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When Michael Nichols – a 70-year old professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary – speaks of his athletic achievements, his words carry a pronounced modesty.
Describing his time as a Division I soccer play at the University of Wisconsin and a marathon runner in New York, Nichols has a habit of describing his abilities as “OK” or “all right.”
That modesty, which Nichols proclaims is more honesty than anything, carries over into his most recent athletic accomplishment: becoming a world champion in powerlifting during the International Powerlifting Federation Masters Powerlifting Championships in Aurora, Colo., in October.
Despite lifting “conservatively” during the world championships, Nichols successfully executed every lift he attempted — nine in total with three squats, bench presses and dead lifts — and lifted enough combined weight to take home the title for his age division.
Not a bad showing for a man who claims to be “not particularly strong” and “pretty mentally tough.”
Nichols’ powerlifting resume speaks of an athlete who has competed at a top-level for some time. Several state championships, back-to-back national championships and now a world championship would seem to imply Nichols had been powerlifting for most of his life. In actuality, Nichols did not begin lifting weights until his 50s.
Growing up, Nichols said he played a variety of sports in high school and college. After injuries took a toll on his body, Nichols took up running as an alternative to competitive sports. It was during this running phase Nichols discovered he enjoyed competing more against himself than others.
“Running was different than other sports because there was no game and you didn’t need other people,” he said. “It was liberation to learn to compete against myself.”
Learning to appreciate competing against himself is one of the biggest reasons Nichols was able to sustain his weightlifting regimen when he began some 20 years ago.
Nichols moved to Williamsburg from New York in 1995, but his wife had to stay behind for one year before joining him. Needing something to do, Nichols took up weightlifting and eventually discovered the sport of powerlifting. After roughly four years of training, Nichols competed in a local powerlifting competition for the first time and was hooked.
Winning state championships came relatively easy for Nichols in his late 50s, but the national championships proved more daunting. Nichols competed in the national championships for four consecutive years in the 2000s, finishing second twice.
After a three-year hiatus from competing at the national level, Nichols returned and saw more success. Last year, Nichols took home his first national championship at the age of 69 before repeating as national champion this year in the 70s age division.
Since taking up weightlifting, Nichols has undergone plenty of physical and mental transformations.
Standing at 6-foot-4 — a height that has him tower over most powerlifters — Nichols does not have the ideal body type for the sport. Nichols weighed 170 pounds when he began weightlifting, but has since bulked up to 240 pounds. His physique, he said, is the most obvious of his transformations.
The mental transformations are more subtle, but just as important for Nichols. With competitive powerlifting comes injuries aplenty, Nichols has undergone nine surgeries as a result of his weightlifting. He said he had to learn perseverance and mental fortitude after multiple stints of rehab, some of which included re-learning how to walk.
Additionally, Nichols said he has a new perspective on what winning really means to him. While he admits winning a national and world championship is nice, he said he would always rather lift more weight than place well – to a degree.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be off the podium,” he joked. “But I would have been happier in third with a bigger number. Absolutely. No question. Give me 50 pounds more than I lifted and I’d be a happier person.”
Although taking first place in competitions often takes a backseat to lifting more weight for Nichols, the competitions themselves are perhaps the best motivation for a man who admits he is unsure how dedicated he would be to his lifting if not competing professionally.
But with the inspiration of competitions also comes the physical and mental tolls. As a man who genuinely hates air travel, the process of getting to national and international competitions is often a bigger stressor than the weight he lifts. Such was the case with this year’s world championship.
“This last contest took a lot out of me,” Nichols said. “I was nervous for weeks and weeks beforehand. There was the travel, sleeping in strange places, not eating my usual food. I found afterwards I was really, really worn out. Mentally and physically, I was pooped. It took me at least a month to recover mentally.”
Nichols said he was “a little tempted” to retire a world champion, but said the reward of any sport is training for it. After taking time to decompress following the world championships, Nichols decided from this point on he will be taking meets one at a time.
Plans to compete in the 2016 national championships have Nichols resuming his training, using his next competition as his motivation to continue pushing himself physically and mentally. With the 2016 world championships in Estonia, a place he admitted he has little desire to compete, Nichols may be finished competing on the world stage.
Rest assured, though, the process of continued improvement will continue to be an integral part of Nichols’ life for the foreseeable future even when the formal competitions are one day left behind.
“Maybe I’ll just have my own competition,” he said with a smirk.