Coach at NoDa weightlifting gym makes Olympic team

A weightlifting coach at Charlotte Strength will make his Olympic debut for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Caine Wilkes, 33, received word that he made the Olympic weightlifting team in the middle of May, after the team announcement was delayed more than a year because of COVID-19.

The qualification process originally started about a year and half before the scheduled 2020 Olympics. There would be six international competitions, and each competitor would take his or her four best scores from those competitions for a chance to make the Olympic team.

Wilkes had one more meet, the Pan American Championship, when COVID-19 forced everything to shut down.

“I was in a position where basically if I showed up at Pan Ams, I would be on the team,” Wilkes said. “I was in a really good position…then all of a sudden everything got postponed a year.”

The hope was to use the previous five competitions to qualify, but the International Olympic Committee announced in April 2020 that qualifications would remain open until June 29, 2021.

“It went from a month away to secure my spot to a year away to secure that,” Wilkes said.

The year was worth the wait, as Wilkes earned his spot with seven other weightlifters to complete Team USA. This will be the largest team of weightlifters the United States is sending to the Olympic Games since 1996.

“These eight athletes have proven their resilience continue to train throughout the year delay, our job now is to give them unrelenting support as they look to deliver each of their Olympic moments in Tokyo, en route to potentially our best Olympic Games in 61 years,” USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews said in a press release.

But before Tokyo, the team has a pitstop in Honolulu, Hawaii. Because of certain COVID-19 restrictions put in place, the team will be first training in Hawaii.

“We will be setting up our training camp for Tokyo there and then as people’s competition days come up, we will fly out of Honolulu to Tokyo,” Wilkes said. “We did it that way because if we went to Tokyo from the get-go, the restrictions they have set in place, we’d be living in a bubble. This is going to help us be able to have the support team we want there, like our specialists on staff at USAW. We will be able to see them in Hawaii because they won’t be able to make the trip to Japan because of restrictions.”

This year’s Olympics will not be open to foreign spectators, a disappointing announcement for all athletes. Wilkes was making plans for his wife and mother to make the trip to Tokyo, but instead they will head to Hawaii for a sendoff celebration.

“The nice thing is my dad, who has been my coach this whole time, he’ll be able to go out there,” Wilkes said. “I’ll have him in the back room with me and everything for warm-ups and the competition…Even though this is not the normal Olympics in the slightest, it’s really nice that we’re finding ways to get our family involved who has supported us for so long.”

Wilkes’s dad was with him when he first began weightlifting in 2000. He was the strength and conditioning coach at Wilkes’s middle school and high school, and weightlifting became an off-season supplement for football training.

After a couple of years with weight training, Wilkes decided to solely focus on weightlifting but never pictured himself making it to the largest competition stage in the world.

“At that point I was just having fun, throwing weights around,” Wilkes said. “I don’t think I ever really thought about making an Olympic team or even thought of the possibility of that. Maybe 8-10 years into the sport, and even at that point it was, ‘Oh, that would be really neat!’ not even thinking that it could be me.”

In 2016, he fell just short of the Rio Olympic team. Wilkes said earning his spot now just validates all the time and effort he has put into the sport.

“It is surreal to think about where I was and where I ended up,” Wilkes said. “…I feel like it’s slowly hitting me, like this is happening…I think right now I’m mostly just excited to be able to compete and I’m sure I’ll have nerves as always, part of competition, but for me it will be mostly just excitement to be on a big stage, the biggest competition stage I’ll probably ever be on.”

Wilkes leaves Charlotte on July 12 for Hawaii and then he officially leaves for Tokyo July 28. He is scheduled to compete on August 4 for the Men’s +109 kg Group.