Greetings true believers.
In this action packed story, I will talk about my experience practicing the Barbell art of weightlifting. Not really technique-oriented, but moreso anecdote-oriented packed with gems and perspective that will aid you in your quest to physical greatness. As usual, there are lessons here that I think can be applied to any endeavor. This article was originally meant to be finished months ago, but here we are.
In it, I also honor and highlight a Black history hero in the sport of Weightlifting, Cara Heads Slaughter. Cara has not only competed in the Olympics but, also teaches, athletes, coaches, and weightlifting warrior enthusiast about this beautiful riddle of steel. I will discuss my own experience, and what it was like to finally meet and learn from her.
It was December 2014. The American Open was at the Hilton in D.C. I walked from Dupont Station to the Hilton. a 1.1 mile walk but, walks often take me realistically longer. Some folks from my then home gym, “No Excuse Workout (NEW) in Oxon Hill, MD, were competing in the American Open or Powerlifting.
Just as important, if not more exciting to me in the very same building and the next room over was the American Open for Weightlifting, aka Olympic Lifting aka what you see in the Olympics. The Two Lifts are the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk.
I was beyond excited to be here. Was I competing? No. However it was here that I saw my first competition. I love weightlifting. It’s a display of explosiveness and strength. Art coupled with a raw primal ferociousness. It’s a beauty all its own.
I met Chad Wesley Smith and Marisa, both from the infamous Juggernaut Training Systems. One of the greatest powerhouses of strength and knowledge in the lifting world. Chad was so cool, and Marisa was so chill. It was awesome seeing people you watch and learn from in person. I told them there was a Krispy Kreme nearby as what type of lifter and hospitable man would I be if I had not alerted them to the esteemed home of doughnuts. You’d have to be a lifter to understand. What unites lifters more than lifting itself? Food. Glorious, glorious food.
Later I saw her. Cara. Yes, I saw Cara Heads Slaughter. The legendary Olympian. Legendary to me for her knowledge and wisdom in the sport of Weightlifting. I was geeking inside. I wanted to run up to her and say hello. I didn’t because she was talking with her athletes and to me that was the time of sacred focus. I waved from afar. She waved back. I chuckled to myself. I wondered if I seemed weird but I didn’t care. I’ll be weird but I won’t be rude. One day, I will meet her, and learn and train with her I told myself. It was said with the zeal of a young warrior seeking to learn Kung-Fu. This was 2014.
Always learning. My good bro Rashad and I would always incorporate Weightlifting in our training. We didn’t have bumper plates or a fancy platform. We’d do the power variations of the movements with steel plates on the gym floor. We just didn’t drop them. When I tell people this, they’d look at me with shock and amazement. I was just like, it had to be done. We still got insane results. Shad had been strong since I met him so it was just us on the battlefield learning the riddle of steel, learning, and practicing what we could. It was the constant pursuit of technique.
I’d watch Cara on YouTube. Her 10 rep max of a 10 rep Back Squat was amazing to me. I’d watch her and Kendrick Farris, another black Olympian explain and teach barbell techniques on YouTube. It was beyond astounding. She competed in the sport of weightlifting at a time before social media. It was a time when we didn’t see us (black folks) very often during the Olympics. Not to say they weren’t there, but a lot of us didn’t see them. Cara was and will always be a black history hero to me. If I had it my way, you’d see her exploits in the museum. I’m chuckling as I say this, hopefully my” new found fame” will help catapult many others into a higher light. Many know who Cara is. Many know who Kendrick is, but many is not enough. The world should know.
Old video of Cara Squatting 321 for a 10 rep max, followed by a 302lb Squat Jerk.
Tight aint it.
I’d look on Cara’s website, periodically looking at coaching programs, telling myself I’d one day enroll. (Author note: I know my stories are as long as bibles and scrolls but there are gems here if you pay attention, I promise. Just enjoy the good game being kicked here.)
Our Maryland gym became a coliseum for our Power Cleans, Power Snatches, and the like. Frequent practice over and over and over. It was so much fun. Was our technique perfect? Heck, no. However we were determined to learn. It was preparation for something greater.
Such style of lifting does indeed come with challenges. I highly recommend that you seek professional instruction. Should you do it without instruction? Well that depends, if you have the patience and the humility to start over and over coupled with some type of lifting experience, then the answer is a definite yes.
The other issue, mobility. This was two fold, there’s a certain mobility that is required in Weightlifting, there are certain positions that require you to possess a degree of flexibility, or else you’re not going to maximize it like you should. The other….well yes, I have foot amputation. There was and is a high degree of limitation that I face in engaging in such. I recognize these things, and while albeit challenging, I…just don’t care. There are certain instances after beating cancer, losing a foot, going through some of the most catastrophic things a person can endure, that you often go…”oh well.” What would I do? Not do it? Not doing it wasn’t an option.
Weightlifting though challenging, it’s fun! There’s a primal sense of pride in hoisting heavy things over your head. I didn’t plan on competing anytime soon. I just like the benefits such as being extremely powerful and jacked out of my mind. I never had huge biceps (I think they are largely genetic, things pending) but nothing says, “strength and power of a god” like a huge back and traps. If you have them, you are likely…strong.
Is it difficult? Yes? There were many positions I just couldn’t do, so I had to make do. Sometimes I’d just pretend, going through the motions and just know I’d work on it later.
Why didn’t I enroll or sign up for coaching at the time? I was broke, and the surgery/after/after after/ after after after had set me back for a long time. I was so broke that you might as well had told me I needed to go to the moon. I got rejected for every job in the world. I even had a cover letter, that said “Hey, here’s an article about me. I beat cancer and survived a foot amputation so I guess I can do your job. It can’t be that hard right?” I didn’t say it exactly like that. Apparently, people don’t care about you facing incredible odds, and overcoming them. Whatever. However I didn’t care. I was going to do what I could until the opportunity would arise.
The following year (2015) I got certified as a NASM Personal Trainer! Huzzah! I then got to work among gyms that were more conducive to getting better at weightlifting. I even took a four week class….for free. Pretty cool. The year after, around fall of 2016, I started training at Balance and you’ve seen my IG. Whole platforms and barbell dropping glory from on high.
Years later, after talking and learning from folks, the opportunity came. I got an email saying we had a special to work with Cara. The first 10 persons that could get to her gym in Arlington and learn from her for a day. Of course I signed up immediately.
I couldn’t believe it.
I had the opportunity to train with Cara.
A real live Olympian. A Master Teacher! And she’s a black woman….and local! I couldn’t wait. It was set for the first weekend in June. Not only that, but I saw she was hosting the USAW Level 1 Cert in October which was a two-day seminar. I had my chance to learn and train under her for three days that year.
The day came and I was beyond excited. After everything I had went through. Therapy…not being able to walk…living and functioning with extreme pain, and through it all, I finally had my one day seminar with Cara.
I remember riding in the Uber on the way there. I kept expecting this to be some sort of dream. It wasn’t. It was real. A dream I had, manifested itself into reality. This was only the beginning. I get to the gym, do the warm up. Group warm ups/seminars are always initially awkward. There’s always bunch of drills and stuff that requires two feet and I just go through with it. As awkward as it may be, ultimately I realize I could be dead so I’m just glad I get the opportunity to breathe the air of the Big Spotter on High (one of my names for GOD) and lift.
At some point, I talk to Cara. If you’ve met me, you know I’m pretty chill. Even when I’m “hype” I’m mostly chill, but on the inside I’m beyond elated. I’m in the temple of the legend herself. I tell her about my background, what I had to do and honestly, Cara is one of most down to Earth people in the world. She seemed just as amazed for me to be there as I was to meet her.
Negative voices and tuning them out.
I’m pretty optimistic. Not pie in the sky, hippy world optimistic. I’m pretty wordy but my optimism comes from the notion that yes, you will have obstacles.
Yes, there will be pain. Yes, there will be suffering. Yes, some things will be downright unjust, unfair, and miserable. However, I believe that we were born with the ability to fight back. The warrior spirit. Resistance comes, the storm is often eternal, the waves roar, Darkness ensues, to quote a wise brother, “the euroclydons” come, and while it often appears that the Fires of Hell surround you with no end in sight, I believe we were meant to conquer. Adversity comes for us all, but its in how we do deal with it, we are judged. I rather die in the fight, then quit.
That is why I have the attitude I have, and other than the grace and mercies of the Most High, it is why I’m still here. As I say, there will always be blood, just make sure it is not yours. If you must bleed, and you will, bleed less than your opponent. Many times, I could hear voices like “do you really belong here? You don’t have toes, what makes you think you should even be here!” Honestly, I tune them out or cast them aside. I recognize that I am different. I recognize the challenges. However, I am the Mighty Miracle of the Most High. I will do what I must. I know what it is when I put on the brace, but not only will I conquer, I will show others that it is possible to conquer.
Optimism comes from knowing that though adversity is for certain, it won’t be the close of your curtain. Strike until your foes relent.
Coming back to the Temple.
Four months later, I return for the USAW Level 1 Certification. What does this mean? It’s a coaching certification.
Does it mean that you’ll get an army of clients? Ha, no. No it does not. Does it make you a master? No. No it does not.
In fact, there are many knowledgeable people without certs. They just read a lot, and are good at what they do. Why have it? For me, it’s a formal declaration that states that I’m putting myself out there to learn. Also, you do get credits for your Trainer cert renewal which we must do every two years. There are a lot of useless classes, and certs in my opinion, so if I’m going to get spend resources to get something, I might as well not just have something official but learn something beneficial.
Training with Cara and Christine was worth more than money can buy. They are fantastic teachers. When I met Christine, she was doing snatch demonstrations for Cara. Christine was a world competitor and is the Administrative Manager of Cara’s gym, CH Fitness and Performance. She was doing these demonstrations, and everything she did had such perfect form. She later tells us she just had surgery, and was getting back into things. You would had never known as all her movements were perfect. She did them on an elevated surface so we could so, and watching her with PVC Pipe (demonstration stick) was like watching a samurai practice their flawless technique with a bamboo sword.
Anyway, after the seminar, I talk to Cara for a bit. I thank her, Christine, Mike, and Cara’s husband Lance – who gave us some amazing tips in keeping the bars clean. I loved the way they keep the equipment clean. It has the respect a warrior would of their melee weapon.
As a sidenote, if you’re reading this (duh), remember to brush the chalk off the barbell. Leaving it on there eventually erodes the barbell. Treat the equipment right and it’ll take care of you. As you may know, good equipment is expensive, so do what you must to preserve it.
After the seminar, we had about a week to take the exam. Upon taking the exam, I’m listening to Kobe Bryant videos (RIP) to hype me up to pass it. After what seemed like hours, I pass the exam! YES! I am officially a USAW L1 COACH.
All the pain, suffering, frustration, beaten in a satisfying and monumental victory. I beat cancer, I beat a foot amputated, lost 122 lbs, conquered the foes of my mind, became strong, became a trainer, a fitness writer, and now I’m a USAW Level 1 Coach. Not just certified, but got to learn from a Master Teacher, Black History Olympian in the process!
I later got the opportunity to get free coaching as a volunteer athlete in Cara’s coaching program. For six weeks, I got to receive free coaching from individuals endeavoring to learn coaching from Cara. Think of Cam’ron when he said, “I get computers putin’.” It was an awesome experience, not only did I get to lift and learn, but I helped expose coaches to working with people with amputations. I broadened their experience just how they broadened mine. So last year, I had the benefit of working with an Olympian nine times in one year. I am beyond grateful for the opportunity and the experience. I can’t tell you how many times, I dreamed and envisioned this experience only for it to happen the way it did.
One of the overriding themes of this story was persistence and belief. I practiced weightlifting despite not having all the mobility to do so. It didn’t matter. I had a barbell, and my gym fam. I had the capacity for tenacity. I had the fire and desire. I had a vision of working with Cara long before I even met her, and eventually, things manifested itself for it to happen. Not only did it happen, but I later got free additional coaching for six weeks of sessions. I was there nine times last year. I didn’t say, “well I’m not going to try because…” No, I did it anyway. Like, I said, I got to expand the scope, so now the coaches have an experience working with adaptive athletes.
You can reach Cara at:
Bill Walker is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer, DCPS Strength and Fitness Coach, Boot Camp Instructor, and Fitness Writer for the greatest website of all time, Citlr.com. If you have any questions, want a personalized program, consultation or workout, you can contact him at [email protected]. His mantra is “Train like Warrior. Look like a God. Forge your own destiny.”
You can follow him on instagram @billiusmaximus929