“You think you’ve got your life figured out, I was completely focused on the Olympic Games, my wife was studying, she had her career in front of her. Then, one day it’s just over.”

For weightlifter Matthias Steiner, glory came at Beijing 2008. The pinnacle for any athlete in the world is the Olympic Games gold medal. Some say, however, that it is lonely at the top.

But on that August day in 2008, he was not alone by the strictest definition of the word. He had his wife Susann for company: in the form of a photograph, as she had died in the months leading up to the Summer Games.

The 105+ kg category is the heaviest at the Games and the winner is considered to be the strongest man in the world. But all the physical strength Steiner possessed was no match for the mental strength he showed on his way to winning the gold. And, after his sensational performance, Steiner’s emotional celebrations and tribute to his wife showed that he was a gentle giant by heart.

“She is always with me, in the hours before the competition, she’s there,” the super-heavyweight winner, who made the pledge to Susann at her bedside in hospital while she lay dying after a car crash in July 2007, is quoted as saying by Reuters.

“I’m not the superstitious type, don’t believe in higher powers, but I hope she saw me. I wish,” Steiner, who was 25 years-old then, said in the moments after his lift, which was as dramatic as any Olympic moment you can imagine.

From Austria to Germany

Steiner represented Austria at Athens in 2004. “Afterwards he fell out with the Austrian Federation, moved to Saxony and married a girl named Susann from Zwickau, taking up German citizenship,” according to a report in the Guardian. After not being able to compete during the transfer of citizenship, Steiner visited his wife’s grave soon after learning that he can compete again internationally.

Even before the glory moment in 2008 and dealing with the tragedy of his wife’s death that made him think about quitting the sport, Steiner’s journey was anything but straightforward. At 18, he was diagnosed with type I diabetes and that threw his whole life upside down. Training was not going to be easy from there on, everything changed, but he stuck with it.

And for the man who had battled odds before in life, that day in Beijing required the channeling of all his mental strength.

“That was the great thing, I didn’t have to wait for everyone else to fail at their attempts. I just could go out on stage and finish it myself. I felt I could have lifted anything that day, whether I actually could have is a different matter,” he said.

Steiner won gold with a total of 461kg but he had to clinch the title of strongest man in the world only with a last-ditch lift for gold after struggling in the lead up to the climactic moments. He eventually lifted just one kilo more than Russia’s Evgeny Chigishev.

In the snatch section, he could lift just 203kg which was well below his closest competitors. His strength was clean and jerk, though. The chances of a medal were still bright but gold was slipping away. Chigishev had finished with a total of 460kg, lifting an incredible 250kg in his final attempt. Now, Steiner knew what he had to do. He might have missed his first attempt, and just about managed to assure a medal with his second. Now the stakes were ridiculously high for his final attempt.

And he raised his weights dramatically for his final lift in the clean and jerk and hoisted 258kg. Tears of joy, cries of ecstasy soon followed.

“The emotion Steiner displayed at that point will surely make the highlights montages. Words like ‘beserk’ and ‘volcanic’ couldn’t possibly do it justice. He fell to the mat and pounded the floor, leapt up to his feet and bear-hugged his coach, jumped up and down in the air like a child, shouting and roaring,” wrote Andy Bull for the Guardian.

“In achieving an outstanding performance, Steiner turned his tragic loss into the inspiration he needed to fulfil his promise to Susann: to become an Olympic gold medallist in Beijing,” is how Laureus described Steiner’s golden promise.

“Steiner’s passionate motivation to realise his dream of Olympic gold was made real in memory of his wife, Susann. These loving words of encouragement went a long way in his emotional road to the podium.”

In a throwback video for the Olympic channel, he recounted how he had to battle the odds in the final moments of the event to produce that magical lift out of nowhere:

I just had to win gold. I had only one try. I thought of the words of my coach, Frank Mantek. When I first came to Germany, he told me the very best athletes are distinguished by one thing. They compete a lot of times but they only have a few where they have one try which will decide everything and that can change their life. In life you only have two or three, maybe only one chance, and you have to grab it. That’s the difference between a very good athlete, and a champion.

It felt like a thousand chains had burst off me. Only then did I realize the kind of pressure I’d been under. In the end there was just a feeling of thankfulness, that I was given the chance to become an Olympic champion. 

That was how I felt at that point, but also that I was standing up there alone. And that was not nice. Because I wanted my wife to be there. I just wanted to show the world that I didn’t want to be standing up there alone.

— What Steiner had to say about his emotional journey to the gold medal in 2008

With this famous gold medal in weightlifting, Steiner sure lifted some weight off his shoulders.

You can watch his amazing journey in the Olympic channel series ‘Legends Live On’ here.

You can read about Steiner’s post-retirement weight-loss here.