Caden Mather bears a load that would wilt most others. But the NCSSM junior has a strength uncommon for his age. The same hands that play slow, emotive piano pieces and craft poems after class are now white-knuckled around a steel bar suspending 165 lbs of iron across his shoulders like a train’s axle and wheels.
The pianist and poet from Mooresville, who at 5’6” and 155 pounds weighs less than the burden on his shoulders, draws a deep breath. His knees flex and recoil, and in an instant the weight is above his head on extended arms as he dips fully to the floor before rising again upright. Despite its sudden severity, the movement – called a snatch balance – is smooth and almost dance-like.
Caden is North Carolina’s reigning state champion in his age and weight class in Olympic weightlifting. He claimed the title in the summer of 2019, besting his opponent by a whopping 66 pounds over two gut-busting exercises – the clean and jerk (where he brought 235 pounds from the floor to the front of his shoulders, then paused before forcing it above his head), and the snatch, (where 175 pounds went from the floor to above his head in one smooth, fluid and mechanical motion). His strength has grown since.
Those gains motivate Caden. “I like being able to see my progress,” he says. “I can see those numbers rising.”
But he also likes the physical feeling he gets after a workout, even the fatigue and ache. “Every day I go to the gym I come home and I’m sore, so I know I put in the work I need to put in. If I’m not sore, I know I need to work harder.
“I like suffering,” he says.
Caden’s path to state Olympic weightlifting champion began years ago through soccer. A trip to a Crossfit gym to enhance his conditioning on the pitch led to his discovery of a new way to engage his body. By the middle of his sophomore year of high school, Caden had become a nationally ranked Crossfit athlete, a distinction he shared with his equally athletic mother.
His competitive spirit exceeded his build, however. There are no weight classes grouping athletes in Crossfit competitions. Though strong for his age, Caden would be at a natural but distinct disadvantage against the most elite of Crossfit athletes, who tend to be taller and proportionately heavier. His Crossfit coach suggested he give weightlifting a shot.
And what a shot it was.
A professional career in weightlifting would be ideal, but Caden is pragmatic about the future. He plans to participate in USA Weightlifting’s national Olympic weightlifting competition, and perhaps its American Open. But he’ll be in a new age class with athletes several years older than him. Both the number of athletes competing and the skill will increase dramatically. So, too, will the scores needed to qualify. There’s a lot left at NCSSM to focus on. His senior year lies ahead. College comes after that. But then what? “I have no clue,” Caden says.
Now he backtracks — he does have a clue. It’s an image in his head: rolling hills of Scotland and Ireland. A simple life of hard work, far from a city and noise and lights, maybe as a distiller. An existence driven not by technology and digital devices, but by smells and sounds and tastes and a metaphorical hand upon the wheel. Not surprising for a kid who, when the textbooks are closed and the weights back on the rack, turns to the piano and poetry.
But before any of that comes about, there’s another rep to complete. Caden increases the load on the bar, steps under the weight. There it is again, that welcome strain, the total focus on this present moment, and the promise of a task completed.