He can remember how the performance chief for Team GB told the best weightlifter Scotland has ever produced that he hadn’t made the cut, that he would have to make do with being a reserve, how she was very sorry. Kirkbride isn’t the type to greet over spilt milk, but he readily admits that the call in which he was told he wouldn’t be going to the Olympics left him “distraught and in tears”.
It was a particularly sore one because the 24-year-old from Kilmarnock had every reason to presume that he would be in the team. Not only was he a Commonwealth silver medallist in Delhi, but this May he won his sixth consecutive 94kg British title, underlining his total dominance. He has ruled the roost in whatever weight class he has been in since he took up the sport as an 11-year-old, and was the main man at December’s Olympic trials.
Yet even then there had been a gnawing germ of doubt in the gallus lifter’s mind that had gradually grown stronger as 11 June, the date when the team would be announced, had drawn nearer.
Kirkbride had been injured during the world championships and, although he had performed well at the trials, he had missed the category A lift that would see him be an automatic choice by a whisker. He also knew that his refusal to move to Leeds and train with Team GB’s Hungarian head coach Tamas Feher might count against him.
“I was that sure that I was going that I was over-confident,” he says. “I thought I’d done enough, but as it got nearer the time, I began to worry and to question whether I’d done enough. As it dragged on, I was so worried that there were nights when I couldn’t sleep. Even then, getting the call to tell me I was being left out of the squad really shook me. I wasn’t expecting that at all. I was absolutely heartbroken because I thought I’d done enough to make the team.”
Kirkbride was in such a bad way that his coach and mentor Charlie “Chick” Hamilton gave him three days away from the gym to get his head sorted while Hamilton appealed the decision. In the meantime the weightlifter fretted his heart out, going over whether he could have done more to make the grade and angrily wondering why other lifters’ claims carried more weight than his.
“Some people thought the decision was down to politics, but the hard truth is that I never did the A-standard lift that I should have done to make it automatic,” he says. “There was such enormous pressure on myself and the other athletes to get these standards that you saw a couple of bomb-outs [at the Olympic Trials], but I just felt it was really unfair that there were people who bombed out and were then selected. These were boys who made the B standard once when I made it ten times.
“At first when I didn’t get selected, I was ‘right, well how did he get selected? And what about him?’ I was in some state. Chick gave me three days out of the gym to sort myself out because I was really distraught. I’d been working so hard for the past two years, had done so much to come back from injury, and then to have it all taken away with one telephone call was tough to take. I couldn’t bring myself to go into the gym anyway because I felt embarrassed, as if I’d let everyone down.”
Thankfully for Kirkbride, the independent panel agreed with his coach’s assessment that he deserved a place at the Games and he was installed in Team GB and headed for London. The process took less than 72 hours but it seemed like a lifetime for the lifter. The whole tortuous affair has, however, not only strengthened his resolve but also brought into focus why the Olympics is so important to him.
“I’ll be the first Olympian from the Kilmarnock weightlifting club, which is such an honour because there have been so many good Commonwealth lifters from the club yet none of them has ever competed at the Olympics,” he says. “It’s great for Chick because he’s fulfilled an ambition: as a coach it’s the best you can hope for, to coach an Olympian. He always says he knew I’d go to the Olympics as soon as he asked me down to the gym when I was just 11, and at times I’ve just wished that I had as much confidence in myself as he has in me.”
Kirkbride’s relationship with Hamilton, and the close-knit family feel of the Kilmarnock weightlifting club are key reasons for the lifter’s success, and lie behind his controversial decision not to relocate to Leeds. The club keeps him grounded (Hamilton won’t let him get a tattoo of the Olympic rings until he’s actually an Olympian), while its gym in the Shortless Campus Community Centre in Kilmarnock is just a 20-minute cycle ride from the home he shares in his home village of Hurlford with his dog Kilo and 19-year-old girlfriend Connie England, a former weightlifter turned hairdresser.
But mainly it’s his partnership with Hamilton which is the defining driver in his career. Kirkbride is a famously demonic trainer who injured himself countless times by overtraining after he went full-time in 2009, and the veteran coach has helped to work out how to wring the best out of his charge without a recurrence of the sort of injuries that saw him miss the World Championships.
One of the methods used is typical of the home-spun wisdom that underpins Hamilton’s success: instead of an ice bath, Kirkbride purges the lactic acid that builds up in his muscles after a tough session by jumping into a wheelie-bin filled with cold water wearing nothing but his boxer shorts.
One huge natural advantage that Kirkbride has is his ability to switch off. “You might think that 4 August [the date his competition starts] would be on my mind all the time, but it’s not really – maybe it should be!” At the Olympic trials, when several of his rivals melted mentally, he sat on his own in a room and was completely self-contained, not even bothering to watch his opponents lift. He says that he has the ability to focus completely on the job in hand rather than obsess about the bigger picture. So what, I ask, do you do for fun to take your mind off weightlifting? He has taken up the bagpipes, he says, walks his dog three times a day, watches television with Connie and he trains. Mostly he trains.
Although he now only does two highly intensive hours in the gym each day (plus an 18-mile bike ride on Sundays “to keep my cardio ticking over”) his semi-detached regime and success in a sport with a history of athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs has almost inevitably attracted a lot of interest. Kirkbride has the dubious honour of being the most drug-tested member of Team GB, with the number of random visitations now running into double figures for this year alone. Not that he seems to mind. He’s got his job to do and they’ve got theirs.
Besides, he says, if they could see his work in the gym of late they might visit even more regularly. He is not suggesting that he will exceed Hamilton’s target of a top-15 place or even challenge the main men like Russia’s Alexandr Ivanov, Ukraine’s Artem Ivanov or Romania’s Valeriu Calaccea, but he thinks he has the ability to spring a real surprise.
“My training’s been going ridiculously well, and if I can do in competition what I’ve been doing in the gym for the past six months then I know that I will really surprise a few people.”
Not that his girlfriend Connie will be there to watch it. His two tickets will go to his parents, and besides, it’s her 20th birthday the day before he competes. Hopefully that will make for two parties. “In Delhi, the better man [Samoa’s Faavae Faauliuli] won, but I still got a silver and was very happy with that,” he says. “Coming back to Scotland you’d have thought that I won it with the party they threw. Just imagine what would happen if I did anything at the Olympics!”