KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)- Wesley, “Wes” Kitts is heading to Tokyo with Knoxville on his mind and in his heart. “Halls homegrown” Kitts’ family roots are deeply embedded in East Tennessee. His father grew up in Halls, his brother played golf for the Red Devils in high school and his mother grew up in Farragut.
Growing up in Halls, Kitts played various sports but found a passion for playing on the pitch. A four-year letterman, Kitts started as a freshman for Halls’ high school soccer team.
“He was one of these kids that physically, he was that rare combination of speed and size,” said former Halls soccer head coach Bill Warren. “He was the fastest kid on the team. When we would run laps or sprints, he was always the first one done and encouraged the rest of them, he was a great kid.”
Former Red Devils head football coach Kevin Julian recognized his size and speed could be put to good use on the gridiron, convincing Kitts to join the football team his sophomore year as a running back.
“He just took the ball and ran with it,” said Julain. “And ran very fast and scored a lot of touchdowns.”
In his senior season at Halls, Kitts rushed for over 1,600 yards including running 336 yards on 24 carries helping Halls beat West in a big game on September 22, 2007.
After high school Kitts chose to focus on football, walking on at Austin Peay. An explosive running back, Kitts rushed for over 1,000 yards and five touchdowns in his collegiate career and became the first Gov to run 100 plus yards against back-to-back FBS opponents.
After college Kitts decided to shoot his shot for a spot on an NFL roster by participating in the 2013 NFL combine and put up decent numbers, clocking a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash, recording a 10’06” broad jump and 39 1/2 in the vertical jump.
However, his NFL aspirations did not pan out, so Kitts turned to his passion for training and opened up a Knoxville gym off of Callahan Drive. Kitts took a liking to cross fit and quickly explored the possibility of a professional weightlifting career.
“I just looked up what it takes to qualify for a national meet,” said Kitts. “I saw the numbers and decided that was something I could do so I signed up for a couple of meets, hit the numbers I needed to qualify at the first one… I went from making it to being a pretty good contender in the course of a few months.”
Kitts moved to the West Coast with his wife to join California Strength, an athletic facility located in San Ramon, California, and where began his road to the Olympic Games.
in 2019, Kitts powered his way winning gold at the Pan American Games after Clean and Jerking 217kg (478lbs) in a come-from-behind fashion to punch his ticket to the 2020 Olympic Games.
Kitts has created a decorated resume in a short amount of time breaking two American records, winning two Pan American titles, a Pan American Games champion, three World Championship appearances, and now looks to become an Olympic Gold Medalist.
“When I think about the opportunity and even like the potential to bring home a medal, for me, it’s like bringing it home to Knoxville,” said Kitts. “It feels cool and special to be able to represent Halls and Knoxville.”
During his sophomore year in college Kitts lost one of his biggest supporters to lung cancer, his father Stacy.
Stacy was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the young age of 19. His treatments would consist of using lead blocks during radiation treatments, he was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away at 47 years old.
“At every game, he was always so excited that he couldn’t sit in the stands with me,” said Wes’ mother Sandra Hackworth. “He [Stacy] would be down at the fence [cheering him on].”
Like Wes, Stacy enjoyed lifting weights and inspired Wes to spend time in the gym.
“He’s the one who got me into training and taught me the lessons of athletics,” said Kitts. “How to use a weight room to improve your game on the field. He was always my biggest fan in stuff. He didn’t do any athletics at a super high level but he enjoyed them and appreciated them so that was always something cool and special for me, and it still is.”
Hackworth said Kitts’ success in powerlifting comes as a surprise but she says Stacy saw something special in his son.
“I’m surprised but that’s one thing Stacy always said he had was heart. He’d always say there’s a lot of athletic people out there but Wesley has the heart,” said Hackworth. “He would say there’s something special about Wesley.”
Stacy encouraged his son to shoot for stars instilling the mantra “Be somebody” to motivate him to reach his full potential, a saying that Kitts uses for motivation.
Lessons learned on the field
While Kitts decided to veer off from soccer and football professionally, the Olympic Weightlifter said he still carries many lessons learned on the field with him into the weight room.
“Delayed gratification,” said Kitts. “How you have to work hard to see your goals, achieve what you want. You learn how to lose, you learn how to take that and respond to that and respond to winning as well. All those good lessons that come with team sports and general athletics taught me everything I needed to jump right into weight lifting and be ready to compete.”
Balancing Friday nights on the football field to Saturdays on the pitch, Kitts also says playing sports competitively in the fall helped prepare him for the heavy workload that comes with Olympic training.
“I got used to doing all this work. I would do football practice after school, jump in the car, eat some food my mom brought for me. She [his mom] actually would take me to practice so I could eat and rest for a minute,” said Kitts.
In college was when training really picked up. Having played collegiate football, training was a key part of getting ready for Gameday on Saturdays. As a redshirt, Kitts used the extra free time to focus his efforts in the gym.
“I just really enjoyed lifting weights. I had a passion for it and it was fun for me so it never felt like work it was just something I enjoyed doing,” said Kitts.
Preparing for the big stage
The road to Tokyo and being the strongest man in the country in his weight class requires long days in the gym. Kitts says he typically trains in nine sessions with his coach during the week that will last about two hours, sometimes three.
As far as mental preparation goes, Kitts says it’s all about locking in leading up to meets.
“As the meets get closer you’re more strict, harder on yourself, more regimented. You know exactly what you’re going to do on the stage so it’s just locking in, focusing, and making sure you’re prepared,” said Kitts.
While he is used to competing on big stages, Kitts says getting a good night’s rest has been challenging leading up to the Games.
“I’ve never been quite as stressed about an event as I am now, sleeping is tough, it’s hard it’s an experience. I feel for the other Olympic athletes out there it feels like a big deal,” said Kitts.
With changes to the games this year amidst ongoing COVID-19 concerns, the athletes first arrive in Hawaii where they train and live until their respective competitions begin in Japan. While his family will not be able to support him in Tokyo, they will be cheering him on from Hawaii.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to be a part of that,” said Kitt’s mother Sandra Hackworth. “Last night we had a radiologist’s meeting and one said we need to congratulate Sandra because one of her sons is going to the Olympics and representing our country. And I’m like ‘yeah, that’s right!’ It’s unbelievable.”
Kitts will also have plenty of people cheering him on from Knoxville when his time on the big stage comes, including his former coach Bill Warren who says he gets “shivers down his back” thinking about one of his former student-athletes competing in the Games.
“I’ve coached some pro football players, not in football but in basketball. But never an Olympian in this case a world-class Olympian. It’s unbelievable, it really is unbelievable,” said Warren.
Kitts is one of eight athletes representing the United States in weightlifting. USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews said it will be their first full Olympic team since 1996 and feel this group has high potential to produce the best results in 61 years.
Kitts will be competing in the 109kg weight class. He departs for Tokyo on July 28 and is set to compete on the big stage on Tuesday, August 3 at 7:50 P.M. (Japan), 6:50 A.M. (Eastern).