Gross Anatomy of a Champion

I’m recovering from a disappointing weekend. No, I don’t care that the Colts lost the Superbowl…to be honest, I didn’t even care that there was a Superbowl. I’m disappointed because one of my good friends, and someone whom I help advise, Brian Carroll, had what might have been the worst power-lifting meet of his life.

Disappointment comes in many flavors, but the most bitter is the disappointment of failure after months of intense and fruitful preparation. Before the meet, I likened Brian’s career to Sherman’s march to the sea: he burned down every obstacle in sight, moved methodically toward his goal and no one had a chance of containing him, let alone stopping him. Brian seemed on the road to a HUGE victory (becoming one of the highest totaling power-lifters of all time).

But that’s not what happened. Brian missed his opening squat because he didn’t make depth, not a disaster, but it’s always nice to have one in the hole just in case you miss your next two attempts. The second attempt was the disaster. He couldn’t get the weight lifted out of the rack. Brian knew it was over and didn’t even try for a third attempt.

Immediately, Brian was texting me, explaining what happened, how he felt and what could have caused it: diet; supplements; dehydration; insomnia; overtraining. He analyzed each one, we discussed it, I’m sure he discussed it with others, and he worked through the options until he pigeonholed the most likely culprit: central nervous system burnout, or—in gym-speak—overtraining.

We discussed the options, solutions, and best strategy to prepare for the next meet, a meet which is only three weeks away: three weeks. That’s ballsy. The average lifter would brood for a spell, maybe suffer pangs of depression and disappointment, take a month or two off, then get right back to the same-old, same-old. To be honest, though, is it fair to even discuss what the average lifter would do? The average lifter is not a champion. Brian is.

The trophies on Brian’s shelves don’t qualify him as a champion. I know plenty of people with trophies who still watch VHS high-lights from their high-school football games who are not champions. His statistics as a power-lifter—1100 lb squat, 760 lb bench and 800 lb deadlift—don’t make him a champion; there are a few people in history who have been stronger. His genetics, although helpful, do not contain the undiscovered gene of a champion; there are far too many genetically gifted people sitting around the house with a beer in one hand and the remote in the other. What makes Brian a champion is tenacity.

Tenacity is not a resignation to failure. Tenacity is a brand of bravery cultivated by sheer force of will and mindful ignorance; a bravery beyond jumping in front of cars to save puppies; a bravery exceeding what it takes to start the conversation, “I’ve got something to tell you…” Tenacity is the bravery to fail and the knowledge that failing leads to transcendence.

When Brian pulled the one-eighty and went from incredulity to perseverance, a poem popped into my head. I read it once in, of all periodicals, Flex Magazine. If my memory’s withstood the ceaseless attack of age and information overload, physics burnout and marathon sessions of software development, the poem goes:

The Champion

He’s zealous and powerful,
forceful and determined.
His body is forged in the gym
and his soul longs for the heat of combat.
He lives only for one thing:
to transcend his own limitations.

It’s not going to win any literary awards—primarily because it makes sense—but it does capture the essence of what it is to be great. After his failure this weekend and his immediate rebound to plan for the next meet, Brian reminded me of what it is to be a champion. And even the best of us need a little reminder from time to time.