COLUMBIA — MU junior Eli Burks is not used to losing. He has been in 12 events and has won all except one. In fact, only a few months ago he won the AAU World Powerlifting Championship for his 181-pound weight division.
So when a rookie has him looking at an unlikely defeat, anxiety would be an obvious result.
Burks is a veteran of the weightlifting circuit. He’s been to state, national and international competitions. His finish seemed like a foregone conclusion at the first annual Bench Press Competition Monday at the MU Student Recreation Complex.
“Are you serious?” fellow competitor Kyle Luecke said when informed of Burks’ prior accomplishments.
For Burks, though, that conclusion would not be foregone.
As Burks stood in the back of the crowd of approximately 40 students and organizers, the short, stocky Luecke thrusted the bar off his bulky chest and just high enough into the air to gain a completion signal from the judge. Luecke had matched Burks on the second lift, meaning the final of the three lifts would determine the winner.
Burks paced back and forth in the back, clapping his hands in respect for Luecke only to dig them back into his hoodie.
The competition consisted of three lifts from each competitor. On each lift, the competitors attempted to best their previous weight total. For Burks, that meant 350 pounds on his final lift. Though, even if he did complete the lift, he would need Luecke to fail because he weighed three pounds less than Burks.
Burks got a good grip on the bar and brought it to his chest. He pressed, but halfway up, his arms were shaking and the bar became crooked. After a few seconds of struggling, the judge called the press off and his spotters rushed to assist him. Only minutes later, Luecke, in only his second weightlifting competition ever and first since high school, lifted 350 pounds, and the competition was his.
“I thought I was going to complete the lift,” Burks said.
Burks congratulated Luecke, but was visibly uneasy with the result. Burks had defeated some of the world’s best in places like Florida and Texas, but Luecke, the junior biology major from Poplar Bluff, pulled off the upset. Burks pointed to his focus as a key contributor to the loss.
“To be honest, mental preparation is key,” Burks said. “I guess it was just anxiety from being around my peers. I was just nervous.”
To lose in such a fashion is hard for Burks. He had been pushing himself in weightlifting since his sophomore year of high school at Hickman. His ability to lift more weight than others in his size range made him begin taking it seriously. His first meet was the Show-Me State Games in 2006, and since then Burks has perfected his technique, form and weight. To meet weight requirements, he sometimes has to manipulate his weight quickly.
“It really is easy (to shift weight),” Burks said. “For the worlds meet in October, I dropped 14 pounds in water weight. You feel really bad, but it works well.”
Burks was not alone at the meet Monday. Longtime friend Ben Merideth came to compete in the event and support his workout partner. For Merideth, witnessing what Burks does in the weightroom and in competition is just part of a continuing tradition of improvement.
“The first time I saw him lift that amount of weight, it shocked me,” Merideth said. “But then when you see him continually do it, you expect it of him. And you know he gets better every week -- that’s the crazy thing about it.”
“It (losing) won’t affect me too much. It will change my preparation for future bench pressing competitions, but that’s it.” Burks said. “I’ll come back next year and hopefully come out victorious.”