(C) CJ Cummings celebrates winnings gold at Junior Pan Am Championships on June 27, 2019 in Havana, Cuba.
Everyone in CJ Cummings’ hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina, seems to know about his heroics as a weightlifter.
It has become a major part of the teenager’s identity, perhaps in the same way Joe Frazier was known as a fighter while growing up on his family’s farm in Beaufort more than a half-century ago.
Cummings doesn’t mind that people around town identify him, in large part, as a weightlifter. He appreciates the support. After all, he learned how to lift weights in Beaufort, a coastal city with a population close to 14,000.
When Cummings attended Beaufort High School, his teachers often sent him homework online because they knew he traveled around the country and overseas to compete in weightlifting competitions.
“It was like a huge support system because it wasn’t just my coach helping me,” he said. “It was like my whole community, teachers and everyone, working with me, making me better.”
Cummings has progressed so much in less than a decade that stories about him being possibly a once-in-a-generation weightlifter have spread well beyond Beaufort County.
The three-time junior world champion won’t celebrate his 19th birthday until June 6, but Reebok has already released a weightlifting shoe inspired by Cummings. He has spent the past year taking college classes and putting himself in position to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I don’t think (anybody) from my hometown went to the Olympics. I’m not sure,” Cummings said, too young to remember Frazier winning a boxing gold medal at the Tokyo 1964 Games.
“Just to have everybody that has supported me throughout my journey see me go to the Olympics would be huge.”
Cummings has been impressing on the senior level since 2015, and yet he still has three more years of eligibility at junior world championships, with one approaching in June.
The teenager continued his meteoric rise in the sport — and added to his mythology — with a record-breaking performance at the Pan American Weightlifting Championships late last month in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
He went six-for-six to snatch 153 kg. and clean & jerk 191 kg. in the 73 kg. weight category. He finished with a total of 344 kg. and, in the process, he broke 15 American, Pan American and world records.
“I had a great training session right before that, so me and my coach (Ray Jones) knew that I was ready to lift big weights and do what I had to do,” he said.
Cummings said he didn’t head into the Pan American championships with lofty goals. He hoped to simply increase his personal bests in the snatch and clean & jerk by 1 kilo and improve his total by 1 kilo.
However, he surprised himself by lifting 191 kg. on his final attempt in the clean & jerk. The mark is 5 kilos off the senior world record held by a 2016 Olympic champion.
“To lift that amount of weight was awesome,” he said.
With everything going on during the competition, Cummings didn’t realize he had shattered so many records until he was asked about it during an interview afterward.
“She was asking do I know how many records I broke. Honestly, I thought like three or, but she was just like ‘No, you broke 15,’” he said. “I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ … That was like a huge shock.”
Cummings was 10 when his older sister, Crystal, introduced him to weightlifting. She had taken up the sport in high school, and he and his brother, Omar, accompanied her to the gym one day with the hopes of getting stronger for football.
“When I first walked into the gym, there were like these guys who were (lifting) a lot of weights to me,” he said, “and I was like, wow, I wanted to do that. It was like a love-at-first-sight type of deal.”
Cummings eventually stopped playing football and basketball to focus on weightlifting. With his competitive nature, he enjoyed setting new personal records for himself.
Cummings weighed 110 pounds when he lifted twice his body weight in the clean & jerk. Still, he admitted he wasn’t a child prodigy in the weight room.
“I would say it was probably a year or two years into it when everybody noticed,” Cummings said. “I was the youngest of them all, and I was lifting heavy (weights). It didn’t come a day or two after I started. It took time.”
Cummings’ performance at the Pan American championships has moved him closer to qualifying for his first Olympics at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Of course, that’s a goal of his. He just doesn’t want to get sidetracked thinking about the Olympics with it still more than a year away.
“I do think about it, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not trying to think about it that much because I have to do the competitions that are in front of me,” he said. “But it’s in my head."
And his hometown of Beaufort is always on his mind.
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.