Misha Khishchenko was born in the beautiful medieval city of Tallinn, Estonia sixty seven years ago when it was a part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, where weightlifting was a popular, produced some of the world’s best lifters. There, the sport was always subsidized, and coaches began working with athletes from an early age to develop strong lifters.
But even with weightlifting being a popular sport, Khishchenko says he “got into weightlifting by pure accident. My friend, who was a wrestler, invited me to join him for strength training at a local club in Tallinn. I was 13 and weighed around 48kg- skinny like a stick.” But the local coach, Anatoliy Lubyagin recognized his potential and invited him back to train as a weightlifter.
He began training three to four days per week on a regular basis. His coaches, he explains, emphasized form before anything else. And he still believes, that, “Correct form is a backbone of every sport; everything else will come with time.” And “things” did come for Khishchenko who took second at the Estonian Championships in the juniors category for his weight class just a few months after discovering weightlifting.
Throughout his lifting career, which lasted until age 27, he competed in the 52kg (junior), 56kg (junior), and 60kg (senior) weight classes. He explains that he was always “among the top 3 lifters in Estonia and Latvia [where he later lived] in these categories” and credits much of his success to both his coaches and his training partners. In Estonia, he trained alongside Jaan Talts, 1972 Olympic Gold medalist in the 110kg class*, and Karl Utsar, another 110kg lifter, who held four world records in the snatch. In Lativa, he trained under Anatoly Mayasin and alongside Gennadiy Ivanchenko, 1970 world champion in the 82.5 class, and Sergei Poltoratskiy, 1977 world champion in the 90kg class.
At his best, Khishchenko was snatching 100kg and clean and jerking 130kg in the 60kg class. He jokes that, “I’m so old that I even competed when we still had press, and my best result was 95 kg.”
After suffering a few serious injuries, he decided to retire from weightlifting after 14 years. But Khishchenko continued to stay in shape utilizing weight training. His gym routine always incorporated some weight bearing exercises like bench press and squats, but he no longer lifted heavy weights.
Later, he moved to the United States where he ironically, discovered tennis at age 40 and has been competing in both singles and doubles ever since. He muses, “It’s kind of funny that it happened it the US because back in Estonia, I used to live just 10 minutes from a tennis facility but I never touched a tennis racket. Tennis was very popular in Estonia and they had one of the best teams in the USSR.”
His intention was to keep weightlifting a part of his memories and focus, instead, on tennis for the rest of his athletic career, but he met and befriended Mr. Arthur Chidlovsky, a weightlifting historian from Moscow who currently resides in Boston.** It was Chidlovsky who told Khishchenko about Masters weightlifting competitions in the US and who pushed him to return to weightlifting after 40 years.
He explains, “I agreed to train for a few months to evaluate if it was even possible. It was very painful for the first few months. Lack of flexibility, particularly in the snatch, caused a lot of problems. I was basically doing power snatch and power cleans only. I couldn’t convince my body to do a snatch or clean. I started paying more attention to flexibility and finally, I was able to do it.”
His training today is vastly different than it was 40 years ago. Being a masters athlete, he intentionally does less in a session and focuses most of his time on squats, pulls, and benching rather than on full clean and jerks and snatches. When he does perform the Olympic lifts, he prefers to power them or use blocks as “it is less taxing on the body.”
He explains that he, “rarely go[es] for a PR in training. PR’s are for competition… My results at competition in the snatch are 5kg higher and, in the clean and jerk, 12 kgs higher, than in training.”
This method is working for Khishchenko who took 3rd at the 2015 Masters Pan American Games in the men’s 65 age group/85kg class with a 53kg snatch and a 73kg clean and jerk, losing a silver medal only by body weight.
Most recently, he competed in Rochester on June 12th so that his oldest grandson, Jonah, would have an opportunity to see him in action. He went 6 for 6 and improved his competition totals in both lifts with a 55kg snatch and a 77kg clean and jerk.
In all, Khishchenko’s involvement in the sport spans 54 years and two continents. He reflects upon the changes that have occurred over the years and the difference between being a lifter in the USSR and a lifter in the US. He notes that the sport has progressed a lot in the US, but that it still lags behind other countries where it has been popular and athletes were subsidized by the government. In the USSR, juniors were groomed to become elite senior lifters. He says, “talents are discovered early and the coaches work with them for years to develop.”
In 1983, he was hired to coach a few American lifters who were attempting to qualify for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But, he says, “Soon after the Olympics, I lost this job. In the USSR, we had thousands of lifters, in the US, there were very few.”
Now, he notes that “CrossFit and women’s active participation in [weightlifting] is causing a resurgence in weightlifting all over the world, including the US.” (Prior to 2000, women were not able to compete in weightlifting in the Olympics.)
Even still, a majority of US lifters gravitate to the sport after being introduced to the lifts through CrossFit and most are already seniors. In some instances, athletes are already masters when they discover weightlifting.
Khishchenko muses that it must be the “exhilarating feeling of power and strength [that] people are developing” that entices them to continue to train as masters athletes.
Now that Khishchenko is lifting as a master himself, he emphasizes his recovery more so than he did in his younger years. “It takes much longer than years ago,” he reflects. To recover, he makes use of rest, the sauna and steam room, active recovery through other activities like tennis, and occasionally, massages.
He suggests that other masters athletes focus on proper form and appropriate training loads (most of his training lifts are within 70-75% of his max). And he stresses the importance of working under a coach who has experience with weightlifting. For a lifter over 50, he says, “health needs to be considered and athletes should focus on increasing results gradually.”
When pushed to expand upon why he chooses to compete in sport at 67 years of age, he explains, “I am very competitive by nature. I guess, it is a part of my DNA. Recently, I played tennis against a very good 22 year old player from Scotland who has been in the US for 6 months. I lost the match, but I enjoyed the challenge very much and that my opponent is better than me only motivates me more. I am not afraid to lose. Losing is an experience to improve your game and results.”
He continues, “Sport enhances my life. It did from the day I first touched the ball in our backyard and it never stopped amazing me…When you get older, you appreciate it even more, particularly when your body responds the right way and you feel young again, even for a few moments.”
He concludes, “I became a weightlifter by accident and I returned to the sport after 40 years by accident as well. Today, I manage to compete in two totally different sports [at age 67]. Personally, I don’t know anyone who is doing that. Can I qualify for a Guinness World Record? That would be nice!”
*Weight classes of the time differed from those of today.
**Mr. Chidlovsky runs a website called Lift Up which is an incredible resource for those who are interested in the history of weightlifting. The website includes stats on lifters of the past as well as interviews with many of those lifters. We highly recommend checking it out to learn about the history of our sport.