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So there I was… It was 2009. I was at the Raw Unity Meet. At the time, this was the BIGGEST raw competition on the planet. It was put on by my friend Eric Talmant and was a way for all powerlifters — equipped or raw… tested or untested… to compete at the same event under the same rules. I was in the 125kg class competing against Scott Smith, an impressively strong untested lifter from the USPF.
As all great competitions should, it came down to the last deadlift. I had pulled 372.5kg (821 lb) on my 2nd attempt. I called for a ponderous 395kg (870 lb) third attempt, which would give me a 930kg (2050 lb) total and enough to win on bodyweight.
Before going out for the attempt, I remember getting out-of-my-mind psyched up. Just on another planet. Pacing. Seething. Knowing that this was going to take EVERYTHING, but at the same time being absolutely convinced it was going to go.
My friend Eric Talmant had come back stage to shout encouragements and help get me psyched up. Everybody was yelling. Eric said to me, “Winners win. Let’s go Mike.”
With the call of “Bar is Loaded” I tightened my belt and took the platform; setting up for the biggest pull of my life. Set the grip. Three pressure breaths. Pull.
Well, I don’t remember how close it got, but I did not make the lift. And with that, I did not “win”. So what did that make me?
As I write this, I’m 14 years older. I’m wiser now. I have better perspective. I know that I performed well that day. Although it was a major contest, it was not some definitive moment in my career. It was my first official raw competition and although I wasn’t the gold medalist, I was the silver medalist. The only person on earth who thinks the silver medal is “losing” is the silver medalist. And now I understand that if you go to a competition and you represent yourself well, then you ought to be proud of that.
But it took a long time to learn that. And my friend’s well-intentioned words have rung in my ear ever since.
Part of the reason why it’s stuck with me so long is because some part of me WANTS it to be true. Or at least I think I do. We wish that the person winning was the one who worked the hardest… who trained the smartest… who best dedicated the whole of their being into perfecting a craft. But we know that’s not real life. And the idea that “winners win” has such obvious downsides that it’s amazing that it’s been stuck in my brain for over a decade.
It’s a catchphrase like a horoscope; emotionally useful in the moment (maybe), but withers at the slightest scrutiny. Winners win what? Everything? Do winners never lose?
Over the years, I thought about it off and on. And I think there is some truth to the idea, but it bears explanation and is NOT what I thought it was those years ago.
What would the idea of “winners winning” mean to me if I *had* pulled that final deadlift? I would have won the competition. And I would have felt like a “winner”. And like an 80’s action movie, of course I was going to make the final pull because I’m the protagonist and of course I’m going to win.
But if it’s a foregone conclusion… if it’s unearned… then there’s no pride in it. The pride should come from the sacrifice made to earn an achievement.
And that’s the win. The win is the sacrifice.
Whether you finish on the podium or not is largely not up to you. You can control only so much. How much your competitor lifts is not one of those things. Even large factors affecting your own performance are not up to you (your height, your leverages, your propensity to gain or lose weight, etc). So it’s not the podium finish that is worthy of your pride. It’s all that you chose, the decisions you made, and the training you endured to achieve it.
And by that logic, even if you don’t finish on the podium, but you represent yourself well… then that is sufficient for your pride. You did the things you could. You won the victories that were possible. You can puff your chest a bit knowing that you’ll win the achievements that you can because you’re pursuing the right ideal. And it can’t be taken from you by anyone except you.
It’s not so much that winners win in the superficial sense. It’s that you earn your lifts with your training. I hadn’t yet earned a 390 deadlift back then. I didn’t deserve it and shouldn’t feel proud of it. Yet. But more time, more attention, more effort. Maybe then. And if it happens, it won’t be the number that’s worthy of pride, but what the number represents.