Late bloomers get a bad rap. There’s little panache to being one of life’s tortoises instead of one of its hares, but local weightlifting savant Rick Bucinell cleans, jerks and snatches that slow-starting status with the fluidity and force that’s made him one of the world’s best Olympic lifters.
As you might’ve guessed, Bucinell is that late bloomer. The 54-year-old didn’t first try his hand at Olympic-style lifts until he was in his early 40s. Prior to that, Bucinell had spent most his adult life working in and around fitness clubs as a trainer or for his brother’s in upstate New York, until he relocated to Northern Virginia in 1996. Currently he runs barbell clubs at CrossFit Falls Church and CrossFit Adaptation as well as Trident CrossFit in Alexandria, holds olympic lifting seminars and is the general manager at the Planet Fitness located in the rear of Falls Church’s Eden Center.
A lifelong disciple of the high intensity interval training pioneered by Arthur Jones and championed by Mike Mentzer, Bucinell befriended and later trained with a fellow adherent of the regimen in the elderly Morgan Novel. It was Novel who (lovingly) harangued a reluctant Bucinell into taking up Olympic weightlifting. The rest, as they say, is history.
“[Novel] kept needling me about Olympic weightlifting, and I was like, ‘I’m not doing it because it’s ballistic movement and I’m not about that kind of training,’” Bucinell said. “He kept doing it all the time, and then one day he finally got me to try. I thought it was awesome and I’ve never looked back.”
The duo was raw at first. Armed only with Artie Dreschler’s “Weightlifting Encyclopedia,” Bucinell and Novel taught themselves the techniques and timing of each of the major olympic lifts — from staples such as the clean, jerk and snatch to more advanced exercises including the Romanian deadlift, military press and jump shrug.
After a few years, Bucinell and Novel reached the ceiling of their self-helpertise and sought out Chris Wilkes to take their lifts to the next level. Wilkes, a nationally-recognized coach who served as an assistant coach for one of the Olympics, did just that. But the weekend trips to and from his Chesapeake, Va. residence lost their luster over time, and by then Bucinell felt confident enough to enter competitions.
Against other lifters, especially young ones, Bucinell began to realize how limitless his potential was.
“At my age, I was progressing pretty quickly. When I 46 years old, I was actually ranked in the top five Senior lifters in the U.S., which is guys that are under 35 years old,” Bucinell continued, before adding that his native classification would be a Master lifter, or 35 and up. “I was doing well enough to be ranked as a national lifter, which I thought was pretty cool because here’s this old guy out there competing with these guys who are 20 years younger than I am, so it was a lot of fun.”
It’s always fun to win, and Bucinell has been doing plenty of that. He’s racked up accolades at home and abroad — Four International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) Masters World records, three IWF Masters World Games records, eight IWF Masters Pan American Records, eight USA Masters National records to go with eight USA Masters American records and 12 Virginia/Maryland Local Weightlifting Committee records. Bucinell has even been named a Grand Master five times; a distinction earned by being the best pound-for-pound lifter in the entire competition regardless of age group or weight class.
Competitions have taken Bucinell everywhere from Hungary and Greece to Italy, Poland and Denmark, though he’s cooled down on the travel as he’s aged. Now he only travels abroad twice a year, and typically makes a vacation out of it once the competition is over.
Success brings an element of glamour to it, but there’s been nothing glamorous about Bucinell’s rise as much as it is the culture around lifting has changed. For one, there’s no cash prizes for winning competitions. Bucinell funds all his trips out of pocket in pursuit of the internal trophy of “street cred.” That still holds true even as the surging popularity of CrossFit has made weightlifting and its competitions vogue. In his early days, Bucinell faced off against 50-100 participants. Now, some fields max out just shy of 1,000 lifters, such as Bucinell’s recent Masters competition in Barcelona.
More contenders has kept Bucinell honest in his preparation. He only trains twice a week, but he does what he needs to preserve the necessary strength and flexibility to outlast any hungry understudies. Imperative as well is the need to stay mentally sharp. Bucinell is a huge believer in hypnosis (which is administered to him by a Planet Fitness member) and is a follower of Denise Lynch’s behavioral strategies that teach people to focus on controlling the positive influences in their lives while disassociating themselves from the negative ones. He even brings his own secret sauce to the mix by watching the movie “300” the night before every competition, all of which contribute to getting Bucinell in the right frame of mind to tackle the weight in front of him.
“Once you step up there, you can’t have any doubt about what you’re doing because it’s heavy and it wants to beat you. You’ve gotta be mentally prepared to take it on,” Bucinell stated.
Although Bucinell has scaled down the number of competitions he does on a regular basis, he’s sheepish about admitting he’s reached his apex. He cheekily refers to that as “managing expectations,” rather than outright conceding he’s not the lifter he once was. But he also knows he doesn’t have as much time to dedicate to lifting with his deepening relationships and responsibilities that come with the progression through adult life.
There’s no doubt that slow and steady does win the race, even if, in Bucinell’s case, he’s 20 years late to the starting line. But even with his array of accomplishments, Bucinell does wonder how things would be now if he jumped out of the gate when the gun sounded.
“I was happy because it was great to find something that I really excelled at. And then it was sad to think of ‘What if I had done this when I was younger? What could I have done? Could I have been on an Olympic team?’” Bucinell said. “But who knows – you don’t know – so I’m happy with where I’m going and where it’s taking me. It’s nice to say you’re the best in the world at something.”