Golden Dreams: How To Save USA Weightlifting

CJ Cummings: Bring More To Join Him.
Photo Credit: Theophil Syslo

Football is America’s national pastime. More young people play that sport than anything else, and combined with basketball, it is genuinely understood to be the best way to earn a college athletic scholarship.
But in the pursuit of that scholarship many young athletes, who would do great things, may suffer the sort of concussions and brain trauma that affect them adversely later in life.

The question inherent in that previous paragraph is this: How long will football continue to be America’s national pastime? How many more stories like the ones we’ve heard about Mike Webster, Mark Gastineau, Dave Duerson, Junior Seau and others will we have to hear before people decide enough? How many more Joe Thomas stories, where he’s confessing to having the beginnings of memory loss RIGHT NOW, will we need?

Let me state this again: Joe Thomas admitted, on an interview with Graham Bensinger, that he is suffering from the beginnings of memory loss at the age of 32 while still an active player in the NFL.

Just as important to the point, unless you have been touched by the hand of whichever higher power you believe in, your NFL career will last 2.66 years on average. That’s not even 3 full years. And after your three years are done, when you’ve beaten your body into a pulp and possibly suffered CTE, what will you have to show for it?
What if I told you I had a way to always be remembered, always be thought of as special?
My solution may be a tad controversial, and will require some patience and a willingness to stretch yourself beyond your initial understanding. But here goes:
Some parents, and if you’re the parents of a young son playing pee-wee football this especially applies to you, should start putting their kids in Olympic weightlifting classes right now.

Kendrick Farris: The King?


A quick qualifier before we really get going. If your kid is already a full grown-ass man at the age of 13, and he’s 6-foot plus and over 235 pounds, this may not necessarily apply to you. You fall into that “touched by a higher power” category I spoke of earlier. Also, I know I will hear from parents of daughters asking why I’m not making the same entreaty. That is because, at least for right now, female weightlifters are carrying the United States on their back. All I’m looking for is equity.

For most of the Olympic sports, the US has been dominant routinely (track and field, gymnastics, most of the winter sports) and medal contenders in everything else. That is, of course, with one mountainous exception.
Olympic Weightlifting. Simply put, we’re not that good at it.
You’d think, if for no other reason than the sheer amount of people in the United States, we would have multiple Olympic champions throughout the various weight classes. The cold hard fact is this: We don’t now, and we haven’t since the 1970’s.

As time has gone by, other countries have extended the standard for what being a great weightlifter means. We have not kept up. In fact, we have fallen backwards. We have not won a gold medal in 14 Olympic cycles, and not competed on any A platform in any weight class at a World Championships since Shane Hamman at the 2002 and 2003 World Championships. Keep that in mind for a second.

(Author’s Note: Yes I know Sarah Robles won a Bronze Medal in Rio, and Tara Nott won a 48-kg medal in Sydney. But in Robles’s case her class was made ever slightly easier by the lack of the Russians in Rio, and Tara Nott won her gold on the basis of a failed drug test by the Bulgarian lifter Izabela Dragneva.)

Our standards for what makes a great American weightlifter have gotten so low that we have allowed Kendrick Farris and Derrick Johnson, two men who have never competed in an A session at a World Championships or an Olympic Games, to actually call themselves “The Kings Of Weightlifting” with a straight goddamned face.

I don’t want what I just said to come off as an insult to Kendrick and Derrick. They saw a marketing opportunity and jumped into it with both feet.

But let’s be real for a moment. If USA Track and Field had not won a gold medal in any track event in 56 years, and not been in a final heat since 2003, we would have gone into full-scale panic.

Task forces would have been created, camps would have been sprouting up across the country to find every athlete capable of winning gold medals, and we would have been placing pressure on disaffected athletes from foreign countries to race for the Stars N’ Stripes. More to the point, anyone who even dared to call themselves “Kings of Track and Field” with that lack of international success would have been summarily laughed at.

But not with weightlifting. With weightlifting we’re not offended. More to the point, it seems that we don’t care at all. And then there is a reason for that.
In America, we have trouble understanding strength.

I’ll start this off by assigning you with a pretty interesting thought experiment. Take the first 5 sports journalists you follow, and ask them this simple question: What one movement, or lift, demonstrates absolute strength?

I am willing to bet the lion’s share of that group you self-selected probably didn’t know the answer to the question you asked them.

But we will all fawn over footage of Leonard Fournette squatting 400 pounds twice, forgetting that he played at 235 while at LSU meaning he was squatting about 1.7 times body weight.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Kendrick Farris cranked out 616 pounds three times while weighing 207, meaning he was squatting triple his own bodyweight.

Which one of those stories did you hear about more? Which one went all over your social media when it happened?

CJ Cummings, the leader of the next generation of American lifters, has become a world-class superstar on the Junior World Stage. Until I mentioned him, had you heard of him?

Now, I am no fool. I know I, and the great weightlifting coaches throughout this country, aren’t going to be able to change perceptions overnight.

But we can start.

We can start by explaining to our kids the value, the absolute white-hot thrill of joy, of representing your country abroad and hearing the national anthem played when you win a gold medal.

We can teach them the willpower it takes to become a World-level weightlifter. Even if you don’t get to the level of going to the Olympics, willpower and discipline are always good thing to have in your own life.

And for you parents, here’s the kicker. In weightlifting, there is next to no incidence of CTE. It has never happened. You need not worry about your son getting hit in the head.

There. That’s the key bit right there. Weightlifting won’t mess with your son’s brain…. FOR THE NEGATIVE. He won’t suffer concussions. He won’t experience memory loss. His brain won’t bounce around inside a small plastic shell for 3 hours.

He may represent his country. He may hear the national anthem played, and know he was responsible for it happening. He may be the next great Olympian.

Show him the path.

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