Beaufort News

Beaufort teen CJ Cummings is America’s next great athlete

How does CJ do it? 9-year-old shows off his hero's techniques

Gabriel Justice Little, a 9-year-old weightlifter who trains with Coach Ray Jones and C.J. Cummings at CrossFit Beaufort, explains how to do the snatch and the clean and jerk, two common moves in weightlifting competitions.
Up Next
Gabriel Justice Little, a 9-year-old weightlifter who trains with Coach Ray Jones and C.J. Cummings at CrossFit Beaufort, explains how to do the snatch and the clean and jerk, two common moves in weightlifting competitions.

It’s dusk, and one of the best weightlifters in the world has to feed his dogs.

CJ Cummings pulls on a pair of black rubber boots from the garage of his Lady’s Island home and trudges through the soggy front yard toward a steel dog pen.

It is a typical teenager’s task. And watching CJ make the short trek to the pen, it is easy to forget he is about to begin a potentially life-changing trek this week. Sixteen weightlifters are chasing one spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

The odds are long for the 15-year-old, but the praise has been both hyperbolic and unrelenting. He’s been called the LeBron James of his sport. The Michael Jordan. Destined for a Wheaties box. “A wonderful talent,” USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews says.

The expectations are high but not unwarranted. CJ has lifted more than any other American man his size in history, regardless of age. His record clean and jerk lift at the USA Weightlifting National Championships last year was an American record of 175 kilograms, or 385 pounds. It’s like lifting a refrigerator overhead. More specifically, it’s like a 5-foot-4, 151-pound teenager lifting a refrigerator over his head.

If CJ is one of the top eight finishers this week at team trials in Salt Lake City, Utah, he will qualify for the Pan Am championships in June. There, the top lifter will be the only U.S. representative at the Olympics in August in Brazil.

But on this night, there are dogs to be fed.

Duchess jumps up and down excitedly as CJ arrives, and he has to ease through the gate to retrieve her bowls. After feeding her, he walks into the backyard, past pool equipment and discarded appliances, to feed Duke.

When he’s done, he’s back to the couch, eyes on the flatscreen above the fireplace. There is a Denzel Washington thriller to finish.

This week in Salt Lake City, Utah, the 15-year-old Cummings will lift at the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team trials. Thirty athletes will try to earn a spot on the team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Enjoying alone time

On a dark Wednesday morning in March, roosters crow behind the Cummings’ Lady’s Island home.

CJ exits the garage with his brother, Omar, 17, and jumps in the passenger seat of Omar’s white Dodge Charger. Reverse lights shine on the dirt driveway as the car backs away and heads for Beaufort High School.

Savasah Cummings, CJ and Omar’s mother, stands in the doorway dressed for her job teaching pre-K at Lady’s Island Elementary, where she has worked for almost 20 years. Her 5-year-old granddaughter, Christin — CJ and Omar’s niece — clings to Savasah’s leg and watches the boys drive away.

CJ’s classes include animation, geometry, English and economics, his favorite. When the lunch bell rings, he often retreats to the gymnasium alone with an orange and carton of milk and waits for his next class to begin.

He enjoys time to himself, whether in the gym at lunch, at home watching movies on the couch or at meets when not talking shop with other lifters.

“I really just enjoy the peace and quiet,” CJ says of his lunchtime routine.

While he has an agent and sponsorship deals — food service contractor Sodexo is using Cummings’ photo and story in a national marketing campaign targeting high school cafeterias — his routine still mostly mirrors that of a teen’s.

His phone — with Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook — is never far away, even during dinner. At Beaufort High School, CJ learns the Pythagorean Theorem. After classes, his school-teacher mother quizzes him about homework and upcoming report cards.

Yet he can’t escape his growing fame.

When people first began approaching CJ at meets for autographs, some of them grown men, he didn’t understand why. Gradually, he’s come to accept it, but not fully understand it.

“Sometimes I’ll be surprised at the attention I’m getting,” he said. “But I’ve just got to keep it in perspective. I just go with the flow.”

Science can’t explain it

Just after 3:30 p.m. the Charger squeaks into the parking lot of CrossFit Beaufort.

After sliding on a pair of blue knee braces, CJ lies flat on his back on the mat and throws his right leg across his body to stretch. The gym is quiet — only CJ, Omar, their father, Clarence, sister, Crystal and trainer Ray Jones are there.

Crystal started weightlifting with Jones before CJ was born and still works out under the coach’s eye. Clarence observes quietly in the corner.

“This is the last cycle for three squats and a jerk,” Jones hollers.

Omar and CJ begin with the 20-kilogram bar, alternating two squats each and returning the bar to the rack. They take turns sliding on additional weight— 70, 80, 90 kilograms.

Omar is a world-class lifter himself, having set two American records and taken two bronze medals at the 2015 Youth World Championships in Peru. He is also a standout running back on the Beaufort High football team.

The brothers work through the sets wordlessly, having done a variation of the workouts for years.

Omar brings over a box fan, and the whirring cuts the silence. Soon Outkast’s “Hey Ya” joins the chorus via the speakers in the adjacent room — “All right, all right, all right, all right.”

Jones keeps meticulous records of workouts. He knows exactly what exercises CJ did in the weeks leading up to past meets, including his record-breaking effort at the national championships last year.

So Jones knows what works as CJ prepares for the Olympic trials. CJ peaked about April 22 with a heavy pull, picking up weight off the floor 100 pounds heavier than CJ’s typical clean and jerk and standing straight up with it.

But even science isn’t sure how CJ is able to lift the amount that he does.

Two years ago, Bob LeFavi, a sports medicine professor at Armstrong State University in Georgia, worked to understand CJ’s source of power.

Using high-speed cameras and motion sensors, LeFavi and his team examined CJ’s technique and presented their findings to a room of coaches at the National Youth Championships in Daytona Beach, Fla.

"Certainly, CJ has a weightlifter's structure and a somewhat unique technique, but absolutely nothing that could possibly account for his sheer dominance and extraordinary ability," LeFavi told The Beaufort Gazette in 2014. "My guess is that something is going on with his muscle cell structure that we have not seen much before."

But this particular Wednesday, something is off. Jones knows CJ well enough to sniff it out.

“When are you going talk to me about what’s going on?” Jones asks CJ after the bar falls to the mat after a failed lift. “If it’s still strep throat, just tell me,” he said, referring to the illness that landed CJ in the emergency room the previous Sunday.

He tells Jones nothing is wrong.

“I can see how dead he is sitting in the chair over there,” Clarence says.

Jones’ manner with CJ might sound jarring to an outsider. But he has been doing this a long time and knows when to jab and when to back off.

Jones walks over to CJ, who sits in a metal chair between lifts, and talks in hushed tones muffled by a whirring box fan. Crystal, working out nearby, also walks over and chats with her brother.

Jones’ manner with CJ might sound jarring to an outsider. But he has been doing this a long time and knows when to jab and when to back off.

“He gets the best out of them,” Clarence says later.

A family figure

Jones, 60, has been part of the Cummings family since he began working with Crystal, CJ and Omar’s older sister, in the late 1990s, before CJ was born.

CJ and Omar wandered into Jones’ gym, bored during the summer of 2010. But they weren’t novices. They had seen their sister lift, watched her videos and mimicked her movements.

The work came naturally. Starting as a 10-year-old with a plastic PVC pipe as a practice bar, CJ wore out the floor in his house stomping out the various lifts.

“They’re thinking he’s going to put a hole in the floor because he’s doing so many repetitions,” Jones recalls.

With the exception of their parents, nobody has spent more time with CJ and Omar than Jones. In addition to daily training, he has accompanied the boys on trips around the world for weightlifting competitions.

Jones is quick to point out CJ’s youth. His feats have thrust him into a spotlight, Jones says, but he is still a kid who has watched Disney Channel during downtime at meets and largely keeps to himself.

Jones feels CJ's personality helps him focus and perform in big meets

CJ has slowly learned — or perhaps been forced by fame — to emerge from his shell. His off-the-cuff answer during a CBS interview this year drew ribbing from friends and teachers and showed his age.

“Have you thought about a Wheaties box?” CBS correspondent Steve Hartman asked CJ.

“What is that?” CJ replied with a smile.

Still a boy

Pots steam on the stove when CJ arrives home about 7:30 p.m.

Clarence flips through mail on the counter while CJ sits at the kitchen island thumbing his phone screen.

Savasah asks CJ about homework. He tells her it’s done.

She is filling out a form on the counter and confirms her son’s shoe and clothing sizes, information needed by USA Weightlifting for his Olympic trials gear.

“I just pray he makes it,” Savasah says. “If he is in the right frame of mind, he’ll make it.”

She has a balance of her own to maintain — dreaming big for her sons but also keeping up with the little things.

“Report cards come out Friday,” Savasah says as the family begins their meal of chicken, rice and green beans. “What’s that report card going to look like?”

CJ coughs.

He has thought about being a mechanical engineer or an actor.

But as he tweeted on March 18, his future seems to be planned. If not this summer’s Olympics in Rio, then certainly the 2020 games would be a lock, when the U.S. men expect to have more spots in the games.

He plans to lift for as long as possible and knows there is time. The man who has since broken CJ’s American record clean and jerk, Alex Lee, is 12 years older.

Companies have already taken note of CJ.

During a recent workout at the gym, a man asked to take a photo of CJ’s white lifting shoes.

CJ tells him he can’t. The shoes are white prototypes sent by Reebok and not yet in the public realm.

The 15-year-old has an agent — Trey Robinson, with the RES Agency. Robinson handles CJ’s ever-growing media requests and has helped secure sponsorships from apparel company Eleiko and Cradlz, which makes tripods for shooting cellphone video: “All of CJ’s videos are shot with a Cradlz holster!” his website says.

Cummings has other concerns too. He begs his mother to let him stay home on the upcoming Saturday instead of driving to Greenville for Omar’s football visit.

“Omar was staying in the house by himself when he was 10 years old,” CJ says, pleading with his mother.

“It’s a family trip,” she replies.

CJ is defeated, still a 15-year-old boy.

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen

Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet