ANAHEIM, Calif. -- A few short years ago, Harrison Maurus never expected to become one of the world’s best weightlifters. In fact, he was busy dedicating his life to gymnastics until he gave Olympic weightlifting a shot at age 12.
Now 17, he has proven to be the weightlifting superstar America has been waiting for.
Maurus earned bronze in both the men’s 77 kg. total and clean & jerk Saturday afternoon at the 2017 IWF Weightlifting World Championships, securing Team USA's first men's weightlifting world medals in 20 years.
In fact, the U.S. had not medaled at worlds in either gender since 2005 when Olympic bronze medalist Cheryl Haworth won two bronzes.
“I gotta say, that’s pretty cool,” Maurus said of ending the drought. “I’d heard the numbers before, but it didn’t connect. That was cool.”
“I could not be more proud of the kid,” coach Kevin Simons added. “I’ve been working with him since he was a little boy, since he was 10 years old. To see him become one of the greatest American weightlifters of all time is surreal. It’s amazing.”
Maurus is the first U.S. man to medal at worlds since two-time Olympian Wes Barnett earned clean & jerk silver and total bronze in the 108 kg. in 1997. Barnett was 27 when he won his medals.
“It’s been a long drought, 20 years, and to have somebody this young at the senior level already winning medals only bodes well for the future, and it really speaks to the caliber of athletes that USA Weightlifting has in its stables,” Barnett told TeamUSA.org by phone.
“I think another telling part of this story is this is what happens when the playing field gets leveled even slightly. This is something that we knew U.S. athletes were capable of and always had been for years, but with the playing field tilted against us it makes it very, very difficult.”
Barnett was referring to the fact that nine countries (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Azerbaijan) are missing from the 2017 world championships as they serve one-year suspensions in the sport for doping violations. There were 24 positive tests from the 2015 world championships and 49 positives in re-testing the samples from the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
“When you take that out of the equation and you put everybody on mostly level footing, this is what you get – a very talented athlete coming through in a really high-pressure situation, walking away from his first senior world championships with two medals,” Barnett said.
Maurus began gymnastics at age 8 and two years later started training under Simons, a former Level 10 gymnast who lifted competitively in college.
His pupil would make it to Level 6 in the sport (gymnastics begins with Level 4 and goes up to Level 10 before hitting the elite level).
Inspired by seeing Simons train for the CrossFit Games, Maurus started a general strength and conditioning program before competing in powerlifting and eventually transitioning to Olympic weightlifting.
“I knew he could be good when he was pretty young,” Simons said. “When he was 11 years old, squatting 100 kilos, weighing 40.”
While Simons knew Maurus had potential, he wasn’t quite prepared for him to win world medals on the senior stage at age 17.
“He’s such an outlier, I don’t think anyone could have predicted that,” Simons said. “I had full confidence in him from the beginning. But to do something so remarkable, I don’t think any of us saw that coming.”
Barnett, who competed in baseball, basketball and football growing up, points to a varied background in multiple sports as one factor that led to weightlifting success for both himself and Maurus.
“To really be a great athlete, in my personal opinion, regardless of the sport, I think you have to play lots of other sports,” he said. “I was an All-State basketball player and eventually settled into weightlifting. Harrison was a gymnast and eventually settled into weightlifting. When you have the ability to be an all-around athlete, rather than specializing from a very young age, it puts you into position to have longevity in the sport.”
With his lift of 193 kg. on Saturday, Maurus set a new youth world record. After lifting 187 kg. in his first clean & jerk attempt, Maurus went for 193 for his second and beat the world record of 192 he set on April 8, 2017.
“Go big or go home,” he said of his strategy for the clean & jerk. “Open nice at 87, get myself on the board and then move to whatever I needed to put myself in medal position. Of course I would’ve liked to have taken my third at 200, but that wasn’t going to happen.”
On his second attempt, Maurus’ right quadriceps cramped up as he was standing up out of the clean and they continued to seize on the jerk as well, causing him to forego a third attempt.
“It’s pretty messed up. I was walking off and it just was not releasing,” Maurus said. “I couldn’t straighten my leg and I couldn’t bend it past (a 45-degree angle). It was better to play it safe. I’ve got a career ahead of me, I don’t need to blow out a quad now.”
“It was a pretty easy decision. There’s no way he was going out for the third one,” Simons said. “As his coach, I’m not going to put him in a position where he could potentially get injured.”
Maurus also set senior American records in both the total and clean & jerk on Saturday. The total record had stood for 17 years since two-time Olympian Oscar Chaplin III set it on June 29, 2000 with a total of 342.5 kg. Maurus totaled 348 kg. thanks to his snatch of 155, which placed him fifth in that category.
Egypt’s Mohamed Mahmoud swept the three gold medals with a total of 361 kg., while Rejepbay Rejepov of Turkmenistan took silver with 352 kg. Romania’s Dumitru Captari earned silver in the snatch with a lift of 156 kg.
Competing at his first senior-level worlds, Maurus continues a string of success that first saw him win silver in all three categories at the 2016 youth world championships, followed by gold in total and clean & jerk, plus silver in snatch, at the same event a year later.
As for what’s next for the teenaged phenom…
“Back to worlds?” Maurus says, already looking to return to the podium at the 2018 world championships.
Simons noted that Maurus will likely move up to the 85 kg. weight class soon.
“We’ve got our eyes on the 2020 Olympics,” the coach said.