RIO DE JANEIRO – Every one of the thousands of athletes at any Olympic Games has a story—personal, nuanced, almost always compelling or heart-warming. But unless you’re talking about one of the golden headliners—a Phelps, a Biles, a Bolt—so many of the other men and women, if they get any media attention at all, tend to get reduced to a facile epithet: the Fencer in Hijab; the Forty-one-year-old Gymnast; the Wheelchair Archer.
Which makes Kendrick Farris the Vegan Weightlifter.
But just a short conversation with the 30-year-old Farris, the United States’ sole entrant in men’s weightlifting in Rio (he will compete on Saturday in the 94kg class), makes it clear that the Shreveport, La., native and three-time Olympian is more than just a nutritional curiosity.
Seated on a bench in the vast and otherwise empty weightlifting training hall at Rio Centro 5 on Wednesday night, after completing his final lifting workout before his event, the softspoken Farris, who looks a bit like the actor Clarke Peters from The Wire—if Peters were sporting dreads, an untrimmed beard, and an extra 50 pounds of concrete-like muscle—is perfectly happy to talk about his surprising diet. “What did I have for lunch?” he says in response to a reporter’s probing question. “Let’s see, I had a salad, grilled vegetables, some sweet potatoes, some black beans and rice. A lot of different things. I do like the beans, yeah. The beans are good.”
Then, over another half hour of conversation, which continues in a hallway after security personnel come through to close the training room for the night, Farris goes beyond recipes and nutritional tips. He speaks with passion about his personal journey from the disadvantaged Shreveport neighborhood of Stoner Hill to the Olympics, about family and faith, about the lost histories of the millions of descendants of the slave trade and about the need for “people who look like myself,” as he puts it, to find a sense of purpose and connection. He says that he sees his Olympic platform—both the literal one and the metaphorical one—as an opportunity to inspire other young people from difficult backgrounds and to spread the message that knowledge is empowering.
“Stoner Hill is just an inner-city neighborhood, no different from so many other neighborhoods that you can find throughout the United States,” Farris says. “But I was inspired to go out an see more and make connections.”
Farris, who participated in all the usual sports as a kid (“Our family did a good job of just keeping us active and not running the streets,” he says), was introduced to weightlifting by his uncle and began competing at age 12. Something in him, he says, responded to the challenge and the focus required by lifting. “I’ve always been a very determined person, very competitive,” he says. “I like to joke. But at the same time I had a very quick temper. Lifting was good, just being able to dial it in—it’s been great for me.”
Farris’s first coach was Kyle Pierce, and Farris has been with him ever since. A professor of kinesiology and health science at Louisiana State in Shreveport and the director of the LSUS USA Weightlifting Development Center, Pierce remains one of the driving forces in the sport, not just in the U.S., but around the world, serving with the International Weightlifting Federation and conducting seminars everywhere from Colombia to Mongolia to Kenya.
“Following [Pierce’s] program all these years, I’ve always been learning,” Farris says. “Growing up, if I asked him a question—Why are we doing this?—he wouldn’t be, like, ‘Because I said!’ He would explain things. If I asked him something he didn’t know, he’d say, ‘That’s a good question. Let me check some things out.’ He’s a very open-minded person. And seeing him being able to travel throughout the world and do the sorts of things he’s been able to do, that inspires me. These are things that I aspire to.”
And, thanks to weightlifting, things he has achieved. These are Farris’s third Games. He placed eighth in the 85kg division in 2008 in Beijing and 10th four years later in London, also at 85kg. Pierce accompanied Farris to both Beijing and London and he’s with him again in Rio. This time, though, Pierce has his own official duties. He is the weightlifting coach for the Republic of Ghana and even marched in the opening ceremonies dressed in traditional Kente. But he will also be on hand with Farris on Saturday.
So what did his longtime coach think of Farris’s decision, in 2014, to go vegan?
“He didn’t say too much,” Farris says. “He would ask me how I was feeling. He knows how I am, knows what I’m saying. He just tried to be as supportive as possible.”
It didn’t hurt that Farris has gotten both bigger and stronger since starting his vegan regimen, culminating with his U.S. record total of 377 kg at the Olympic Trials in May. “Physically I feel stronger,” he says. “And I feel a lot healthier too. I was having some little nagging injuries and I think my body actually recovers better now. It’s a really good feeling.”
So, okay, okay—the Vegan Weightlifter. Admittedly, it’s a catchy angle. Farris made the switch, he says, shortly after his second son, Kingsley, was born. (Farris and his wife, Katrina, have another son, Khalil, who is 10.) Farris wanted, he has said, to get back to “the purest form of our life, our being, and it started with the food.” And, despite growing up in Louisiana eating everything from crawfish gumbo to boudin balls and barbeque, he says he doesn’t miss a thing.
As for the new diet, Farris doesn’t seem to sweat the details. Katrina, he says, is the chef and the one who studies the vegan cookbooks. “I don’t have a nutritionist,” Farris says. “I don’t get into all that jazz. The neighborhood I grew up in, we didn’t have a nutritionist there. We probably didn’t even have every meal we were supposed to have. So my thing is, I eat when I’m hungry and I stay hydrated and I’m good.”
Whatever happens on Saturday (Farris knows he will need to improve upon his U.S. record total to make the podium), the Vegan Weightlifter has heavier things in mind as he looks to the future. “I want to tell people, ‘Start paying attention to what you’re putting into your body,’” says Farris. “These things will help you have not just a clearer mind and a longer life, but, man, you will have a greater quality of life. It’s a beautiful thing, man. That’s the message that I hope to give to people.”