Caine Wilkes is one of the strongest men in the world, a 320-pound weightlifter who lives and trains in the Charlotte area and will compete in the Olympics this summer for Team USA.
Wilkes is also an artist. On some days, he only picks up barbells. On others, he also picks up a pencil and sketches something — a wolf, a weightlifter, a hippo. He posts his work on “Quiet Guy Graphics,” with Wilkes being the quiet guy in question.
Put him in front of a bar loaded down with weights, though, and Wilkes is far from quiet. He lets out a primal scream just before he lifts to help himself focus and to ensure that everyone is watching. Then he heaves the weight upward, and he does that well enough that he is the sole Olympic representative for the U.S. in the super-heavyweight class of weightlifters — those men who weigh 241 or more pounds (109 kilograms).
As for the seemingly profound differences between creating art and lifting weights, Wilkes would argue that they aren’t that different.
“There are probably more similarities than people probably tend to think between art and weightlifting,” Wilkes said. “Especially with the type of weightlifting I’m doing — Olympic-style weightlifting — there’s a lot of technique involved. I think people think about weightlifting and they just think about people getting angry and throwing weights around. But there’s a lot of technical prowess. … I think there’s a lot that lends itself to the art world to where there are finer technical points, too. … So there’s some similarities just in that expression of both, in that dynamic between the control and the chaos.”
The control and the chaos.
I’ve thought a lot about that phrase since Wilkes used it in our interview, because it applies to so many sports. Quarterbacks have to master the balance between control and chaos. So do point guards, pitchers, MMA fighters and just about any other athlete you can name.
At 34, Wilkes is older than the average first-time Olympian, having barely missed qualifying for the Summer Games in 2016. He grew up in the Hampton Roads, Va., area, and first took to weightlifting as a 12-year-old middle-schooler, with the idea that it would help him become a better football player.
It turned out that Wilkes was better at lifting weights than he was at football. After ninth grade, he gave up the gridiron permanently in favor of the gym.
From cop to Olympic coach
Caine’s father, Chris Wilkes, was going on a journey of his own at about the same time. Chris Wilkes was a police officer in Norfolk for 23 years, spending much of his time as a homicide detective.
“I retired in 2005,” Chris Wilkes said, referring to his time as a police officer, “and nearing that time I started looking for things to do. So I got into personal training and strength and conditioning stuff.”
It turned out his standout prospect was already living in the same household. There were four Wilkes boys — Caine was the third — and all of them were adept in the gym and competed in weightlifting.
“Caine ended up being the superstar,” said Chris Wilkes, who had named Caine for a character in a Louis L’Amour novel.
Chris Wilkes has coached his son for close to 20 years in the sport, dating back to when Caine was a teenager. Because of that, the cop-turned-coach will be one of the few Olympic parents who will be able to see their child compete in person in Tokyo. Due to COVID-19, Japan isn’t allowing any spectators into the venues. Coaches, however, are exceptions from that rule.
Caine Wilkes lived in Virginia and graduated from Old Dominion before he moved to the Carolinas to join a weightlifting team in Fort Mill, S.C., in 2015. The team soon disbanded, but most of the Wilkes family now lives in and around Charlotte. He is one of close to a dozen athletes with Charlotte connections who will compete in these Olympics.
“We just liked the Charlotte area, so we stayed,” said Wilkes, who lives in Indian Trail, 15 miles southeast of uptown Charlotte. He trains at Charlotte Strength, a gym in the NoDa area of Charlotte.
‘Short bursts of huge energy’
Unlike many Olympic sports, a weightlifting competition is all contested in a single day — in Wilkes’ case, on Aug. 4.
“The event itself is short bursts of huge energy,” Caine Wilkes said, who will compete against 13 other weightlifters in the Olympics. He won’t be favored to win a medal. The U.S., in fact, hasn’t had a men’s medalist in weightlifting since 1984. America has fared better in women’s weightlifting, where it will be favored to win several medals in Tokyo.
The best shot at the first U.S. men’s weightlifting medal in 37 years will actually come from another Carolinian, according to USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews — 21-year-old CJ Cummings of Beaufort, S.C., in the 161-pound (73 kg) category.
“I’m so glad Caine has finally made the Olympic team, though,” Andrews said. “He is a gentle giant until he competes, and then he just gets on the platform and growls at you. He’s just a superb human being as well as an elite athlete.”
In Olympic weightlifting, each competitor has three chances to lift the most weight they can in the “snatch” and the “clean and jerk.”
In the snatch, the bar is lifted from the floor to overhead in one powerful motion, which usually takes less than a second. The clean and jerk is a two-part lift — the athlete first brings the barbell to the shoulders (the clean) and then hoists it overhead (the jerk).
Your best score in each lift is then combined, and the winner takes home the gold medal. Wilkes’ best snatch is 410 pounds; his best clean and jerk is 507 pounds.
Although in America the bench press is often used as a measure of strength, that lift has no place in Olympic weightlifting. Wilkes — a five-time U.S. national champion — rarely bench-presses at all as part of his training.
At 34, Wilkes is ready to move on with his life after these Olympics, so these will be his first and only Summer Games. Wilkes has a wife — Emelie, who is also a weightlifter — but no children yet, and he’d like to pursue a career in art or graphic design.
First, though, comes the most important competition of his life.
The best hair in weightlifting
Nicknamed the “Dragon,” Wilkes cuts a unique figure in a gym, with his broad build, his glasses and what he proclaims on Instagram to be “some of the best hair in weightlifting.”
Weightlifters get to choose how much they want to try to lift in their three attempts. “My dad and I have some big numbers in mind,” Wilkes said. “We just need to make lifts, and have fun on the biggest stage I’ll ever be on.”
When the time comes, he will approach the bar and visualize what he’s about to do.
“I do tend to give a little shout beforehand,” he said, “although normally I’m a pretty quiet guy. … I’ll look down at the bar and kind of stand there for a moment. Visualize. Take a deep breath. Do a nice shout.”
After that? Control and chaos, for sure — and maybe a bit of art — as Wilkes tries to lift up his Olympic dream.