I Went to Rhode Island and All I Got Was This Trophy

1125lbs. To many, that number sounds like a lot of weight. To some, that’ll probably seem less than impressive. To me, that number represents a victory. A victory that I had been seeking ever since my split from my ex. That number is my three-lift total at my first nationally sanctioned powerlifting meet, held May 15th. More importantly, it represents my continued fight back from the darkness that surrounded my life while dealing with severe anxiety and depression for the better part of two years.

I had always viewed strength sports as the “ultimate” sport. There was nothing to luck or chance; you either did it or you didn’t. You lift the weight, or you don’t. There’s no chance of wind, or missed tackles, or a hanging curveball to give you a chance to succeed. You have to put in the work, the weeks, months, or years of work just focusing on form and programming. You hope that your training result in a successful meet, but you won’t know until you get there. It’s just you against the weight.

I wouldn’t start on the road to becoming a competitive powerlifter until I was close to 28 years old. I just never saw myself as ever being able to be strong. I was really good at moving lighter weights fast, but I just never had the strength or confidence to consider myself “strong.” Hell, even now I don’t believe that, but I think that’s probably a good thing for my progress. Bench press has always been my bugaboo. It’s what kept me from attempting to get into law enforcement also. A body weight bench press is considered a goal of fitness, but it was something that always was just out of reach for me. By getting into powerlifting, I’d have to confront that and attack it finally.

The first few months of training were fairly new to me. I had never focused on such short rep ranges and over such a large number of sets. In retrospect, it makes an amazing amount of sense, but at the time it was completely foreign to me. Going from three sets of 10 to eight sets of three felt backwards and wrong to me. What I didn’t realize was that I was now training for a sport, and not just for fitness. I was training the technique and the lift, and not just the idea of looking healthy. Again, something completely foreign to me.

My first real exposure to this sport came at an in gym competition. Every summer, towards the beginning of August, my gym will host what’s called a “Push/Pull” event. The idea is that members of the gym who wish to participate compete in a pseudo practice competition in the deadlift and bench press. I was asked to help out with the event and help the lifters out, and being so new in it I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea. That Saturday would be the specific day that I decided I would do this someday. Seeing friends and people I looked up to lifting weights and getting cheered for it seemed awesome to me. The performer in me yearned to be on a stage again, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Over the next few months though, I lacked purpose. I trained on and off with a long time friend, who was beginning to compete himself in this sport. I was still obsessed with being skinny, and I wasn’t going to be able to get stronger and lose weight. It’s just mathematically not realistic, at least at the levels I wanted. It was a battle I’d struggle with up until realistically about two months ago, but at that time it was more of an obsession.

On the day that I found out my ex had been having a year-long affair, I sought comfort in the only place I had really left to seek it at. I spent the better part of three hours in that gym that night with my friend, just talking and deadlifting. I hadn’t eaten that day, but I needed to be there, in that atmosphere, with a friend that I knew I could trust. Had I not gone there, I fear what would’ve happened to me that day. I decided there and then that I would find some way to eventually overcome this emotional pain I was feeling. I just didn’t realize at the time how long it would actually take, and how much I’d struggle getting there.

It would be about another five months until I finally sat down and committed myself to becoming stronger. My goal was to be invited to compete at my gym’s competition that summer, instead of being asked to be a helper. I knew I had to increase my lifts significantly from where they were to be able to do that, but I just didn’t know enough about the training methods to do it. At the time I decided to do this, my best squat was around 250lbs, my best bench press had been about 165lbs, and my best deadlift was 315lbs. I never really tried or focused on any of them, but generally speaking, I SUCKED.

From that February until that August, I worked. I committed myself to a goal of increasing strength and becoming a legitimate powerlifter. My training partner and close friend worked together with me that entire time, in some cases even driving to my house to pick me up for training during a snow storm. We even bought our own power rack and weights in the event we couldn’t make it into the gym to lift. I was focused and driven. Due to my efforts over those months, I got asked to participate in that event, and wound up deadlifting 460lbs. Quite the massive improvement over a short period of time, and one that I was immensely proud of. Unfortunately, my bench went horribly and I ended up tweaking my shoulder and bombing out of the event. I knew I could do better though, and had been bitten by the powerlifting bug.

Suddenly, I developed long term goals for my powerlifting. At that time, I was looking at completing what had been my original goal of having a 1000lb total. It’s a number that is generally seen as respected in the fitness game, but I was well aware that it was baby weight in powerlifting. Nevertheless, I was close to hitting the first of many goals and I was excited. Unfortunately, I knew my bench press was lacking, and due to that chose to get programming from a new “coach” for a few weeks, just to pump my bench up.

In September of last year, about two weeks after starting with this new coach, I was deadlifting on a Saturday afternoon. He had programmed much more volume than I had ever done before, but I was committed to completing it. Unfortunately, my lower back had other ideas. One sharp pain later and I was in a heap, tears in my eyes. At the time, I thought I had strained a muscle, and treated it as such. As I’d come to find out later, it was really a pinched nerve, and would hinder my training for close to half a year.

Due to the injury, I cut out all deadlifting for a bit. Slowly, I began adding it back in, dropping the weight significantly and focusing on just nailing the form. I had to do the same for my squat, as my lower back was essentially the bracing for my body on that movement. Through this method, I had gotten my deadlift back up to around 405lbs, which at least was somewhat respectable. The week after I did that though, while warming up with just the bar on squats, my back went out and went out hard.

I’d spend the next few weeks in and out of chiropractors and massage therapists, as well as working on stretching movements at home. Just sitting in my car on my drive to work felt like torture some days, and walking up and down stairs felt like an insurmountable task. This would continue right up until around December of last year. Through months of rehab and smart training, as well as returning to my previous training partner, I started handling heavier weights again. This would be punctuated by my squat finally entering the 400s, with a slow, but technically deep squat of 405lbs. My recovery was nearly complete, and I knew it was time to move forward finally.

I’m a person who works best when I have goals to aim for. Totals are nice goals, but I guess in my mind, unless they’re legitimately judged and notated, they aren’t necessarily “real.” Gym numbers are awesome, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted the validation of judges saying “yup, those are clean” for me to feel like a weight was legitimate. I also needed something to train for. When I brought this up to my friend, he suggested that I finally compete at a meet he was doing in May. Without really thinking it through, I said “fuck it, why not?”

The next eight weeks of training would be the most focused, intense weeks I’ve ever had. I didn’t miss a single session, set, or rep of programming. I focused on my form more than ever, seeking advice from another lifter who was lightyears beyond my skill, but more than willing to help. As it would turn out, just one piece of form advice from him added about 25lbs on to my bench press. I trained with the mindset that I needed this meet. I needed this meet for myself, and for my recovery. This meet would represent a rebirth of sorts for myself. My previous 29 years of life had been all about getting 90% of the way through doing something, only to either quit or have it fall apart. This would be my first true complete success.

The last true week of training, we took our opening lifts. Mine went so well that I ended up taking my second attempts also, which also went pretty well. My weeks of focus and training seemingly were worth the efforts, as I looked more complete than ever before. The final week before the meet, we both stayed away from the gym. For me, this all but guaranteed I wouldn’t have an injury before competing, which was the reason I hadn’t competed the previous November as was originally planned. I would finally make it through training to be able to compete.

The day of the competition, we left our houses around 5am. It’d be a long trip down to Smithfield, Rhode Island, where the competition would be taking place, and we had to weigh in before it even started. Luckily, our partners in crime (his fiancé and my girlfriend) were more than willing to come along with us, which would turn out to be a great thing. For me, it helped keep me loose, as the topic of lifting would rarely come up on the ride down. I didn’t spend too much time thinking about the lifts, which had been a problem before for me. When it comes to this kind of stuff, the less I think, the better I perform.

Once we finally got there, we weighed in. He weighed in where he expected, and I eternally weigh in fat. It’s just what I’ve accepted though, so no problems here. We were in the same weight class, which was definitely unexpected going into the meet, but it would be a good test for me to see how much more work I had to do going forward.

As it would turn out, there would be two “flights” of lifters in this meet. A flight is just a term used to describe the group of lifters competing in a certain grouping. I was near the end of the first flight, and he wound up near the beginning of the second flight. The first flight of lifters were mostly the newer and younger lifters, and the second were the pros and larger competitors. For me, that meant far less pressure. My numbers would look massive in comparison to my flight, which would keep me from overthinking or overreaching.

First up were squats. I had picked an easy opener of 385lbs that I had hit numerous times before, including two weeks before. The idea was that my three openers would guarantee that at the very least I’d have a completed meet. If you miss any of your three attempts in any of the three lifts, you fail out of a meet and end up with a 0 for a technical total. Not a good situation to have, especially for a first meet. When I went up to squat, I realized my girlfriend was right out in front of me, camera in hand. It was do or die time for me, and I’d have to overcome every single anxiety I had about performing in front of people as the focus right then and there.

Right about halfway through my squat, I felt a calmness come over me. It was almost as if this felt totally normal and natural to me. That platform became my home, and the crowd became my family. My initial squat went very fast and successfully, as did my second. My final squat, a new personal best, was a super smooth and fast 425lbs. I felt confident going into the second group of lifts, which is my personal worst lift.

For bench press, I just wanted a body weight press. Something I had done in the gym, but never fully paused on my chest. In powerlifting, you don’t “touch and go” on a bench press. You have to have full and complete control on your decent, pause on your chest, and then push the weight back up with control. It’s a very strict movement, and one that I have always had issues with, thanks to multiple former shoulder injuries. For my opener, I picked an easy 185lbs.

That opener moved so quickly for me on the platform that, according to my friend, I almost racked the weight before the judges told me to and would’ve lost the lift. Hearing that from him gave me the confidence I needed to hit my bench presses that day. I finished with a very fast 225lb press for a third attempt. I had exceeded a bodyweight bench press, completing a long term goal I had also had in that same moment. As of that moment, I was sitting at a six for six competition thus far, completing every lift I attempted going into deadlifts.

This lift was my recovery lift, and by far my favorite. I had unfortunately only lifted over 425lbs once since my injury that past September, and on this day that would be my planned opening lift. In my head, I had selected 425lbs, 450lbs, and 475lbs as my three lifts. I had an idea of what my total would be if I hit them each, and knew that as long as I hit my second lift, which would still be impressive to me, I’d have not only surpassed 1000lbs, but would be sitting at 1100lbs. That had been a stretch goal going into the meet, but definitely wasn’t what I expected.

My opener went fast. Scary fast really. I don’t even remember it, but on video it looks like I was just standing up with a bag of groceries and not 425lbs. The same goes actually for my second attempt with 450lbs. No real effort or visible struggle. 475lbs would be the most I would’ve ever held in my hands at a competition or otherwise though, and mentally I knew I had to be in the right place for me. What that meant for me was that I had to go dark.

As I stood on the side, about four lifters away from taking my final attempt, I thought about all the things that I had dealt with in life. The incessant teasing from classmates growing up, the betrayals of family members and friends, the death of my mother and subsequent dismissal from her family, the affair of my ex, and just about every single thing that I wanted to use this meet to finally get past.

As I stood about to enter the platform, I began to shake. Tears entered my eyes. A fellow lifter, and a guy I had gotten to know a bit that day, slapped me on the back and told me to destroy it. Covered in white chalk, rage in my eyes, I stepped up to the platform, lined up on the bar, took my stance, and pulled the bar with 29 years of depression.

Three white lights. Good lift. 1125lb total and second place in my weight class.

I had completed my meet by going nine for nine with a technically perfect meet, getting zero red lights from any of the three judges there. With that final lift, I felt a sense of relief come over me. I had completed something in life, and felt like a success in something finally. This total was something that could never be taken from me, and something that I could present as evidence that I had done something for myself finally. I had climbed my personal Mt. Everest, and cemented myself within the world of my new, and by far favorite sport, powerlifting.

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