Sean Brown understands. He knows that the onus is on him to do the heavy lifting when the conversation turns to his chosen sport and passion given the few of us who have lifted a barbell tend to do it as a means to some other sporting achievement rather than an end in itself.
His is a sport that exists on the margins in Ireland where, Brown says, it is in its infancy. There are GAA clubs out there with more members than Weightlifting Ireland so he makes for familiar ground when trying to sum up what it’s like to compete in this most ancient of disciplines.
“It’s unforgiving. I always compare it to golf. It’’s as technical as golf. If you are off a little bit with the lift you’’re going to miss it. It’’s the same way with golf. If you’re off with your swing a bit then you’re out of bounds and in a hedge but with golf there isn’t 150 kilos on your shoulders.” He came to it gradually. After a childhood that ticked all the usual sporting boxes. GAA, soccer, golf, he ticked them all. His true love was rugby and jokes that he “used to bate the head off Joey Carbery”, who was a few years younger than him when they played in Athy.
Carbery’s father was his coach at one point and his own dad Colm had been a scrum-half with De La Salle up in Dublin. Brown’s idol was Peter Stringer and he made it as far as a Leinster development team until a bad shoulder injury scuppered his dream to play for Ireland.
His interest in weightlifting had already been piqued by then and it continued to grow through three years studying sports and coaching in Preston and another three years managing a CrossFit gym in Atlanta, Georgia before the return home to Kildare.
He’s not huge by his sport’s standards but he is proud of his technique and he is untouchable here in Ireland. He has won five national titles in the 81kg division already despite the fact that he only started competing at the level in 2014.
Ranked the best pound-for-pound weightlifter here for the last four years, Brown had set his sights on Tokyo and he was within touching distance of becoming the first Irish Olympic weightlifter since Frank Rothwell competed in Munich in 1972 when everything shut down.
The vagaries of qualification, as is the case in most sports, are complex but he was ranked inside the world’s top 25 at the time. Bottom line is that he needed to shave ten off that number to book his place in Japan and it was eminently doable for all sorts of reasons.
The qualification system, which started in November of 2018 in Turkmenistan and involved regular events, had shifted the scales somewhat away from any dopers who would have been better served by competitions which were (no pun intended) more strung out.
Some countries had already been paying a price for anti-doping offences. Russia, for instance, were being allowed just one male lifter across the ten weight classes in Tokyo and Brown’s own form was suggestive of a man who could capitalise on the sins of others.
The last one was the Malta Open at the end of February when he claimed a silver in the snatch, another in the overall, and claimed a slew of qualification points in the process. Then the Europeans, due late last month, were postponed until September but he can’’t see that happening.
“Sure it’s all gone belly-up now, isn’t it?” So, what now?
Brown has a four-year old boy named Theo. He receives no government funding and has been juggling commitments with CrossFit Ireland, for whom he works full-time, and Weightlifting Ireland, for whom he works voluntarily, with other coaching and his own competitive ambitions.
Tokyo 2021 would be a big enough ask now, let alone Paris three years later.
“That’s the burning question, isn’t it? It’s been eating away at the back of my mind. I’m 28 now and I’ll be turning 32 come Paris. That’s old enough in the weightlifting world, especially for an athlete like myself that is working a full-time job, has a family and hasn’t any state funding.
“My whole motivation is gone down the swanee. I have done very little weightlifting training, Malta was a great step, two medals for Weightlifting Ireland, pumped up my points and I was making great strides. We’re in limbo as to what will happen.”
He’s not alone in finding this new normal so surreal. Thomas Barr and Annalise Murphy are just two other athletes to speak about the difficulty in adapting to life with no finishing line in sight but it’’s not like he’’ll be stuck for things to do.
There’s the two or three online classes every day for CrossFit Ireland, his own training if he so chooses and little Theo to keep happy as well. And, who knows, he may even dust down the golf clubs now that the restrictions are being eased and see if he can still hit that nine-iron.