It’s Not About Weightlifting


When I was a teenager, I used to love to watch ABC’s Wide World of Sports with Jim McKay on Saturday afternoons. Why? Because, back in the day (the 1970’s), it was one of the few ways an insatiable sports fan could catch a glimpse of “non-mainstream” sporting events in the U.S. and elsewhere. In fact, the show’s intro promised that its producers would had “spanned the globe” to bring viewers the “constant variety of sport,” the “human drama of athletic competition,” the “thrill of victory” and the “agony of defeat” – and they seldom disappointed. Unlike my friends, I didn’t particularly like the “agony of defeat” stuff. I never was much of a rubbernecker. I tuned in mostly for the “thrill of victory” segments. But, every now and then a piece captured both (i.e., the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory) in the same event or person and, when it did, it was truly captivating.

I remember one such segment in particular. It was a piece on a national weightlifting competition that would decide who would earn a coveted spot on the U.S. team for the upcoming Summer Olympics. I’m not very well-versed in the intricacies of weight-lifting competitions, but, in general terms, the competition organizers set a preliminary weight for each weight class and type of lift. Each competitor is then given three opportunities to successfully complete the lift; those who do advance to the next weight and the next until there is only one competitor left and that person is crowned champion. There’s only one wrinkle: If a competitor misses his first two lifts at a given weight and all of his fellow competitors have successfully completed it, the twice-failed lifter is given the option of making a 3rd attempt at the existing weight or “passing it” and attempting a higher weight, which, if successful, his competitors would then have to match.

The focus of the piece was a competitor whose name you’ll forgive me for not remembering (it was 40+ years ago!). What I do remember is that he came into the competition as the American Record Holder in his weight class and was generally believed to be a “lock” for the American team, if not a spot on the Olympic medal podium. However, it was obvious from the outset that, on the day that mattered most, something was terribly wrong. I’m not sure what demons had crept into his psyche, but he had struggled with even the preliminary weight and those struggles only intensified as the weights increased. Eventually, he missed his first two attempts at a weight well below his American Record – a weight that his two remaining competitors had lifted with relative ease. One more “miss” and he would be out of the competition – his life-long dreams of Olympic glory shattered.

Moments before the lift, the camera panned to the staging area where he was having a heated discussion with his handlers. As the bell sounded signaling the time for the final attempt, the handlers walked onto the stage and to the shock of everyone in the auditorium increased the weight on the bar not to what would have been the next designated level, but to a number well above his current American Record! It seemed like competitive suicide (likely the reason for the disagreement among with his team), but the young man knew if he could manage the weight it was a virtual certainty that his fellow competitors would not and he would be crowned champion. I’ll never forget the alternating looks of doubt and determination on his face as he circled that bar, the hush that fell over the auditorium as he reached for it or the smile and deafening roar that erupted when he cleanly/proudly lifted it high over his head.

At one time or another all of us will experience moments not unlike the one that unfolded before the eyes of millions of WWS viewers that unforgettable Saturday afternoon – “moments of darkness” when we sense that all we have worked for is slipping from our grasp and all we have sacrificed and endured to achieve it was for naught. The genesis of those moments will take many forms and their intensity and duration will vary greatly from one person to the next. For some, the darkness will emanate from rejection, a breach of trust, abandonment, a love or friendship lost. For others, it will be borne of trauma, illness or the death of a loved one. More often than not, those moments will be temporary, like an early morning fog that engulfs everything in its reach only to burn off hours later to reveal the true magnificence of the landscape beneath. On occasion, however, the darkness that accompanies those moments will linger and seem impenetrable, all consuming, suffocating.

I have to believe that in the midst of what likely was the darkest moment of his young life, as he circled that bar bearing more weight than any American in history had ever lifted, that young weightlifter had an epiphany that all of us must have when we confront our own, namely that: (1) no matter how skilled, accomplished or put together we may be (or think we are!), none of us are immune from such moments; (2) no matter when they come or how long they may last, we simply cannot allow those moments to obscure our view of the truth about who we are, let alone supplant that truth; (3) in the span of a lifetime, the significance of a moment ago, whether the “ago” be 5 seconds, 5 minutes, 5 months or 5 years pales in comparison to the significance of the next 5 minutes; and (4) in the end, it doesn’t matter how long we have to spend flailing around in the darkness in search of our truth, what matters is that we ultimately find it, embrace it, triumphantly raise it up for all the world to see and then take a well-deserved and hard-earned moment to bask in the “thrill of victory” with a knowing smile as bold and radiant as the one that lit up television screens around the world that magical Saturday afternoon!

Hang on! Fight on!

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