Saturday, December 14, 2013

Allegory of the Cave

I believe athletes are some of the toughest individuals on earth.  On a day-to-day basis, we handle physical and mental hardships that tear us down.  Then, with courage and willpower, we rebuild ourselves in order to take on even greater challenges.   There is no amount of weight that would make me cower and slow my pull.  I attack everything, every challenge, with the mindset that there is no scenario where I am not victorious.  Sometimes I fail and feel hurt, but the amount of pain is no bigger than a pinprick because I know 2016 is the bigger picture. 
160kg Snatch from 2013 Senior World Championships 
This past World Championships I suffered a shoulder injury that will require a surgical repair.  That news was tough to swallow because 2013 was by far my best year of weightlifting.  I made two international teams and lifted some huge personal records.  I’m also sitting at three kilos away from the American record snatch in the 105kg class, which I have dreamed of breaking ever since I started this sport.  So the slap in the face from reality stings a little bit: surgery on Tuesday, December 17th, and then 4-6 months of rehab.  My shoulder dislocation didn’t hurt that much and I’m sure surgery won’t hurt either; but reality is sometimes more painful than anything.  Reality is that surgery won’t be fun.  Reality is that rehab will be a long, slow process.  I could even miss my goal of being back to lifting by April, but in the eyes of an athlete there are no losing scenarios.

My deeper reality is that everything is going to be ok.  My entire body is going to have time to rest and heal, to be ready for the long road to Brazil.  Going through this experience will strengthen my mind and get me more focused than ever on my goals.  My coach, Zygmunt, will have ample time to break down my technique and strengthen my weaknesses so that when I attempt that 175kg snatch, I am a well-oiled machine.  In all seriousness, this is a blessing in disguise.  A Paralympic Skier Ralph Green once told me: “A setback is setup for a comeback.”  My comeback has started and when I return to the platform you will see a stronger more tenacious lifter.  Winter is coming.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The 4-Year Journey

The end of July was my 4-year anniversary at the Olympic Training Center.  I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to be a resident athlete for so long. During my time at the OTC I have seen many athletes come and go and to be one of the few still standing after 4 years is such an honor.  This facility has been my rock for so long and I am happy to be able to call it my home.   Deciding to dedicate my life to the athlete lifestyle was not an easy choice for me to make, but it has turned out to be one of the smartest decision I have ever made.

Many people don’t know that my stay at the training center almost got cut short after 6 months.  It wasn’t a performance issue, but an issue of confidence.  I wasn’t sure I had what it took to succeed in the Training Center environment.  I started training almost double the amount of times I did back home and the level of coaching I received was just something I was not prepared for mentally.  After my first 2 months of training I started to break down physically.  I had never had been asked to train while my body was hurting.  Having to push through pain started to break me down mentally.  After about 4 months of hardest training I had ever done I cracked and became depressed.  I was so depressed that over the course of a month I slept 3 hours a night and dropped 12 kilos of body weight.  My training was suffering tremendously. I had mentally given up on my Olympic dream, but there was still hope for me.

December of 2009 I ran into someone who I never thought would change my life.  I was back home for Christmas break from the OTC and on the way to my workout ran into a guy named Mike I had played football with in high school.  We hated each other with a passion all of high school and at that moment I was pretty bummed to be approaching him on the street.  Mike was a talented athlete and everyone just knew he would be a professional athlete in some sport down the road.   I decided to be an adult and ask mike how life was since high school graduation.  He began to tell me how he decided not to go to college and that he was on his way to go smoke weed with some friends.  That moment changed me forever.  Mike was one of the smartest most athletic kids at my school and just threw his talents away to smoke weed with some friends everyday.  It was then I decided I wasn’t going to through away what had been given to me.  I was given the chance to follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest athletes that had ever lived.

  I happily returned the next year to the Olympic Training Center after fighting a lot of demons on the subject.  I came back more motivated and ready to take on all the challenges that were laid out in front of me.  Three and half years later I can proudly say there is no better place for an athlete to train.  I want to take a moment to thank all the people who believed in me and supported me during the first 4 years of my Olympic journey.   I also want to thank those who are still pushing me to be the best lifter and person I can be.  I look forward to what the next 4 years of my Olympic Dream have to offer.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Will to Fight

     One of the more enjoyable parts of living at the Olympic Training Center is sitting around and swapping stories with other athletes. Some are funny stories about life training as an elite athlete – facing difficult conditions in other countries, having run-ins with teammates and training partners, or sharing parts of your past that most people don’t know about. On a night last week, the stories got pretty personal and made me think of one I thought I should post here.
For those of you that don’t know, I grew up in the foster care system. It was probably one of the most impactful situations on my life. I’m going to drop a bomb on you guys right now; I was in foster care from 6 days old until I aged out of the system when I was 18 years old, and I will be honest, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. Regardless of how it was, it certainly molded me into the man I am today.  I strongly believe grinding through the hard times growing up makes grinding through the hard times of weightlifting a lot more manageable. I say manageable because weightlifting isn’t just tough, it’s hands down the hardest thing I have ever done.  If you don't think weightlifting is tough then you must not be working hard enough or just don't have a Polish coach. 
One valuable lesson I learned in foster care was how to show some fight. I think most people would agree that I am a pretty nice person. Like most of us I have my moments when I can be not so nice, but that is rare. When I was in elementary school I will admit, I was a pretty big pushover. I wasn't losing my lunch money every day but I just never stood up for myself. I would come home a little roughed up sometimes and my foster mom would get pretty upset with me because I would never fight back.  I just never wanted to get detention or suspended from school.
On one particular occasion I got into an altercation with a kid who lived about a block from my house. I can't remember what we fought over but like most fights, it was because something totally stupid. I think it started because he said he could beat me up and I swore he couldn't, and then one of the neighborhood kids said to prove it and that sparked the brawl. As it turned out I was wrong, I ended up getting my ass kicked pretty badly. When I returned home my foster mom was furious, so furious that she said, "Take your sorry ass back outside and fight that kid again, and don't come back until you win."
After getting worked pretty bad I wasn't looking forward to going back outside but I feared my foster mother way more then this little 12-year-old kid. I would like to tell you I went back outside and wiped the floor with him but that was not the case. I put up a little more fight the second time but in the end it was the same result. This was the trend for months; two fights for the price of one. I know she just wanted to teach me to be tougher but I thought she was giving me a free pass to fight as much as I could. I grew a fighting mentality that I never knew I had.
I felt like a lot of the rage and pent up anger, about the situation I was in, was finally coming out. I would find myself picking fights for no reason. Simple gestures would spark my aggression and I would find myself in a fight with every kid that walked up to me. My foster mother got pretty fed up with that real quick. I was probably getting into fights with someone from school on a day-to-day basis. It was definitely one of those situations when you give someone an inch and they take a mile.  
To make a long story short, my foster mother got so fed up with me getting into fights that she went Megatron on me and I lost the war for Cybertron (video game reference). After a few brawls with her I hung up my gloves and stepped out of the ring for good.  She wanted me to learn how to stick up for myself and I clearly took advantage of the situation. I don’t think I have been in any kind of fight since the 8th grade because I now see how stupid getting into fights was.  Also, being one of the stronger people in the US,  I could probably do a little damage.
The only fighting I do these days is in the weight room. Coach Zygmunt says if someone has the will to fight anything is possible. Maybe it’s a good thing I found weightlifting because it gives me something to fight in.  Becoming a World or Olympic Champion isn’t easy so I will fight on.