The southern part of the middle-of-nowhere Russia, around the Caucus Mountains, produces an incredibly large amount of world champion wrestlers, boxers, Sambo fighters and weightlifters. Some people say it’s because of the fresh water, air and food – because of the warrior temperament, and the high elevation. But the athlete selection process has something to do with it also.
In 1999, a local coach gets access to a training facility in Kabardino-Balkaria, a region in the south of Russia. He invites 50 local kids to try out the sport of weightlifting. The kids are 12-14 years old, and all of them are eager to impress the coach and their peers. The coach knows how to find the athletes with the right characteristics for weightlifting. He gives them 3-6 hours of training every day for 2 months. Only the strong will survive. Within 3 weeks, the kids who don’t have the mental strength needed to endure the stress quit. The ones who don’t have the muscular endurance needed for the workload wash out. The ones who aren’t coordinated enough to do the lifts are asked to leave.
At this point, only 10 or so remain. They are determined and capable of working the hardest.
Over the following 5-6 weeks, the workouts get harder. Those without naturally good technique either get injured or can’t keep up with the increasing volume and intensity.
The coach knows that the ones who keep coming back will be able to withstand the workload needed to become the best in the world – the kids who will actually be a worthwhile investment.
At the end only 2 remain: Vasiliy Polovnikov and Khadzhimurat Akkaev.
The details of this story may be skewed, but this type of athlete selection process is relatively standard. This is a way in which many coaches select the people who they want to work with for years to come.
Khadzhimurat Akkaev and Vasiliy Polovnikov had something in them from the very get-go. Dmitry Klokov once said that Akkaev was born to be a weightlifter and Polovnikov was naturally stronger than a real human being should be. This is why they passed those first 2 months in Kabardino-Balkaria – they had everything that they needed to be good weightlifters from the start.
All champions are not born equal, nor are they selected for the same reasons and via the same process. Every coach has a unique list of characteristics they want in their athletes. Femur length, age of onset puberty, hand size – anything can play a role in a coach’s selection process. In the end, all coaches have the same intent – to select the athletes they believe they can coach to the highest level.