The 1996 Olympic Trials: A Look at the Battles We All Face

By Matt Foreman

This article was provided by Peformance Menu and originally published on PerformanceMenu.com

I guess I’m getting old. You know why I’m saying that? Because I’ve reached the point in my weightlifting life when young athletes approach me and ask about some of the most memorable things I’ve seen in the sport.

You get the visual scene in your head, right? The gray-haired old geezer sits back in his rocking chair and farts while young whippersnappers collect at his feet and ask to hear stories from the old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and we actually had presidential candidates you could believe in. That’s what it’s like when I go to weightlifting meets these days.

I’m kidding…I’m kidding… I’m only 43 at the moment, so I haven’t crossed over into the fossil stage quite yet. However, there are times when I get asked to tell stories and talk about some of the stuff I’ve seen over the years of my career that really blew my mind.  

This article is basically going to be one of those stories, and I think I can find a way to tell it so you get something really valuable out of it that you can apply to your own career. Somebody much smarter than me once said, “Stories are a tremendously effective way to communicate ideas.” I completely agree with that. So I want to tell you about something I saw many years ago that will probably stay in my mind as one of my most powerful learning experiences in weightlifting. It involves a specific weightlifter that some of you new-generation folks might have heard of once or twice. And for those of you who were involved in this sport back in the 90s…it’s a name you’ll probably never forget.  

Wes Barnett is the guy I’m writing about. In case that name doesn’t ring a bell, let me give you the basics on him. Wes was a two-time Olympian for the United States (1992 and 1996). He was our national champion basically throughout the 90s in the old 100 and 108 kilo classes. In addition to his two Olympic Team spots, Wes was also the Pan Am Games champion, American record holder, and silver medalist at the 1997 World Championships. His best total was 395 kg in the 108 kg class (175 snatch and 220 C&J at the ’96 Olympics), and he actually stood up about halfway with a 225 clean that would have given him a 400 kg total if he had made it. He placed 6th at the Atlanta Games, the highest male finish at the Olympics for an American in a very long time.  

In a nutshell, Wes was unquestionably one of the greatest US lifters of the 1990s, and you could make a strong case for calling him one of the best our country has ever produced. A 395 total at 105 and a silver medal at the Worlds in the modern era? Yeah, Wes gets a place in that “best we’ve ever had” conversation. He and I were almost the same age, we competed in the same weight class, and our top years on the national scene were the same. In other words, Wes and I were close. I’ve always considered him a personal friend of mine, and I still do even though I haven’t seen him in probably ten years. We competed together, trained together at camps occasionally, partied together at meets, the whole enchilada. He’s the most memorable American weightlifter I’ve ever personally seen, and I’ll tell you why. I’ll also tell you how his story can make you a better athlete or coach.  

Our Golden Boy

Everybody knew Wes was special from a very early age. He came from the old Wesley Weightlifting Club in St. Joseph, Missouri (it was just a freak coincidence that he had the same name as his club, although he loved to tell people it was named after him). He started lifting in his early teens and grew up in the sport, developing into a Junior National Champion and competing in the Junior Worlds several times before he even turned 20 and hit the senior ranks. Wes was already totaling over 300 kg in the old 90 kg bodyweight class while he was still a teenager, so USA Weightlifting definitely had him earmarked as one of our future superstars. And he didn’t disappoint, as you could see from the accomplishments I listed above.  

I met Wes at a training camp in Colorado Springs right after I graduated from high school. He was only two years older than me, but he impressed me immediately because despite his already-in-progress elite status in the sport, he was a pretty cool dude. He had a friendly personality and he wasn’t one of those top athletes who walked around acting like a prick to everybody. The group of guys I came up with on the national scene back in the 90s was a close-knit group, and Wes was just one of the boys. He had a big ego and he was insanely competitive, but you have to understand I’m saying those things about him in a positive way. All great athletes have strong egos. Most of them keep it on the inside and put forward a humble front for people, which is the right way to be. But don’t be fooled…the best athletes in the world have a ton of pride and confidence. That’s one of the reasons why they’re the best. Wes was no different. He acted right and behaved like a good role model, but he knew in his heart that he was special and destined for greatness.  

Obviously, there should be plenty for you to take in when I talk about how Wes was, because the description I just gave is a good blueprint for your own identity in the sport. It’s good to be competitive. It’s good to have a burning desire to win. It’s good to have a strong self-opinion. It’s good to believe in yourself. And if you experience a lot of success, it’s VERY good to keep a down-to-earth personality with others. It’s good to not act like a prick. It’s good to treat others like they’re your equals, even if you’re at a much higher level than them in a common field. This is how most of the highly successful people I’ve met in my life have been, including Wes, and it’s valuable to hear occasional examples like him to remind all of us what kind of personality we should establish in our weightlifting lives.  

However, the main story I want to tell you about Wes is what’s coming next.

1996.

His prime years were in the mid-90s, and the 1996 Olympics were clearly going to be his greatest moment. However, there was a challenging situation Wes had to deal with as the ’96 Atlanta Games approached. To state it quite simply…he had a fierce rivalry with another lifter that threatened to knock him from his position as the king of the mountain in the US. In the early 90s, a former Russian lifter named Konstantin Starikovitch had moved to the United States. He was competing as a guest lifter at our big national meets in 1995 because he wasn’t a US citizen at the time, but he was going through the citizenship process and making it clear to everybody that he had his eyes on competing for America at the 1996 Olympics. He was in Wes Barnett’s weight class, and he lifted more than Wes.  

Wes basically hadn’t been challenged in the US for years. He was in the 108 kg weight class and his total was usually around 375 kg. This was miles ahead of any Americans, so dominating the national scene and making all our international teams had basically been a walk-through for Wes for quite a long time. Then Starikovitch totaled 390 kg at 108 as a guest lifter at the 1995 American Open, and the buzz shifted into triple overdrive. If Starikovitch got his citizenship in time for the ’96 Olympic Trials, Wes could very easily get bumped out of the picture. All of a sudden, our Golden Boy was facing a realistic possibility of watching the Olympics at home on TV while Starkovitch stole his spot on the team and marched to the Games.  

The tension was at a maximum when the ’96 Olympic Trials rolled around (and they were held in Wes’ hometown of St. Joseph). You should have seen this competition. It was held in the St. Joseph Civic Center, which is a HUGE facility, and that place was absolutely packed to capacity when the Wes vs. Konstantin session came up. ESPN was there. The atmosphere was simply electric as thousands of fans waited to see the battle.  

Starikovitch (who had gotten his citizenship right before the Trials and was eligible for the team) drew first blood by hitting an American record snatch of 170 kg, leading Wes by 5 kg going into the C&J. After Konstantin came through with a 210 C&J on his 3rd attempt to set an American record total of 380, Wes was in a position where he had to hit a 217.5 kg C&J to win and make the Olympic Team. 217.5 was 5 kilos over the American record.

Wes attempted this weight on his second attempt and missed the clean, and you’ve never heard a big room go silent as quickly as it did when Wes failed on this lift. The St. Joseph crowd was terrified that their favorite son might fall in defeat, and I swear I will never forget what that building sounded like when Wes took the platform for his 3rd attempt. The volume level literally shook the walls.  

Wes made his 3rd attempt, of course. He nailed the 217.5 kg to break the American records in C&J and total, beat Starikovitch, and provided all of us with a moment that I still to this day remember as probably the most thrilling thing I’ve ever witnessed in USA Weightlifting. Words can’t even do it justice. Just get on YouTube and see if you can find the clip of it. You might get to feel just a fraction of what it was like.  

Both Wes and Konstantin made the Olympic Team because their totals were so astronomical. When they competed in the Games, Wes once again thumped Starikovitch by totaling that massive 395 kg I mentioned earlier. He increased his American record total by almost 20 kilos in one year…just to beat a guy who threatened to take away his crown. I’ve never seen an athlete rise to meet a challenge better than Wes Barnett did in 1996. People from that generation still talk about it to this day.  

And so…how about you?  

There’s a pretty obvious learning moment that goes along with this story. It’s got something to do with rising to challenges, not backing down from a war, and elevating your game beyond the limits you’ve established in your head.  

We’ve all got something looming out there in front of us that serves as our own personal version of Wes battling against the onslaught of Starikovitch. Maybe some of us have extremely similar situations where there’s a rival breathing down our necks, and we’re biting and scratching to defeat them. Or maybe it’s not another athlete challenging us. Maybe it’s a weight. Maybe your personal version of Wes’s challenge is your struggle to break the 100 kg barrier in the snatch. Hell, maybe it’s not even related to competition. Maybe you’ve got an injury you’re dealing with right now, and you’re fighting the possibility that it might end your career. You get the point. We’ve all got fights on our hands in this business.  

How are we supposed to respond to these challenges? Well, let’s look at it this way. Imagine what was going through Wes Barnett’s head eight months before the Olympic Trials. We all know well it would have been easy for him to spin a dialogue in his head that sounded like, “I’ve got a 375 kg total and I’m pushing the absolute limits of my physical capability. There’s a guy out there in my weight class that totals 390, and I’m going to have to compete against him pretty soon. There’s no way. He’s gonna beat me.”  

This wouldn’t be an outrageous train of thought. Facing a challenge like that is daunting, and it screws with your mind. It makes you worried about your future…worried about being defeated. Think about the personal battle of your own that we just mentioned above. You’ve had that little voice pop into your head, at some point. That voice that says you’ll lose. It’s only human to hear it. Nobody, no matter how much they like to pound their chests and proclaim themselves fearless terminators, is exempt from thoughts of failure. We all fear it, and it invades our minds sometimes without our permission.  

In other words, being scared is fine. The only question is what you decide to DO with that fear. If you look at the story I just told you, it should be obvious what Wes Barnett decided to do when he felt the fear. He trained harder. He pushed himself further. He worked his ass off and elevated his performance into a zone he had never been to before. In a nutshell, he stepped up and fought back as hard as he could when he was threatened.  

What are you going to do? Seriously…answer that question in your mind right now. When you think about the challenges in front of you, how are you going to respond to them? Some people curl up in a ball and get their excuses all lined up and ready to go. Is that what you’re going to do? Some people keep trying, but with a constant mindset that they’re kidding themselves because there’s no way it’s going to work. Is that what you’re going to do? Some people whine and protest about how they’re being screwed over, giving themselves permission to lose because the world is against them. Is that what you’re going to do?  

The Wes Barnett story tells us what we should do…what we NEED to do. No retreat. No surrender. A complete refusal to give up and throw in the towel. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re an athlete. It’s hard for all of us, sure. And yes, there’s always the possibility that we might maintain the perfect attitude, work our tails off…and then still lose. Wes didn’t have any guarantees that he was going to beat Konstantin and make it to the Olympics. He just gave it everything he had and hoped for the best. That’s all any of us can do, my friends. If the ball doesn’t bounce our way and we wind up defeated, so be it. We walk away knowing we squeezed every drop out of ourselves, with no regrets.  

That’s the life when you’re a coach or athlete. You’ll have obstacles and barriers everywhere you turn. Some of them might sneak up on you. Your job is to find every angle you can think of to move past them, like Wes did. Best of luck to you all. 

Matt Foreman is the football and track & field coach at Mountain View High School in Phoenix, AZ. A competitive weightliter for twenty years, Foreman is a four-time National Championship bronze medalist, two-time American Open silver medalist, three-time American Open bronze medalist, two-time National Collegiate Champion, 2004 US Olympic Trials competitor, 2000 World University Championship Team USA competitor, and Arizona and Washington state record-holder. He was also First Team All-Region high school football player, lettered in high school wrestling and track, a high school national powerlifting champion, and a Scottish Highland Games competitor. Foreman has coached multiple regional, state, and national champions in track & field, powerlifting, and weightlifting, and was an assistant coach on 5A Arizona state runner-up football and track teams. He is the author of Bones of Iron: Collected Articles on the Life of the Strength Athlete

The views expressed in this article may not be that of USA Weightlifting. Publication of all articles is to share different opinions and viewpoints. For instruction on the lifts from USA Weightlifting visit www.usaweightlifting.org

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