Meet Coach Cheng

I was born in Wuhan, Hubei province of the People’s Republic of China in 1990 as an only child. As a kid, I never thought that I would be athletic. Growing up, as the stereotype of the Chinese tiger parents goes, my folks always pushed me towards academic achievements, even when they came at the cost of athleticism and physical fitness. The results were bittersweet: on the one hand, I excelled at school and skipped a grade; on the other hand, I was the smallest and scrawniest kid among older kids. But luckily for me, I come from a long line of fighters. My paternal grandfather fought as a guerrilla against the invading Japanese army during the Second World War when he was only fourteen years old. Meanwhile, on my paternal grandparents’ side, they were part of the few intellectuals that had survived the purges of Maoist Red China. While one side of my family were poor peasants, and the other educated elites, the common ground was one of resilience and fighting spirit: never go down without a fight.
In 1997, my life took a turn for the surreal. My single mother, who has worked tirelessly throughout her life to climb the corporate ladder in her company, suddenly found herself the victim of political persecution. At the time, all corporations in China were state-owned, and a change in leadership at the company spawned a purge of upper and middle managers. This was further exacerbated by the fact that my grandfather and the new CEO of the company has had disagreement in the past. In this winner-take-all, might-is-right environment, my mother was being investigated on trumped up and bogus charges corruption and was threatened with imprisonment. Realizing that this marked the end of our future in China, she spent the next two years devising a plan to get us out of the country, whilst keeping her persecutors at bay. Seven-year-old me did not have the capacity to understand what was happening at the time. All I knew was that we could no longer live at the nice apartment she had worked so hard for, and we stayed with family member to other family member. More heartbreakingly, I could not understand why my mother was crying all the time as she did her best to shelter the reality and the gravity of the situation from me.

Her efforts came to fruition in 1999, when she managed to get her visa and with everything we can carry in some suitcases, we would say goodbye to the country that has given us so much, but has also taken everything from us. On a cold September night in 1999, we landed in Pearson International Airport, in hopes that a new life, with new opportunities awaited us. As with any immigrant tale, the first several years were rough. Through a combination of language barrier and cultural differences, my mother had a very difficult time finding employment, and I struggled to fit in at school. Truly, we were strangers in a strange land. But we held on to that fighting spirit, and my mother ensured that my work ethic remained on track. She ensured that I never squandered the second opportunity we were so fortunate to have, and that I were never to forget what Canada has done for us.

As a result, I became deeply committed to the notion of civic duty. Immediately after my high school graduation in 2008, I joined the Canadian Armed Forces as an infantry officer and enrolled in the Royal Military College of Canada. I chose to be in the infantry because I believed that the best way to repay the debt that I owe to this country is through the most physical forms of labour possible, and that only through sweat, blood, and tears, can the price be paid in full. In my eyes, there is little fate nobler than placing my one and only mortal body between our beloved home and war’s desolation.

Joining the military was one of the best things for my physical fitness, because now I could not hide behind academia as an excuse. At military college, fitness and academics went hand in hand. You couldn’t be a leader of soldiers if you couldn’t out-perform them, and you certainly couldn’t be expected to lead them into battle without their full confidence that you’d be able to bring them back home. It was during this time that I discovered CrossFit. The Canadian military was trialing CrossFit at the time as a method of combat fitness training for its soldiers and they tested their pilot program at the military college. Although the military would eventually adopt its own fitness regime, the principles of CrossFit remained: well rounded fitness. What good is a soldier who can lift something heavy one time, when he or she should be carrying a heavy load over rugged terrain for fifteen kilometers or more? Through CrossFit, I discovered Olympic Weightlifting, and it became a whirlwind love affair that continues to this day. I used Olympic Weightlifting as my main training methodology, but I also had to work on my endurance and metabolic conditioning. This hybrid training method paid its dividends when I was able to pass the most grueling phases of military training to become a qualified infantry officer.
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Meeting and training with former world record holder Liu Shoubin in China

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I graduated in 2012 with an honors Bachelor Degree in Political Science and a Minor in English Literature. During my undergrad, I realized that my passion and calling in life is with academia. As a result, upon graduation, I applied to do my Master Degree at Queen’s University. With the military’s blessing, I then graduated in 2013 with a M.A. in International Development Studies. Given my personal, family, and professional background, issues of conflict and inequality are very near and dear to my heart, and I decided that this is what I will dedicate my life’s work towards. My M.A. year was also the same year that I decided to start competing in Weightlifting, and this became a lasting addiction. The rush of competition was something I craved over and over again.

​Immediately upon graduation, I was stationed in Edmonton, Alberta, with the Third Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. This is when the real challenge started. Soon after my arrival, I was selected to attend my military parachutist course. An army paratrooper is expected to maintain physical fitness levels well above the rest. In February 2014, I received my paratrooper’s wings and was transferred over to the Parachute Company of my unit. Because there ain’t no rest for the wicked, just two short months after, Russia annexed Crimea, and my Company was put on high alert for deployment to Eastern Europe. We were wheels up in June and landed in Poland as part of larger NATO operations in what seemed like a renewed Cold War. Given their history with Russia, the Polish government was understandably on edge, and there we are, Canadian, American, and Polish paratroopers, we dug in and waited for the Russians to come over the hill. Spoiler alert, they never came. That being said, we did some really cool things in Poland in preparation, including, parachuting into water, Escape and Evasion exercises in the Polish forest. As well as visits to Krakow. I fell in love with Poland in my time there.


After I came back from Poland, I finally had some breathing room. It was during this time that I decided to take my weightlifting career to the next level and I started to work towards my NCCP level 1 Olympic Weightlifting Coaching qualification. I discovered that coaching weightlifting made me a better athlete. And this was proven to be true as I represented Team Alberta that year at the Western Canadian Championships in 2015, where I was edged out of a podium finish by bodyweight (which I would have gotten under the new rules, but hey, I’m over it). My crowning achievement was when I qualified for the Senior National Championships, and finished 9th in my weight class across the country.
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132kg (290lb) Clean and Jerk in a 2015 Competition

After nationals, I redoubled my effort in training and coaching. After becoming fully qualified, I continued to build my coaching and athletic credentials. Some of which include Alberta Provincial Champion. I finally had the chance to run my own weightlifting club in January 2016, where I had the good fortune to coach athletes from the novice to the national level. Olympic Weightlifting is my passion, and nothing makes me happier than to impart my love for the sport with others. It fills me with tremendous joy to see someone who has never touched a barbell before, to dropping under the bar and catching a snatch and to see their eyes light up at what their own bodies can achieve. There’s an athlete in all of us, and it just takes the right mindset to unleash our inner strength.

PictureSnatching 102kg (225lb) in competition in 2016

Running a weightlifting club is a lot more work than I thought it would be, and my own training took a big toll as a result. Even though I managed to become the silver medalist at the 2016 Western Canadian Championships, my Senior Nationals result in 2016 was more than disappointing – I bombed out, making no attempts in the snatch. The bitterness of defeat is something I needed to experience. After riding a three-year high competing in Weightlifting, a dose of reality and humility was due. That was also a sad year for me as I had to say goodbye to the club that I helped build, as the military was stationing me to Toronto.

When I came to Toronto, I thought that this was a good opportunity for a change of pace, or a fresh start. After my contract with the military ended in May 2017, I decided to take my retirement after nine and half years of service so I can pursue my PhD in Political Science at the University of Toronto. My military service and leading men and women were some of the best of my life, but it was taking a large toll on my body: I sustained several major stress injuries including sciatica. If I were to retain the use of my physical body into old age, the time has come for me to take my life in a different direction. I decided that I was going to study peacebuilding and conflict resolution, so that upon graduation, I can work in conflict affected zones and be a policy consultant. At the same time, during the duration of my studies, I can also turn my attention to coaching and competing. Currently, I am working towards getting my NCCP Level 2 in Weightlifting, and I also coach the weightlifting recreational program at Ryerson University.  

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My Platoon of Paratroopers, 5 Platoon, Callsign 2/2

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