Feature | Weightlifting

Exclusive! Matthias Steiner: "I have to accept what I cannot change"

Germany's Olympic weightlifting champion opens up on overcoming tragic challenges, mindfulness and how he has reinvented himself to become an entrepreneur.  

By Sven Busch ·

It is difficult to rattle Matthias Steiner.

The Beijing 2008 Olympic weightlifting champion Olympic is seemingly calm inside, no matter how big the turmoil is outside.

Life is good at his cozy home in the countryside outside of Vienna where he resides with wife Inge and his two kids.

Yet, the German legend is no stranger to overcoming emotional challenges.

One year after losing his first wife Susann in a car accident Steiner’s heart-wrenching gold medal performance at Beijing 2008 touched the world.

He collapsed in an emotional outburst atop the barbell before jumping up and down on the stage at the Beijing gymnasium. Steiner kissed a picture of his late wife during the victory ceremony.

With the coronavirus pandemic impacting the entire globe we asked him what advice he would give to people dealing with troubling and painful events.

"The most important thing is, I have to accept what I cannot change,” Steiner told Olympic Channel in an exclusive video interview.

“I learned that for example when I received the diagnosis that I had type 1 diabetes – out of the blue. Those are things where one must not ask why is that so. I can ask why is that so, but it should not interest me right that second because I can’t change it."

"It is too late. Accept and once I have accepted it, then I have already won 50% of the battle because I have let go of everything and I am able to focus on things than I can do and not on things that I cannot do. That is key. Accept it!”

After retiring from weightlifting in 2013, Steiner embarked on a career as a fitness and nutrition consultant, becoming an entrepreneur in the food industry.

Check out our exclusive Q&A in which the 37-year-old shares his take on the connection between a strong body and a strong mind. And he tells us how he has reinvented himself.

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The future

Olympic Channel (OC): You seem to be a man of many facets. Olympic champion, strongest man in the world, fitness and nutrition consultant, motivational speaker, singer, dancer, farmer, just to name a few. Who is Matthias Steiner?

Matthias Steiner (MS): I think we have to shorten this list. I am not a dancer just because I have taken part in a dance show. It was actually a nice opportunity to present myself in a different way because people usually still associate me with a weightlifter. Even though my career has been over for a while. I am not a farmer either. It might be a bit of an understatement to just call myself self-sufficient simply by looking at the size of my farm but in reality I am just interested in growing potatoes. I am doing beekeeping and that is super fascinating but that is a hobby and not a job.

OC: Again, who is Matthias Steiner nowadays?

MS: What I can definitely say: Nothing has ever been beneath me. That has always been my credo, also for the future. I don’t know what will be in five years. If you want to use the word business plan, I have never really had one. Ok, I have been involved as an entrepreneur in the food industry for a few years now. We produce amazing bread and are about to launch on the market.

I guess one can say I am an entrepreneur. But of course when people look at me, the weightlifter comes back into focus but less and less so. So, Matthias Steiner is an entrepreneur who has always had the courage to try something new. And I think that is a consequence of my past.

There were not so many distractions for me growing up. There were dreams and either you lived them or you opted for a more classical approach and became a banker or a craftsman.

OC: In what way has weightlifting prepared you for life afterwards?

MS: Weightlifting is a sport without mercy, it is very tough to make progress. It is not really fun like football where you are part of a team. 22 guys are chasing a ball and you don’t even notice the effort you are putting in. In weightlifting on the other hand, every time you touch the bar you realise that you are always alone in weightlifting, the weights are getting heavier and heavier, everything hurts, it is simply a very long journey until it gets to be fun.

Matthias Steiner 

The transformation

OC: How much weight have you lost since retiring in 2013?

MS: I have lost 45 kilos but you must not forget that I had put on 45 kilos during my career. The majority of people only see the effort of losing weight but the effort of adding strength and weight is not being noticed even though that was more difficult than dropping the pounds. But that led to Matthias Steiner becoming a fitness and nutrition expert because there is on obvious visual change which brings along credibility and a lot of interest. Let’s face it, whether it was muscles or not, I weighed 150 kilos and I ate accordingly. Yeah, I did train accordingly and not just weigh 150 kilos; it was a massive weight that was not necessary for everyday life but only elite sport.

I consumed between 5000 and 8000 calories per day depending on the training session. That is not always pleasant.

OC: You are advocating a fitness and nutritional plan called the Steiner principle. You are promising that people can feel good about themselves within 12 weeks. What is that all about?

MS: It is not an ordinary diet but rather setting people up with basic information. What does nutrition do to me? What does movement do to me? How can I make little adjustments to lose weight and feel better? It won’t work if I come up with a plan that is supposed to deliver results for everybody. Everybody has a different problem that prevents them from living more mindfully or healthier but they also need to have the tools to transform their lives. They need to be aware where are the traps. Some people don’t eat a lot but they don’t realise how much sweetened fruit juice they drink. But above all working out is essential.

OC: You talk a lot about mindfulness, about conscious living. Has that always been part of your life?

MS: I don’t think I was aware as a child that I was consciously experiencing something, but it might have to do with the fact that I grew up in the countryside. You experience things differently there compared with growing up in a big city. Take sounds for example.

I find it extremely important that a human being can feel comfortable with himself alone in a room, for an hour or even two. People should try it. Many can’t do it anymore. Many are afraid of themselves because they always need something or someone to hold onto. They are afraid of what might happen next. A lot does happen when you are alone with yourself for an hour.

I always have to feel myself, I have to be aware of what do I really want. Who am I and what do I want? Then all these steps will be much much easier. And I do think that self-reflection has been part of my life from a very early age on. I have always called it positive selfishness. Always making sure that I feel good to be able to be there for other people as well.”

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Trying times

OC: Many successful athletes live by the rule ‘control the controllable’ but both careers and life are full of unexpected and sometimes even tragic events. You had to deal with a tragic event in your career, losing your wife in a car accident one year before winning gold in Beijing. How are you dealing with unexpected incidents, like the corona crisis or other events?

MS: 'Control the controllable' sounds good and I think it is important to avoid unnecessary mistakes or take an unnecessary detour but I think it is only human and important that we are being confronted with unexpected things as it would become boring very quickly otherwise. It does not have to be the corona crisis which has a lot of tragedy associated with it, but we must not forget that there are a lot of unexpected tragic moments like diseases, accidents or moments that bring us down to earth.

How I deal with the corona situation? To be fair it has not really hit me, neither physically nor financially, at least not from a standpoint that meant complete standstill of all professional activities from one day to another. But it did affect me in a sense that we have to reshuffle our plans for this year. In the first weeks after the outbreak when nobody knew what will happen, we scaled everything down and focused only on family. That was the most important thing. We reduced our lives to the really important things. But obviously there are a lot of industries that have been hit extremely hard.

OC: What advice would you give people on how to deal with unforeseen circumstances?

MS: The most important thing is I have to accept what I cannot change. I learned that for example when I received the diagnosis that I had type 1 diabetes - out of the blue. Those are things where one must not ask why that is so. Or I can ask why is that so, but it should not interest me right that second because I can’t change it. It is too late. Accept it, and once I have accepted it, then I have already won 50% of the battle because I have let go of everything and I am able to focus on things than I can do and not on things that I cannot do. That is key. Accept it!”

OC: What comes first? A strong body or a strong mind?

MS: Both are equally important and are interconnected. If I am active I feel better mentally and vice versa. Sometimes negative thoughts can be stronger than a strong body. No matter how fit I am I feel down.

OC: How do you train your brain?

MS: The most important thing is having a goal. I can’t become strong without having a goal. But having a goal is only one side of it. What is the reason behind having this goal is equally important. There are athletes who are motivated by money, by fame, or simply by putting up a fight. Everybody has their own reason, their own focus. So personal development plays an intrinsic part in everything. Having the right training strategy is one thing but titles are won in your mind.

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Self-reflection

OC: Many athletes are claiming they want to be or become the best version of themselves. How important is that aspect to you?

MS: Each version needs mistakes in order to be updated. It is very simple. If I already am the best version of myself it is already outdated next year, which is why I need updates. Life is happening, we get older, we have to adapt and that’s why we need constant updates. There are people in a midlife crisis at a certain age and others who get calmer and more serene as they have managed to get rid of a lot of baggage during their last update. They have realised that they only want to do things that are important to them. Like Albert Einstein said: Surround yourself only with people who want the best for you and do not hang out with negative people.

OC: Talking about self-reflection: Do you have a favourite mantra?

MS: There are so many intelligent phrases but for a long time I have loved the saying 'don’t dream your life but live your dreams'. It really sounds like a cliché. To be honest, I actually have a calendar with 365 inspiring sayings hanging in my bathroom. This way I can start the day with an inspiring quote.

OC: How is life as an eternal hero?

MS: I don’t really see myself as a hero to be honest but looking back at my 20 years of weightlifting I am very happy with what I have accomplished. There was a lot of pain and sacrifice and that lets me looks back at it very contentedly. It is impossible to get big-headed. You just have to look at the numbers, I have lifted 40,000 tons, that is the equivalent of a cruise ship if you add up all the training. Trust me, that keeps you very grounded.

OC: Do you still need the limelight?

MS: I would like to think that I don’t really need it. I just need it when I care about something and something is really important to me. Weightlifting was not really one of those classic sports that automatically came with being the centre of attention, at least not in our neck of the woods. And yet, I was. Ok, when I was up there on stage, it was important to me that people paid attention when I improved my personal best; when I did something with passion. I definitely do not need the limelight just to say, check out how great I am.