Pain and Gain

Houston hosts the 2015 IWF Weightlifting Championships, the first one in the U.S. in more than 40 years.

By Nick Esquer November 18, 2015

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Weightlifter Jared Fleming competes in the IWF Weightlifting Championships

From this Friday through next Saturday, November 28, people near downtown’s George R. Brown Convention Center may think that giants are walking around or that the Russians are coming, and in a way, those may be apt guesses. The world’s best and bulkiest weightlifters will descend upon Houston for the 2015 International Weightlifting Federation World Championships, a qualifier for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. For the first time in more than 40 years the United States plays host to the event, and Houston, with its international pull and growing (literally) health and fitness communities, was chosen as the city where said weightlifters will throw down.

The sport has seen a spike in following and recognition as the surge of CrossFit—the fast-paced workout fad that blends gymnastics with cardio and heavy lifting—has put weightlifting in the spotlight. “To put it in perspective, the American Open used to have 100–200 people [competing]—this year there’s about [750],” says weightlifter Jared Fleming, a competitor in the 2011 championships. The athlete is in town with fellow lifters Jessica Lucero of California and Donovan Ford, a lifter who lives at the Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs. The trio has been training for this opportunity for the past three years, keeping a spot on the US Olympic team in their sights.

With the growth of the sport and of the participants—no pun intended—IWF needed to find a location that could hold the inflated attendance numbers and, of course, all the weight. More than 120,000 pounds of equipment and 70 platforms outfit the center, which celebrates the championships with an opening ceremony this Thursday at 7:30. So, for a sport that is only watched once every four years (not you, soccer), what’s with the sudden strength in numbers and attention?

“CrossFit,” Lucero, Ford and Fleming answer in unison. “The amount of money USA Weightlifting has brought in has quadrupled, maybe more, because of CrossFitters taking in USAW-level certifications. The revenue coming into the sport and the notoriety—it’s grown exponentially,” adds Fleming, a squarely built athlete who began lifting at the age of 10 in his family’s barn in upstate New York. “We have this set of skills that people are really wanting to know more about now,” notes Lucero.

The three athletes are what you may have in mind when outlining a weightlifter in your head. Ford, a former football player, is a mountain of a man, his arms like ham hocks; Lucero, who grew up with her health- and fitness-conscious mother, is an angular silhouette with the appearance of being chiseled from a block of tanned marble. Along with Fleming, the three have been gearing up for the coming events and their personal lives have had to make some room.

“You have to be selfish with your time, even with your families. Everything has to be about making the Olympics…I’m married and it’s been hard. I haven’t been able to contribute with our family in the way I know I can. Four years is a long time,” laments Lucero.

So, besides lifting heavy weights above their heads, what else is included in a day in the life of a weightlifter? “I don’t think people really understand what we do. People don’t really understand the time and dedication that goes into weightlifting,” says Fleming. “Yeah, we get one rest day and it goes by fast,” adds Ford. “There’s the time at home with eating right and sleeping enough, doing active recovery and stretching and talking with your sports psychologist. You can’t be out doing stupid stuff and getting injured,” says Fleming.

And what about those injuries? Fleming has two bulging discs and Ford has undergone multiple surgeries on his shoulders and knees from overuse. “People understand the risk. Our bodies probably weren’t meant to lift the weights that we are lifting,” admits Fleming. But in a sport that relies on mental toughness as much as physical toughness, there may be more ways to look at it. “If you think about an injury in a different way,” says Lucero, “just think, ‘I pushed my body harder than it was capable of being pushed because my mind was tougher than my body’.” We'll take your word for it.

2015 World Weightlifting Championships. Nov. 20–28. $30–800. George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida De Las Americas. 1-888-696-8822.

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