By Harry Minium

The Olympics can turn relatively unknown athletes into superstars. Billions of television viewers focus on sports that often draw paltry ratings when the Olympic flame isn't lit, and good athletes with good stories can become household names overnight.

Old Dominion University graduate Caine Wilkes hopes be one of those good stories at the Tokyo Olympics, which get underway this month.

Wilkes is a weightlifter and didn't take the usual avenue to the Olympics. He began weightlifting in his family's Great Bridge home more than two decades ago. His father, Chris, was a retired Norfolk homicide detective and set up a gym in their garage.

Chris and his four sons began working out together, and all four brothers became competitive weightlifters.

Wilkes was a pretty good football player at Great Bridge Middle School but gave it up because he loved pumping iron. It gave him a thrill each time he added another 10-pound weight to his bar.

Eventually, his brothers gave up competitive weightlifting. Wilkes has stubbornly held onto to his dream of having a medal draped around his neck. He has been at it now since the early 1990s.

"It means so much to have finally reached that pinnacle," he said

At 34, he'll be one of the older competitors at the Olympics. He has a scraggly beard, long hair and lifts with a menacing stare. On stage, he's all toughness, emotion and aggressiveness. He lets out a scream that others describe as "primal" just before he lifts.

He is the only U.S. Olympian in the super heavyweight division, for guys who weigh more than 241 pounds. He weighs in at 320 pounds.

But off the mat, he's a gentle giant. While being interviewed he says yes sir and no sir and thanks you for taking an interest in him.

Wilkes double-majored in English and art at ODU. In his spare time, he paints watercolors, has a graphics business and writes poetry. He calls his business Quiet Guy Graphics, and you can see his artwork at Caine Wilkes portfolio.

And that soft side? His poetry is for himself and his wife, Emelie. Find him on Twitter or Instagram and you'll see a photo of him on one knee, asking her to marry him, clasping flowers in his right hand.

She was also a weightlifter when they met at an event in Reno, Nevada. Neither was competing - they were injured but were rooting on their teammates - and struck up a conversation that lasted for hours. They've been a couple ever since.

Competing in the Olympics is the gold standard for most. He missed out in his last two tries and considered giving up the sport for financial reasons. Only recently did USA Weightlifting begin providing stipends to its most promising athletes.

He sells his art online and there are potential sponsorships he hopes to pursue on Instagram, where he has nearly 20,000 followers. But unless he medals in Tokyo, the endorsement possibilities may not be lucrative enough to support his family.

He's won three gold and three silver medals in the Pan American Games since 2014 but has yet to medal in the World Championships.

He took nearly a decade to graduate from ODU - between weightlifting and working to support himself, he took a lot of classes part-time. When football began at ODU in 2009, many friends urged him to walk on to the team. He could have been a standout nose guard.

He considered it briefly but decided it might interfere with his ultimate goal of going to the Olympics.

Wilkes will be one of four ODU graduates in Tokyo and curiously, is the only one who was not a varsity athlete for the Monarchs.

  • Stephanie Roble, who graduated in 2011, is considered a medal candidate in sailing along with teammate Maggie Shea. Roble led the Monarchs to several women's and coed national championships, was a two-time All-American, a three-time team MVP and served as team captain as a senior.
  • Maggie Simmermacher, the 2017 Conference USA Golfer of the Year, will represent Argentina.
  • Terry Hayes, a 1997 graduate who played lacrosse for the Monarchs, will participate in the Paralympics on the fencing team. The Paralympics will also be held in Tokyo.

Wilkes hopes to meet the other ODU alumni in Tokyo, but given the pandemic situation in Asia, there may be little chance. Social distancing and masks are still required, and fans will not be allowed into venues.

Wilkes and his family moved to suburban Charlotte in 2015 to join a weightlifting club. But he says Chesapeake and ODU will always be his home.

"A lot of people from all walks of life, my old high school and college friends, have been reaching out to me," he said. "I'll be representing my high school, college and my nation. I hope I do ODU proud, and I hope I do my country proud."

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