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One of my lowest moments in powerlifting came at me by surprise in June of 2016 at IPF Classic Worlds in Killeen Texas. I ‘bombed out’ on bench – my strongest lift. I had medaled at IPF Classic Worlds the year before with the very same weight that failed me three times that day. There was no really good explanation for the question that everyone kept asking – what had happened? Honestly, I may have felt markedly better about the whole thing had I had a really great explanation – injury, hard weight cut, illness – but I did not. In hindsight it was likely a combination of smaller factors that together led to an unforeseen strength deficit. And at the time it was a pretty devastating outcome for my coaches, my team, and myself.
Adversity in this sport was not new to me. Prior to this I had definitely had low moments and sub –optimal performances. In fact, my first entire year of lifting was riddled with serious injury and disappointing meets – I never truly experienced beginner gains until much later. My numbers actually went down before they went up. However, things had been on a slow but steady rise in the year and a half to two years prior to Texas. And I had never bombed.
So how do you recover and move on from such a devastating meet outcome – both mentally and physically?
Well in the moment, when you are feeling acutely at your worst and literally feel the eyes of the powerlifting world on you, you do the best you can. For me this meant doing my best to put on a strong face and appear to be “ok” to my teammates and coaches, friends and family. It was important to me to be able to stay and cheer for my teammates and put my personal meet outcome into context. One of the team coaches told me that the hardest part would be facing all the people ‘out there’ who wanted to know if I was ok. This proved to be a correct statement. At one point I was actually ready to stamp “ I am ok” on my forehead as re – assuring everyone else became literally exhausting.
While I did my best to appear strong, inside I was mortified, embarrassed, and sad. I was very lucky to have such a supportive team of friends and family both in Texas and at home in Canada. The support was overwhelming. Especially in light of some not so supportive armchair heroes on social media who took it upon themselves to loudly state their uneducated opinions about what had happened.
As I alluded to above, context and perspective were very helpful for me in this situation. In my day job I’m in contact with serious illness and death often. One of the first things I said to my coach after the third bench remained glued to my chest was “nobody died”. It’s become a bit of a joke, but its actually very true. In the grander context of life, bombing at this meet, while acutely devastating, was not a life or death event. Nobody died or was seriously injured. Life went on. In fact I bet few people actually remember that this happened outside of a small circle. Powerlifting is a very big part of my life but it is not number one and never will be. My children, my family, my close friends, my job – these all hold a much greater weight of importance in my life. There will always be more weights to put on the bar; there will always be other meets. One bad outcome does not define you as a lifter or as a person.
Getting back on the bench in my little hobbit hole of a gym was mentally more challenging then physically. But generally speaking lifting is my happy place – my ‘me time’– and it didn’t take long to get back on the horse so to speak. Cliché as it may sound, failure became a stepping stone to focusing on my weaknesses and learning from what had happened in many areas; technique, meet day nutrition, stress, fatigue and mental preparation.
Perhaps one of the more insightful comments after Texas came form my sister: “ you are not used to failing, “ she said. It is no secret that I don’t fail well – I’ve generally been successful in most areas of my life, and in my job failure isn’t a great option. Powerlifting however has taught me that not every meet can be a success. We often do not live up to our own expectations of performance or the expectations of those around us. When things go well we rejoice. When they do not the best we can do is learn from the experience and move forward.
Learning how to fail in this sport without completely falling apart has made me a stronger lifter in every regard; it has taught me the value of never losing perspective and to keep the bigger picture in mind – both in sport and in life.
Joanna Rieber is an anasthesiologist and mom who lives and trains in Hamilton. She has been powerlifting since 2013 and has competed at multiple international events.