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.