Eko lifts E. Kalimantan to world stage
East Kalimantan, which occupies the southeastern corner of the island of Borneo, is better known for its oil than its weightlifters. But that’s slowly changing after Eko Yuli Irawan and his friend Triyatno both won bronze medals at the Beijing Olympics.
For Eko, almost 2,000 kilometers from his home in Sumatra, life is about one event and one color.
“I remember feeling happy but at the same time a little disappointed when I won the bronze medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympics because I felt I could have done better. This year, I have my eyes set on gold,” Eko told ESPN.
Eko stands a good chance, but not without some hurdles. He managed to steal gold, silver and bronze from the Chinese and North Korean challengers in the 2009 World Championships but did not do as well at the recent Olympic qualifying round.
Lack of preparation time is a recurring problem for a sport that suffers in comparison with soccer or badminton.
“We started training for the last SEA Games a whole year ahead of the event, but for the Olympics we were only given six months to prepare. And we have only just received confirmation that we can attend an overseas training camp next month. I hope it doesn’t happen again,” Eko said.
“It’s a key part of our coach’s plans to send us to an overseas training camp to maximize our exposure. We attend try-outs, work out with foreign sparring partners, and get better access to quality supplements.
“It will do wonders for our physical and mental preparation. It plays a crucial part in our mad dash in preparing for the Olympics.”
Eko has the forthright opinions of a man who has had to work for everything he has. As a teen looking after his herd of goats, he watched, fascinated as the local weightlifting club went through its paces. He was invited to join and went from strength to strength, while his friends dropped away.
The prize money in recent years has improved his family’s welfare. It is also going to pay for a new arrival in the family, as he and his wife Masitoh, a weightlifter who won bronze at the 2011 SEA Games, are expecting.
With the rest of his family and friends back in Sumatra, Masitoh, who lives with Eko in Balikpapan, is his main source of inspiration in the face of hard realities.
“We have to continue to work hard for our goals. We live separately from our families, maybe even sacrifice our youth in the process. We can’t hang out with our friends or lead a carefree life. All this is for the sake of our dreams. I don’t think I can be a champion if I didn’t impose a strong sense of self-discipline.”
And weightlifting is all about discipline. The dangers are obvious when an athlete is lifting twice his body weight from the floor to above his head in under a second. It is as much about technique as it is about strength.
“Compared to other athletes, I don’t think I am that talented. My coach has noted that I am a quick learner and can master the techniques well. I also have a more flexible body than them,” he said.
Coach Lukman said, “Eko realized he has the skill and the potential to be the champion. He is the type of athlete who never underestimates his opponents. He is always ready to take on any competitor and give his best in every competition, and always show great mental strength. That is what I call the true spirit of an athlete.”
In the last five years, Eko has only missed out once on a podium finish. In his last big event at the World Championships in Paris, he finished third in the 62-kilogram category behind the champion and Olympic favorite, China’s Zhang Jie and North Korea’s Kim UnGuk, respectively.
Eko has always fought a lopsided battle against lifters from countries like China and Korea, who spend four years at a time focused on the Olympics with far greater resources. But when it comes to the big competitions, Eko has more often than not found a way to the podium.
Catch Eko Irawan in Living the Dream on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.