Last week the Lenoir-Rhyne Weightlifting Team set out on its journey to Salt Lake City, Utah for the 2021 USA Weightlifting University National Championships.
This would be the culmination of a vision that started back in 2013, when MuscleDriver USA (MDUSA) was experiencing its boom in the world of weightlifting. MDUSA might have failed, but it helped to spark a revolution in American weightlifting that is still burning strong today. Let me explain this concept a bit more in-depth.
I remember the day that my friend, Preacher Sam, told me about MDUSA. He told me about the characters on the team, namely Jon North and Donnie Shankle. He went on to explain that MDUSA, at the time a rising giant in the world of strength equipment, had formed a professional weightlifting team, and they were literally moving the team to Charlotte, NC.
I was immediately overwhelmed with excitement for three main reasons:
- My weightlifting career had been cut short due to my father having contracted a terminal form of cancer. I made the decision to leave the Olympic Training Center and the sport of weightlifting to move closer to my father in North Carolina. This is a decision I don’t regret at all. However, I had grown to love the sport, and I wasn’t able to see that passion through.
- I have always believed the sport of weightlifting would thrive if taken on by corporate America. Our country was founded on capitalism. If a weightlifting team can increase a company’s profits, that team becomes valuable as do the members of the team. If we want to attract the best athletes to the sport, we need to offer a benefit. It’s hard to beat money as a benefit.
- Weightlifting was notorious for being boring, which always baffled me. Powerlifting was full of characters who were larger than life – like Ed Coan, Kirk Karwoski, Chuck Vogelpuhl, and of course Louie Simmons. Jon North and Donnie Shankle were the exact characters the sport needed. Thanks to YouTube, they were becoming something close to comic book superhero characters. People from around the world were mesmerized by these two American Weightlifters.
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At this same moment in time, I had already started coaching some weightlifters, and I was dabbling with the sport again. When I made the trip down to MDUSA, I became immediate friends with Jon North and Coach Glenn Pendlay. The rest is history really. I started podcasting with Jon North. Then I was hired as a coach for MDUSA, and later went on to become the Executive Vice President. It was during this time I realized the next step the sport was going to need was solid university programs.
If you want youth to get interested in the sport, you have to get their parents excited about the sport as well. I am a parent, and personally I am going to want to know what’s in it for my children. Is there a future in the sport? What are the advantages? Are there college scholarships in the sport for the young athletes whoo are excelling in the sport? I wrote multiple articles all those years ago for the need of university programs. There were a few already, but the majority of the programs were not producing top athletes. Young men and women were going to these programs as Youth Team USA weightlifters and then never being heard from again. That doesn’t encourage coaches to send their overachieving athletes to these programs that were acting as the black holes of weightlifting.
During this time, it was clear the legacy I wanted to leave to the sport of weightlifting in America was at least one solid program.
Making a Case
Fast forward six years, I was at a local meet in Charlotte, NC when I saw my friend and now my professor, Dr. Alex Koch, Head of Exercise Science at Lenoir-Rhyne University. We had talked in detail about my desire to start a university program. At this meet he explained that he was going to set up a meeting between the LRU Athletic Director, Kim Pate, and the two of us (Dr. Koch and me). I was excited, but I had been in the situation a couple of times before. At 48-years-old I have learned to not get too excited about anything.
Well four weeks later, I was sitting in a meeting with AD Kim Pate, Asst AD Aaron Brock, and Dr. Koch. For all of you wondering how to start a program, here are the points that I made:
- Exposure to Lenoir-Rhyne University (social media): Most of you know that I have built a solid following in the world of social media. One thing I have done a bit better than others is I have spread that following over multiple sources: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, The Barbell Life Podcast, the Barbell Shrugged Podcast, and articles on Mash Elite Performance. This is why I encourage all of my athletes to build a personal brand. Whether you like social media or not, it’s a powerful tool if used properly.
- The cost effectiveness of the sport: Weightlifting only requires some bars, plates, squat stands, a place to put the equipment, and a coach. It’s not like football or soccer that requires a huge field and stadium, a massive coaching staff, lots of frequent travel, and expensive equipment. I need 2,000 square feet, nice bars and plates, and some racks to produce a championship team.
- The growing participation of women in the sport is good for Title IX: All you have to do is look at the sign-ups for any USAW National meet, and you will see equal participation between females and males. Heck, the biggest stars in the sport are females, such as Mattie Rogers and Hunter Elam. Plus there are rumors circulating about the possibility of at least the women’s side of things becoming NCAA.
- The overall safety of the sport: All you have to do is look up any research on the topic, and you will see that weightlifting is extremely safe when compared to other sports, such as soccer, basketball, and for sure American football.
- Growing popularity of the sport: Even though we have CrossFit to thank for the initial surge, our leadership at USA Weightlifting has done a tremendous job with their PR and marketing teams to build the image and following of our precious sport. In a quad where most Olympic sports have suffered, Phil Andrews, CEO of USAW, has found ways to thrive.
- The Olympics: It doesn’t hurt that our sport is a gateway to the Olympics. Furthermore, it doesn’t hurt that I had and still have multiple college aged athletes who are considered Olympic hopefuls for 2024 – and a few others who are looking to become hopefuls for 2028. What school doesn’t want to produce Olympians? Right now, we have three Team USA Athletes going to the Junior World Championships, one more that has signed his NLI, and about four others who are looking to make a Team USA squad this year or next.
- My track record: I have produced 28 Team USA athletes in my program at Mash Elite Performance – and I did this while being based in small town Lewisville, NC. Sometimes I dream about the athletes I would produce if I had been based in a bigger city.
- Draw students to the exercise science programs: LRU has incredible professors teaching in the Exercise Science Department. Right now, it’s a well-kept secret – but a secret I aim to whisper to the world. Dr. Koch and Dr. Leiting are both natural teachers. They have the ability to make complicated topics seem elementary. I can say from experience they both have taught me subjects that have made me a better coach and have helped me produce valuable tools that I have sold to my audience on Mash Elite. To date, four students have applied and been accepted to our Master’s in Exercise Science Program that have been directly referred by me.
In summary, I showed them what was in it for them. Within a few days I had my green light.
The funny thing is that the asst AD and the AD later told me that they had no intention on accepting the program when they agreed to the meeting. They were simply being nice to Dr. Koch. However, my presentation won them over immediately. They said when I walked out of the room, they both knew they wanted the program, and the only question was the details. I am not bragging. I am simply giving you guys a hint as to what it takes. If you get the chance, be prepared! If you can, try to understand the goals of the school before going into the meeting like: branding, improving their stance on Title IX, growth, profitability, or overall image of school.
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This article isn’t an article designed to teach all of you how to start a University Program, but I thought I would plant that seed. If it’s something you want to do in a town near you, email me at Travis.Mash@LR.edu.
Building a Team
However, this article is about a dream becoming reality, so I had to give you the full picture. Yet being told that I can start a program is way different than actually creating a successful program. I might have had a green light, but now I had to get some quality athletes. Heck, I had to get some athletes period. The last thing you want to do is convince someone to start a university program, and then no one shows up. I saw several start-up university programs at the University Nationals with some being on the scene for two to three years – and yet they didn’t have enough people to field a team.
I will say my biggest struggle has been time management. Now I am in charge of this University Team, but I still have all of my normal responsibilities plus a few extra. Remember, I am working toward a PhD in Human Performance in my so-called free time. I still coach my top Mash athletes. I still own Mash Elite Performance. I am still the cohost of The Barbell Life Podcast. Of course, I still have my favorite job as the cohost of Barbell Shrugged Podcast.
This semester, I faced my biggest challenge yet, and that was creating a new weightlifting course for Stronger Experts. This course is going to be unlike any weightlifting course any of you have ever seen or participated in. The video alone is fifteen hours of content. More about that really soon. Anyway, that put me way back early this semester. I am sure you’re thinking when is he going to have time to recruit? Great question!
To be honest, I am catching up on all of that as we speak. Thank God my boss, A.D. Aaron Brock, saw fit to give me some administrative assistance, which will really help in a big way to getting caught up. We are announcing a very unique tryout as well later on this week, but once again you will have to stand by for that one. So how have I attracted so many top athletes? That question is what this entire article was written for.
The minute I was told I had a green light for this team at Lenoir-Rhyne University, I decided right then and there that I would learn from my past. Here’s the major lesson I have learned over the past 3-4 years:
Culture > Talent
I have protected the culture of this team from day one. There are several top athletes I turned down because they simply didn’t match the culture. I am not saying anything bad about the ones I didn’t take. Some of them have gone on to do really well. There is a certain person I am looking for, and I won’t settle for less. Talent is a part of that equation for sure. We do have three Team USA athletes and another coming in the fall. However, I won’t take an athlete who expects to be put on a pedestal.
I don’t care if they are a gold medalist in the Olympics. If they are on this team, they are not more important than the lowest ranked person. I didn’t follow this model during the last three years of Mash Elite. I recruited for talent only, and that blew up in my face. Some athletes literally drain the very soul from a team. If they’re having a bad day, the entire team is having a bad day. They expect more attention from the coach than the other athletes might receive. Never again!
I started my experiment with Lenoir-Rhyne University. You know what happened? Two of the young men I chose over a couple of rising stars are now as good as those rising stars. Heck, I will say it right here that I chose Sean Hammell for the following reasons:
- I liked him from the moment I started communicating with him.
- He had a 4.0 GPA in Computer Science, so I knew he would be a great influence for the other boys coming in.
- And yes, he was good enough to score points for the team.
However, I had no idea that one year later he would be battling for Team USA. The same goes for Blaine Brooks. He was a late recruit because he was on the way to Lindenwood, but their program was cut unfortunately. Once again, I knew that we would be a solid scorer for the team, but I had no idea he would be battling for a Team USA spot already. Someday I will tell the funny story about all the misinformation he heard about me. Well, I will let you in on a little bit: Evidently someone told him I didn’t care about technique, and I only cared about going really heavy. You can all go look at his form prior to September 1st versus now. By the way, his total improved 20kg while staying in the same weight class. Needless to say, he’s fully bought in to the program and is currently sitting on the prestigious Junior Pan American Games team for USA Weightlifting and Team USA.
Going into last weekend, I knew we had a good chance for the Men’s National Title, but it wasn’t going to be easy. I was going to find out if my idea of “Culture > Talent” was real or not. It was going to take each of the guys doing their part for the dream to become a reality. Luckily, Ryan Grimsland and Riley Breske kicked us off with some major points. Ryan took down Gold, and Riley did his job with a hurt hand – still placing 5th.
We had one more go on that first day, Matt Wininger, which should have been an easy Gold Medal. However, as fate had it, he bombed out.
Now there’s more to the story, and there are some real nuggets for you coaches and athletes out there. I knew that Matt hadn’t done all that he could do in preparation for this meet. He knew it too, and I could see it in his face a week prior to the meet. His bomb out led to the best conversation we’ve ever had. In case you don’t know, he’s been with me twelve years at this point. This young man has all the talent in the world to be on every Team USA that is fielded, and now I believe he’s committed to realizing that talent.
Like Dave Spitz says, “you are either winning or learning.” Matt went on to support his team, which was a big show of maturity. I am prouder than ever of Matt, and I have no doubt that he’s going to crush it next time out. Here’s the rundown of the other men:
Joseph Neel, 81kg was predicted to place eighth and ended up placing eighth.
Blaine Brooks, 89kg was predicted to place fifth and ended up placing fourth (almost third).
Sean Hammell, 96kg was predicted to place fifth and ended up placing fourth (almost third).
Cameron ‘Tank’ Lunsford, 102kg was predicted to place seventh and ended up placing seventh.
Team Captain Dean Scicchitano was predicted to place fifth and ended up placing fifth.
If we were going to have a chance at winning, I needed everyone to at least hit their predicted placing – and no one could bomb out. As you can see, my guys crushed it. I can’t tell you how much the Team Captain Dean Scicchitano helps me with this team. He’s a big reason we are who we are. This team is special. Each of them has the potential to do extraordinary things in this sport. I have a funny feeling these men are going to leave a mark on this sport that will not soon be erased.
I have to mention my girls. We only fielded a team of three, but we have three good ones. Hannah Dunn started the competition off for the entire team. That’s why it was pretty cool that she won the Gold Medal in the Snatch, being the first athlete to ever compete nationally for LRU. She went on to win silver overall. Mallory Garza made the gutsiest lift of the weekend hitting her lifetime personal record of 102kg/225lb weighing 58kg/128lb. She ended up taking bronze overall and silver in the clean and jerk. Sarah Attalla put up her best performance yet going 4:6 and totaling 148kg. She’s new to the sport, so I look for her to make major gains by next year.
In our first year, our list of accomplishments are as follows:
- Men’s First Place Team Championship at University Nationals
- Coed Team 3rd place – not bad for being short two women and having a bomb out
- Three athletes on Team USA headed to the Junior World Championships in Saudi Arabia: Ryan Grimsland, Hannah Dunn, and Mallory Garza
- Two athletes really close to making Team USA: Sean Hammell and Blaine Brooks (Blaine is sitting on the Junior Pan Am Games Team as of now with one competition to go)
- Morgan McCullough is our first signee of the year, and he is already a multi-time Team USA Athlete. He’s also on the Junior World Team
- I don’t think we had one athlete compete last weekend who doesn’t have the ability to make a Team USA spot.
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To say I am proud is the biggest understatement of the year. I feel confident that our team culture shined brightly to the other competitors. My inbox is filled with people wanting to try out for the team. I promise that I will start making those calls and returning emails on Monday. I feel we have created something others want to be a part of. Culture has been a buzzword for a few years now. We turned that buzzword into reality, and now we have all witnessed the sheer power of creating a team with a winning culture. Thanks to all of my athletes for trusting me and buying into this program.
We started something awesome last weekend. However, I don’t think any of us will be happy until we have formed a weightlifting dynasty at Lenoir-Rhyne University. With the support of people like Kim Pate, Aaron Brock, Michael Flicker, and our team Athletic Trainer Sarah Lightfoot, I think we are going to create something that has yet to be seen in the sport of weightlifting. I hope all of you will continue supporting and following this team.
P.S. If you want to support this team, you check out this link for multiple options with every dime going to our team at Lenoir-Rhyne University.