Weightlifter CJ Cummings has been poked and prodded, hooked up to electrodes and high speed cameras monitoring every kind of human performance indicator one can imagine. He’s been marveled in real-time and analyzed in slow motion. And everyone studying him has come back with the same answer: a shoulder shrug.
“They say, ‘The bottom line is we really can’t tell you why,’” Cummings’ coach Ray Jones said. “There’s no explanation for it. There’s no explanation for why CJ is doing what he’s doing.”
What Cummings is doing is hard to fathom.
In June of last year, he set three new youth world records and is the current American men’s record holder in the clean and jerk (182 kg) and total (317 kg) as a 69kg lifter.
He is just 17 years old. And yet Cummings is throwing 400 lb. overhead with the kind of ease that suggests he isn’t, he can’t be, a regular human.
“I was surprised [with all of the world records],” said Cummings, who took up weightlifting at age 10 after going to the gym with his older sister, Crystal. “I’m just a regular teenager.”
Sure, regular teenagers take out the trash and shoot hoops, which is one of Cummings’ favorite non-lifting activities. But they don’t get asked for their autograph or routinely out-shine grown men at elite lifting competitions.
Cummings has been called the Michael Jordan and Lebron James of weightlifting, a beacon of hope for a United States that hadn’t had a male Junior World Champion since 2000, the year Cummings was born.
“I see it every day and sometimes I still have to shake my head and think ‘this is crazy,’” Jones said of Cummings. “It’s pure craziness. It’s good, but it’s crazy.”
Jones, the coach of Team Beaufort (S.C.) Weightlifting Club, has seen the phenom since the beginning. CJ, along with older brother, Omar, had been going to the gym since he was in diapers waiting for Crystal. So, it wasn’t a surprise when the brothers started lifting as a means to get stronger for football.
It didn’t take long for Jones to realize he had a prodigy on his hands. As an 11-year-old, CJ hit a double bodyweight clean and jerk, locking out 90 kg (198 lb.) at a mere 45 kg (99 lb.) bodyweight. (shown below)
The following year, he was invited to his first international competition, Youth World Championships in Uzbekistan. There he was, a 12-year-old amongst 500 or so of the best young lifters, the majority of whom were 17.
Cummings wasn’t intimidated. In fact, he fell asleep backstage on the cot.
“He doesn’t let things get where they are bigger than they should be,” Jones said. “When people have to go perform they usually make it too big of a deal. That’s the one thing he’s always had on his side-his toughness and mental approach.”
Gone are the days when Cummings can snooze minutes before he takes the platform, but the 16-year-old has never let nerves get the best of him.
“I love the competition,” Cummings said. “I just try to stay relaxed and calm [and] know if I’m focused it will all work out.”
Since the very beginning, he has heard Jones preach perspective.
This isn’t life or death. This isn’t the end of the world.
This is lifting and lifting is supposed to be fun.
Except if he’s late.
Jones laughs at the memories.
“It’s better now that he’s older [and can drive]. But he would get legitimately upset if he was given a certain time to train and was dropped off 5 or 10 minutes late,” Jones said of Cummings.
“People lose the perspective that he’s doing things that no man in the U.S. has ever done. And he’s doing it as a 16 year old. He beat the men’s American record at 14.”
Cummings has his sights set on the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. He fell short in 2016, as the U.S. men sent just Kendrick Farris, Cummings’ mentor with whom he chats with quite regularly. He was just 20 years old then, perhaps just starting his weightlifting prime.
Jones, who works with weightlifters as young as seven, insists they are in it for the long haul. Cummings has just five single sessions a week and they don’t go longer than two hours. They go to great lengths to ensure he’s properly recovered and nagging aches and pains don’t develop into injuries.
Of course when any lifter is causing the stir Cummings has, in a sport littered with performance-enhancing sanctions, the whispers are there. And so is the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), who doesn’t go longer than 3-4 weeks without visiting Cummings as part of their random year-round testing.
With the IWF World Championships happening this week in Anaheim, the mantra is, and has always been, to be just one kilo better. All eyes, as usual, will be on Cummings.
“He was given a gift, but you can’t just pooh-pooh that,” Jones said. “It’s not that he just has it and continues to have it. He’s worked from the time he was 10 years old. He has not skipped a beat. He is absolutely determined, disciplined and focused to do everything he’s asked to do.
“If he can stay humble and stay where things are in perspective, where it’s not all about him and he’s not better than any other lifter that comes in. If he always keeps that in the forefront [of his mind], he’ll continue to be blessed.”
How blessed? No one knows.
“I don’t know what the limit is for him,” Jones said. “I don’t want to put a limit on it. I don’t know if there is one.”
(World Record video courtesy of All Things Gym’s You Tube Channel.)