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Guadalajara, Day 2: From aircraft mechanic to world champion – a remarkable journey for USA teenager Chhum

An American teenager who trains at 3am after finishing his shift as an aircraft engine mechanic has become a junior world champion, only two years after he introduced himself to weightlifting via YouTube.

Gabriel Chhum won decisively at 61kg at the 2023 World Junior Championships in Guadalajara, Mexico. The other winner on day two was Aleksandra Grigoryan from Armenia, who held off the challenge of two impressive Japanese women at 55kg.

Gabriel Chhum (USA)

“I started weightlifting because I quit football, and I needed to do something competitive to fill that gap,” said Chhum after a career-best 117-145-262 that earned a sweep of golds. “When I started watching videos I realised that there were body weight categories and I didn’t have to worry about how small I was. I fell in love with in and it went from there.”

Chhum, from Georgia, bought his own equipment, watched YouTube tutorials for beginners, “and really taught myself in my garage with a jaggedy bar and some steel plates. It was pretty rough”.

Several months later he found a coach, Jeremy Warner, and not long later he was in the USA team for the senior World Championships. Warner has been especially impressed by Chhum’s attention to detail and his commitment to hard work.

“Once he taught me how to snatch properly it made a big, big difference,” said Chhum, 19. “If I had a message to anybody taking up weightlifting, it would be ‘do what your coach says’ – and if you don’t have a coach, get one.”

Despite winning the Pan American junior title at 55kg last year, as well as making the senior World Championships team in Colombia where he finished 10th, Chhum has had to pay his own way much of the time. He is on a USA Weightlifting development stipend, but has to balance his work and sport.

Men’s 61kg podium

“It’s pretty rough trying to figure out the time slots for training and meals. I usually start training after work at three in the morning, get home around six and sleep till 2pm. The hours mess with your sleep schedule.

“So far I’ve been able to do both the job and the weightlifting. I don’t really have much of a life apart from that – I spend most of my time resting.”

After nearly a year of hard work in the gym, this was Chhum’s first competition since the senior Worlds last December. Next stop, if all goes well, will be the Pan American Championships in February. “My main goal in the long term is working towards going to the Olympics in 2028,” he said.

Elsayed Ali, from Egypt, finished second on 111-143-254, and Abraham Rivera from Venezuela was third on 113-135-248. Adolfo Tun Dzib from Mexico, the fourth man in the smallest field of these Championships, took clean and jerk bronze on 141kg.

Aleksandra Grigoryan (ARM)

Grigoryan held her nerve to win the women’s 55kg with her final lift of 107kg, edging ahead of two Japanese rivals who lacked experience but not talent. Grigoryan had made only two good lifts in finishing seventh at the senior World Championships in Saudi Arabia in September and had to dig deep for victory. She started with two good lifts but was fifth at halfway after missing her third.

After failing with her first clean and jerk Grigoryan, 18, was in trouble. But she made the next one at 102kg and successfully went up 5kg to take gold, finishing 81-107-188.

Nanasa Kawasaki, whose only previous international appearance was three years ago in the Asian Juniors, was 1kg behind on 84-103-187 and her team-mate Mao Tsutsumi was third on her debut on 83-103-186.

Nanasa Kawasaki (JPN)

Kawasaki, 20, had a head start in the sport. Her coach is her mother, a World Championships silver medallist in 1990 under her pre-marriage name of Satori Saito.

Tsutsumi, 19, went into weightlifting nine years ago after being spotted by a high school coach during a talent ID session, but had never performed at international level before. “I was nervous for my first competition but I felt strong and performed well,” she said.

When asked if they had expected to win a medal both women laughed and said, “Yes!”

They train together, support each other, and are good friends. Tsutsumi is studying sport science at university in Tokyo and Kawasaki is hoping to join the same course next year.

Malgorzata Myjak from Poland, who was third in snatch on 83kg, finished 7kg behind the top three on total.

By Brian Oliver

Photos by Giorgio Scala/Deepbluemedia