What is impossible? Right now what seems impossible to me is writing this piece without resorting to a dozen cliches because we’re all guilty of paying lip service to denying the impossible. To me, impossible is a temporary limitation that is all too easily embraced by our safe and overly protective minds. It whispers things like, “Don’t do that, you might get hurt.” and “Better not risk it, you’ll probably fail”.  It’s safer to live within the confines of common sense and so our basic instinct of survival and self-preservation erects boundaries that are far short of our true capabilities. Impossible is therefore, a matter of perception.

What we often label as impossible is merely the extremely difficult. This is not to say that “We can do anything we put our minds to” (cliche #1), because no matter how hard I flap my arms, I’m not flying anywhere, but if I could truly access all of my potential strength and energy, could I exceed my best lifts by 50lbs or more? I believe with full access and control over my body anyone can do that and more. That is why I love my sport of Powerlifting and it’s more elegant cousin Weightlifting. The very goal of both sports is to redefine impossible and express the absolute limits of the human body’s strength and power.

Those 45-pound plates speak nothing but truth, they simply weigh what they weigh and they are lifted or they are not. Eleven years ago they gave me a first-hand look at the power of our perception. In training for my last year of competitive football, we had a small crew that trained together of which my 205lbs was by far the smallest, except for one guy who wasn’t actually on the team. I forget his name, but he was a friend of one of the other guys, and a firefighter who had never lifted before. His first exposure to lifting was seeing guys bench press anywhere from myself at 315lbs (barely) to our 325lb former NFL Europe player Josh McFarlane pushing 455lbs for multiple reps. It didn’t happen instantly, but once he learned the basic movement pattern he began lifting incredible amounts of weight simply because he had no frame of reference to place a limit on his ability. What he saw was us all pushing 3 and 4 plates on each side, so to him, 2 plates per side (225lbs) looked incredibly light. The power of his perception of 2 plates being light was enough to have him at about 145lbs pushing 245lbs for reps within weeks despite having no genetic advantage towards the lift. As far as percentage of bodyweight goes, I would need to exceed 370lbs to exceed that feat. It’s likely I will never reach that number…and there I have accidentally proven the power of my perception. Despite seeing the possibilities first hand to the contrary, my first reaction is to establish my own limits, even as I write an essay about defying the impossible. (Reading that back, it seems contrived, but I assure you, I just shocked myself).

We are all witness to this on a regular basis, yet still we don’t allow the realization to fundamentally change us. Though there are countless examples, I will limit myself to one.

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The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Matthias Steiner of Germany has just missed on his final Snatch attempt at 207kg (455lb), the huge weight actually coming down dangerously on his head and neck. Now after seeing three competitors move ahead of him into the medal ranks, he has missed what should be a relatively easy 235kg Clean while warming up backstage for the Clean and Jerk. It is at this moment that his coach hurries back to tell him that he is up now and he must lift 246kg, a huge jump from his miss only seconds before. Steiner hurries to the platform, Cleans & Jerks the weight overhead, but fails to lock it out and loses it behind him. Having only 30 seconds to decide what to do next his coach picks 248kg (545.6lb) knowing that his lifter is prepped and capable of this weight. Sensing that Steiner doesn’t grasp the situation, he informs him that if he makes this lift, he will secure a bronze medal. This is where the power of perception and the human spirit enter our jaded and all too realistic world. The possibility of winning a medal reminds Steiner of a promise made to his wife to win one. Tragically, his wife was killed the year before in a car accident and would never see his promise come true.

With this new clarity, Matthias, despite proving that he is not capable of making his last three lifts, steps up to 248 with his medal in mind and completes his lift to fulfill his promise and claim Bronze. If that were the end it would be a great story, but Matthias Steiner has only done the very difficult, not the impossible. Following Steiner, his Russian competitor lifts 250kg (550lb) to further lengthen his lead on the field and putting a full 9kg between himself and Steiner in 3rd. Steiner’s earlier miss on the 3rd Snatch attempt has left him in need of a 258kg (567lb) Clean and Jerk to claim Gold. This is 17 pounds more than he has ever lifted, even in practice. Those who know Weightlifting will tell you that it is impossible for an athlete as advanced as Steiner to make a jump anywhere close to this. Olympic level athletes already operate so close to the pinnacle of their potential that it takes years of very specific training just to maintain their max lifts, much less increase them. Pyrros Dimas, the most decorated Olympic lifter of all time is known for maintaining his lifts for 16 years of Olympic competition. I started to say that most lifters would not even attempt an 8kg PR, but on that stage, most would because we understand the insubstantial nature of the term impossible. It likely never occurred to Matthias as he stepped up to 258 and secured the monumental weight over his head to claim his Gold medal. Shortly afterwards he would stand atop the podium showing a picture of his wife next to his medal in the hopes that he wouldn’t enjoy the moment alone. Optimistic as I am, before I saw it, I would’ve said it was impossible. I should know better.

Matthias Steiner of Germany holds a photo of his late wife Susann as he poses with his gold medal in the men's +105kg Group A weightlifting competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 19, 2008.     REUTERS/Alvin Chan (CHINA)
Matthias Steiner of Germany holds a photo of his late wife Susann as he poses with his gold medal in the men’s +105kg Group A weightlifting competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 19, 2008. REUTERS/Alvin Chan (CHINA)

No one tells the story as well as Matthias himself in this video:

Currently sitting less than 2 months away from my next competition I face many challenges to get what I want from this life and the clock is ticking. When I started this quest 7 months ago my goal was the 567lb National Deadlift record of the USPA. On the last day of training for that record, I found that someone else had shattered it and set it all the way up to 661 lbs. My initial reaction was honestly to think, not “Well there goes that.” but instead, “Well that’s going to take a couple of years”. It would even lead me to expand my goals to become the first PwP to hold one of these records and include the Squat and the Total records as real lifetime objectives. I am currently fighting with Parkinson’s to leave my Squat alone as well as nursing a recurring back spasm. Things are getting difficult and some mornings impossible becomes putting on my right sock. It’s those mornings that I think about PwPs in Stage 4 & 5 and the simple things that are “impossible” to them. I think about my friend Ray, fighting to maintain his ability to coach over 40 successful business owners, and the things that he wonders if he will be able to continue doing. I aim to show them the inconsistency of the term impossible. On November 7th, I will take the platform again with my eyes on the state Deadlift record, now sitting at 573lbs for us 40 year old 220 pounders, knowing that I’ve out-lifted it by 42 lbs. When the National record was placed so far out of reach, I would’ve told you it was impossible to think about challenging it again this year, but now… I know better.