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News, Pictures, & Videos: Kyle Ernst In The Spotlight
Topic: News, Pictures, & Videos: Kyle Ernst In The Spotlight (Read 623 times)
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News, Pictures, & Videos: Kyle Ernst In The Spotlight
Jul 17, 2006, 01:43 PM »
America's Top Young Lifter Turns to Inner Strength for this Battle
By Ed Miller
A storm blew up over Caguas, Puerto Rico, late in the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2005. It knocked out electricity in the arena hosting the Junior Pan-American Weightlifting Championships.
Thunder boomed. Rain hammered the metal roof. In the murky light, 17-year-old Kyle Ernst stepped up to the platform to attempt to lift more weight than any American his age ever had.
Kyle was having the meet of his life. He had not missed a lift. He'd broken the American record in the snatch and was attempting to break his own mark in the clean and jerk.
He'd never been quicker, more explosive. On this day, in one of the most technical of sports, every muscle in Kyle's body was working in harmony.
He powered 398 pounds overhead. The crowd drowned out the sound of the rain. One witness described it as pandemonium.
He stood on the platform, the strongest teen in America. No one in the crowd would have believed it, but deep inside, his body had already turned against him.
A seven-second video reveals a lot about Kyle Ernst.
The clip opens with Kyle in a crouch as a 300-pound barbell, plunging like a safe from a second-story window, lands squarely across his upper back.
Kyle's cheeks puff out as the wind is knocked from him. He staggers under the weight as he buckles to the mat. His right knee hits first, then his left hand, which he uses to break his fall. His left knee touches down next, just ahead of the thick red plates on the bar.
With his right hand, Kyle muscles the bar over his neck while curled on the mat. The bar dings him on the back of the head and continues rolling until two men run onto the mat to stop it.
Kyle rises to a knee and then bounces to his feet. There's a hint of a grin on his face as he snaps off a two-fingered wave and strides off the mat.
That was Kyle: strong, fearless and a little cocky.
Bulletproof, his coach used to say.
Kyle began lifting the summer before his freshman year at Great Bridge High. He was naturally strong, but it takes more than raw strength to excel in Olympic weight lifting . It takes quickness, balance, flexibility, technical precision.
The snatch has been called the quickest movement in sports. It is performed by accelerating the bar overhead and catching it with arms locked, while at the same time pulling the body under it. The lifter then rises from a squat with the bar held aloft. In the clean and jerk, the bar is cleaned to chin level, then jerked overhead by dipping and driving with the legs.
Olympic lifters don't develop sculpted, bulging physiques like body builders. They grow thick through the legs and back. The sport is about summoning lightning bursts of power.
The Ernst boys, Kyle and his older brother, Paul, were not imposingly big but were more physically mature than most teens their age. Their coach, Chris Wilkes, saw that immediately. Paul, a stocky 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, is two years older than Kyle. He was known around the gym as the Man Child for his heavy beard and his prodigious strength. Kyle wasn't far behind.
Wilkes, a former Norfolk police officer, began training students at Great Bridge, then moved the operation to the garage of his home. Soon Paul and Kyle were among the best in the country.
It wasn't just strength and technical ability that set them apart. When Kyle began lifting, there was another teenager with just as much potential, and the two of them improved at the same rate. But as the weights grew heavier, the other boy lost his nerve. Wilkes had seen it before.
Fear says, I'm not getting under that bar, Wilkes said.It's not natural to drop your body under 300 pounds.
Olympic lifting is not a popular spectator sport, and competitors accustomed to the solitude of the gym can be unnerved by even small crowds.
Wilkes solution was not to ignore the crowd but to confront it. Before meets, he had his athletes walk out and size up the crowd. Some took a quick glance. Others stood and stared.
Kyle, bigger than his brother at 5-foot-10 and about 230 pounds, worked through his fears both in the gym and on the competition platform. Weights he couldn't lift in the gym flew over his head at meets.
He grew stronger. And more headstrong. He and Wilkes clashed over Kyle's diet, over the amount of sleep he needed. Once, Kyle was caught drinking.
That didn't go over well with me, Wilkes said.
In the gym, Wilkes detected a cocky edge in Kyle. He saw it in the way he treated the other lifters. The way he expected to use the best bar. They were minor things, but they combined to create an impression of a kid who'd grown too sure of himself too fast.
Then, Kyle had a transformation. After his sophomore year, he decided to give up football and concentrate on lifting, with the goal of winning a national title. His brother, Paul, was heading off to West Point and would eventually leave the sport because of a back injury.
Kyle threw himself into it. He trained not just harder, but smarter. He watched what he ate, got enough sleep.
â€œHe looked at it as his dream,â€ Wilkes said.
Within a year he won his first national title.
Last October, a couple of weeks before the meet in Puerto Rico, Kyle was walking shirtless through the kitchen of his Great Bridge home when his mother, Jordis, noticed something on his lower back, near the waistline of his boxer shorts. It looked like a blood blister, dark against his fair skin.
She thought they should have a doctor look at it. Kyle said no, he wasn't doing anything until after he returned from the Junior Pan-Am competition.
Kyle was looking forward to Puerto Rico. For once, he felt completely healthy, free of the nagging injuries- sore wrists, elbows, knees that come with hoisting hundreds of pounds overhead.
No one knew how long the mole had been there. A month? A year? Kyle didn't give it a second thought as he blew away the competition in Puerto Rico.
He returned home and saw a pediatrician the next day. The doctor thought the mole was probably nothing to worry about but referred them to a dermatologist. A couple of weeks passed before they could get in to see him, on Nov. 7. The dermatologist removed the mole in his office, and explained that most likely it was a Spitz nevus , a benign mole that occurs in children and adolescents. He sent it off to be analyzed.
Kyle wasn't worried. He felt stronger than ever. He resumed training for the American Open, in Kissimmee, Fla., where he'd be competing against grown men. The top lifter in his group was 31 .
On Nov. 26, with Paul home from West Point for Thanksgiving, the family gathered to take its annual Christmas card picture.
The picture shows a handsome family: Kyle's dad in a black suit, his mom in a black dress, Kyle in a dark sport coat and Paul in his West Point dress blues.
Kyle informed his mother that her child-rearing duties were complete, a fact she noted in the family's Christmas letter. She also wrote that Kyle's father, Greg, who worked as a physical therapist at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, was retiring and the family was moving to Texas. The family's prized bulldog, Mrs. Beefy, was due to give birth in a few weeks.
No doubt, she wrote, it was going to be the best Christmas ever.
At Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, they weren't sure what to make of Kyle's biopsy. A pathologist took slides to a weekly meeting at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Still, no one could come up with a clear diagnosis.
On Dec. 3, Kyle received an invitation to live at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, while attending college at a University of Colorado campus there.
Only 10 male lifters in the country, of all ages, are selected.
On Dec. 4, he finished fifth at the American Open, where he was the youngest of 17 lifters by three years.
Doctors, still uncertain of a diagnosis, ordered a lymph node biopsy. On Dec. 8, they removed the sentinel, or first, lymph node from Kyle's groin, and also carved a swath of skin from his lower back, on either side of where the mole had been.
Kyle's dad checked the hospital's computer system each day at work for the lab results. On Dec. 14, he found them.
Kyle's parents were waiting for him when he got home from school.
He took it pretty hard the first hour, his dad recalled.
The diagnosis was melanoma. The cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. The five-year survival rate was 63 to 69 percent.
None of it made sense. Didn't melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, usually occur in much older people? Wasn't it mostly caused by exposure to the sun?
No one could remember Kyle even having so much as a bad sunburn. He felt fine, strong as ever. Now, they were telling him he was sick? How could that be?
How do you tell someone who just put 400 pounds over his head that you've got this disease and you could die? Wilkes said. It's weird.
The family had decided that if the test results revealed something bad, they'd take things one day at a time. Still, they weren't prepared for what was coming.
The rest of December was a blur. The day after Kyle was diagnosed, Mrs. Beefy, the family's bulldog, died while giving birth, leaving five puppies requiring round-the-clock care.
Three days before Christmas, doctors removed the lymph nodes from Kyle's groin. He returned for a second surgery a week later, after the wounds became infected.
Our lives stopped, his mom, Jordis, said. His dad and I couldn't stop crying.
Everything was crashing down, like that 300-pound barbell. Kyle reacted the same way he had then.
I was kind of like, 'Aw, crap, he said.
He shook it off and got back on his feet.
His main concern was getting back in the gym.
He returned Jan. 15, with drainage tubes dangling from his groin. As a concession, he worked his upper body only during training.
The next step was to decide on a treatment plan. Doctors in Portsmouth mentioned interferon, a drug that has been shown to reduce the risk of a melanoma recurrence. Patients whose cancer had spread to the lymph nodes, as Kyle's had, are at higher risk. Between 70 and 80 percent of those patients have a recurrence within three to five years, according to the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Interferon has been shown to decrease that rate by 10 to 15 percent.
The trade-off is that the side effects can be severe: fever, chills, joint pain, nausea, headaches. Doctors in Portsmouth said some patients quit the treatment after a week.
The Ernsts flew to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas for a second opinion, hoping there might be a new treatment . Doctors there told them interferon was Kyle's best option.
Kyle's dad began researching the drug and joined an online support group. Kyle, still recovering from surgery, got back in the gym, to gear up for the National Junior Championships in Altamonte Springs, Fla.
Kyle was less than three months removed from surgery. He felt strong, but didn't have that extra oomph he'd had in Puerto Rico. He snatched 297 pounds and managed 383 pounds in the clean and jerk. His two-lift total was 680 pounds, 28 less than he'd done in Puerto Rico.
Even on a bad day, Kyle was stronger than everyone else in his weight class. He returned home March 13 with another national title.
He went straight from the airport to the hospital to begin treatment.
On the worst days, Kyle Ernst and his mother, Jordis, would return from Portsmouth Naval Medical Center with the car windows rolled up and the heat blasting. Kyle, a burly kid who never got cold, would huddle in the passenger seat, unable to stop shivering.
Other days, Kyle would shuffle around the house like an old man, wrapped in a blanket, his temperature spiking to 103 as the drug interferon, intended to prevent a recurrence of his melanoma, coursed through his body.
His mom would lie on top of him in bed, trying to keep him warm. When he felt really bad, sheâ€™d toss one of the family's bulldog puppies in bed with him.
I'd take this for you, in a heartbeat, she told him one day.
Mom, he said, joking, I'd give it to you.
They had known that the first 30 days would be the worst. The treatment called for Kyle to receive a high dose of interferon for that long, followed by 48 weeks of a lower dosage.
The high dosage was given intravenously, but Kyle didn't want a permanent line. That would have prevented him from lifting weights. Corpsmen pricked a vein to open a new line each time.
Doctors never told Kyle not to lift. That would have been pointless.
When Kyle's surgeon was sent to Iraq, he told the doctor taking over that Kyle was not your average patient.
Interferon affects each person differently. In general, the advice given to patients is to take things easy. As a University of Michigan Web site puts it:
Rest when your body tells you that you need to rest. Don't push yourself to exhaustion. This is a therapy that causes fatigue, and forcing yourself to be active can make things worse.
Kyle's idea of rest was to work out only four times a week, and maybe to do just a squat workout instead of a full one. Or maybe work on his lifting technique rather than doing a strength workout.
Still, some days he felt too drained to do much of anything. Kyle hated to admit it, but he was losing strength. At the end of his 30-day treatment, on April 18, he sat down and wrote an e-mail to Paul Fleschler, the head coach at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
OK, where to start? he wrote. I just finished my high dosage treatment of Interferon and lets just say it was hell in the gym.
Kyle, now 18, had a couple of weeks off before beginning the lower-dosage shots. He was going to use the time to prepare for the Junior Pan-American Championships in Cali, Colombia. Still, he'd been tiring quickly in the gym. The bottom line: The training center, a place designed to help produce Olympians, wouldn't be getting the guy it thought it was when Fleschler made the offer in December.
I hope you are still willing to take a chance on me, because I plan on staying focused and doing everything the team does up there without missing a beat but maybe a little behind. Once the year is up watch out is all I have to say.
Fleschler responded the next day.
There are a lot of obstacles in the road of life but how you overcome them is what I'm concerned with. Even though I don't know you well, I have a pretty good sense of character. The character you have shown is something we want in the resident program.
Kyle got back in the gym but found the going tough. In Colombia, he walked on the platform and stood in front of 319 pounds, about 80 less than he'd lifted in Puerto Rico. It was a weight he once toyed with in the gym, pressing it overhead 25 or 30 times in a single workout.
Kyle tried three times but couldn't drive the bar overhead.
I didn't have the legs, he said. I was way too worn out.
He walked off the platform, and was surrounded by a handful of Colombian coaches. They'd seen him lift in Puerto Rico.
Where's your strength? they asked. Your strength?
Their English wasn't good. His Spanish was no better.
Kyle struggled to find the words to explain it . The diagnosis. The surgeries. The treatment.
Finally, he turned around, lifted his shirt, and showed them the scar on his back.
Kyle returned from Colombia and began low-dosage injections of interferon. He gives himself the shots, in the stomach or thigh, three times a week.
He's not complained, not one minute, his mom said. He's the one who's totally helped us.
Kyle's mom sat in the kitchen on a sunny May afternoon. As she talked, Kyle walked through, just as he had on that day back in October.
His mom was talking about the day in December when Kyle came home from school and saw both of his parents waiting for him.
He said, 'Please don't tell me I have cancer.
Mom, I didn't say it like that, he said. You always make everything sound so dramatic.
Kyle said it quietly, the way he says most everything. He wore gold Great Bridge Wildcats gym shorts, a white USA Weightlifting T-shirt and flip-flops.
He had just awoken and had a few days of stubble around his goatee. He naps a lot. One day, he came home from school and slept for five hours.
After returning from Colombia, he had a couple of moles removed from his back, as a precaution. He had a brain scan that turned out clean. He gets his blood tested regularly, so doctors can monitor the effects of the interferon. One week, he had to go off the drug when it caused a painful rash on his legs. When he resumed the shots, he picked up a sinus infection that he had a hard time shaking.
Kyle's dad, Greg, a physical therapist, has delved into the medical literature on melanoma. He can tell you that melanoma rates are rising faster than any other type of cancer. In 2005, 1 in 62 Americans had a lifetime risk of developing invasive melanoma, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Rates are also on the rise among teenagers and children.
He can tell you that although sun exposure is a major cause of the disease, not all melanomas are sun-related. Genetic factors and immune system deficiencies also play a role. He knows that melanoma is most likely to recur in the first two years after it is diagnosed. After five years, the likelihood of a recurrence drops dramatically.
Kyle knows the statistics, too , but he doesn't dwell on them. He's more interested in talking about his workout regimen, the technical details of his sport, how he's had to listen to what his body tells him.
In training sometimes, I'm a mental case, he said. I'll just pull a weight and I won't dive under it. But usually I'll just drop back down in weight and work and I'll be fine.
I've got to think about how my body's going to feel the next day and the day after that. It takes longer to recover.
Doctors have declared him cancer-free. There may not be a cancer cell in his body. There may be cells that have not been detected. The interferon he'll take until next spring is intended to prevent the growth of any such cells.
He doesn't ask himself why he got the disease. To him, it's something he had, confronted and has put behind him. The cancer never made him sick, though it would have eventually. The treatment, he's learned to deal with.
He talks about regaining his strength next year, after the drug is out of his body. He thinks he'll get it back quickly. Even if he'd been completely healthy, making the 2008 Olympic team was probably not going to happen. Most Olympic lifters, particularly the bigger ones, don't hit their stride until their late 20s, and they can continue adding strength well into their 30s. The 2012 games are a more realistic goal.
Kyle had a disease that drained his strength but also revealed it. Once, he had a teammate who tore a knee ligament and took four months off. He wondered how he'd react if he suffered a serious injury.
Now, he knows.
Many days, he forgets he even had cancer. It's only when he's reminded of what he's lost, in the gym, that it hits home.
If I didn't lift, I'd already consider it over, he said.
Lifting is what he's driven to do, though. So on that May afternoon, weeks before he would graduate from high school to start a new life at a state-of-the-art training facility, he hopped in his pickup for the five-minute ride to coach Chris Wilkes' garage.
He wanted to get in a workout before giving himself his shot. He let himself in his coach's house and walked down the hallway to the garage, its door covered with insulation, the room packed with chalk-stained iron and rubber plates, flat benches, free-standing racks, weightlifting posters, a kilos-to-pounds conversion chart.
Your work habits determine your future, said a sign on the wall.
Kyle changed from his flip-flops into weightlifting shoes and loaded a barbell with 270 pounds. He hoisted it to his chin, the way most people would a basket of laundry, and placed the barbell on a pair of metal stands.
He coughed. Then he coughed again.
The sinus infection. Still couldn't shake it.
He ducked under the bar, which sagged in the middle from the weight on both ends, and loaded it onto his shoulders, behind his neck. He backed clear of the rack, dipped his body and powered the bar overhead.
Holding it aloft, his arms spread in a V position; he bent his knees until his butt was just a foot from the floor. Then he did it again. The third time, he dipped but couldn't rise from his squat. Trembling, he struggled for several seconds before flinging the bar forward. It hit the platform with a thud and bounced waist-high.
He left it there and began coughing again.
Two overhead squats at 270 pounds. Not bad.
He was getting his strength back.
Kyle Ernst in '06 USA National Jr Weightlifting Champs
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News, Pictures, & Videos: Kyle Ernst In The Spotlight
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