The Olympic Journey: John Cheah
The long wait has come, at last, to an exciting end. The International Weightlifting Federation have confirmed the qualifying competitions for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Come 16th April 2021, the 2020 Asian Weightlifting Championships will commence. The delayed competition was originally scheduled to take place from 18th-25th April 2020 but we all know what happened.
In the coming week, John Cheah will embark on a journey to the land of Uzbekistan to compete in the u96kg category. It’s been over a year since he’s last competed at an overseas event. We have decided to catch up with him one last time as he gears up for the competition ahead.
Comp day is approaching, tell us how you’re feeling!
This is the first live competition I’m taking part in since Feb 2020, and I’ve been vacillating between nervous and excited— nervous because I’ve been unsure if my injured knee can withstand another competition and excited because so far it’s been holding up through training.
This tension isn’t new though! There are various states of confidence and fear that I go through as game day approaches. I am encouraged by the former and spurred on by the latter; fear means I’m taking it seriously, and that allows me to focus better.
How has your nutrition been in the lead up to the competition given that you have to make the u96kg weight class?
I don’t make big changes in my diet because I eat relatively clean all year round. I’ll usually stay away from alcohol in the month leading up to it because alcohol tends to make me sluggish, but other than that, I have a general estimate of macros and supplements that keep me feeling fresh and ready to move.
The biggest change I’ve made to my diet was when I had to move up a weight class from under-85 to under-96. I remember eating around 4500 to 5000 calories a day for 4 months (a long holiday in Croatia helped with that) in order to just gain mass, and then another 4-5 months of getting my body used to being at that weight. I put on 13kg of muscle through this whole phase, and (thankfully) my numbers also increased exponentially.
I only start being a bit more serious the week before I fly to compete, and I’ll increase the micronutrient content of my food by making sure I get more colours in my diet. I’ll start eating more low GI carbs like brown rice and starchy veggies instead of high GI carbs like white rice as my training volume and intensity tends to taper off in the last week— I don’t need the immediate recovery, and the low GI helps me stay fuller for longer.
I’ll try to fly at 1kg above my competition weight (around 97kg) because I lose a lot of water on the plane (I won’t eat or drink much on the plane), and I’ll land being very close to my competition weight.
During competition week, I’ll weigh myself before and after every meal, and I’ve learnt how to eyeball my portions so I keep to within 0.1-0.4kg above my competition weight. If all goes to plan, I’ll be able to eat quite normally on competition day so I don’t get energy swings from having to cut massive amounts of weight at once.
We understand you’ve faced injury whilst training, apart from having to cope with recovery, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to go through in the wait to compete?
The worst thing about training through a pandemic is the complete absence of a timeline. This competition was only announced in the middle of January this year, so for the bulk of 2020, I was training in the carpark of my apartment without anything to aim for.
The thing about Weightlifting is that it takes a truckload of intention, focus, and drive to be able to consistently snatch and clean and jerk decently heavy weight. It’s one thing to learn the movement as a beginner, but a whole other thing to keep loading your body with more than twice your bodyweight week in, week out, with nothing to aim for.
I was never diagnosed formally through this period, but I went through really dark and depressive states as I struggled with being an athlete and asking myself if it was time to give it all up (you can ask my wife). I would suddenly cry for no reason, or be unresponsive for periods of time.
I am beyond grateful for close friends who reached out to help me cope with these things and a coach who knew how to strike a balance between understanding the way I was feeling and keeping me on track to see the bigger picture beyond the pandemic.
You’re an advocate for performance visualization. Talk us through your ritual(s) – what ticks, anchors or quirks, if any, help ground you when you lift?
I picked this up when I was a performer; the ability to run a show through my mind and rehearse every detail in my head. I use my senses to anchor me: How the venue looks, or what I’m seeing from the stage. What I hear; the sound of my breath or the cues in my head. What I feel; the bar in my hand, even the weight hanging off me during the lift.
I rehearse how I’m feeling at nearly every step of the way; the firmness of the ground beneath my feet, the flow of adrenaline as I stand in front of the bar, how each increment of warm up weight feels. This is reinforced as I train: my warmup sets at lower weights are done with the intention of moving heavier weight with the same form, the jumps I take between attempts are the jumps I will take in competition and the timing of every lift is rehearsed to feel exactly the same.
During competition week I will have run through my entire session at least 3 times before the actual day. I will have thought through every feeling, every attempt, and every emotion. I will have seen myself make the lifts I need to make, and to an extent, even how they’ve felt physically.
What is the toughest mechanical aspect of training for you, in your opinion?
I think the toughest mechanical aspect for me is maintaining perfection through fatigue, which I suppose is the struggle for most people in general.
I think I’m generally an optimistic person outside of a catastrophic, world-affecting, once-in-a-generation pandemic, so I often see challenges as ways to improve myself, and I embrace them!
In your experience with Oly Lifting, do you think attitude is a factor in “winning”?
There is an old story of how a fox once challenged a tiger’s claim to be the most fearsome animal in the jungle. The tiger immediately roared to display his dominance, and the other animals scattered in fear. The fox chuckled, and told the tiger to follow him as he went about his day. As the Fox and the Tiger traipsed around, the other animals nervously backed away, more frightened by the Tiger following behind the Fox than the Fox himself.
“The animals fear me more than they fear you!” The Fox exclaimed after a whole day’s worth of feeling more powerful than ever. The Tiger nodded solemnly in agreement and slinked off.
I can’t remember what the moral of this story is, but I like to think that “winning” is a state of mind. There can be no doubt that you’re the baddest beast in the room, even if you’re not, and sometimes the wins you get are more important than the wins you set out to achieve.
When I compete in Weightlifting, I’m often not the biggest, baddest beast in the room. On the contrary, I’m the little guy coming up against the highest echelons of weightlifting pedigree shaped by generations of state-sponsored coaching and technology. Coach Wu often reminds me that I’m not competing by way of how much I lift, but by how beautifully I move.
Now, obviously I understand that points are won by the amount of weight I put over my head, but I think what drives me to throw myself against the best in the world is that if I’m not as strong as them, I’m going to show that I can move as well as, if not better than them.
That’s probably not going to win me a medal, but my win is the Singaporean child who watches me lift on TV and then decides that they are going to try this sport for themselves.
You are known for your sharp analogies around coaching your clients – what is your favourite analogy for Oly lifting?
There are many analogies I use, depending on who the client is and what I’m trying to help them understand.
My favourite analogy is the “Tofu Knees” one, and you’re going to have to train with me to understand what on earth I’m talking about.
Very important – Do you ever speak to the barbells? Do you ever ask their permission before taking them for a tango on the dance floor?
I always speak to the barbell. I feel them up, give them a twirl, then I pick the one that speaks back to me.
I am actually only half kidding about this. Every barbell feels different, and I tend to gravitate to the ones that I feel good about. I have been known to turn my nose up at less than satisfactory barbells, for I only dance with those who speak back to me.
What does this particular competition mean to you and where does it stand in significance to your Oly Lifting journey?
This Asian Championship is my final qualifier for the 2020 (or 2021— I never know what to call it now) Tokyo Olympics, so it’s a pretty important one. I’m trying to qualify for a wildcard spot, which is a place offered to countries not being represented at the Olympics, either as a whole, or in their sport.
In the big picture, the experience at these world-level events will help Singapore’s weightlifting team stay relevant in competition experience at that level, and it helps me help other athletes on the national team. If I perform well at this one, I also stand to qualify for the 2021 SEA Games in November this year too.
I’m just thankful for an opportunity to test myself. Every competition helps me grow, and this is another step forward. After a year of step-backs and derailment, just being able to compete is a huge win in itself, and I’m really looking forward to it.
John competes on the 16th of April in the u96kg category. Follow him on Instagram at @cheahjohn as he live vlogs about his experience and watch him compete this Friday, 23 April at 4pm SGT on the International Weightlifting Federation’s Facebook page. Do also give him a shout out to show your love and support to our homegrown national athlete. The Level Fam is behind you, John!
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