Gymnast Steve Legendre prepares to lift as part of his weightlifting training.
Retired U.S. Olympic gymnast Jake Dalton can vividly describe what it felt like the first time he attempted a for-real weightlifting clean-and-jerk. Steven Legendre, his friend, former Oklahoma and national team teammate, chimes in with a similar tale, as he also recently settled under the bar for the first time.
The two internationally acclaimed gymnasts, only a year out from retirement, are in the nascent stages of a switch to competitive weightlifting. A USA Weightlifting program that identifies potential elite cross-over athletes is helping guide them into a new Olympic sport.
The men aren’t sure if this dive into weightlifting will lead anywhere, but they’re all in right now.
Which is how Dalton and Legendre recently found themselves in the weight room, trying to figure out how to angle their gymnastics-programmed wrists into a proper front rack position for the clean-and-jerk.
“It was funny, because I thought I knew what I was supposed to be doing, and my wrists were like, ‘Nope, sorry, not doing that,” Dalton, 26, said about the session, captured on video.“That was the first days though. Every time I have been lifting, I think I am getting better. It’s all about me really learning the basics and working on the technique. I really am into this. I’ve always loved lifting and being in the gym. They didn’t need to convince me too much to try this.”
Dalton, a four-time world championships medalist, eight-time U.S. champion and member of the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic Teams, is only in his first weeks of formal training with a USA Weightlifting-affiliated elite coach. Legendre, an alternate for the 2012 Olympic team, plus a two-time world medalist, five-time U.S. champion and seven-time NCAA champion, is a bit further in his journey, working out since late last fall under USA Weightlifting.
“On the outside, weightlifting looks simple,” Legendre, 29, said. “I thought I’d have it down, cold, in a couple of weeks. Was I ever humbled. It’s been challenging, in a good way, since Day 1. I am nowhere near the level of the best lifters in our country. I just want to get better every day.”
Dalton works out six days per week, all while helping manage his family’s gyms and appearing at camps around the country. Legendre, an assistant men’s gymnastics coach for the Sooners, tries to work out three times per week — around his family’s hectic schedule.
Gymnast Jake Dalton practices weightlifting.
Both men admit having an elite focus on a new sport and now balancing work, spouses, travel and, in Legendre’s case, two little girls, is challenging. They’re working with experienced coaches who are vital in the transition.
“Balancing a competitive drive and athletes at the highest level can be difficult and make training at the beginning tough,” said Dalton’s weightlifting coach, Chandler Walker of the StoneAgeFuel School of Fitness in Reno, Nevada. “These guys are the best of the best and want to be at the top right now. The big thing for me is communication. Letting them know that we need to develop this base so they won’t develop bad habits down the road and so that we can maximize the potential for their long-term success.
“I often bring it back to when they started their first sport. That base had to be developed, otherwise competing at the high level wouldn’t be possible.”
Suzy Sanchez, USA Weightlifting’s director of grassroots development and scouting, said Dalton and Legendre are the types of athletes they look for and then actively recruit.
“We target specific sports that develop a base for explosive strength like gymnastics, tumbling, throwing, wrestling and catchers from baseball and softball,” Sanchez said. “…I think that the gymnasts and cheer athletes find the technical part is pretty easy to pick up on, while the strength part takes them more time to develop, and with throwers or football players it is the opposite.”
Sanchez points to 2000 Olympic gold medalist Tara Nott (soccer) and 2017 world championships bronze medalists Mattie Rogers (cheerleading/CrossFit) and Harrison Maurus (gymnastics) as signs of the program’s success.
But reaching those lofty levels is a dream for Dalton and Legendre.
The immediate goals are simple: get stronger, work on snatch and clean-and-jerk techniques, and prepare to start competing. Legendre entered his first competition, mid-July’s Oklahoma state meet, in the novice division.
New weight classes were recently added to weightlifting, so the former gymnasts are not sure in which they should compete. Dalton hopes between 62-69 kg., and Legendre at 73-79 kg.
“It feels really good to compete again, because when you retire, you just don’t switch that off,” Legendre said. “I love working toward something, and it’s been great so far to really be challenged.”
Dalton, who also hopes to make another run at NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” added, “Who knows where this is going to go, but already, it’s been fantastic. And it’s even better to be able to do it with somebody who I have known for so long in gymnastics and as a friend. We are talking all the time about what we are lifting, our techniques. Wouldn’t it be something if Steve and I made it back to the top in another sport?”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.