Few athletes have a story as inspiring as Matthias Steiner.
Diagnosed with diabetes on his 18th birthday, Steiner was told to quit weightlifting but went on to become a four-time Austrian National Champion in the +105kg category. He competed as an Austrian from 1998 to 2005 in European Championships, World Championships, and the 2004 Olympics held in Athens.
In 2005 he married Susann Steiner, a German citizen, and after a complex series of events, he left the federation and applied for German citizenship.
While going through the process of obtaining German citizenship, his wife died in a tragic car accident.
“It’s hard to describe,” he said. “You think you’ve got your life figured out, I was completely focused on the Olympic Games, my wife was studying, she had her career in front of her. Then, one day it’s just over.”
Faced with the decision to quit weightlifting or carry on, Steiner says he realized that quitting would not change his situation or undo the fact that his wife had passed, and decided to continue training.
In 2008, he became a German citizen and won gold in the +105kg category at the European Championships in Italy, where he was the only lifter to snatch over 200kg (440.9lb). (He won silver overall with a total of 446kg (983.26lb), one kilogram away from first place.)
The Gold Medal Lift
He’s best known for his performance at the 2008 Olympic games. Having always promised his wife that he would win an Olympic medal, he completed two snatches at 198kg and 203kg, but failed his third attempt of 207kg.
When warming up for the clean & jerk, he was unable to catch 235kg. That was when his coach, Frank Mantek, told him that he needed to lift 246kg.
He protested. “I just tried 235kg and couldn’t do it. I don’t have enough air left for it!”
Mantek answered that it didn’t matter, he had to go out. There was no time for failure.
Steinman failed his first attempt.
But his coach pressed him to add more weight: a 248kg lift. “You realize that if you make this, you have a (bronze) medal?”
Steiner walked to the podium and nailed the lift. But then, Russian weightlifter Evgeny Chigishev clean & jerked 250kg, leaving a gap of 9kg between their totals. So Steiner decided to attempt a 258kg clean & jerk, his heaviest ever.
“I just wanted to win gold,” Steiner said in an interview. “I had only one try. I thought of the words of my coach, Frank Mantek. When I first came to Germany, he told me the very best athletes are distinguished by one thing. They compete a lot of times but they only have a few where they have one try which will decide everything and that can change their life. In life you only have two or three, maybe only one chance, and you have to grab it. That’s the difference between a very good athlete, and a champion.”
What followed is one of the most emotional performances in weightlifting history.
“It felt like a thousand chains had burst off me,” said Steiner. “Only then did I realize the kind of pressure I’d been under. In the end there was just a feeling of thankfulness, that I was given the chance to become an Olympic champion.”
A bittersweet victory, Steiner admitted that he felt alone on the podium and wanted his wife to be there. That’s why he held up a picture of the late Mrs. Steiner when he accepted the gold medal for his combined total of 461kg (1,020lb).
After Beijing, he ranked second at the 2009 German Championships with a total of 430kg and third in the 2010 European Championships with 426kg. He also remarried in 2010 to German television journalist Inge Posmyk. Unfortunately, after a 196kg (420lb) snatch gone wrong injured his neck at the 2012 Olympics, he had to abandon the competition and he retired in early 2013.
After leaving competition, he decided that a bodyweight of 150kg (330lb) was not something that is sustainable in everyday life.
“It’s impossible to find any clothes that fit,” he said in an interview with ISPO. “It’s harder to get into the car. You have to take a nap to recover from training. You sweat a little bit every time you move. On the other hand, you can do deep squats with 685lbs with that strength. Now, that just doesn’t work anymore. But I’m done with that.”
He claims he lost a hundred pounds in just one year and he still lifts recreationally – he can now snatch about 120kg (265lb) and squat about 200kg (440lb). Take a look at his recent clean & jerk of 150kg (330lb) at a lean 95kg (209lb) or so below.
Today, Steiner is an accomplished author, motivational speaker, and TV host. In 2016, he wrote Das Steiner Prinzip (The Steiner Principles) about his weight loss journey. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be available in English, but you can see the principles laid out here. In short: Burn more calories than you consume, keep your blood sugar steady, eat regularly, avoid refined sugar and processed foods, and try extra hard not to combine fat with sugar. He makes it clear that he learned many of his principles while managing his diabetes, but points out that they are also “true of a healthy person.”
Matthias Steiner lives with his wife and child in Germany, and can still be seen snatching at his home.
Thanks to Nicole Hansalik for her help with some German translation for this article.