Every time Wes Kitts, 30, reaches down to lift a barbell, loaded with enough weights to equal a small car, jerks it up with the force of crane and heaves it over his head, it's almost as if his dad's spirit is helping shoulder some of the heft.
It has been that way since Kitts was a kid growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee. His dad was a fixture on the sideline or behind the dugout.
"He always at my games," Kitts said in between training sessions. "Trying to figure out a way to either motivate me or coach me up through something."
Kitts' dad passed away while Wes was still in college – before he ever saw his son hoist a barbell in competition, and well before Kitts set out on his current path, powering toward the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo to compete in weightlifting in the 109 kg division. Yet, he's still providing the motivation.
His dad told Wes whatever he did, whether it was tidily-winks or his classes, to give it every ounce of his energy. "Be somebody," was the term he'd used and Kitts adopted it as his mantra.
"I was just lifting one day and it kind of flowed through my head before like a big lift," Kitts recalled.
That mantra now flows through his thoughts constantly as he doggedly works out in California Strength gym in the East Bay city of San Ramon, where he moved a while back to train for the Olympics.
Last summer, with the 2020 Olympics on hold because of the global pandemic, Kitts took home a gold medal in the Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic in the "clean and jerk" category by lifting 478 pounds over his head.
"It’s been a monumental challenge," said Kitts' trainer Dave Spitz. "But he’s met it, just like everything else in life."
The Olympics weren't even on Kitts' radar growing up. He played the normal trinity of sports: soccer, baseball and college football. He was a lifelong gym rat and opened his own gym after college – and found himself always in it pumping iron.
One day about a year in, he looked up the requirements to qualify for weightlifting nationals and decided he was going to do it.
"I just sort of locked in on it," Kitts said. "And before long I was doing things I thought were unattainable."
In San Ramon, Kitts' life revolves around the California Strength gym – a gritty, dim fitness center in an industrial park with a sign outside listing a plumbing company, that turns out a steady supply of Olympians and world class pro athletes.
During a recent workout, gym owner and trainer Spitz stood alongside Kitts, spurring him on as he wrestled with his technique, and a barbell loaded with an extraordinary array of weights in hues of red, yellow and green.
"This is what nobody wants to do," Spitz reminded Kitts between lifts. "That’s why you’re an Olympian."
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year threw a wrench into the finely calculated wheels of training – an unwieldly fitness sequence orchestrated to climax last summer.
"To have it pushed back a full year disrupts the timing of everything," Spitz said. "So we had to re-tool, re-group – psychologically and physically figure out how to move forward."
Along with re-tooling his training to hit a different target, it was something of virtually no weight at all that also re-calibrated Kitts' life. Two months ago, he and wife Kendall welcomed their first child, Blaze.
With Kitts' steaming toward the big stage of the Olympics, it would seem his journey intersects between two generations: a new son to create new memories for and the memory of his father to spur him on.
Somehow, as he reaches the Olympics, the crowd cheers him on and he seems to defy human ability by heaving giant weights to his chest and then miraculously overhead – his dad will be there.
"It’s just important to sort of do my best and do something to make him proud even though he can’t be around and see," Kitts said.