Matt Blankenship already had an impressive resume when it came to sports.
The former Maryville High School football standout was a linebacker on the 1998 Tennessee team that won a national championship. Twenty years later, Blankenship continues to strive for greatness — this time in competitive weightlifting.
“I’ve always been lucky enough to have a group of people around me who push me,” Blankenship said. “They wouldn’t let me be any less than the best.”
It’s Blankenship’s never-quit attitude that earned him a trip to Barcelona, Spain to compete in last month’s World Masters weightlifting competition. Blankenship, 42, tore it up in 85 kg weight class, placing first in the men’s age 40-45 division.
He also tore up his arm.
During the second of six lifts, Blankenship’s right bicep detached from his bone. The injury would require surgery to repair, but not before Blankenship finished the meet and became a world champion.
“When I found out it happened on his second lift, I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I knew this guy was tough,’” said Joe Rodriguez, Blankenship’s weightlifting coach. “But Holy Moly.”
Weightlifting competitions involve two types of lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. Competitors have three opportunities with each lift, and their bests are combined for their total weight.
Blankenship has only been competing in the sport for a year, but he developed a love for weightlifting as an athlete in high school and college. After graduating from Tennessee, he got into CrossFit and eventually opened up a gym in Maryville called 129 Athletics, where he works as a strength and conditioning coach.
“I just loved getting stronger,” Blankenship said. “I’m not tall in stature, and I wasn’t some monster guy, but (the gym) is one of the places that I could win.”
It was a Google search that sparked Blankenship’s competitive weightlifting career. He ended up on the USA Weightlifting website and was surprised to see that he could lift as much as many of the men in his weight class, if not more.
Last September, Blankenship competed in his first competition — the 2017 Tennessee Open championship. Not only did he place first, he also set a state record of 140 kg, or 308 lbs, in the clean and jerk.
Blankenship has also since set the state record in the snatch (116 kg).
“I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I could really do some damage here,’” Blankenship said. “But I didn’t have a really good understanding of the technique.”
What Blankenship lacked in technique, he made up for in strength. He placed first in the American Masters competition in Savannah, Ga., in November, qualifying him for the World Masters competition in Barcelona in August. His snatch lift (122 kg) set a U.S. record.
It was also at that meet that Blankenship met Rodriguez — a USA Weightlifting coach and referee based in New York. The pair exchanged numbers and five months prior to the world championship Blankenship asked Rodriguez to coach him remotely.
“I could see he’s got a lot of grit, and he’s definitely hyper-focused on his goals,” Rodriguez said. “We focused on technique more than anything because he was already super strong.”
Blankenship cut back on coaching to focus on preparing for the world championship. Rodriguez sent Blankenship weightlifting programs, and Blankenship sent Rodriguez videos of his workouts. Rodriguez then offered critique, such as “use your legs more” or “you’re throwing your head back too much. Find a spot on the wall and don’t take your eyes off it.”
“For someone who had coached a lot of people, he was very coachable,” Rodriguez said. “He’d come back and say ‘Hey, I painted a dot on the wall,’ and I’m like, ‘Awesome.’”
About a week prior to the world championship, Rodriguez got an unexpected call from Blankenship.
“He was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going,’” to which Rodriguez asked, “‘What do you mean? What happened?’”
What happened was a fluke accident that didn’t involve a 500-pound barbell, but rather a 12-year-old girl. Blankenship was spotting his daughter while she practiced tumbling drills in the backyard. She wanted to try a new trick — a standing back tuck.
“Apparently, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship put his right arm in the wrong spot, and his daughter landed on it, straining muscles in both his bicep and forearm.
“It was instant — the worst pain I’ve ever felt,” Blankenship said. “She felt terrible, I felt terrible. She’s seen me coach people, push people and motivate people. She looked me in the face before I left and said, ‘You’re going to be fine, you’re going to win this.’”
In the week leading up to the trip, Blankenship said his arm felt sore, but the pain was manageable. He encountered another setback after landing in Barcelona four days prior to the competition, when his arm swelled up and turned black and blue during his final training session. He panicked.
“I told my wife, ‘I may not be able to lift because I can’t pick nothing up,’” Blankenship said.
The morning of the big day, Blankenship was feeling good again.
That is, until his second snatch attempt.
Blankenship said when he caught the weight, he felt his right bicep tendon “roll up” into his shoulder. He maintained a poker face while walking off the stage, not wanting opponents to detect weakness. With Rodriguez unable to make the trip, Blankenship casually approached his interim coach, who was from Britain.
“We rolled my bicep back down,” Blankenship said. “He’s like, ‘We’re doing this, it’s the world championship. We’re doing this.’”
Fueled by adrenaline and an inspirational speech that involved a few expletives, Blankenship did it. He totaled 257 kg between his snatch (120 kg) and clean and jerk (137 kg) for the gold medal.
Blankenship won by three kilograms despite taking a conservative approach with his lifts after the bicep tear.
“I felt like I could have done quite a bit more,” Blankenship said, noting he had originally planned on lifting 12 kg more on the clean and jerk. “It’s an individual sport, it’s all on you. Overcoming my injury and doing that — it was really emotional.”
From a national champion in football to a world champion in weightlifting, Blankenship isn’t done. He expects to make a full recovery from his surgery. In fact, he’s already back squatting under the barbell while his right arm hangs by his side, still in a brace.
“At my age, everybody’s like, ‘That’s just too much weight, why do you do that? You’re going to hurt yourself,’” Blankenship said. “I’ve never felt better.”