Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the United States had not won an Olympic medal in men’s weightlifting since 1992. The last American men to win Olympic weightlifting medals were heavyweight Guy Carlton and super heavyweight Mario Martinez, both in 1984.
The United States’ best hope for its first Olympic men’s weightlifting medal in three decades rolls his rugged palms around a metal bar, small clumps of chalk falling to the rubbery platform below his feet. His legs serve as pillars as he explosively hoists more than 220 pounds over his head.
This being the final lift of his light workout, Clarence “C.J.” Cummings Jr. smiles broadly, and the gym’s fluorescent lights reflect in his braces. At 5 feet 2 and 136 pounds, Cummings in many ways appears to be the blueprint of a lifter in his weight class: toned arms, ripped legs, textbook technique. He’s also 14 years old, which means every prototype anyone has conceived in the sport has been blown away.
Dennis Snethen, 54, a two-time U.S. Olympic coach and member of the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame, said recently, “In all my years I’ve seen talented kids but nothing like C.J.”
No one ever has, leaving everyone from scientists to coaches to the sport’s officials trying — and failing — to explain how someone born in the current millennium could be doing the things he’s doing.
“Yes, he works at it,” said Ray Jones, the coach at the Team Beaufort weightlifting club. “He trains hard, and he does all the things I ask him to do, but you really can’t concretely say why he does what he does. He was just given a gift from God to do special things.”
At this weekend’s senior national championships in Salt Lake City, Cummings will attempt to break the American men’s record in the clean and jerk for the 62-kilogram (about 137-pound) weight class. The current mark of 152.5 kilograms (roughly 336 pounds) was set in 2002 by LeGrand Sakamaki, then 25, and is one of USA Weightlifting’s longest-standing records.
“Is it great if he beats the record this weekend? Absolutely,” said Phil Andrews, the director of events and programs for USA Weightlifting. “If not, he’s got all the time in the world to break it. The real prize is the Olympic Games.”
The last time an American man won a medal at the Olympics was in 1984, when Guy Carlton took bronze in the heavyweight class and Mario Martinez won silver in the super heavyweight division. Cummings has his long-term sights set on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. His short-term focus will center on playing “Angry Birds” on his phone while he waits to be driven home from practice.
Dirt-tattered aluminum cans line the grassy, gravel driveway in front of the one-story Cummings residence, crushed under the feet of C.J. and his brother, Omar, and ironed out by the wheels of their parents’ gray and blue sedans. Behind the house, chickens mill around their coop on this muggy afternoon in the rural Lowcountry. Inside, a smoke alarm in apparent need of a new battery emits high-pitched beeps every couple minutes, and a broken screen door eliminates one possible source of ventilation.
Savasha Cummings and her boys huddle at the dining room table, giggling over old pictures in albums and folders on her laptop. Even after watching them tear through a bucket of takeout chicken, Savasha can’t understand how C.J. and Omar, 15, have filled out so fast in the past four years. Recalling the demise of that screen door, Savasha remembers her sons being more remarkable for their speed than their strength.
“C.J. was running from me one day. He did something. Oh, he did something,” Savasha said, smiling. “He ran through the screen and the deck wasn’t there yet, but he landed on his feet and kept running. I’m like, ‘You tear my screen down! Come back here!’ He had some speed!”
Power, too. The combination made Cummings arguably the most feared running back in his Beaufort County youth football league, garnering rows of trophies that now rest in front of the fireplace, on the shelves and along tables throughout the living room.
Weightlifting was supposed to be a means, not an end, to developing Cummings’s athletic prowess, much in the same way it had been for his older sister, Crystal, who joined Jones’s Olympic weightlifting class as a 9-year-old at St. Helena Elementary.
“When me and my brother first did it, we had fun because we had never done it before, and it’s still fun now,” C.J. said. “I used to play football and I still like it, but I like lifting more. It’s exciting for me.”
Competitive Olympic weightlifting is as much, if not more, about proper form and technique as it is about brute strength. The clean and jerk, one of the two disciplines contested in the Olympics, consists of two movements: the lifter first bringing the bar from the floor to chest level and next extending it above his head until his arms are straight.
Jones first remembers C.J. coming by the weight room in diapers, riding around the gym on the back of Jones’s 100-plus-pound dog. But in 2010, when C.J. tagged along with Crystal for one of her practices with Team Beaufort, the still diminutive 10-year-old was ready to work — sort of.
“He went up there, forgot to tuck his fingers and put his feet the wrong way,” recalled Crystal, now 26, while sitting on a brown couch at the Cummings’s home. “He was just all over the place. Plates flying. At first I didn’t think he was going to like it because C.J. gets bored very easy . . .”
Crystal tries to continue her story but glances over at C.J., who is making a funny face that sends her into a fit of laughter.
“See, he’s so annoying,” she says, her daughter playing on the floor nearby. “He’s a typical, annoying little brother. But that’s my guy.”
From his coaches to his family members, virtually everyone around C.J. seeks a balance between preserving his childhood and nurturing his enormous potential. When he’s not preparing for competitions in Uzbekistan, Peru and Russia — trips financed through a combination of community fundraising and stipends from USA Weightlifting — he has to attend to his household chores, including feeding the chickens.
“It starts with Coach Ray because he controls a lot of it and makes sure he don’t put more on the body than the body can handle,” said Clarence Sr., who was initially wary of his son getting into weightlifting. “C.J. never really shows emotion on anything. He’s consistent. I try to control the big head if it gets that way, but he does the rest. He likes playing video games, eating pizza, just being a kid.”
Cummings’s extraordinary achievements divide skeptics into two camps: those convinced he couldn’t be doing such things and those convinced he shouldn’t be.
The latter group echoes decades-old concerns that children and adolescents who lift weights risk damaging their growth plates, resulting in short stature and a lack of testosterone. But a 2009 study done by the National Strength and Conditioning Association found “there is no evidence to suggest that resistance training will negatively impact growth and maturation.”
As with any sport, injury risks increase with a lack of proper instruction and supervision. In the case of weightlifting, that pertains particularly to a slow, steady and monitored rate of progression.
In Cummings’s case, that progression has been so extraordinary, some find it hard to believe. About a year after his first Team Beaufort practice, an 11-year-old Cummings successfully performed a clean and jerk of 90 kilograms (roughly 198 pounds), twice his body weight. Since then he has gone on to break more than 50 youth American records and owns all the records in five age-weight categories.
“Winning the Youth Pan American title for 17 and under was big for me,” Cummings said of the May event in Peru. “I was competing against international kids from Ecuador, Mexico and Brazil, and I went against them and came out in first place. I realized I could be pretty good at it.”
After reading about one of Cummings’s lifts, Bob LeFavi, a sports medicine professor at Armstrong State University in Georgia who also coaches the Team Savannah weightlifting club, was convinced the publication had made a typographical error. No way had someone that young had done that.
Then LeFavi watched Cummings lift in person, leading him to invite Cummings to his school’s Biodynamics and Human Performance Lab Center for testing. With 10 high-speed cameras zeroed in on Cummings and motion sensors attached to his body, LeFavi and his team examined his technique, trajectory and power. After studying the few photos in which the camera was fast enough to catch up with Cummings and the bar, LeFavi presented his findings to a packed room of coaches in June at the National Youth Championships in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“Everybody wanted to know how they could get a C.J. Cummings,” LeFavi said. “But from a structural and physiologically standpoint, we can’t explain how he can withstand that much power and weight at his age. And it’d be incorrect to say he’s an anomaly or rarity because that would suggest there’s someone else like him, and there’s not.”
Later at that same competition, Cummings attempted to clean and jerk 153 kilograms for the first time. Donning a sleek, blue, short-sleeved USA onesie, Cummings bent over and snatched the weight onto his upward palms before slowly lifting his body back upright. After steadying himself and the bar, Cummings pushed his left leg out and his arms high above, but just as he brought his left foot back forward, he lost control, leaving his limbs trembling under the pressure before prematurely throwing down the weight in disgust.
“When I was about to do my jerk, I punched it forward instead of putting the weight behind me, and I couldn’t hold it,” Cummings said. “I guess I got kind of excited because I was so close.”
The failed lift marked the first time Cummings had ever attempted that weight. Almost never has Cummings maxed out in practice, instead doing graduated lifts between 50 and 95 percent of his current personal best.
“It’s easy to think this guy is on drugs, but actually, the reality is he seldom goes for maximum lifts,” said Andrews, the USA Weightlifting official. “Most lifters do low volume with high intensity or high volume with low intensity. C.J. trains neither of those ways because of his age and development. Ray does not always let him go for the top lifts at events or in practice, despite maybe C.J. wanting him to, because of his age.”
Of the 400-plus male participants in Saturday’s 62-kilogram weight class, Cummings is by far the youngest.
“I get nervous a little bit sometimes because I’m the only youth there sometimes,” Cummings said. “But the main thing going through my mind is staying focused and listening to Coach Ray.”
This weekend, he’ll take another shot at the elusive 153. Beyond that, his potential is limited only by what can be imagined.
“Most men peak around 25, 26, so he’s really still a beginner,” Snethen said. “Will he go on to be the best ever? The verdict is still out. But I’ve seen blue-chip prospects in lifting and other sports, like Herschel Walker and [Shaquille O’Neal]. He’s like those guys, so you know, unless something happens, there’s no way this kid won’t be great.”