Besides my parents, no other adult has had more of an impact on my life than Darren Llewellyn. Darren was (and still is) a teacher at Wheeling High School, and was my first and most important training mentor, and one hell of a friend. This is the story of how he became one of the most important people in my life.
The summer before 8th grade was when my father finally caved and allowed me to start lifting weights. Before the barbell, my dad told me to build my strength the old-fashioned way: push-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups, and running.
And I did. I did push-ups in my room, chin-ups on the clothesline my mom had for the summer laundry, and ran my ass off while competing in cross country, track/field, football, basketball, and baseball.
Yes, I played all those sports every year through junior high. Things were different back then. We played sports – all sports. No one specialized; we just wanted to go out and compete and win.
Like most people obsessed with strength, the bodyweight training wasn't going to cut it. I wanted to lift heavy. I wanted to look and perform like a superhero. I wanted an armor of muscle.
My dad also worked at Wheeling High School and had keys to the weight room. During that first summer, he'd open the doors and help me get situated. For the first two months, we did the Nautilus machine circuit, complete with a How-To Guide to every exercise modeled by the great Larry Csonka.
I figured if Nautilus was good enough for Csonka, it was good enough for me. Little did I know this was my first taste of the fitness industry pulling the wool over the eyes of the unknowing public.
Still I labored away, training every other day with the circuit, pushing myself and straining what little muscle I had. I learned a valuable lesson through all this: sometimes a lot of effort will trump brains and knowledge.
Around the third month, I got a taste of free weights. Bench press, squats, incline presses and bent-over rows made up the bulk of the program, one that I somehow created with the aid of a few posters on the wall.
I did some curls, reverse curls, leg extensions, and leg curls to finish off the workout; all of them performed on one day. I didn't have the buying power I have now to get books and the Internet was just a wet dream in the mind of Al Gore, so I learned through anatomically correct posters how to squat and bench press.
It's amazing what you can learn with an iron will. Here's my dad's coaching tip on the squat: "Shit on the floor, don't shit on your feet." Apparently, squatting has become much more difficult over the years, but this seemed to work for me.
Every other day, I'd go to the weight room after my sport practice or game and train by myself (remember I was in the 8th grade and was in a separate school). While in the weight room, I was surrounded by high school kids and all of them looked like beasts.
I made sure to keep to myself. Seniors were benching over 300 pounds and squatting over 500. There was an air of strength, confidence, and camaraderie – all of which I was clearly not a part of.
I was intimidated. I couldn't even put 25-pound plates on the bar to incline press. My bench was equally as awful. My squat sucked. But I stuck with it.
My older sister, who was in high school, was even told that I was going to get beat up if I kept coming into the weight room. I figured a good beating was worth it; no one was going to keep me away.
Listen, Don't Ask
Throughout this first year, there was always one constant when I'd go to the weight room: Darren. He'd always be in there doing something "crazy" – heavy squats, deadlifts, push-press, jerks, hang cleans and snatches, jumps and throws. (Well, at the time they seemed crazy.)
He'd do weighted sit-ups off the roman chair with 100 pounds behind his head. He'd bound over 10 high hurdles like a jackrabbit and come back and squat 400 pounds explosively. He did one-leg squats before they became the new fad.
Darren was intimidating to me but in a different way. It wasn't so much his attitude but how he carried himself and how he trained. He was fast and strong, probably still one of the most explosive people I'd ever seen train. He had a killer mullet (these were cool back then and I still tease him about it today), big legs, and a big back (Darren weighed around 225 pounds and is about 6'1").
He also had an air of confidence and purpose when he trained. He was focused on every lift and attacked the weights and the training session. While I thought I was intense, it was never focused – a beginner lifter can never really be focused.
You may think you're focused, but when you've trained for 20+ years everything moves to a level that a beginner can't fathom. It's truly being in the moment; where your experience and training background come together and move a barbell that seems impossible.
For the first six months, Darren said nothing to me. Nothing. Finally, one day he said, "You should do straight leg deadlifts," and then walked away. Over the next year, the communication increased to two more instructions: "You should do cleans," and "You need to squat deeper." That's it. He talked to other kids in the weight room, the older ones, but never to me.
I never asked Darren why he said these things to me. I trusted him. He was faster, stronger, and better than me. I didn't even ask for direction; I knew my place and that was to keep my fat mouth shut and work, so I knew that this advice was what I needed.
I added these lifts into my training. I watched Darren perform a clean and mimicked it. I learned that if I jumped with the barbell and was aggressive, the weight moved faster. I didn't need a 6-hour course and a certification to do a clean, just a little common sense and a touch of athleticism.
Lesson: When someone that is better than you gives you advice, listen. Don't ask questions.
Train like an Athlete
The summer before my freshman year I trained and trained, wanting to kick as much ass on the football field as possible.
And my freshman year was damn good – I played three sports, and did well in each of them. But with training, I fell into the "more is better" and was always overtrained, especially during football season.
Darren began talking to me more and we discussed training. He kept telling me that the main lifts – the squat, clean, deadlift, and bench press – were the most important.
He'd talk about great throwers, football players, and Olympic athletes and their training. These guys weren't bodybuilders; just athletes that were moving fast and throwing far.
They all used jumps; bounding on top of boxes and over hurdles to be explosive. They'd throw weighted objects to develop explosive strength in the upper body. They lifted heavy weights in the weight room to get strong and jumped to be fast. They ran their bodies into shape and stretched to be flexible. Darren was very interested in martial arts and showed me how the stretches and kicks helped develop strength and flexibility.
About midway through my freshman year, I got it. Darren never told me exactly what to do, but he told me stories, lifting parables if you will, that emphasized his point. It was up to me to put the pieces together. Even with my public education, I got it!
I changed my training to emphasizing a few big lifts a day and some basic assistant work. The training was no longer 2-3 hours – my weight room time was cut down to an hour of work. Unfortunately, Darren and I talked too much, so it was 3 hours of weight room time, with an hour of work.
Lesson: Lift to get strong, jump to be fast – don't do anything unnecessary.
While in junior high school, I developed a love for the discus. I threw very well in junior high and it was only natural that I continue in high school. Anyone that's met me knows that physically, I'm not suited to throw the implement. I'm 5'10" and my arms aren't long. Still, I threw all through high school and it was then when Darren and I became close. This is where I learned much about training and life, and especially, control.
To throw a discus correctly, and most importantly far, you have to be fast. But you can't be so fast that your body gets out of position. There's a tendency to want to rush the spin and the throw, all in the name that "faster is better," and will result in a longer throw.
This is not the case.
I had to learn how to slow down, but be fast. I had to learn how to relax but be tense. I had to learn how to control my emotions in the ring. This wasn't football where you can let your emotions lead you – you always had to be in control. You had to be in control of your body, your emotions, and your mind. No matter how good my lifting was going, how fast I could run, or high I could jump, it didn't matter if I didn't master control.
During the last two years of high school, Darren taught me how to be in control. He'd teach me how to relax before a meet but never to the point where I wasn't focused. This included keeping "us" (the throwers) together and not letting others into our circle. We had our own close group that took the throwing and training seriously but always had a good time doing so. Success was paramount; we all wanted and encouraged each other to throw personal records.
Methodical – this is the word Darren had me say every time I entered the ring. I'd repeat this to myself slowly as I began the spin. If I was into S&M, this would've been the "safe" word. It slowed the world down. It slowed me down.
One Saturday that really helped me. We had a large track and field meet – the shot put and discus always start the meet and the morning wind didn't favor right-handed throwers. During warm-ups, the disc kept rising in the air and dying immediately. I wasn't happy.
My first throw was awful – the disc wobbled out of my hand and landed about 30 feet less than I should've thrown. Frustrated, I tried to muscle out my next throw and like the first, it was woefully inadequate. While it was better, good enough to win the meet, that didn't matter to me. I'd rather set a personal record and get last than a win on a shitty throw.
I cursed myself and vowed to train harder. Darren looked at me and smiled and laughed. "Just relax and be in control of yourself. You'll be fine." The final throw was better. My spin was relaxed and fluid and the discus finally hit 150 feet. Not great, but not bad.
Still mad at myself for my poor performance, Darren took me aside. "You don't have control of the wind," he explained. "You don't have control of the time of the day that we throw. You don't have control over the ring conditions. But what you do have control over is yourself and how you react. You came through on the last throw and that is what's important."
With these lessons I was able to qualify for the State meet two years in a row and finish in the Top 10 my senior year. This is one of my most cherished athletic memories. I felt like we had both won.
Lesson: Control the things that you have control over; don't worry about the rest.
Towards the end of my senior year, I finally asked Darren why he never spoke to me during my first year in the weight room. And it was this lesson that I have taken with me in all areas of my life. His answer:
"Because you hadn't earned it. I've written hundreds of programs and helped so many kids and teachers with their training – and almost all of them quit after the first week. I had to see if you were going to stick with it. I had to see if you were serious. I'm not going to waste my time or energy."
We all have someone like Darren in our lives. Unfortunately, few people are receptive to it or exhibit the will, heart, and resolve to show them that they deserve their attention.
I know because I see it around me daily. I see kids and lifters that ask questions and think they want to be great and strong, but always fall short of the small amount of commitment it takes to prove themselves. Everyone wants a handout rather than earn it.
I can hear it now, "Well, If I had someone like Darren, things would be different," or something equally martyring. Take some accountability for your life and your actions – you probably did have someone like that, but did you do everything in your power to make it happen?
Thousands of kids have been around Darren and very few have ever taken the time to actually take advantage of him. And by "take advantage" I mean, doing all the work necessary, plus overtime. Plus shutting your mouth.
Lesson: You have to earn the right to be mentored.
Athletically, Darren is an anomaly. He's one of the few people that I know who's "Jack of All Trades, Master of Many." He is a tremendous lifter and competitor; he's played at a high level in soccer, rugby, team handball, threw the javelin and discus and even ran competitively in indoor sprints.
He always had a goal, even if it really meant "nothing." His attitude is that having and reaching a goal is paramount in life – this not only gives your life (and training) meaning but it helps carve you as an individual. But the weird thing is that Darren had goal A.D.D. He'd set a goal, reach it, and then move on to something completely different.
I look back and know that I was always a goal setter. With school, life, work, and training, I always had goals, and still do. But I see now what Darren was doing. As you get older, you become a different person. Your body changes. Your life changes. The weights I once did and the goals I once had are no longer "me."
It's okay to let that part of you go and move on. You don't have to be hung up trying to recapture the weights that you once did when you were 21. I can't be that person that carried the ball 20-30 times a game in high school, played both ways, and never came off the field. Chasing those dreams or those weights is a fruitless and scary pursuit that only leads to disappointment.
But I'm a new person and can adjust the goals. There's tremendous freedom in not adhering to other's standards and expectations to what you should be. Rather, the goals you set are yours and should follow your mind and heart.
Lesson: Your goals and your life are your own; true freedom is not allowing others to make them for you.
Coming from a family of teachers – both my mother and father taught for 20+ years – I know how frustrating it can be. You teach thousands of kids but may only "reach" a handful. I talked to Darren recently and told him that, at the very least, his years being an educator were not wasted on me.
I never had Darren as a teacher in class, which is probably a good thing. It probably would've been terribly one-sided, turning into the Darren and Jim Show, the class curriculum being entirely training and philosophy – an odd mix and probably not something that the school board would deem appropriate.
Looking back, it was the constant training and mix of philosophy that he'd throw at me that helped change me as a person. I learned control over my feelings, goal setting, how to compete, and how to be a better person. Even today, I remember things and quotes that he told me and help me every day.
"Put your hand in a bucket of water. Take it out and the hole that you leave is how much impact you will have on the world. But the drops of water that are on your hand; are the parts of your life that you need to worry about. Those belong to you."
Darren, thank you for everything.