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The Definition of a Champion
Being an Olympian requires levels of dedication and discipline that few athletes possess. Training cycles stretch for years to prime the body for a few precious seconds or minutes of peak performance. A tenth of an inch can be the difference between life-long glory and never-ending regret.
Team USA weightlifter Michael Nackoul is one of the special few who can endure the grueling training it takes to become a champion. The 2012 Summer Olympics may have been the biggest yet, but Nackoul, 21, did not compete. He is focused on an event four years from now: the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Like many weightlifters, Nackoul started the sport to help him improve at other sports.
"I started weightlifting when I was about 12, and then I started competing when I was 13," he says. His older brother passed the lifting bug onto him at a young age. "I was the little brother just following him around," says Nackoul. "That’s kind of how I got started. I played football starting when I was 10. I wrestled back then, too, when I was 10 or 11. And I played baseball until I was 15."
Nackoul first took the platform at the School-Age Championships, which are limited to athletes 17 years old and under, and took home a silver medal. The next year, he competed and won the School-Age National Championship.
"That’s kind of when I realized that I had potential," he says. "Then, after my senior year of high school, I took third in the Junior National Championships. Because somebody ahead of me suffered an injury, I was able to go to Romania for the Junior World Championships. That’s when I decided I really wanted to take weightlifting seriously."
"Taking it seriously" means Nackoul now has a temporary berth at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He's a senior at MIT, but he's maxing out his schedule by traveling out West during winter and spring breaks. His coach at the Training Center, Zygmunt Smalcerz, has been a huge help getting Nackoul up to speed on the proper technique he needs to become a champion weightlifter. Smalcerz won gold in Munich in 1972 as a flyweight.
"Whenever I go out to Colorado Springs, it’s really a good opportunity to work with him," says Nackoul. "The Colorado Springs facility is a wonderful facility, too. It’s a very motivating place. And they have everything, a great cafeteria, a fantastic sports med department, a recovery center—any kind of aid you need for your training is right there. You don’t have to worry about pretty much anything else but training. They kind of take care of everything for you."
When he's in serious training mode at the facility, Nackoul lifts nine times a week: twice a day (at 10:15 a.m. and 4:15 p.m.) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and once a day (at 10:15 a.m.) on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He also participates in group calisthenics every morning at 7:30 a.m. to improve blood flow and enhance mobility.
And like everyone else who wants to move serious weight, Nackoul has to monitor his nutrition. Many young athletes take in way too much protein, but Nackoul has learned the importance of eating in the proper proportions—each plate is half vegetables, a quarter grains and a quarter protein. He says, "Drinking protein shakes, you're taking in 300 to 400 grams of protein a day, when you really can't even handle a quarter of that. Your body can only handle so much." (Check out STACK's Nutrition page for more tips on using food to optimize your performance.)
Nackoul hopes his training and approach to his sport will allow him to be at his best in four years. For more on Nackoul, check out the Pittsburgh Barbell Facebook page. You can also read the stories about this year’s Olympians and Nackoul’s fellow Rio hopefuls at STACK’s Guide to the Olympics.