Old Dogs and New Tricks

by Michael Gormley

Some things in life are rarely seen, like the Lochness Monster or even the Yeti. I am one of those rare oddities. I’m a true garage warrior, a bona fide gritty weightlifter simply existing in the heat of my garage with nothing but the bar to motivate and torment me. I do not belong to a Globo gym or a “box” gym full of the latest and greatest shiny new equipment from Rogue. I also do not wear board shorts and Reebok anything. My “gear” consists of an old T-shirt and shorts, athletic tape and my Nike weightlifting shoes signed by the famous D' Angelo Osorio (long story). 

I am a bit older than your average weightlifter. I am 39 years old and I have no business walking, let alone competing against myself and others daily to lift heavier and heavier weights. A long time ago, I played indoor lacrosse. My goal was to someday play for my hometown team, the Buffalo Bandits, as a professional athlete and I was well on my way to reaching that goal… that is to say, until one fatal instant in a pick-up game on a local Indian reservation, when I had my dreams smashed along with a few vertebrae in my back. 

In an instant, my hopes and dreams were destroyed and I was then told that I would no longer be able to be a part of any type of sport. All I had to look forward to was a life of a degenerating disc issues that would most certainly lead to an inevitable spinal fusion surgery. So, for the next 10 years or so I did what any levelheaded young adult would do. I had a pity party for myself that lasted a decade. It was an epic pity party to end all other parties, one full of depression and alcohol abuse. My “condition” ruined almost all of my relationships during that time, and let’s not forget the excruciating back pain and leg numbness that was with me 24/7. Not only had I fractured a few vertebrae, but I also severely herniated a few discs and progressed a genetic spinal condition called a spondylolisthesis one full grade. In other words, I really did a number on my body that few have ever recovered from.

I came to the realization one day that I needed to change my life immediately, because as I was driving down a freeway I realized that I was passing cars like a blur. I looked at my speedometer and was shocked to see I was going well over 100 MPH! I wasn't surprised at the actual speed, as I was because I could not feel my leg or foot that was pinning the gas pedal to the floor. I immediately pressed the brakes and I almost wrecked the car because again I could not feel my leg, and the weight of it was slamming down on the pedal. I pulled over and was shaking like a leaf as I called a spinal institute and made an appointment to come in immediately. 

I had never considered spinal fusion surgery because quite frankly I never knew anyone who benefited from it. As a matter of fact, those that I knew who had it done seemed to be worse off than before. As I sat in the doctor’s office waiting for what seemed like eternity, the doctor finally came in only to say that I needed an MRI first. I actually had to suffer through that long process twice because my leg pain was so severe that I could not hold still for the first MRI. The doctor reviewed the results and I remember him quite clearly saying that he had never seen such a bad case with someone my age. He said that my MRI was what he expected to see in someone 70+, not in a 34-year-old. 

I know what you’re thinking. “What does any of this have to do with weightlifting?” Well, that was my “rebirth,” if you will. Luckily for me, my insurance required that I go to six weeks of physical therapy before they would allow any major spinal surgery. During that time, I worked hard at rehab and made significant progress. It had restarted my athletic spirit and I was laser focused on fixing this without surgery if at all possible. Around the same time a really good friend of mine had told me about CrossFit. It was something new he was introduced to while preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan and he had seen some pretty good results from it. I figured if it was good enough for him and the U.S. Marines, then it was good enough for me. I found a local “box” (at that time there was only one in the city I lived in) and signed up for a few personal training sessions, and I was immediately addicted. The workouts sucked and I thought I was going to die every time, but I was getting stronger and stronger by the day and I felt reconnected to my old athletic roots as well. I also was experiencing less and less back and leg pain, which to me, after living with constant pain for a decade, was like a miracle. 

I had a checkup with my spine doctor at my three-month mark of training, and he couldn't believe how well I was doing. Even though he could not advise that I do any of the strength moves that seemed to be working magic on my old broken body, he did encourage me to keep up the “progress” I was making. I found out quickly that I loved the Olympic lifts and I hated body weight exercises. I’m a bigger guy, so I don’t deal well with rope climbs and pull-ups that my smaller, thinner framed fellow CrossFitters did. But even though looking back on it now I realize that I was as weak as a newborn deer, I seemed to excel in lifting heavy weights, and I loved it. I loved it so much, in fact, that I followed the old school template of finding gear online or at thrift shops and secondhand stores to build my own garage gym. Before I knew it, I had everything you could possibly want to “WOD” at home and my friends were starting to come over to work out with me. Luckily for me, one of my good buddies was into strength training and Olympic lifting and he turned me on to Catalyst Athletics. I devoured any and all information that I could. I read everything article and watched every video I could find as well as followed their free programs like it was a lost gospel written by God himself.

Around this time, my wife had the opportunity to go to pharmacy school down South and even though we had to live apart for a year while she went ahead and I stayed behind to sell our house, we jumped at the chance to start over in the warm Southern air. I packed up my garage gym and grabbed the dogs and headed out of the cold New York weather towards the sunshine and considerably warmer weather of the good old South. Once I got settled in, I started to go to local boxes to meet the local community and try to find a place to supplement my garage gym training now that I was on my own. What I found was that things had drastically changed in the CrossFit community. No longer were these places about camaraderie and open source information to make everyone better, but they were now more like the “you’re either ‘with them’ or ‘against them’” type of mentality. If you didn't do their programming or if you were interested in anything else but main site programing, then you were the enemy. So I stayed to myself in my garage pounding out the reps and trying to adapt to this crazy Southern heat and humidity. 

I was fortunate enough to find so many great resources through Catalyst Athletics that helped me to continue to progress, like MDUSA, Coffee’s Gym and Don McCauley. I was ecstatic when I actually found a “catapult lifting” seminar only about an hour away from me and immediately went down to learn whatever I could from Coach Don McCauley. Seven hours later, my world was completely changed forever. Not only did I learn that my current technique sucked, but in just one day I met so many great lifters and coaches that I had only read about or watched videos of, in addition to learning how to properly perform the classic lifts. That day was one big PR after another, and it’s also where I met my current coach, Stephen Powell. He was there to assist Don and his wife Suzanne through the seminar, and I had asked him about coaching me once maybe twice a month just to keep me progressing. After a few weeks with him I saw PRs on both lifts keep going up as I learned the “Chinese” method of lifting (slightly different than the catapult method). I was honored to be asked to join his team as a “masters” lifter, which I believe is weightlifting slang for “old dog.”

My coach told me that he wanted me to compete at that year’s “Summer Strong 6” event put on by Sorinex. I have to be honest; I was scared. Scared to compete, scared to fail and scared to be a true athlete again. I hadn’t been in a real competition in well over a decade. At the same time, I felt like after everything I had endured, the injury and the long long road back, this is was what I needed to do. So I got to work and I trained hard every day following my coach’s lead and putting in the time fighting with the bar and the weight. I kept telling myself that I had already overcome some serious hurdles and this was going to be just one more hurdle to get over. 

The morning of the competition, I was super nervous, I started to think that maybe I was too old to get into this sport now. As I drove to the meet, I pushed that and any other negative thoughts out of my head and re-focused my energy, practicing what I had learned a lifetime ago from lacrosse coach. I began to visualize; I went over every step and every lift in my head over and over again until it was as familiar to me as walking and breathing. As soon as I walked into the arena, you could feel the electricity in the air. It was crazy, here I was trying to focus and I see Zach Even-Esh walk by and smile at me. Everywhere I looked there was somebody that I couldn't believe was in front of me like Don McCauley and Tom Sroka from MDUSA as well as Travis Mash. The list of who’s who in the weightlifting world went on and on. It was the coolest experience I have had in a very long time, but as pumped as I was, my coach calmed me down and refocused his team, preparing us for battle. 

I had worked out with each member of our team at some time or another leading up to this meet, but to watch them compete like the warriors that they are was such an honor! I can’t accurately describe the feeling of hearing your name being called and walking up to the loaded bar. Time seemed to slow down to a crawl as I walked up to the bar and my emotions bubbled over with all the hard work that had led me to this point. I chalked my hands and gripped the bar as hard as I could. I got down into my starting position and felt the sweat dripping down my face. In an instant, I pulled that bar off the ground like it was a matter of life or death. My hips slammed into the bar hard and the weight became completely weightless as I pulled myself under the bar. As I stood up, I felt a huge rush of relief and I slammed that bar down as hard as I could. I had finally won the fight. 

I started this fight so many years earlier and the odds have always been against me. Even still, I fought back every day, and when I got knocked down and I got right back up again. In that moment I realized my dream of becoming the athlete that I always wanted to be, and the athlete that I always new existed inside of me. 

I might be an old dog and I might have taken a beating over the years, but I am proud to say that I am a garage weightlifter and I am on a quest to not only qualify for, but to place at the 2014 Masters Pan Ams. I am learning new tricks every step of the way.

Whether you are grabbing the bar for the first time or the millionth time, whether you are young or old, if you have a passion for weightlifting, continue to grind it out and crush weights, my friend. After all, it’s not the destination but the journey that makes the trip worthwhile. 



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