Olympic weightlifting is the king of all strength sports. Blinding speed, raw power, and razor-sharp precision showcased in an biathlon of barbell events, the snatch and the clean and jerk. Thousands of repetitions and months of training distilled into six brutal lifts: three attempts to record your heaviest snatch, three attempts to record your heaviest clean and jerk. Weightlifting, as both a sporting discipline and focused mindset, rewards the bleeding edge of human adaptation. Every single day it’s you versus you. Every repetition in your home gym or on the biggest competition stage is a test of your mettle. Can you quiet your mind and execute with no fear when it counts? In a nutshell, that is weightlifting.
Competitions open with the snatch, where the barbell is moved from the ground to a locked-out position overhead in one swift movement. A quarter of an inch is the dramatic difference between make and miss. Considered the more technical of the two events, the snatch demands tension, patience, and extreme accuracy from the lifter. “Barbell gymnastics” is how I describe the snatch to regular people. Move powerfully, but gracefully. Be tight, but find positions of mobility. Move as fast as you can, but don’t rush through the positions. Snatching is very paradoxical, it comes and goes…sometimes you’re friends and sometimes you’re enemies. Even with years of experience, the snatch can elude the best of lifters when the pressure is on.
Up next is the clean and jerk, the steak and potatoes of the competition. “Snatch for the show and clean and jerk for the dough”, the old heads say. Clean and jerk is a two-part movement where the barbell is pulled from the floor to the shoulders in a low front-squat position, and then jerked from the front rack to a locked-out position overhead. Raw horsepower shines here; the clean and jerk favors athletes with stocky physiques, refrigerator-thick torsos, and powerful legs. If the snatch is a finely-choreographed dance, the clean and jerk is a fistfight…in a phone booth. If you’re not fully 100% mentally committed to either the clean or the jerk, you will get folded like a deck chair.
Scoring the sport is simple. Combine the top weight lifted in the snatch and top weight lifted in the clean and jerk and you have what’s called a total. The lifter with the highest total and lowest bodyweight in the weight class wins. Competitions feature an array of ascending men’s weight classes and an array of ascending women’s weight classes, each ending with an open bodyweight division, commonly referred to as the super heavyweights.
At elite international levels, weightlifting is a sport of obscene strength and disgusting speed featuring feats of strength that shouldn’t be humanly possible. Blink just once and you will miss a Chinese lifter weighing 81kg/178lbs like Lu Xiaojun snatching 170kg/374lbs like an empty bar. Tune into the super heavyweights and you’ll see Georgian Lasha Talakhadze ragdoll a clean and jerk of 267kg/588lbs. However don’t just take my word for it…next time you’re at the gym training, load up 580lbs on a barbell. Some of us might be able to squat that, crack off a few deadlift reps, or maybe just roll it around the floor a bit. Consider for just one moment the mental fortitude it takes to pull 588lbs off the floor, then rack it on the shoulders, stand it up out of the front squat, and then finally throw it overhead – all with precision violence and controlled aggression.
Everyone loves to talk about the physical side of training the sport – the sets, the reps, the nutrition, the pharmacology, the recovery modalities. Unfortunately, far less is said about the mental side, which is arguably more important. How do athletes develop a mindset that lives outside the realm of conscious human performance? How do we design training so that the lifter dulls their senses to the danger present in constantly loading and pushing the most unnatural of movements? What conditions and variables can we control in the athlete’s environment to drive the development of high-level results over multiple years?
In the West, where the sport isn’t as popular, athletes often make the mistake of leaning into the physical side of the sport. “Coaching” at amateur level boils down to building up a big squat and hoping for the best, with limited technical instruction sprinkled in. It is an absolute travesty that little is done to develop the requisite mental toughness to execute in those crucial moments on the big stage. This mindset, as far as I’m concerned, is the single greatest benefit of learning the sport itself. Often the life of a weightlifter means 15 years of training the same 15 movements in gloomy gyms, an existence of comparative poverty and isolation. However there is a certain charm to the sport that draws people in, a magnetic quality that attracts masochists and produces absolute savages tapped into the immense power of the human mind and body.
Take a walk with me, I want to share a story about two men, their mindsets, and the meaning of grit in weightlifting.
True Grit – Evgeny Chigishev
The super heavyweight class is the crown jewel of Olympic weightlifting competition, where every four years one man earns the title of “the Strongest Man In The World”. The super heavyweight competition in the 2008 Beijing Olympics was one for the ages, one that brings a tear to many eyes to this day. It’s true that no two athletes walk the same path to the games, but those 5 rings seem to bring out the very best in us, true displays of strength and resilience. The story of Evgeny Chigishev, one of the greatest athletes you’ve never heard about, is one of absolute grit.
Chigishev was one of the last great Russian super heavyweight lifters of the early 2000s. Standing 6 foot 2 inches tall and weighing a muscular 131kg/290lbs, Evgeny deviated from the typical bloated, obese open-class physiognomy that produced lumbering behemoths with giant bellies. He had a striking, aesthetic physique – a wide back hewn from granite, the cannonball shoulders of a boxer, a slim torso, and hydraulic cylinders for legs. At the young age of 21, Chigishev made his Olympic debut at the 2000 games in Sydney, placing 5th overall behind monsters like Iranian Olympic Champion Hossein Rezazadeh and three-time World Champion German Ronnie Weller.
It’s very difficult to explain the heady mix of pride and expectation when it comes to being a Russian weightlifter. All eyes are on you to deliver – failure to perform is not tolerated. Once you put on the national team singlet, your job is to represent the strongest people on earth by delivering results in the form of a medal, preferably gold. The 2000 games in Sydney cemented the fact that in the eyes of the Russian Weightlifting Federation, young Chigishev could very well be an Olympic champion one day. Just when Evgeny Chigishev was poised to write his name in the weightlifting history books, his life decided to take an abrupt left turn.
Shortly after Sydney, Chigishev and his training partner were lifting at the gym on New Year’s Eve in December of 2001. The two lifters and good friends finished their training and left the gym in Novokuznetsk, Siberia. In one of those ‘wrong place, wrong time’ moments, a group of lowlifes tried to rob Chigishev and his friend at knifepoint. In the botched mugging that followed, Chigishev and his friend were both stabbed multiple times. Evgeny lost a ton of blood from a dreadful amount of stab wounds to his back and right arm, injuries that would have killed the average man. Chigishev’s friend and training partner died shortly after the attack, leaving the super heavyweight lifter absolutely distraught.
Now at this stage, most people would just flat out quit, give up, call it a day. Imagine how Chigishev felt, a man who at the peak of his career had everything taken away from him in an instant. If you talk to some weightlifters, you’ll find that once they lose the ability to train and compete, life begins to unwind around them. In some ways, the sport is the only thing that has given them purpose, direction, a regimen, structure, and discipline. I can’t imagine the depths of despair Chigishev felt knowing that he was laid up useless in the hospital, his good friend was dead, his chance to compete at the 2004 Athens games was gone, and his future as a national team athlete was doubtful at best. But if there’s one thing to learn from Chigishev, it’s that there’s absolutely no quit in the man, not one single ounce.
After taking a fair amount of time off, far away from weightlifting, Chigishev against all odds finds himself back in the gym. There’s something familiar about the cold caress of a 20kg barbell, something that just calls you back, something restless that stirs in a weightlifter’s soul. Call it resilience, call it unfinished business, call it stubbornness, call it comfort – I don’t know. I can’t explain these things with words here; you either feel them or you don’t. By 2005, Chigishev felt them enough to be back to his previous form, silencing the critics and winning silver with solid performances at both the European Championships and the World Championships. 2007 rolls by and once again Chigishev was in excellent shape, earning a silver at both the European Championships and World Championships leading up to 2008, the next Olympic year.
In one of the wildest weightlifting turn-arounds of all times, Chigishev entered the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as one of the class favorites, undeniably the best snatch specialist in the world at the time. He snatched a monster 210kg/463lbs, leading the competition and taking a healthy advantage into the clean and jerk. Chigishev went on to clean and jerk 250kg/551lbs to earn a silver medal, only being edged out by 1 kilo on a hail Mary third-attempt clean and jerk from German Matthias Steiner in the very last lift of the competition. Sometimes this is the nature of the sport – both pure triumph and utter heartache can be just one lift away.
In what became one of the most insane competitions ever, Chigishev left it all out on the platform but came up 1 kilo short. His journey demonstrates that sometimes true grit means losing everything, just to gain it all back.
Execution – Matthias Steiner
The story of Austrian Matthias Steiner, the man who beat Chigishev in Beijing, is another beautiful example of grit and resilience in sport. Matthias, the son of 20-time IWF Masters (35+) World Champion Friedrich Steiner, was not a very talented lifter in his early days. His father fashioned him a small barbell and weight set but repeatedly told him to go play soccer instead. Not easily discouraged, young Matthias insisted he was going to be a weightlifter, telling his father he would be an Olympic Champion one day. Grizzly veteran Friedrich told his son that he was nuts, that it would never happen. From that day forward, a weightlifter was born, an Olympic Champion in the making.
Competing for his home nation of Austria, Steiner had a decent junior career earning bronze medals at the 2001 European Junior Championships and 2002 European Junior Championships. Matthias kept developing and also learned how to manage his diabetes during heavy and frequent training, something that had an impact on his body weight. By 2004, Steiner competed at the Olympic Games in Athens, snatching 182.5kg/402lbs and clean and jerking 222.5kg/490lbs, which was good enough for 7th place overall representing Austria.
In 2005, the Austrian Weightlifting Federation decided to replace the national team coach, which created unnecessary tension for Steiner and others. At the European Championships that year, Steiner missed all three snatch attempts and controversy erupted over disagreements on weights selected. The coach and other federation members accused Steiner of deliberate failure and in turn, Steiner left the Austrian Weightlifting Federation and applied for German citizenship. Despite earning medals and representing his home nation in the 2004 Olympics, Steiner would not stand atop an Olympic podium in an Austrian singlet.
In the three years that passed before receiving his German citizenship, Steiner met and married a woman named Susann from Zwickau in Saxony who was impressed by his lifting on television. While their relationship blossomed beautifully, Steiner was stateless and forbidden from competing in any international weightlifting competitions for three years. Steiner found refuge training and competing for Chemnitzer AC Weightlifting Club in the independent German Weightlifting League (Bundesliga) under German national coach and mentor Frank Mantek. Under new coaching, Steiner recognized his potential as a super heavyweight lifter and committed to Mantek’s training methods in the build up to the 2008 Olympics.
On July 16th 2007, Matthias Steiner received a phone call that would forever change his life. The police called him on an average summer afternoon to tell him that his wife was in a car accident and was in the hospital. By the time Matthias arrived at the hospital, the staff solemnly explained to him that they were sorry, his wife was dead, and that they had done everything that they could. Suspended in disbelief, Steiner did not know what to do with such an angry whirlwind of emotions. He stopped training for three weeks and lost nearly 20lbs in body weight, which is debilitating for any athlete preparing for the Olympics, much less a super heavyweight lifter.
Deeply depressed, Matthias received a call from Frank Mantek reminding him of his commitment to train for Beijing. Here’s the point where the average person would quit, give up, tell the coach to kick rocks. But no, not Steiner. He was filled with a different kind of anger. The very next day, Mantek walked into the gym at 9am and found Matthias there, ready to train. Hurt and wounded, Steiner found a certain peace in the gym amidst the clanging and banging of barbells. Just like our friend Chigishev, the more Steiner trained, the better he felt. Training couldn’t take the pain away, but for Steiner the pain reminded him of his goals. As the weights on the bar increased, so too did the amount of guilt, grief and sadness Steiner could shoulder.
Steiner was on a religious-level tear through competitions in 2008, this time representing Germany. Matthias won the Beijing Pre-Olympic Tournament and finished 2nd at the European Championships that year, giving him a bid to represent Germany in Beijing. At the games, Steiner found himself in a vicious three-way dogfight in the super heavyweight class with our friend and Russian favorite Evgeny Chigishev and seasoned Latvian veteran Viktors Ščerbatihs. Matthias snatched 202kg/445lbs on his second attempt, but missed 207kg/456lbs on his third, which put him in fourth place behind a very strong 210kg/463lbs snatch from Chigishev and a smooth 206kg/454lbs effort from Ščerbatihs.
Carrying the anger of his third attempt snatch miss with him, Matthias failed to clean and jerk 246kg/542lbs on his opening attempt and jaws collectively hit the floor in shock. Seeing an athlete miss an opener is never a good sign, and at this point it looked like the 2008 Olympics was over for Matthias Steiner. Chigishev then clean and jerked an easy 247kg/544lbs for a good lift on his second attempt, building even more of a lead. Just when it all seemed impossible, Coach Frank Mantek rallied Steiner to clean and jerk 248kg/546lbs on his second attempt, which at the time put him into medal contention. Answering impressively on his third attempt, Evgeny Chigishev demolished 250kg/551lbs in the clean and jerk to strengthen his lead.
At this point in the competition, there were only two men left – the Latvian Viktors Ščerbatihs and the German Matthias Steiner. Both athletes had ground to make up on Chigishev’s absolutely massive 460kg total. First it was the experienced 34 year old Latvian Ščerbatihs, who attempted to increase the bar to 254kg/559lbs on his second attempt, but he missed. Feeling the pressure, Ščerbatihs jumped to 257/566lbs for his third attempt and missed that lift on the jerk, which meant his day was over. Steiner bided his time strategically and was the only man left in the competition with one lift remaining. The moments that followed continue to inspire athletes of all stripes to this day.
With a silver medal in the bag, German Coach Frank Mantek made the decision to jump 10kg/22lbs to 258kg/568lbs, which would put Matthias in the gold medal position to win the Olympics out of nowhere. This move is the sporting equivalent of gambling it all on a hail Mary touchdown attempt, a wing-and-a-prayer half-court shot, an eyes-closed walk-off home run in extra innings, winning a nail-biter penalty shootout on the last kick. In this moment, Steiner was able to free himself from the heavy chains of pain, sadness, and grief to do the impossible – he smoked his third attempt clean and jerk of 258kg/568lbs and earned himself a gold medal. One the most emotional moments of the sport followed, with Steiner first doubling over the bar screaming, pounding the platform, tears running down his face, then celebrating and jumping for joy with his coach, Frank Mantek.
Matthias Steiner stood there that day a champion, the Strongest Man in the World, with an Olympic gold medal around his neck and in his trembling hand, a picture of his late wife Susann. The man standing next to him with a silver medal around his neck – Evgeny Chigishev. Two men that had experienced tragedy and loss beyond understanding, two men that could have given up and despaired, two men that used the barbell to lift themselves up, two men exemplifying mental toughness and unwavering grit that you’ll find in the sport of Olympic weightlifting.