When he’s not hitting the weights to prepare for the Paralympics, Jake Schrom is doing the same thing we are—toiling away at his day job. A senior landscape designer for his family’s business, Cumberland Valley Tree Service, Schrom puts a portion of every paycheck into his training for Tokyo. Win or lose in his bid to win the first US medal in para powerlifting since the 2000 Games, Schrom will come back home to the office in mid-September and resume his 60-hour workweek.
Such is the lot of athletes in relatively low-visibility para sports. As a weightlifter, Schrom (a right above-knee amputee) isn’t likely to attract the type of sponsorship dollars that are available to top competitors in more glamorous disciplines such as swimming and track and field. He picks up a big chunk of his own travel, training, and coaching expenses. Even if he wins a gold medal, there’s little chance that he’ll reap any monetary dividends on his investment.
To be clear, Schrom’s not seeking any windfall. He’s in it for the camaraderie and the love of competition, not for monetary profit. But his experience reflects the reality that many para athletes face, and the price they pay to lift their performance to the highest level. We talked to him fresh off his bronze-medal performance at the Manchester (UK) Para Powerlifting World Cup, where Schrom pressed a personal best 203 kilograms (448 pounds). Our conversation is edited for clarity and length. Follow him on Insta @jackschrom.
You got a bronze in Manchester, but I sensed from your social media that you weren’t totally happy with your performance there.
I was glad to get the podium. Overall, I was very happy with it. But I had hoped to do a little bit better. My target was the weight I was trying for in my second and third attempt, which was 212 kilos [467 pounds]. If I hit that weight, I should be good to qualify for Tokyo. The top eight in the qualifying series get automatic bids, and I’m ranked sixth in this World Cup Series. So I’m in a good spot, but there’s still a lot of lifting to go. So while I chipped away at my personal best a little bit, I had hoped to get that bigger weight. My lift felt easy, it felt clean. It just wasn’t quite clean enough. Sometimes the judging goes off unfavorable. So I felt was right there and kind of just slip through my hands.
What’s the judge’s role in para powerlifting. What exactly are they judging you on?
Paralympic powerlifting is a little bit different than the able-bodied version in terms of the ref interaction. We get a start command, so when we unrack the weight, they’ll tell us to start. When we hear “start,” then we bring the bar down to our chests. In able-bodied, the ref will give you a press command, and so you simply wait for the command and then you press it up, and then you wait for a rack command and you put the rack back. But in Paralympic lifting, after you get the start command you do your own judgment of what the pause should be. There’s some interpretation there. So once you press the weight and extend your arms, you basically finish the lift and they’ll tell you to rack the weight.
So when you say your 212 kilo lift in Manchester wasn’t “clean,” what did the judges mark you down for?
If an able-bodied lifter was watching, they’d be very confused because the lift looked perfect for the most part. On my first attempt at that weight, I had a little double bounce on my chest when I was doing the pause. It’s not allowed to sink into your chest, and when I went to pause it dipped down just a hair. I couldn’t feel that, but when I watched the video I saw it. So you can’t argue that. And then on the last one, it came up a little bit slow. It almost stalled out. And sometimes when it comes up a little bit slow, it gives the judges more of a chance of seeing something. So in this case, one arm got just a little ahead of the other one. It was very minor. It’s one of those things that can go either way, and I thought it didn’t go my way that time.
If you press the weight but the judges determine there’s been a fault of some sort, does that invalidate the entire lift? Or do you just have points deducted or something?
If they deem it a bad lift, it invalidates the lift even if you press it. If you watch a session in competition, there might be, let’s say, 20 good lifts and 40 bad lifts, and out of those 40 bad lifts, 39 of them are because of technique—not because they couldn’t press the weight.
Ouch. That’s got to really sting.
Yeah, it’s a frustrating thing.
You’re trying to end a medal drought in US parapowerlifting. Do you think this is more a matter of other countries raising their game, or has the US program fallen behind for some reason?
I don’t want to make this sound bad, but I have friends who could be in our sport but choose to do a different sport because there’s more money or sponsorships involved in some of the other sports. So we don’t always get the top talent. But the funding situation has been improving, we’re getting more support [from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee], and so we have some good athletes on our team now. For me personally, the added funding in the last two years has taken a lot of stress off of having to pay for everything out of my family’s budget. That’s why I thought it was a good thing to have medaled in Manchester, because if you medal, that brings in additional finances.
We’ve talked before about the sort of financial challenges athletes in some of the lower-visibility sports have to face. Walk me through some of the budget decisions you’re looking at as a para powerlifter.
To start out with the big picture, most of the parasports—especially the big ones like swimming track and field—are paired with the Olympic version of their sport financially. So if US Track and Field gets, say, $10 million, maybe $8 million of that goes the Olympic program, and $2 million goes to the Paralympic program. Unfortunately, Olympic weightlifting has been riddled with [performance enhancing] drugs and is actually on the chopping block because of its drug use and lack of oversight. They have such a bad reputation that Paralympic powerlifting has refused to pair up. So we’re saving our reputation, but we’re forgoing lots of funding. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just how it is with our sport.
For me personally, travel is one of my biggest expenses. You’re looking at $5,000 to $7,000 a year in travel, and that will get you maybe to one or two US competitions and one or two internationals, depending on where they are. Then in addition, I pay a personal coach who I work with online. I have gym memberships to pay for. There’s extra food, because I eat a ton of food in a year. I’m hoping to get a grant or secure a little funding to see a physical therapist every week to work on my muscle tissue. Right now I only see a PT when I start to hurt, but if I can do that proactively that would help my recovery and increase my performance. But unless I’m hurt, I pay for PT out of pocket. Those are just some of the things that we end up paying for to compete.
And you’re financing most of this out of your regular paycheck?
Yes. I’m the senior landscape designer for my family’s business. I average probably 60 hours a week, and I’m in line to take over the company eventually, so that requires a lot of effort and attention. Between work and lifting, I don’t really do anything else.
Does it ever cause any friction to have both of those priorities? You’re training to compete in the Paralympics,but you’re also competing in a professional and commercial sense.
You could say there’s friction, but it’s all self-imposed. I want to win at sport, and I also want to win at work. Nobody puts that expectation on me except for myself. My family has been telling me I should dial it back slightly [at work], and there’s no harm in me working less overtime. But I can’t really see doing it any other way.
It seems like there would be some natural sponsorship opportunities with gyms, for example. If you were to go to Tokyo and make the podium or even just come close, are there companies that might be interested?
I think so, but on the Paralympic side they’re much fewer and farther between. I did have a small sponsorship from a company that we buy all our patio products from, but it was just a one-time donation of money to help with travel. I was super appreciative of course, but it’s just hard to attract sponsors.
Was the one-year delay especially hard, given the schedule you’re keeping and the financial side of things?
For me it’s been a benefit to have everything rolled back. A lot of people that I’m going against are a little bit older than me. The prime years [in para powerlifting] are like 35 to 45, so I’m just kind of getting into that. This extra year has allowed me to catch up on some of the athletes who are older than me and are not progressing at the rate that I’m progressing. It’s like every training block, every couple of months, I get a little bit better.
What age are you right now?
I’m 33. All the people I follow and admire in the sport, and my friends on the team, they hit their prime in that age 35 to 40 range.
Who are some of the lifters who you admire and would consider to be role models?
A couple of US lifters come to mind. One is my best friend on the team, Ahmed Shafik. He’s originally from Iraq, and he’s just been a huge mentor toward me over the years. And Kim Brownfield is another. He was a multi-gold medalist back in 1990s and one of the top competitors in all of para powerlifting for quite some time. I had a competition or two with him early on when I first got started, and his focus and drive to win are something I’ve been trying to emulate ever since having met him.
When you’re in one of these competitions, what are the things that end up separating the podium finishers from the people who are just off the podium? Is it mostly a matter of mental focus?
Yeah, I think it’s your ability to focus and execute your technique in those big moments. For example, in Manchester, there were no fans, just TV cameras and press. But in the middle of my third lift, which would have put me in position for a silver medal, somebody outside the platform area started clapping very aggressively and loudly. I’m taking my weight down onto my chest, and there’s no noise, and someone starts clapping. I specifically remember hearing it in the middle of my lift, and I ended up missing that lift. So that’s something that I’m going to be training and preparing for, because people might do whatever they need to do to try to get an advantage, and I can’t let that potentially affect me.
Was another competitor actually clapping on purpose to distract you?
I think it was a coach.
So it was gamesmanship then.
Yep. Little things like that can happen, and that can make the difference. You’re talking maybe .1 percent of everything that goes into it, but that .1 percent can make a big difference on the platform.
How on earth can you train for something like that? Do you actually do mental drills as part of your preparation?
Two of the biggest additions in the last three years are that we now have a team nutritionist on staff and a sports psychologist on staff, and both have helped me tremendously. The sports psychologist has really helped me since Rio, because I kind of flattened off at Rio and wasn’t getting better. Working with her has made me feel like I’m in control of the situation. Instead of getting small in the moment, I’m getting bigger or better in those big moments.
What is coming up next for you?
My next competition will be in the very last World Cup qualifying competition. That’s in Dubai in the third week of June.
Is there a specific weight that you think would seal it for you in terms of qualifying for Tokyo?
I’m targeting anything at 212 or more. That’s what I missed in Manchester. I’m targeting more than that, because everyone’s going to be bringing their best. But I would feel pretty safe with 212.