Interview: Brian Wilhelm
When I decided to interview Brian Wilhelm, I knew I was going to have to ask him about his father. I almost didn’t want to bring it up, because I’m sure he hears about it constantly. Being an Olympic weightlifter and also being Bruce Wilhelm’s kid can’t be easy. Bruce was a legend in the iron game, and you know damn well his son gets a continuous stream of comparisons, questions, and tedious comments about how he plans to fill his Olympian father’s shoes.
I’m a weightlifting historian, so I’m as interested as anybody in Bruce Wilhelm stories. But as I’ve gotten to know Brian over the last few years, I really haven’t thought much about his connection to his dad. Brian is impressive enough on his own. He’s a physical giant with massive talent and potential, as evidenced by his 372 kg total and 2nd place finish in the 105+ kg class at the 2014 National Championships. It’s a lot of fun to watch him succeed because he’s exactly the kind of guy you want to see at the top. His humble, intelligent personality makes a tremendous impression.
So I decided to ask him the routine “What’s it like to be Bruce Wilhelm’s kid?” question because I knew it wouldn’t be a problem. Brian is strong enough, physically and mentally, to handle any challenges that come his way. He’s having ups and downs in his career, exactly like every other weightlifter in the world. And I feel a lot of confidence in Brian that he’s going to continue to win the battles and eventually leave behind a strength legacy that stands alone. Catalyst Athletics is happy to give you a look at one of our team members.
Tell us about your background. Where are you from, where do you currently live, what’s your occupation (if you work in addition to training), family life, what kind of sports background do you have outside of lifting, etc.
My name is Brian Wilhelm and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically the peninsula. I’ve grown up in the Bay Area and can’t really imagine living anywhere else. Currently, I work at a business-oriented social networking company. I love my job, but as you can imagine, it takes a toll on my training. My coworkers and manager are very supportive of me following my athletic dream, so I am very grateful I work at a great company. I still view lifting as my number one job. I’ve always been active in sports. I started out with all the usual youth stuff like soccer, gymnastics, swimming, etc. I started to focus on basketball in the second grade and that was my main sport up until my senior year of high school. When I was in high school, I was on the varsity basketball team and varsity track and field team. Towards the end of high school, I wanted to focus on throwing and went to college to compete in track and field. While I was at USC, I competed in the hammer and the shot put. Once I graduated from school, I hung up the throwing shoes and committed myself to weightlifting.
Describe your weightlifting history. When/how did you start? Who have your coaches been? What championships and international teams do you have on your record? What are your best lifts?
I can’t even remember the first time I grabbed a barbell. I have pictures of me squatting with a barbell when I was a really young kid, not even sure how old I was. But I do remember the first time I really started weightlifting was when I was 14. I started to train so I could get better and stronger at basketball. My father never pushed me into weightlifting; it was all on me. One of the big things I wanted to do was be able to dunk a basketball. My father suggested weightlifting to help my vertical, so I was on board and started to get on a weightlifting program. He was my first coach. He taught me the basics, taught me the technique, different exercises, everything. I owe everything to him. A lot of coaches come and go during a weightlifter’s career, but my father will always be a permanent coach to me, no matter where I go. But, as most weightlifters know, coaching your spouse or kid is a very difficult thing to do. Eventually, he had me train with Jim Schmitz, his old coach. During my high school years, I would train with Jim during the offseason and occasionally during the summer, depending on my basketball summer league schedule. When I was in college, I would come home and train with Jim during the summers.
I remember the exact moment when everything clicked for me. It was the summer between my junior and senior year of college - specifically 7/19/08. I was competing in a meet up in Cotati, CA (Northern California). While I was warming up, I was thinking to myself “Damn…let’s go! I’m ready! Wait, I’m way more psyched up for this meet than I am for throwing meets…” It was at this point that I knew I was going to be a weightlifter once I graduated from college and retired from throwing. Once I graduated, I came back to the Bay Area, touched base with Jim, and started training as a weightlifter. During my time with Jim, he taught me a lot of valuable things and I thank him for that. He’s one of the greatest coaches the USA has ever had (coaching many Olympians) and continues to recruit and teach others about weightlifting.
Unfortunately, my job situation was changing and I also felt like I needed a change of scenery. I used to work 15 minutes from Jim’s gym, but I was changing jobs and my new job was 45 minutes – 1.5 hours away (depending on traffic). I went to Catalyst Athletics to train a couple times and I fell in love with the place. Everybody was supportive and pumped up for each other. It was also about 10 minutes away from my new workplace. I eventually asked Greg to become my coach and he took me under his wing. I now compete with the Catalyst Athletics team with Greg as my coach.
I’ve been to a handful of National level meets, but scheduling is tough when you have to work 45+ hours a week. Making an international team has eluded me for some time now, but I feel as though I’m slowly making my way through the rankings. I like to keep most of my PRs on the down low, but here are some numbers:
Snatch: 165 kg
Clean and Jerk: 212 kg
Back squat: 300 kg
Front squat: 255 kg
Overhead squat: 200 kg
Nothing too spectacular, but like the saying goes - Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Please give a basic description of your training. Just tell us as much as you can about your program, weekly/yearly planning, etc.
My training varies depending on what we are focusing on for the current cycle, what meet we will be competing at next, what weaknesses I need to work on, etc. Greg and I usually sit down for 10-15 minutes after a big competition and talk about what we think needs to be improved upon and how we can program for it. He and I have a pretty open dialogue about aches, pains, what’s working, what’s not working, and how I’m feeling day to day. Based on all of that, the program may change for the day, week, or month. I think being honest and open with your coach is one of the most important things in a weightlifters career. Everybody wants to be a badass and push through every single workout, even if their knee is killing them and they need eight ibuprofen before a workout, but I’ve learned that process is similar to one step forward two steps back. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to listen to my body more. I relay the info to Greg and we do what we can. I would say that my program is typically very different from everybody else’s on the team; most of the team may be on some variation of a basic template Greg has laid out for everybody, with some specialization for others. Maybe it’s because I’m a super, maybe it’s because I’m older, maybe it’s a combination, I’m not sure. But we’ve come to a point where we know how much we can push my body and when to back off.
Describe some of the obstacles you face, or maybe some things that frustrate you in your weightlifting life. What kinds of changes would you like to see, either personally or with the sport in general?
Honestly, it’s hard for me talk about the frustrations and obstacles that pop up. I am very blessed to have a caring and super supportive family that understands what I am trying to achieve. I’ve lost a lot of friends throughout the years because of sports/weightlifting, but my real friends are still around and we catch up like no time has passed, even if it’s been eight months since we last saw each other. I have a very supportive team and coach that I work with on a daily basis. I really can’t complain.
I will say that one of the largest obstacles I have to face daily is my work schedule. I’m not complaining or whining at all; everybody on the weightlifting team has a job or is at least working, and my coworkers are very supportive of me. But like I stated earlier, when you work 45+ hours a week, your time is very limited for prehab, training, recovery, etc. I suppose this stems from the question of what I want to do after my competitive weightlifting career is over. High level athletes from other sports (track and field, football, basketball, baseball, even MMA) are able to simply focus on training and get paid. I know there are always variables, like MMA guys working part time jobs, but in general if you are part of the cream of the crop, you are getting taken care of. I’m also not saying I’m part of the cream of the crop, all I’m stating is that there’s no such system with weightlifting in the USA. Weightlifters from other countries are getting paid like the professional athletes out here. Of course, they aren’t getting paid millions, but they are able to make enough money to make a living.
Bills start adding up out here. Food, chiropractic appointments, supplements, travel expenses for national meets, gas, among a slew of others things start to add up. How are you going to get all that without the money to pay for it? So there’s that obstacle. I don’t know how to fix it, I haven’t thought about it. I’m literally just keeping my head down, blocking out all the outside noise, and trying to lift as much as possible. But again, I’m not complaining. My family, friends, and team are all there for me and make it a better situation for me.
What are your plans and goals for your weightlifting career? How do you see your future in the sport? Do you plan to stay involved in weightlifting after your top competitive years are over?
I don’t talk too much about plans and goals with everybody. I keep that info to a small circle. What I can say is that I would love to make an international team. I think making a Pan Am and World Championship team are pretty good goals. As far as my future in the sport, I am always optimistic. I’ve had a lot of setbacks with injuries and what not, but I am always hopeful for the future. I’m starting to get into my groove where I can really understand my body and can tell what seems to be working and what isn’t. I know a lot of weightlifters hit their peak and start to fade once they hit their late 20’s, but thankfully I’m a super. I don’t know how or why, but supers tend to stick around longer. Once my competitive career is over, I do believe I’ll be involved in one way or another. I’ll always be in the gym; it’s not something I can just hang up.
What is it like having a father who was a weightlifting legend? Does it make your own career harder, or is it something that inspires you?
I’m not going to lie; this is one of the toughest questions I get asked constantly. My father was a phenomenal athlete – I can list all the achievements I know about, but most likely will miss a bunch of others. I end up telling people that he’s left some pretty big shoes to fill and if I can be half the athlete he was, I would be happy. In that regard, it can be daunting going after his numbers. I know what they are and sometimes they seem out of reach. But at the same time, when he and I talk weightlifting, he has a lot of faith in me and wants me to surpass him. It’s pretty inspiring to me. There are a lot of fathers who live through their children because of their athletic mishaps, but my father is the exact opposite. He’s been to the top of the mountain and now he wants me to do better than him. In the end, it’s definitely a challenge carrying my last name, but my father believes I’m up to the task and so do I.
Who are some of your major influences, people you look up to, etc.? Who are the people you want to thank for your success?
The one person I look up to the most in my life is my father. His own story always amazes me and it pushes me to do better. He never forced me into weightlifting - it was always my choice – but I’m glad I took that first step and he was there to guide me. I don’t really know if I can cite other major influences; I always wanted to do this on my own. I can name three of my favorite lifters (not including my father): Evgeny Chigishev, Vasily Alekseyev, and Ken Patera. Chigishev was a beast, even when he was giving up 20-30 kgs of bodyweight to other lifters. Alekseyev just made everything look easy and kept breaking the world records every meet. Patera is a family friend (I’ve been calling him Uncle Ken since I was little) and one of the strongest lifters the US has had. I know how much he lifted and hearing other hilarious stories about him always cracks me up.
I have a long list of people I want to thank for my success. I may be the one on the platform, but there are plenty of other people behind the scenes that got me there. I want to thank my father, for always being there for me and being the best mentor/coach/father I can ask for. I want to thank my family for being supportive of me throughout all these years and continuing to do so. I want to thank Jim Schmitz for training me all those years down in the dungeon of South San Francisco. I want to thank Greg Everett for taking me under his wing and having me on the Catalyst Athletics team. Also, the entire Catalyst Athletics team for pushing me every day. There are also a slew of people that Greg and I see at national meets that help out in the back during my warmups, like Matt Foreman. I’ll take all the help I can get in the back because it takes the stress off me. I know I’m missing a bunch of people and the list can go on and on, but these are the main groups/people I want to thank.
Thanks for the contribution, Brian. You’re walking your own road, and the big years are ahead of you. Best of luck with your amazing career.