Somebody needs to say it: Jake Rubash is the kind of guy every parent hopes their kid will befriend. A senior majoring in mechanical engineering at St. Thomas, Rubash, 23, describes himself as "pretty reserved" on the outside with a decidedly goofy interior. In the relatively short time that I spoke with him, I will be so bold as to add that he also is all heart.
Rubash is also bashfully humble. Although I interviewed him at length about his former Olympic weightlifting career, he mentioned neither that he squats more than double his weight (as a warm up) nor that he can do a handstand pushup – with each palm balanced on a stack of barbell plates piled 22 inches high. I unearthed both videos in a Google search of his Olympic lifting accomplishments. Instead, he focused on his obsession with the "ugly cuteness" of pugs and his history of Lego-building with his mom.
In between a full load of coursework and his job as a fitness trainer at CrossFit Chanhassen, Rubash made time to get grilled by the Newsroom.
How did you become a competitive Olympic lifter?
I started doing CrossFit when I was 16, and Olympic lifting is a big part of it. I found I had a knack for it, specifically snatching, so I started to train on my own in my garage and in my parents’ basement. Then when I moved to Georgia, to attend Georgia Tech my freshman year, I met some full-time weight lifters and they took me in as a training partner and one of them became my coach. I progressed really fast and was able to compete, despite the fact that most elite lifters start at 12 or 13. In weightlifting it’s all about the weight, so you can see tangible, linear progress, which is motivating.
What is Olympic lifting?
In Olympic weightlifting there are only two movements that you do – the snatch and the clean-and-jerk – and you have three attempts on each to get the highest combined total. Both lifts start on the ground with a barbell. With snatch you take a wide grip on the bar and lift it from ground to overhead in one movement, so you keep the bar close, make contact around the hip, catch it in an overhead squat and stand up with it. Clean-and-jerk is two movements. You take a narrower grip and lift the bar from ground to shoulder first and then overhead – the "clean" is ground to shoulder, the "jerk" is shoulder to overhead.
You earned some medals, right?
Yeah. Toward the end of my career I started doing better. There’s two national championships that happen in the U.S. – nationals and the American Open. The last competition I did was the American Open in December 2012 and I took second there.
What did you lift?
I snatched 135 kilos, which is 297 pounds, and then I clean-and-jerked 160 kilos, which is 352 pounds.
Tell me about your decision to transfer here from Georgia Tech.
It's kind of a long story. I had already been looking at Georgia Tech when my dad got a job offer to work in Atlanta, so that sealed my decision, and we coordinated our move down there as a family. I started out in mechanical engineering and was there for a year and a half. During that time I started to get good (at Olympic lifting), and I decided to switch my major to exercise science because it fit better with my interests at the time – I was coaching almost full time, too, and it was easier to train full time because the course load was lighter. Then in 2012 I started having all these nagging injuries and I was thinking that mechanical engineering had been my path from the start. At the same time my dad was wanting to move back to Minnesota. So when he got a job up here, I decided I'd move with them and study engineering again. It was important to me that I be close to them at that transition because I needed their guidance. I like living near them.
Could you say more about your love for the process of training and competing? You're obviously still passionate about it even though you don't compete anymore.
I definitely am. When I was training very seriously I experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows I’ve ever had. I’ve never found a good way to describe this feeling I'd get when I'd approach the bar to do a weight I'd never done before. ... These movements happen really fast – for someone who’s good at snatching it could be half a second, literally, from floor to overhead – so you have to turn everything off. In that moment, this is going to sound so stupid, but I would get really tingly, and I felt invincible, like I just knew I would be able to do the lift, even though it was a weight I’d never done before. I've had that feeling maybe once in the last couple of months, but I used to get that almost every day when I was training for competition and it was going well. I think I was always chasing that feeling.
I really want to know what's in your fridge.
Cashew butter. Chicken. Frozen broccoli. Grapes. Applesauce. A lot of eggs. My girlfriend and I go through about five dozen eggs a week because she eats only the whites. We go to Trader Joe’s weekly to stock up on all of our protein. I think we go through close to 10 pounds of chicken breasts in a week between the two of us.
What was your most prized possession as a kid?
Probably Legos. My mom kept those big bins that you store under the bed and they take up the whole space. We must’ve had four or five of those. That’s how my mom and I bonded. I come from a family of engineers – my dad, my uncle, my cousin – but I attribute most of my intelligence to my mom for staying with me as much as she did while I was growing up. She would have me read to her, and we played Legos. We built up a pretty substantial collection.
What’s the most elaborate thing you’ve built?
The London Bridge. I built it with my cousin about two years ago. We started at 5 in the evening and finished around 4 a.m. the next day. I think it's the third- largest set they ever made. It's actually in my living room now. I put lights in it.
Last thing. Say a brag about yourself.
I’m supposed to brag about myself! About what?
(Half a minute of sighing and some coaxing later...)
I guess it’s impressive that I’ve been able to pay for my own schooling and housing myself via the training I do. I haven’t had to rely on anyone.
That wasn't so hard, was it?
Is that all you're going to ask me? Nothing about pugs?
Pugs? Pray, tell.
I can’t explain it. I’ve never owned one, but I've just been obsessed with them for the past few years. They're so ugly cute. Everyone knows it, too, so I get flooded with pug stuff. My Facebook and Instagram is all pugs and people doing squats. I’ve told multiple people that if they take me to a pug farm where they breed pugs, if there is such a thing, I’ll love them forever.
I thought for sure your first question was going to be, "What's up with all the pugs, you weirdo?"
* Pug in photo ("Gus") courtesy of Micah '03 and Abbe '05 Turman