When he was 13, Wesley Barnett went to his first Junior Olympics in Olympic Lifting after a few months of training with no elite coaching, and came away with three trophies and three gold medals. He was hooked, and continued in the sport for 17 years, eventually finding himself at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. Putting off retirement because he was without a plan, he unfortunately didn’t make the 2000 Olympic Team after dealing with cancer. However, he was hired by the United States Olympic Committee to work on plans to help athletes achieve success on the field of play, which eventually led to his passion of finding clean supplements in an under regulated, and often contaminated, industry.
How did you get into weight lifting?
I started in the sport of weight lifting at 12 years old. It’s funny how life happens and you’re in the right pace at the right time. I grew up going to a youth center, which strangely enough, bore my name, The Wesley Community Center, which was about three to four blocks away from home. Because of the name of the facility, the weightlifting club was called the Wesley Weightlifting Club and the lifters were the Wesley Weightlifters. Once I was on the national stage, people always thought the club was named after me, which wasn’t the case. As I was saying, I would go in after school, play basketball, Ping-Pong, air hockey, whiffle ball, and other activities. One day I was playing basketball and the youth director (and my personal coach for the next 17 years, Dennis Snethen) interrupted, saying that we are having a lifting meet today and we could either lift or go home. So I chose to stay. I was taught how to do the lifts an hour before the competition started, by a man name Jon Carr, who came in with his broomstick to demonstrate the lifts. As you can imagine, my technique was really rugged, but the weights were kept light. I participated and got fourth place in my weight class and age group. When I’ve told people, they think that fourth place isn’t bad for your first competition in light of the circumstances. However, I go on to tell them that there were only four people in my weight class! After that the director sat us all down and said that we are going to start training and have another competition in spring, and whoever can qualify would be taken to the Junior Olympics. In 1984 the AAU Junior Olympics was going to be in Jacksonville, Florida. At the time, in the small town where I’m from, people generally went to school through high school and then you start working. Most didn’t go to college. Maybe you get married and have kids and that’s your life. An opportunity to go all the way to Florida by lifting weights was amazing.
Did you end up qualifying for the Junior Olympics?
I ended up training and springtime came and four of us qualified. We piled into a station wagon and we drove all the way to Jacksonville. It was intimidating because once we were there, I overheard kids talking about who they thought would get first or second between them. I was wondering what chance I had since they had already decided which of them was going to win. They were more seasoned lifters and there I was from a podunk town wondering what I had gotten myself into. I was always competitive and liked to win, and I didn’t want to have come all that way to embarrass myself. There was no way to scout the competition, so you just showed up with no idea who you were lifting against until weigh-ins. Fortunately, I was already at or slightly above those guys (although I didn’t know it at the time), but I had to put the lifts together. I was 5’2” and 99 pounds and lifted in the 104-pound weight class, and basically went into the competitions and shellacked them not knowing anything about the sport or training. It’s just what I was capable of.
How did you do overall?
I was 13 years old, and at that competition I won first place in my weight class, was awarded best lifter for all weight classes for 13 and under; and, since it was my first time at the Junior Olympics, I received Rookie of the Year. I came away with like three trophies and three gold medals and thought it was the greatest thing ever. I stayed with the sport the next 17 years, and eventually made two Olympic teams, three Pan Am teams, and seven world championship teams. That one day set me on a pathway to the rest of my life.
That’s amazing. Did you even have any official coaching?
For about three years our youth director coach was training us. We were just going through the motions before our youth director saw that this was something that was going to be a regular part of the youth programming and took it upon himself to take coaching education classes and become certified through USA Weightlifting. We would do snatches, cleans, squats and pulls and that’s all we knew. It wasn’t until he did coaching education and got involved in the federation to learn more about training and progressions, assistance exercises and that sort of thing that he started implementing that training with us. When you are a little kid, you can pretty much do anything and still make progress. So we kind of learned together as he educated himself. The more he developed as a coach, the more we did as well. He has gotten people to world teams and Pan American teams and has put two of the kids from the youth center on the Olympic Team. His specialty is introducing the sport to kids and developing them to a level where he could get them to the resident program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He was also very smart about developing relationships with local media, so we were in the newspaper and local TV all the time. People would come from all over town to be part of the program. He had been a basketball player and cross-country runner, so he took the time and dedicated himself to learning the sport of weightlifting and learning how to train athletes. He himself has coached at every level from national to Pan Am to worlds to Olympics. Dennis is still there and has been doing that job going on 35 years.
Were there other lifting competitions in your area?
Olympic lifting was not a high school or collegiate sport, and was just done at the club and national level. There was a weight lifting federation we didn’t even know about at the time. We just knew about the AAU Junior Olympics. The first three years we just trained for the Junior Olympics — our one national competition — until we found out about the USA Weightlifting, the national governing body for the sport and their national events around the country. I also played baseball, basketball and football, and lifting was just another thing that I did. I didn’t realize it complemented my other sports as cross training. We would train Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. That was my existence. At the same time I continued on playing the other sports. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I started getting pretty decent in lifting and realized it was too much to stop lifting while playing other sports and to only come back to lifting in between. I was basically starting all over after being away from lifting for several months. I was never building because I had to stop for a sport season. About my sophomore year I made the decision to just play basketball and lift. I continued with local and regional competitions, as basketball season and lifting almost never really conflicted with each other, and actually complemented each other. I was an All-State basketball player in high school (3A division), but I was a 5’10” jumped center and played power forward, so clearly too small to play those positions in college.
Did you lift in college?
There happened to be a Hungarian lifting coach named Steve Javork in Overland Park, Kansas, at Johnson County Community College. He was the strength and conditioning coach for all sports and had a weightlifting program on the side. I spent two years there learning and developing while competing and training. Then I went back to St. Joseph for a semester and was invited to join the Olympic Training Center resident program in Colorado Springs in December of 1990. I spent the next decade on the national team and have been in Colorado ever since. Things just kind of worked out. The residence program for lifting was restarted in 1990 and I was one of the original six that accepted the invitation. We would live at the training center and go to school, all compliments of the United States Olympic Committee’s (USOC).
What was it like training for your first Olympics?
When I came out to the training center, my aspiration was looking forward to the 1996 Games. I had no illusions that I would be good enough or ready for the 1992 Games. However, when I got there I had only been used to training four days per week. I got thrown in with a Romanian coach by the name of Dragomir Cioroslan, who by coincidence was coached as a boy by Steve Javorek in Romania. We trained six days per week, twice per day. With access to all the food I needed, sports med, coaching, and most importantly an environment with five other guys who were motivated and gunning for the same goals, it made a huge difference. Because we didn’t know what we were doing when I first started in the sport, Dennis would have us do a ton of different exercises. When I went to Johnson County, Steve was a master at implementing a variety of different exercises that further complemented what Dennis was doing. What I didn’t know was that I was building a foundation without specializing too early. This served me well in my new environment as some of the other athletes who specialized at an early age, were injured more often and couldn’t seem to withstand the training loads. Because I had a great foundation, my body could withstand the enormous workload. Therefore I just zoomed along. It was unbelievable. It wasn’t because we were doing anything extra special besides a heavier training load, but the environment helped so I could continue to put the work in every day. After the first year in 1991 I was positioned for a shot to make the Olympic Team. I just had to progress another four to five months until the Olympic Trials came about. Low and behold that’s what I did. It helped that I was 21 and you couldn’t throw enough work at me. They would have to kick me out to rest because I just lived in the gym and that’s all I wanted to do. At this stage in my life, anything that wasn’t lifting was a distraction for me and every minute I spent working or going to school, was time I wasn’t in the gym training.
Were you constantly competing with your teammates?
Every day was a competition in everything we did. Who could eat the most, who could hold their breath underwater the longest, who could stay in the cold plunge the longest? We actually turned one of our extra lifting belts into a WWF style (now WWE) title belt. This belt would be awarded to the person that Dragomir thought put in the best effort for the week. We would kill ourselves every week to get this stupid looking belt. The reality was it wasn’t about the belt — it was about bragging rights and who got to talk trash until the next “ceremony.” I would train for that every week. Those internal competitions on a daily basis led me to a point where I had made the progress to get a spot at the Olympic Trials in Peoria, Illinois. Each weight class had a qualifying standard. The Olympic Team would be selected from those standards. To use a crude, over-simplified example, if standard in your weight class was 100 pounds, and you lifted 105 pounds, you were at 105 percent of the standard. You had to not only make sure you were in the top two in your class, but also make sure you had a higher percentage of the standard than others in their respective weight classes. As fate would have it, it all came together and I had a decent Olympic Trials, landing in one of the top ten spots available on the Olympic Team.
What was it like going to your first Olympics?
It was phenomenal for me and totally unexpected. I went in with no expectations, and as more of a learning opportunity in how to compete on the worlds biggest athletic stage. It was a pretty overwhelming environment to be in — something unlike anything else. It is it’s own beast. I didn’t lift extremely well, placing like 13th or 15th (clearly I tried to forget) at those Games, but it was something that I could put under my belt as a learning experience and gave me the knowledge of what I needed to do next time around if I was fortunate enough to have a next time.
Did you feel more pressure at your second Olympics?
A little more pressure because it was in Atlanta, GA, our home soil. Since we were competing at home, friends and family were there in large numbers. People in the crowd were actually cheering for me as opposed to against me when competing in other countries. So that brought it’s own pressure. The Olympic Trials were in St. Joseph, MO, my hometown and roughly 5,000 people came out to watch the skinny kid from the south-side make another run at the Olympics. This time there were only guaranteed three spots on the Olympic team. We thought we would get a full team of 10 again being the Olympic host country, but based on the results from the world championships qualifications, Team USA had only officially qualified three slots.
That is a lot of pressure. How did you get in within the top three?
It came down to my last lift, and there was a lot of drama. I was sitting in fifth place and needed to get to third. I took my second clean and jerk and missed it quite badly. I knew there was a technical issue in why I missed it, not that the weight was too heavy. Although, when you watched the attempt, it didn’t appear like the weight was in the cards that day. The drama is that I only had one lift left, and I needed more weight than what I just missed. I knew what I needed to be in the top three. Being in the heavier weight class, which lifted after all the lighter classes, made it so you knew exactly what weight you needed to get to the top. I needed to go up to a weight that would be a new personal and national record. When I announced to the coaches that I wanted to go up to that weight, the coaches looked at me and basically ran away to the warm-up room to discuss what to do. We didn’t know if maybe the International Federation would give us two extra spots, seven extra spots or no extra spots, so the only thing to do was go for the guaranteed top three. I basically just stood up and said, “Load on this weight, I promise I’m going to make it. We don’t need to discuss it any more.”
Out on the platform it was very dramatic. The announcer said over the PA system, “Stop the clock, Barnett is taking more. Loaders please load on 217.5 kilos for Barnett’s third attempt for a new national record — and if successful will put him on the Olympic team.” So now I walk out and the place is going nuts, the coaches are trying to silence them so I could focus and concentrate on the task at hand. As I come up to the bar, the place is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I grab the bar, lift it up to my shoulders, and stand up and the place goes bonkers. I jerk it overhead and pandemonium ensued after that. That was the Olympic Trials. I was very happy, had the third spot, so no matter what I was guaranteed to go.
That’s amazing! What were the Olympics like after that?
I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to top that performance. We got to Atlanta and everything was great and familiar. There was only a two-hour time change instead of the normal 8-10 hours. I was going into the Games confident and injury free. I had been training like a madman. Even in the days leading up, training was going great and I was killing it. So I get into the Games, and I set a new national record in the snatch of 175 kg (385 pounds) and was on fire. It was a new competition personal record in snatch by 7.5 kg or about 16 ½ pounds. My best in competition to that point was 167.5kg (368.5 pounds) that I did at the Trials, but I had done 170 kg (374 pounds) in training while in Atlanta. The time frame between trials and Games was about three months, so I had really progressed since then. I had peaked at just the right time. The weights felt like air, which was a good feeling. The clean and jerk comes around, and I do my first two lifts and on my second lift, I set another national record in the clean and jerk and also one in the Total (overall). I had one lift left, and I was one of the final three lifters remaining. We all thought this was unbelievable, as an American lifter hadn’t been in that position since 1984 in Los Angeles. I asked my coaches what weight I needed for a medal. They looked at each other — no one had even fathomed we would be in a position for a medal. After doing some quick calculations, it appeared that I had to equal the world record, which was 15 kgs or 33 pounds heavier than I just lifted. I told them to put it on the bar. There was a big argument that ensued after that. My thoughts were, if I broke every bone in my body in the process of that lift, it wouldn’t matter. I had four years to recover. We went round and round and ultimately the coaches said no. They called for a weight that would be monumental in our sport, which was close to a 500-pound clean and jerk and 400 kg total (the equivalent to four minute mile for runners).
That’s so disappointing! What did you end up placing?
I had no motivation, as I didn’t want to take the lift, so I made a half-hearted attempt, but didn’t make it. I had come from 15th place in Barcelona to finishing in sixth place in Atlanta. To this day I still regret and harbor a little resentment that I didn’t get the opportunity to try a weight to win a medal. You never know what the future holds so take your shot while you can. Low and behold I didn’t make the team at the next Games in 2000 for Sydney and finished competing nationally.
It seems like you should be able to choose what weight you attempt. So the coaches always choose for you?
The coaches would tell me what to lift and I would lift it – and I expected them to put me in a position to be successful. This was one of the few times I said, “Put it on, I’ll make it.” Whenever I made a proclamation like, that I came through. So I asked them, have I not earned this? If I injure myself, isn’t that my choice? Apparently the answer was yes and no, and I know they were looking out for me, but this possible moment was all we had talked about for years. And you never know if or when you might get it again, so I wanted to go for it. I may not have been able to pull it off the floor, but at least I would have tried. Now it will haunt me for the rest of my life, because I’ll never know. But what I had just lifted did not feel like I was anywhere near my limit for that day. I felt like I could have lifted anything on the bar that day. If the previous lift had been a struggle, I would not have made the request for such an enormous jump. But that day, at that time, I felt like you could have put dump trucks on each end of the bar and I could have done it. That’s where my head was.
Why do you think you didn’t make the next Olympic Team?
As the years move on, it gets tougher to keep your form and stay healthy. As they say, Father Time in undefeated! One thing that certainly played a major role, however, was that two years into training for a shot at the Sydney Games, I developed cancer in my eye and went through a pretty extensive treatment protocol and recovery. It really messed up my balance, and I was having debilitating headaches and was wondering why I was getting migraines so frequently. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it turns out they were side effects from radiation which was causing a massive fluid build-up in my eye. I went into the Olympic Trials looking pale and sick. I didn’t share how I was feeling because I thought it was just headaches that were happening at the absolute worst times. My training was so inconsistent and with the airplane ride to New Orleans adding to the pressure in my eye, I ended up having a horrible Trial. The next day I flew back home, and as I was driving from the airport I had a headache so bad and so sudden that my eyes just closed and I drove my car across three lanes without looking, and pulled into a parking lot. Fortunately, my wife Carol Lyn was with me, and she drove me to an eye doctor that I had seen before. After a few minutes, he determined I needed emergency surgery (out-patient) to relieve the pressure in my eye. When I told my coaches what happened, they said clearly I should have said something sooner. But for me it was too late, so I had to go with it. After I didn’t make the Sydney team, I looked to transition into the real world. There I was, 30 years old having never had a full time job, and getting kicked out of the nest of an athletes life.
What made you decide to retire?
When I didn’t make the team in 2000, I was 30 years old and on the back end of my glory days of lifting. There were new lions in the pride coming in so to speak, and they were young and hungry. In Sydney we had only two qualifying slots. I had been lifting for 17 years, and younger athletes were getting better and progressing fast. If I couldn’t be competitive and in a position to win an Olympic medal, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to move out and open the door for the new lions to chase their dreams. For me, there wasn’t an opportunity for Olympic glory, so there was no more need or motivation to stay in the sport. I felt like I had accomplished everything I could and I was lucky to be leaving on my own terms.
Was it difficult for you to transition out of lifting?
It was hard because I loved the lifestyle and travel. But it was a natural ending for me. I was married and had a family. You have to be selfish to compete at the highest level. It’s all about you, your rest, nutrition, health… everything. You have to be very self-centered. Even if I would have made it in 2000, that would have been it. In all honesty, I was planning on being done after the Atlanta Games. But what I didn’t have was a transition plan. I didn’t know what I was going to do, where I was going to work or live, anything. I was young enough to still progress another four years and make another attempt at an Olympic team. Going into Sydney, I was at the end of my career so it seemed possible, but the whole reason for the next four years of training was because I didn’t have a transition plan and I needed the time to figure out what I was going to do.
So did you know what you were going to do when you didn’t make the team?
I had been thinking about it, but I didn’t know exactly. As I said, I was married and had a family, but I really wasn’t sure what would happen when I finished competing. Are we going to pack up and move back to St. Joe? Or stay here in Colorado? One thing I learned as an athlete was how to be a decent public speaker. My wife gave me great guidance along the way. She told me to create a network and meet as many people as possible. I’m an introvert by nature (although those who know me don’t believe it) and shy, and I don’t do well with introducing myself and putting myself out there. If you talk to me first, I’m great. But to initiate conversations, I was terrible. She said I had to put myself out there, because that’s where the opportunities are going to come from. I knew everyone at the USOC from my decade living on complex — those who served food, cleaned rooms, even the CEO. When the sponsors would come in I was given opportunities to do appearances and tell my story. I would put my best foot forward and make contacts so I could potentially reach out when I was done competing. People understand or at least have some idea of what it takes to become an elite athlete. Because of that, athletes in many cases are given an opportunity because the character traits employers are looking for exist in the athlete DNA. Being an Olympian creates even more of an opportunity because in some respects, it is a novelty to have an Olympian working at the company. I always knew being an Olympian would open doors for me and a chance was all I needed because I was confident my work ethic and desire to achieve would help me be successful.
Going into Sydney, I was super fortunate to have been approached by the USOC prior to the Olympic trials. They wanted me to interview for a position in a new division that they were going to start, once the Sydney Games were over. So one thing led to another, and I interviewed before the Olympic trials and had a job waiting for me once the Games finished. It was because I had created this network and always tried to be kind to everyone that allowed me to be considered. It took six months to make it through a workday before I felt like I didn’t need to sneak away to a supply closet to take a nap. I was used to napping at 1:00 pm when I was training and after 10 years, my body went into sleep mode every day at that time. They took a risk on me and I hope they would say it paid off. I know it did for me. Knowing I had a job waiting for me when I finished gave me such peace of mind and made hanging up my shoes and belt that much easier.
How did being an athlete help you with your job at the USOC?
Life of an athlete has and continues to serve me well. When you talk about characteristics of an athlete and what it takes to be successful – planning, goal setting, collaborating, dedication, motivation, and resiliency – all those things lend themselves to exactly what every employer is looking for. As time went on and I grew in my job, part of my new responsibilities were leading a team of biomechanics, nutritionists, performance technologists, medical professionals, and sports psychologists. I had a pretty fortuitous pathway in my transition. I consider myself blessed. Others weren’t so lucky. One of the things I tasked my sports psych team member with was to write something up that athletes could use so they are thinking about the transition while competing, not waiting until after they’re done. In my world of sport, I was a superstar. Then when I left that world and entered the workforce, I went from being on a pedestal to an entry-level job, 12-15 years behind in work experience than people I went to high school and college with. A lot of athletes struggle with that. That’s where I’ve seen substance and domestic abuse come in for some. Our sports med team would occasionally get calls from the police saying they had someone claiming to be a former athlete, in custody at the hospital next door. Dealing with being revered in your sport to a relative unknown in the work force was very tough to handle. That spurred me to get with the sports psych team and say we need to do something to bring awareness and develop materials and start the conversations. I knew something needed to be done — at least create a brochure to share with athletes to get them thinking about the next step and what the transition looks like. That way when it happens it’s not such a slap in the face.
The other thing I was able to bring to the work world was a competitive spirit. Not that I would do whatever I needed to in order to beat someone or make someone look bad, but that I would set the bar so that others around me would need to up their game to match my results. It created a level of competition amongst my colleagues that I think as an organization and division our level of performance was higher than expected. It was similar to getting that belt each week in training for being the hardest worker. In the work place, I would compete daily. If I needed to read plans, I wanted to have all of mine read first. I wanted to do a better job than the other teams, and then I would let the other teams know what I had done so they would do it too. I think that the competitive spirit, when used to try and make those around you better, has and continues to serve me well.
How did you end up at Thorne?
Really, the job at Thorne was a result of dedication (or those that know me would call it stubbornness). A number of athletes in the Olympic family were failing drug tests due to taking contaminated supplements. They weren’t trying to cheat, they were trying to do the right thing; but because the industry is severely under-regulated, their careers were in turmoil and lives were turned upside down. When I brought this issue to the USOC, they didn’t want the liability involved with recommending supplements. For that matter, nobody was willing to take on this liability and I felt that some organization needed to have the courage to stand up on behalf of the athletes. We knew they were taking supplements, knew contaminated products were an issue and should not bury our heads in the sand, pretending it wasn’t happening. Why not try and find a company that we scrutinized, and then could trust to fill this void and give athletes piece of mind? I went on a crusade that lasted 10 years, contacting supplement companies, visiting supplement companies and trying their products on myself. I also enlisted the help of colleagues at the USOC who were experts in sport dietetics to help decipher ingredients. Because I had such a strict criteria to keep athletes safe, and no one seemed to want to incur the expense of addressing the problem, I had almost resigned myself to the fact that nobody cared and that maybe there wasn’t a company who could fill this void. Then I came across Thorne by pure accident. A contact I had who was interested in sports psychology came in to my office for a meeting and noticed my bookshelf filled with supplements. She asked what the story was behind all the products and when I explained to her what I was trying to do, she said I would be interested in the company she worked for, Thorne Research. I was skeptical, but had lunch with their CEO who flew in from New York. We talked about the issue at hand and he gave me a run-down of Thorne and their reputation for quality, safety and ethics and that Thorne was the only supplement company in the world chosen by the Mayo Clinic to collaborate on clinical research. I was super impressed as this was the first company I spoke with that didn’t need to conform to my standards as they were already performing above my standards as part of their everyday business. One thing led to another, I introduced them to the USOC and the USOC spent the next three years doing due diligence before finally being comfortable enough to give them an internal endorsement to all of the Olympic sport governing bodies.
Have more organizations started using Thorne supplements as well?
New leadership came to Thorne a few years prior to the Rio Olympics with a goal to bring products to the general public. Thorne was a company that made supplements for doctors and up until then, you couldn’t get Thorne supplements unless your doctor knew about them. They weren’t for sale online and they weren’t for sale at retail. If your doctor didn’t know about Thorne, you simply could not get the products. After the Rio Games in 2016, Thorne asked me to lead the charge into the sport world, which is what I have been doing the past three years. Currently, Thorne is in over 100 professional sport locker rooms, and got there based purely on our reputation of quality, versus paying teams to be part of their organization. We also work with about 14 Olympic National Governing Bodies and have recently done a deal with the UFC and NASCAR. Word is spreading, but we need to continue to make sure that Thorne is no longer a well-kept secret. We have products for athletes as well as the general public who just want to feel better.
Do you think having been an athlete as helped you connect with these organizations as well?
It certainly helps. Many of these relationships are built on trust. While I didn’t spearhead these relationships with professional sports, they want to know they can trust the company and the products we make. Thorne is one of the few companies that care about the people that put our products in their bodies. We know what is at stake for athletes and we take that responsibility very seriously. As an athlete who has competed at the highest level in my chosen sport, Thorne is always cognizant of the fact that what we do can impact lives and careers and we never want to betray the trust that athletes and individuals alike have placed in us. Our CEO has told me that some of the partnerships we have now could not have been done without me sticking to it. He said he loves athletes because we never give up, we never quit and won’t stop until we accomplish whatever it is we have set out to do. So to your question, yes, I think my being an athlete has helped connect with some of these organizations, but more importantly, it is my determination that has allowed some of the partnership deals to get done.
What advice would you give to someone going through or about to go through a transition?
For everyone it will be different. You need to find something you are passionate about. My whole life after competing has been about helping people. I’ve been fortunate to have had so many people in my life guide and mentor me along the way on my journey. They helped me get where I wanted to be, to achieve my goals. I wanted to pay that forward. On the supplement front, I spent my whole career competing against cheaters at the international level. The last thing I want is for someone not intending to cheat to be labeled as a cheater because they failed a drug test. I wanted to help take the guesswork out and create something for them that they can trust, that works, that’s clean, and healthy for them. I wanted to check those boxes so they can focus on training and competing and have peace of mind knowing that what they are putting in their bodies can actually be trusted.
Getting back to your original question – I personally don’t think you have to know what you want to be when you grow up until the time comes. What I mean is, it wasn’t until very late in my career that I figured that out. You may have to work and take some jobs to make ends meet while you are figuring it out. But while doing this, keep your eyes and ears open and continue to meet and talk to as many people as you can so you have a network that can help let you know about opportunities. I think you have to try a lot of things before you find out what you are passionate about. Now there are some people that know this from an early age. They want to be a doctor or a teacher or whatever. Those I believe are the exception, not the rule. For most of us, it takes time to finally figure out who we are and what we want to be or do. I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why.” Once you figure that out, it comes back to passion. That’s when you throw yourself, your being, into it.
The advice I want to give is the same my wife gave me: expand your network and get out there and meet people. Don’t hull up in training and become so focused on the task at hand that you don’t take the time to prepare after sport. My first coach, Dennis, always used to tell me, “One day you aren’t going to be able to lift weights any more, either on your terms or not. Then what are you going to do?” All the sudden you will have to face the real world and if you haven’t prepared properly, it will be a very tough place. Always have it in the forefront of your mind and think about what you would do if tomorrow you couldn’t do sport anymore. Get outside of your comfort zone. I had to get out of my comfort zone and put myself out there as uncomfortable as it was for me to meet people, to be in settings where I was forced to engage and interact with people so I could learn about what they do. It’s not always evident, but you can’t (or shouldn’t) wait until the last minute like me in 1996 where I was faced with either going into the real world with no plan because I hadn’t thought about it, or keep going and figure it out later. Fortunately I could train for another Olympic cycle, but others who are injured or not in that position — you have to start thinking about it from day one because tomorrow is no guarantee. I was 28 years old and got cancer, which wasn’t part of my plan and threw a wrench into what I had going on. That could have very well ended my sport career and I was not prepared at that moment. You never know how much time you have. You have to plan and think about it, and then do the things to put yourself in the best position to be successful. There is another great quote from JFK that says, “The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining.” Think about that day early, meet as many people as you can, talk to people, do internships, volunteer — that’s the only way you are going to figure out your purpose and have the network and connections in the field you want to go into. I guarantee people will want to help you. You have to make yourself available and put yourself out there to receive that help. Then it all falls into place, but not before you put in the effort. Life is a lot like sport and I will finish with two more quotes to illustrate that point. The first one, I don’t know who to attribute it to, but I love it and use it with my kids all the time: “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.” And my other favorite from Ben Franklin that illustrates work and how things kind of “happen” to you is, “I’m a huge believer in luck. The harder I work, the more luck I have.” You’ll be surprised when you put yourself out there and train to take advantage of these opportunities, the same way you train for your sport, that opportunities will come your way. Then you can pick and choose and be selective about what’s in your best interest, and not take on something because you haven’t planned or thought about your future and there are no other options in front of you.
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