Jess Nguyen, a third-year student studying political science and philosophy, found his passion for weightlifting through a teacher at his high school. “I initially started going to the gym in grade 12 and that’s because one of the teachers at the school was a professional body builder… before he got old,” Nguyen jokes. “After a while I started powerlifting, just for fun and when I hit my first-year university, I ended up becoming exposed to weightlifting through videos on YouTube,” he continues.

In Nguyen’s second year of university he met Darren Turner, coach of the Olympic Weightlifting team. The two scheduled a meet up where Turner could assess him and after that, Nguyen pretty much fell in love with the sport. “Personally, I was never really athletic when I was younger, but this is like a really good way to express my athleticism,” he says. He admits that he used to be a lot skinnier and always the last one picked on sports teams.

Nguyen has competed in three competitions where his most recent one, roughly two or three weeks ago, he placed second overall—an incredible accomplishment for someone only in their second year of the sport. However, what is most admirable is Nguyen’s sheer focus from a week before competition and leading all the way up to his moment on the platform. “The week of competition I don’t talk to anyone,” he says. Other than maybe his parents and Turner, he tries to limit contact with people as much as possible as a way of staying focused. Nguyen also enjoys using the sauna before competitions as he finds it mentally clears him.

When asked how he is able to maintain such focus, Nguyen explains that it really is a mental sport more than anything. “You just kind of have to clear your mind and tell yourself that you’re going to be in front of a lot of people, lifting heavy weight and you only get three chances to do it,” he says. “I think it’s more important to have the vision of how you think you’ll compete. So, before you compete, you don’t envision failure. When you compete, you envision your success and how you’re going to do it.” Nguyen compares it to the same as being an actor or entertainer on stage performing, except that you’re doing something physically active.

When on the platform about to perform his lift, Nguyen explains that breathing is one of the main things that helps him stay focused. “You don’t think about what could go wrong. You don’t think about how you’re going to do something. If you have a really good ‘why’, that can bear any ‘how’,” he says. “You think of yourself then, and the moment, and then what comes after.” He compares this as being similar to basketball players when they step up to a free throw line, they are so focused on the game that nothing else around them matters.

At weightlifting competitions, there are two lifts that athletes are to complete—the “snatch” and the “clean and jerk.” “I think my specialty is the clean and jerk,” Nguyen says. Although, he does admit that it is difficult to have a favourite because the lifts are quite similar, and really just differ in their technique. “If anything, the clean and jerk is something that you can put more weight on,” he says. “But the snatch […] takes more technicality.” His current personal best for the snatch is 90 kilos, or 198 pounds, and for the clean and jerk it’s 105 kilos, or 236 pounds. Weighing in at 70 kilos, or 154 pounds, Nguyen is on his way to almost lifting half of his body weight.

The Olympic Weightlifting team trains three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for 2-3 hours at a time. Sometimes Nguyen will also train on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday to “bodybuild, have fun and just relax.” Olympic Weightlifting is an individual sport and when he’s training in the High Performance Centre (HPC), Nguyen states, “I’m always competing against everyone else because even though they’re my friends, when you go to train, you’re there primarily for yourself.” He continues, “at the end of the day, when you’re training, you’re training for one person and that is to become the person you want to be. And I think that weightlifting or any physical activity is like a step towards that.”

A very philosophical Nguyen admits that much of his inspiration came from both Turner and the Christian faith. “I think that after living for a while, even though I’m still young, everyone always gets to those low points in life where they feel like they can’t do much and they feel that there’s no way out. But there’s always this vision that you have inside of your head that’s like a light,” he says. “It kind of just tells you to keep going and to not stop. It sort of serves as a reminder to not give up.”

Nguyen sees weightlifting as both his “aggressive” and “creative” outlet. “When you have a sport like this, […] you have to pay attention to the details because even the slightest centimeter off of the bar coming out in front of you, could mess up your lift and you have to drop and you won’t get it,” he says. “It’s like the attention to detail—it’s what you can place your focus on and I think that’s good. Details are important.”

Before entering university, Nguyen was definitely not expecting to be part of the Olympic Weightlifting team. Although he doesn’t believe it was solely because of university that he discovered this sport, he believes this is just where his life decided to direct him. Seeing as Olympic Weightlifting is an individual sport, having strong mental focus is key—an art that Nguyen seems to have mastered.