea’s background at a self-financed federation "could be really valuable" said Dreschler.

If Tokyo 2020 is cancelled rather than postponed, as some predict, the COVID-19 pandemic might make finance as much of a challenge as doping for the sport.

Andrews and Papandrea do not agree on everything, and had different points of view on the incident that put Papandrea in the headlines last week - her "inappropriate and unprofessional" use of social media, for which she was reprimanded by USAW. 

Her perceived support of a USA team member who had been accused of sexual misconduct by another athlete - he was cleared by an arbitration panel after initially being suspended for 10 years - was "shocking" and "really troubling" to at least one fellow Board member. Papandrea herself admitted that her comment, made in 2018 and since deleted, was "distasteful".

She added: "I am used to being a target: most leaders are."

While USAW was making its final deliberations on the complaint made against her by two of its members, Papandrea’s Instagram account was making news in another part of the world - in Iran.

The Tehran Times was the first newspaper to carry an interview with Papandrea after her role as leader of the IWF was extended into next year and possibly beyond.

"Papandrea lauds Iranians" was the headline, and there was reference to an Instagram post which, said the interviewer, had "gone viral".

It read, "May Allah remove the hardship that’s hurting you and return the smile that shines in your eyes."

Asked why she had posted it, Papandrea said it was because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Iran was the second-hardest-hit country. Considering the hardships that already exist in that country it broke my heart to see them suffering again. I have become friends with women there, and the women’s team, and I knew they were being adversely affected. I am seeing athletes worldwide suffering.

"It is hard to remember the blessings when every day is difficult. The quote reminds of the light at the end and the faith we must keep."

Her interest in other cultures, in a range of religions, and in political history worldwide is another feature of Papandrea’s character that has been there for decades, said Byrd-Goad.

"She’s very clever, very scientific and was always a history buff.

"Ursula would read history books for leisure - American history, Russian history, any history."

Papandrea, who was raised a Catholic, does not subscribe to any specific religion but said, "I have studied a variety of holy texts, including the Quran, and have read a lot about Buddhism."

Ursula Papandrea is seen in Iran with Derrick Johnson, one of many athletes she has coached ©Derrick Johnson
Ursula Papandrea is seen in Iran with Derrick Johnson, one of many athletes she has coached ©Derrick Johnson

Papandrea is known in Iran because, in 2018, she helped to set up the first women’s weightlifting programme in a country where it was formerly men-only.

"I have actions to back up my support for women, not just words," she said.

Papandrea has given the chair of the IWF Women’s Commission to the Finn Karoliina Lundahl, a contemporary athlete in the 1990s.

"The first time the matter and problem of sexual misconduct [in weightlifting] was ever brought up at an IWF meeting was by me in a speech I gave for the Women’s Commission in 2018,” Papandrea said.

"We have no policy, no education on this issue and we are trying to rectify that. Karoliina is finalising a policy Phil and I started. Karolina is a doer and will get it done quickly."

Another area in which Papandrea faced opposition was in her early support for CrossFit, the 21st century fitness phenomenon that has transformed weightlifting in many countries by introducing so many thousands of young people to the sport.

David Boffa, who was on the USAW Board from 2011 to 2014, when CrossFit was a thorny subject for many traditionalists, was impressed by Papandrea’s "early enthusiasm for working with, rather than against" CrossFit, which now has more than 15,000 gyms across the world.

"There were a lot of voices in USAW that didn't want anything to do with CrossFit, and some were outright hostile toward it," Boffa said.

"Ursula was instrumental in getting the Board to learn more about CrossFit, to the extent of helping arrange for us to each take the Level 1 [coaching course]. I thought that was a good move.

"There was a real resistance to change and growth… Ursula was very open to new ideas and the changing nature of weightlifting and strength sports more broadly in the US."

The spin-off from CrossFit is probably the main reason why USAW has trebled its membership from 9,000 to 27,000 since 2011. Papandrea was impressed by CrossFit’s inclusivity from the outset.

"Women didn't have to deal with the stigma that women in the 1980s faced in weightlifting, trying to gain admittance to a male-dominated sport. CrossFit has created a culture shift for women and made weightlifting more accessible to both genders.

"I love their support for female coaches and athletes. It was notable from the beginning of the rise of CrossFit."

Ursula Papandrea, right, with Judy Glenney, an early pioneer for women's weightlifting
Ursula Papandrea, right, with Judy Glenney, an early pioneer for women's weightlifting

Byrd-Goad said Papandrea had met resistance throughout her life, as an athlete, coach and administrator. 

"She has had a lifetime of meeting obstacles where people will tell her no and question everything she says. There were always fights.

"She has shown great leadership in being able to handle those situations, when there is no book that tells you how to do it. She has ticked off so many first boxes for women and she’s going to continue to do that."

Before joining the Board at USAW and overseeing so much change, and growth, Papandrea served eight years as athletes’ representative on coaching and management committees. She "watched the inner machinations" and did not like what she saw, identifying problems at every level.

She wanted change. "I waited for a chance," she said.

Now she has another chance, to modernise the IWF. 

She and Andrews saw an opportunity to be elected to the IWF Board in 2017.

"We didn’t expect she would be elected first time round, to be honest we expected it might be 2021 before we had any success," Andrews said.

"At no point did we make a strategy for Ursula to be in charge at the IWF during a time when there is CPVID-19 and the McLaren investigation. We never expected her to be Acting President for more than three months, so this has been a surprise. Life has changed, and we’ll see how we can make the best of it.

"It’s not as if she has been working towards this position for 25 years - it has been more like five months."

Fernando Reis said Ursula Papandrea
Fernando Reis said Ursula Papandrea "really did put the athlete first" when assisting him ©Getty Images

Papandrea knows athletes in many countries, and they have confidence in her. Among them is Fernando Reis, the Brazilian super-heavyweight who needed help for himself and his coach to enter international competitions when he was in dispute with the Brazilian federation.

"Ursula and Phil really helped me, they really did put the athlete first," he said.

"Ursula told me, 'We are here to support the athlete' and she meant it. I told her I'd love to copy that way of doing things in Brazil."

Papandrea said: "It has always been my pursuit to keep a constant ear open to the athletes as the decades have gone by.

"They are my friends and acquaintances, and not just in America. Since 2000 I have worked for the athletes, that is who I serve. Somehow my lack of political ambition has led me where I am. But I always had a great support base and amazing mentors that I rely on.

"Political positions were never my goal. My goal is to give to the sport I love, whatever that looks like. And it has morphed over the decades.

"I understand this much: a Board creates a strategic plan for success and the necessary policies to direct.

"Weightlifting is looking for someone open to progress and change. The sport is ready and so am I."

Papandrea is also ready to rival those predecessors Johnson, Schodl and Aján for longevity.

"I plan to be in weightlifting in some capacity until I die," she said a while ago, "and frankly I don’t want to live without it."