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Hometown Hopefuls: Knoxville’s Wes Kitts carries memory of his father to the Olympic stage

2024 Paris Olympics: Hometown Hopefuls
Follow 52 Olympic hopefuls as they work to achieve their dreams in the 2024 Paris Olympics in NBC's Hometown Hopefuls series.

Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.

It’s safe to say Wes Kitts never thought he would one day be an Olympic weightlifter. The 33-year-old from Knoxville, Tenn., spent his college years playing running back at Austin Peay State University about three-and-a-half hours from his hometown. But a love of lifting weights to improve himself on the field – something he learned from his late father, Stacy – ultimately led him to a new passion.

In 2016, Kitts left Tennessee and moved to the Bay Area in California to start training more seriously in weightlifting. Five years later, he made his first Olympic team for the Tokyo Games, where he finished eighth in the men’s heavyweight category.

His father’s mantra, “Be Somebody,” has become a guiding principle for weightlifting and life. Kitts and his family are now back in Knoxville, where he recently launched a gym – BE SOMEBODY Performance – to help build a community of weightlifters in his hometown. After being inspired by his own father to try his best each day in and out of the gym, Kitts and his wife Kendall now have two young sons, and he’s hoping to bring them to Paris next summer for the Olympics.

We spoke to Kitts recently about the sports culture in his hometown, finding weightlifting, and how his family has influenced his career.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was it like growing up in Knoxville?
Knoxville is a good place to grow up. Everybody likes Volunteer football (University of Tennessee) and we played in the woods. You’ve got your own space, lots of kids to hang out with, lots of things to do, and a pretty safe place to live. So I loved growing up Knoxville.

All the things one would picture for a Tennessee kid. How do you think where you grew up influenced you as a person now?
For one, there’s so many opportunities to play sports. Everyone’s very into athletics, and it’s a big part of the community. There were a lot of opportunities for Little League Baseball. I played T-Ball at the community park down the street, all the way through middle school. There was club soccer teams that primarily trained out in West Knoxville. All the high schools are into football, so there were a lot of full stadiums on Friday nights. That really sort of shaped me as what I am now. I was always into sports. I loved playing team sports and always was competitive. Even with the neighborhood kids I grew up with, we were always playing football or basketball or soccer or whatever. So I think that it really developed my competitive nature, and my interest in athletics was sort of ingrained [in me] by the community and the opportunities that Knoxville provided.

You played college football [at Austin Peay State University in Clarkesville, TN], and then you sort of stumbled into weightlifting. How did you make your way into this sport?
From a pretty young age, I was always interested in the weight training. I really liked lifting weights and being in the gym, and I knew it was a way to be a better competitor on the field. So I always had that love and desire for training. As I got older, and in college, I was just a dork for the weight room. I worked out every chance I could get, always doing extra stuff, going to the auxiliary gym with the regular students to do more after practice, I just couldn’t get enough. But yeah, I just stumbled into it. I was actually still training for football when I showed up at this CrossFit gym. I did an internship with them. They had a weightlifting team that was going to a local meet, and I just signed up for it. I was like, “all my buddies are going. I’ll just go with them.”

I didn’t even know how to do a snatch yet [one of the two types of lifts in weightlifting] so I spent two weeks leading up to the meet learning how to properly snatch and just showed up. I wasn’t dressed in the proper attire, I broke a rule on my first lift and it didn’t count.

What rule was that?
I was excited. I slammed the bar down. I didn’t know that was not allowed (laughs). Anyway, that’s how you learn, right? You break some rules, you figure it out. But yeah, just exactly like you said, I just sort of stumbled into it. I was probably 23 when I did my first meet, and then I started training for weightlifting when I was about 24 and a half.

At what point did you realize the Olympics were a possibility for you after coming into the sport a little bit on the later side?
It never really dawned on me that I could potentially be an Olympian when I started. There was these guys [on my team] that made international teams and went to world championships. I admired these guys, and I wanted to be on a weightlifting team like them, but for whatever reason, it never really dawned on me that the goal, if you really want to do this sport, is ultimately to compete in the Olympic Games.

I’d done the sport for about two years, [and] I moved to California in 2016, which happened to be an Olympic year. I got better really quick after I met the Cal strength team and moved out there. Almost immediately, I was like, “Okay, we’ve got to start doing ABC to make sure we’re eligible to qualify for the Olympic Games.” Actually, in 2016, after Olympic Trials were done, I was second in line for the Olympics. In March 2016, I was filling out [paperwork] for the U.S. Olympic Committee just in case you make it. They’re asking about outfitting and you’re putting in your passport, so I sit down to fill out this form, and that was sort of when it dawned on me that I can go to the Olympics with this sport. It can take me there. I knew that 2016 was a long shot just because we didn’t have any spots for athletes at the time, but it was gonna be what we did in 2020. So at that point, I was like, “Okay, we’ll do what we can here, but we have to go to the Olympics in 2020.”

How hard was it for you to leave Tennessee in 2016 and move to California to start training there?
I really wanted to do it. My fiancée at the time was very much on the ropes about it. She grew up across the street from her grandparents, so her whole family is [nearby], even all her cousins. Honestly, my family is a lot like that too. When you grow up like that, sometimes it’s scary to leave everybody behind, all your friends and family. We both went to the same high school, so everybody we know is in this one town. Austin Peay [State University], where I went to school, was about three-and-a-half hours away, so I had already sort of gotten used to being in a new place and starting over. It wasn’t quite as nerve-wracking for me as it was for her because she went to UT Knoxville, so she just stayed right here, had all her friends, all her family, so it was a brand new thing for her. When I moved to California, we weren’t married yet, so she stayed back, so the last six months of our engagement were actually spent in different states. I [competed] at National Championships which [served] as Olympic Trials, came back to Tennessee for a week, we get married, went on our honeymoon, I fly back to California from our honeymoon, and she flies back to Knoxville. She moved out there [to the Bay Area] into a house that has no furniture (laughs). I’m very grateful that she was understanding. For a twenty-six-year-old dude, going to a house with no stuff, you’ve got your TV and a suitcase, it’s not so bad. But it was a lot for her to sacrifice just so I could be a weightlifter. So I was very fortunate.

What did you expect going into your first Olympics in Tokyo? And what was your experience like once you were there?
It was tough. Obviously, COVID really changed how the Olympics unfolded in a really big way. I was gonna go out there (to Japan) and train for a month, my wife was going to come out there towards the end of it and watch me compete, we were going to do a big vacation out there, and then afterwards, we were going to start a family. They kick the Olympics down the road a year, so what ends up happening is we have a baby in March, we go to Hawaii for training camp instead of Tokyo in July, and then we fly from Hawaii to Tokyo for the Games. I was only in Tokyo for about five days, so basically, we’re four days out, I get there, it’s barely enough time to even get used to where everything is, nevermind enjoy the culture. You just sort of fly in, and then I competed, and the next afternoon, we were on a bus back to the airport to get out of there. The expectations for the Games were sort of blown away when the COVID stuff unfolded. We’re just very lucky that we got to have an Olympics. And that was really all I felt, just appreciation that we got to actually go out there and experience [it]. I was terrified that I was going to blow a competition that took four years to qualify for, and I think everybody sort of feels that.

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Courtesy of Wes Kitts

I was reading that after Tokyo, you weren’t sure if you wanted to do this again and commit to another three years of training for the Olympics. What changed your mind about deciding to go for Paris?
When we plan an Olympic quad, you sort of ramp up only a few times. For example, as a weightlifter, we might lift as heavy as we can nine or 10 times in four years if you’re really planning it out. So what happened was, we were trying to peak for the Olympics in 2020, [but] they kick it down the road a year. So we sort of had to pull back and start everything over, and I ended up with pretty bad knee tendinitis just from having to string it out another year without taking a good offseason I wasn’t hitting the numbers that was really capable of. I had to take some pretty serious anti-inflammatories just to train. Because I wasn’t able to really perform at my best level, it really made me want to do it again. As an athlete, it’s not necessarily about winning. For a lot of people, it’s about having your best performance. If you’re a sprinter, it’s getting your best time, and obviously, if your best time is the best in the world, then your goal is to win. But ultimately for everyone, it’s just having your best performance. Even in the training for Tokyo, we knew it was very unlikely that I was going to have an all-time best day, and what ended up happening was I had an all-time best day in the snatch, but then the clean-and-jerk, which is the heavier of the two lifts, it was much more affected by the knee tendinitis. It just wasn’t there like it had been in the meets prior.

You’ve spoken about your dad and what an influence he was on you. Can you tell me about him, and how he continues to influence who you are?
He was my T-Ball Coach, so all my baseball IQ [came from him]. We got into soccer, he never wanted to miss a game. And then when I played football, he was standing on the fence, every football game. He was always my biggest supporter in that. The reason I got into [weight] training so young was because my mom had these pictures of my dad. Back when Arnold Schwarzenegger was coming up, right, everybody was doing bodybuilding. [My dad] also got in on the bodybuilding trend, and there was these really cool pictures where he got in shape, [and] he had a crazy six pack. I was like, “Man, I want to look like that.” You want to be your dad when you’re a little boy, and so I always wanted to start working out as soon as he thought it was okay. We had a little gym in our basement, and that was sort of how I caught the training bug and got into the weight training. While sports were already our thing, the weights [were] a way to enhance the sports, so he just naturally influenced me.

He died when I was 21. So he never even, just like me, knew weightlifting was a sport. It was just what you did to get better at sports. We didn’t pay attention to the Olympic weightlifting. Sports and the training got me to this point. It got me to where I was strong and capable of doing the work it takes to be an Olympic weightlifter. Because I had these skills and this history in the gym, it was a very easy rotation. I went straight from football to weightlifting because I’d always weightlifted and loved the gym. So it’s never been hard for me to go work out. That’s not something I had to force myself to do. And because it always worked out, I was able to do, you know, a lot of work. Even though I was starting late, I could do nine sessions a week. I could do two-a-day sessions. I could afford to learn at the same time as I was taking on a large workload. When I got to California, their programs were very big. It’s a lot of work compared to what most weightlifters even do. And it wasn’t that hard for me to jump into that system, and be physically prepared for it.

You know, you see some cool pictures of your dad being jacked when you’re five, and then you want to work out, you like playing sports. It’s kind of wild how little things like that influence your whole life, and weightlifting has been my whole life for almost 10 years now.

Can you talk about your father’s mantra, “Be Somebody,” and what that means to you?
It’s funny because my dad was always trying to motivate me. By the time I was weightlifting, he had been dead for about five years. I [was] trying to hit this American record. It was my first one. A lifetime weightlifter had hit it before me and he’s a very talented guy, and I’ve been weightlifting for around two years, and I’ve got my sights on it, I’m sort of bearing down on it. And [in that moment], it came back to me while I was training. I’m setting up, I’m ready to take a lift, and those words sort of just popped back into my head. And from that point on, I just sort of kept using it (the phrase “Be Somebody.”) It just became a mantra for my weightlifting. Anytime I have those big lifts or those scary ones in a competition, I just would sort of go back to that. I just sort of started sharing it with people and people seemed to feel the same way about it. It’s become a huge part of my training. My biggest motivator was making him proud, until I had my son, [and] it sort of shifted. It’s sort of leading by example and showing my sons what they can accomplish if they want to do something. Because it was never just about sports [with my dad]. He would tell me, “Whatever you want to do, just put your mind to it and give 100%.” It wasn’t like, just crush it in football or soccer. It was, whatever you decide to do, do it the best you can. That’s really what it is. Even though for me, it helps me with my weightlifting, the lesson is really broader than that.

How has being a dad impacted you as a weightlifter?
[My sons are] about 13 months apart, and it’s just it’s a blessing. They’re best friends and best enemies right now. One’s learning to walk, the other one’s pushing him over. It’s nuts at home, but it’s so much fun. You know exactly what you’re doing it for. If you’re trying to use your body to take care of a family, it really does keep you honest. You always know what you’re lifting for. You’ve got two little boys at home that you’re taking care of with your with your sport, so it’s just paramount that you give it your all every day.

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Courtesy of Wes Kitts

How did you decide to move back to Knoxville?
It was always the plan to move back home. I was in the sport for about a year and a half when I moved [to California]. I’d gotten good really quick, and by good, I didn’t mean I was a good weightlifter, I just was strong -- I could lift a lot of weight. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I needed a coach, and I needed a team, and I needed to learn if I was really going to pursue it at a high level. I had an opportunity in California, and the deal was we go down there, I’d learn to lift, we’d do an Olympics, and then I would come back home. I guess I didn’t really know that I could ever make the Olympics, but we’d do four years and then I’d get back, start the family and onto the next stage [of our lives]. That’s always what we were going to do. Being from Knoxville, all our friends and family are all here within the same 15-minute community, so we never wanted to be gone too long.

I just started a gym out here in Knoxville [BE SOMEBODY Performance]. I partnered with a CrossFit in January, and I built out a weightlifting training room that I could prepare for the Olympics in and I started having weightlifters out and started building the weightlifting community in Knoxville. But I’m actually closing in on the CrossFit gym at the end of the month, so I’m going to try to have a real gym. It’s the best and worst time because I need to focus on training and give 110% there, but if you don’t use your Olympics as a platform to progress in life, then it just comes and goes. If there’s anything I learned [from the Tokyo Olympics], it’s that. If you don’t use it, it’s just something you do, it’s just another meet. So trying to take advantage of the opportunity without sacrificing the opportunity at the same time.

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Courtesy of Wes Kitts

When you look ahead to the Olympics next summer, what makes you most excited about going to Paris?
I’m excited to have the family down there in Paris. I think it’s gonna be really cool for my older son to get to be there and see it and be a part of it. My younger one probably won’t be able to really know what’s going on quite so much but my two-year-old loves watching my training on my phone. We’ll go through my videos and watch dad’s lifts. He’s got a little barbell at home -- he likes to pick it up and do squats and throw it down. He was in the gym last night and he just sort of sat there and watched as I did some training. He just loves it. Even the recent meet in Cuba [the International Weightlifting Federation Grand Prix I in June], they turned it on the TV, and he’s just watching every bit of it. There were all these cool pictures of him, you know the standard right next to the TV, watching me lift. I think it’s gonna be really cool to have those memories and those pictures and just to get to do the Olympics how it was supposed to be last time. To get to walk in the Opening Ceremony and to do the vacation afterwards with my wife and to have my boys come there.