The Strongest Man in the World
Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker
The giant of Fort Lupton was born, like a cowbird’s chick, to parents of ordinary size. His father, Jay Shaw, a lineman for a local power company, was six feet tall; his mother, Bonnie, was an inch or so shorter. At the age of three months, Brian weighed seventeen pounds. At two years, he could grab his Sit ’n Spin and toss it nearly across the room. In photographs of his grade-school classes, he always looked out of place, his grinning, elephant-eared face floating like a parade balloon above the other kids in line. They used to pile on his back during recess, his mother told me—not because they didn’t like him but because they wanted to see how many of them he could carry. “I just think Brian has been blessed,” she said. “He has been blessed with size.”
Fort Lupton is a city of eight thousand on the dry plains north of Denver. In a bigger place, Shaw might have been corralled into peewee football at eight or nine, and found his way among other oversized boys. But the local teams were lousy and, aside from a few Punt, Pass & Kick contests—which he won with discouraging ease—Shaw stuck to basketball. By seventh grade, he was six feet tall and weighed more than two hundred pounds. When he went in for a dunk on his hoop at home, he snapped off the pole, leaving a jagged stump in the driveway. By his late teens, his bulk had become a menace. One player knocked himself out running into Shaw’s chest; another met with his elbow coming down with a rebound, and was carried off with a broken nose and shattered facial bones. “It was bad,” Shaw told me. “One guy, we dove for a ball together, and I literally broke his back. It wasn’t that I was a dirty player. I wasn’t even trying to do it hard.”
Like other very large men, Shaw has a surprisingly sweet nature. His voice is higher and smaller than you’d expect, and he tends to inflect it with question marks. His face has the bulbous charm of a potato carving. “He’s almost overly friendly,” Terry Todd, a former champion weight lifter and an instructor at the University of Texas, told me. “It’s like he thinks that if he’s not you’ll be frightened of him and run away.” At six feet eight and four hundred and thirty pounds, Shaw has such a massive build that most men don’t bother trying to measure up. His torso is three feet wide at the shoulders; his biceps are nearly two feet around. His neck is thicker than other men’s thighs. “I know I’m big,” he told me. “I’ve been big my whole life. I’ve never had to prove how tough I am.”
In the summer of 2005, when Shaw was twenty-three, he went to Las Vegas for a strength-and-conditioning convention. He was feeling a little adrift. He had a degree in wellness management from Black Hills State University, in South Dakota, and was due to start a master’s program at Arizona State that fall. But after moving to Tempe, a few weeks earlier, and working out with the football team, he was beginning to have second thoughts. “This was a big Division I, Pac-10 school, but I was a little surprised, to be honest,” he told me. “I was so much stronger than all of them.” One day at the convention, Shaw came upon a booth run by Sorinex, a company that has designed weight-lifting systems for the Denver Broncos and other football programs. The founder, Richard Sorin, liked to collect equipment used by old-time strongmen and had set out a few items for passersby to try. There were some kettle bells lying around, like cannonballs with handles attached, and a clumsy-looking thing called a Thomas Inch dumbbell.
Inch was an early-twentieth-century British strongman famous for his grip. His dumbbell, made of cast iron, weighed a hundred and seventy-two pounds and had a handle as thick as a tin can, difficult to grasp. In his stage shows, Inch would offer a prize of more than twenty thousand dollars in today’s currency to anyone who could lift the dumbbell off the floor with one hand. For more than fifty years, no one but Inch managed it, and only a few dozen have done so in the half century since. “A thousand people will try to lift it in a weekend, and a thousand won’t lift it,” Sorin told me. “A lot of strong people have left with their tails between their legs.” It came as something of a shock, therefore, to see Shaw reach over and pick up the dumbbell as if it were a paperweight. “He was just standing there with a blank look on his face,” Sorin said. “It was, like, What’s so very hard about this?”
When Shaw set down the dumbbell and walked away, Sorin ran over to find him in the crowd. “His eyes were huge,” Shaw recalls. “He said, ‘Can you do that again?’ And I said, ‘Of course I can.’ So he took a picture and sent it to me afterward.” Sorin went on to tell Shaw about the modern strongman circuit—an extreme sport, based on the kinds of feat performed by men like Inch, which had a growing following worldwide. “He said that my kind of strength wasunbelievable. It was a one in a million. If I didn’t do something with my abilities, I was stupid. That was pretty cool.”
Three months later, Shaw won his first strongman event. Within a year, he had turned pro. He has since deadlifted more than a thousand pounds and pressed a nearly quarter-ton log above his head. He has harnessed himself to fire engines, Mack trucks, and a Lockheed C-130 transport plane and dragged them hundreds of yards. In 2011, he became the only man ever to win the sport’s two premier competitions in the same year. He has become, by some measures, the strongest man in history.
Shaw does his training in a storage facility in the town of Frederick, about fifteen minutes from his home town. His gym is behind the last garage door to the right, in a row of nearly identical bays. He leaves it open most of the year, framing a view of the snowcapped Front Range, to the west. Inside, the equipment has the same cartoonish scale as his body. One corner is given over to a set of giant concrete balls, known as Manhood Stones. Across the room, a flat steel frame leans against the wall, a pair of handles welded to one end. It’s designed to have a vehicle parked on top of it and hoisted up like a wheelbarrow. (Shaw has lifted an S.U.V eleven times in seventy-five seconds.) Next to it sit piles of enormous tires, which will be threaded onto a pipe for the Hummer Tire Dead Lift.
Strongman events tend to be exaggerated versions of everyday tasks: heaving logs, carrying rocks, pushing carts. Awkwardness and unpredictability are part of the challenge. When I visited, Shaw was coaching his lifting buddies in the Super Yoke and the Duck Walk. The former harks back to the ancient strongman tradition of carrying a cow across your shoulders. (In the sixth century B.C., Milo of Croton, the greatest of Greek strongmen, is said to have lugged a four-year-old heifer the length of the Olympic arena.) The cow, in this case, was in the form of a steel frame loaded with weights, which the men took turns shouldering around the gym. The Duck Walk was something that a blacksmith might do. It involved lifting an anvil-like weight of around three hundred pounds between your legs and waddling down a path with it as fast as possible.
Tyler Stickle, a twenty-four-year-old strongman from nearby Lakewood, took the first walk. A bank manager by day, he had a line of Hebrew letters tattooed around his right calf: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” It was a prayer from Philippians long beloved by followers of Muscular Christianity, a movement that sprang up in the mid-eighteen-hundreds with the notion that God deserves burlier believers. (As the Giants center fielder Brett Butler once put it, “If Jesus Christ was a baseball player, he’d go in hard to break up the double play and then pick up the guy and say, ‘I love you.’ ”) Muscular Christianity went on to give us the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Touchdown Jesus mural at Notre Dame’s stadium, and a stained-glass window depicting wrestlers, boxers, and other athletes in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York. But Stickle just hoped that it might help him waddle a little faster. “I hate the Duck Walk,” he said.
By the time he’d gone back and forth across the gym, his face had puffed up like a blowfish, and the tendons stood out from his neck. When he bent over to catch his breath, he saw that his inner thighs were chafed an angry red. “Wait till you see what it looks like a couple of days from now,” one of the other lifters said. “It just chews up your legs.”
“I hate the Duck Walk.”
“You’re mentally weak.”
For a long time, strongmen didn’t bother with specialized training. When CBS televised the first World’s Strongest Man contest from Universal Studios, in 1977, the competitors all came from other sports. There were bodybuilders like Lou Ferrigno, football players like Robert Young, and weight lifters like Bruce Wilhelm, who won the contest. Even later, when the dilettantes had mostly dropped out of contention, there was no standardized equipment. Shaw had to cast his own Manhood Stones from a plastic mold, and he practiced the Keg Toss in his parents’ back yard, in a large sandpit that they’d built for volleyball. “Even ten or twelve years ago, you wouldn’t have had a place like this,” he told me at his gym. “But a guy can’t just come in off the street anymore and be amazing.” These days, most of Shaw’s equipment is custom-forged by a local company called Redd Iron; his diet and his workout clothes are subsidized by his sponsor, the supplement maker MHP—short for Maximum Human Performance.
“I see guys accomplish things that are just blowing my mind,” Dennis Rogers, a grip master in the tradition of Thomas Inch, told me. Although the lifts vary from contest to contest, the most popular strongman events and records are now well established, and the latest feats circulate instantly on YouTube. “The weights they’re moving, the dead lifts they’re doing, the things they carry—it wasn’t until 1953 that the first five-hundred-pound bench press was done,” Rogers said. “Today, you have guys who are doing a thousand pounds. How much can the human body take?”
The urge to perform feats of strength for no good reason seems to be deeply embedded in the male psyche. Shaw’s Manhood Stones are just modern versions of the thousand-pound volcanic boulder unearthed on the Greek island of Santorini. It was etched with a boast from the sixth century B.C.: “Eumastas, son of Kritobolos, lifted me from the ground.” Similar accounts crop up in countless early histories and anthropological studies. The Vikings tossed logs, the Scots threw sheaves of straw, the ancestors of the Inuit are rumored to have carried walruses around. Even a man as brilliant as Leonardo da Vinci felt the need to bend horseshoes and iron door knockers, just to show that he could.
By the nineteenth century, men like Thomas Topham, Louis Cyr, and a succession of German Goliaths had turned such feats into lucrative theatre. Topham, an English fireplug who was five feet ten and weighed two hundred pounds, could bend iron pokers with his bare hands, roll pewter dishes into cannoli, and win a tug-of-war with a horse. According to a playbill from 1736, cited in David Willoughby’s classic history, “The Super-Athletes,” Topham’s act included the following feats: “He lays the back Part of his Head on one Chair, and his Heels on another, and suffers four corpulent men to stand on his Body and heaves them up and down. At the same time, with Pleasure, he heaves up a large Table of Six Foot long by the Strength of his Teeth, with half a hundred Weight hanging at the farthest end; and dances two corpulent Men, one in each Arm, and snaps his fingers all the time.”
The World’s Strongest Man was a title of cheap coinage in those days: no circus ever made a shilling claiming to have the second strongest. Still, like other athletic skills, it eventually ceded to a stricter accounting. Equipment was standardized, rules established. The debatable merits of bouncing four fat men on your belly—because how fat were they, really, and how high did they bounce?—gave way to a pair of uniform and highly regulated lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. In the first, a barbell is gripped with both hands, thrown into the air, and held above the head in a single motion. In the second, the weight is swiftly lifted to the shoulders (the clean), then flipped up and caught overhead (the jerk). Carrying cows was left to amateurs.
Olympic weight lifting made its début at the first modern Games, in Greece, in 1896. But it wasn’t until 1920, when weight classes were created, and 1928, when one-hand lifts were abolished, that it settled into a predictable sport. Americans were soon the dominant power. Under the savvy sponsorship of Bob Hoffman, the founder of the York Barbell Company, in Pennsylvania, the national team produced a succession of gold medalists in the forties and fifties, including Tommy Kono, John Davis, and Paul Anderson. Early on, to get around rules restricting Olympic participation to amateurs, Hoffman would hire the lifters at his factory for as little as ten dollars a week and let them train on-site. They would also promote York products in Strength and Health—the house organ, “edited in an atmosphere of perspiration and horseplay,” as Fortuneput it in 1946.
“Bob took a bunch of nobodies and turned them into the greatest team in the world,” Arthur Drechsler, the chair of USA Weightlifting, told me recently. To Drechsler, a former junior national champion, Olympic weight lifting remains the finest test of strength ever devised. “This thing was created to cut through all the B.S.,” he told me. “Are you the best or not? Let’s see. Let’s do two events and we’ll see who’s really good. Everyone lifts the bar from the same place; everyone is competing at the same level. We haven’t discriminated by race, creed, or color since the nineteen-twenties. So we have a legitimate claim to having the strongest people in the world.”
The awkward part, for Drechsler, is that this élite no longer includes Americans. Since 1960, the United States has suffered through an extended drought in the sport. Bulgarians, Hungarians, Cubans, Poles, Romanians, Koreans, an East German, and a Finn have all topped the podium, and Russians and Chinese have done so dozens of times. (Weight lifting, with its multiple weight classes, is an ideal means of amassing medals, they’ve found.) But aside from Tara Nott—a flyweight from Texas who won her division in 2000, when women’s weight lifting was introduced at the Sydney Games—no American has won the gold. This year, the men’s team didn’t even qualify for the Olympics. (One American, Kendrick Farris, later qualified individually.)
It’s this void that the strongmen have helped to fill. Like the rise of nascarover Formula One, professional wrestling over boxing, and “Jersey Shore” over “The Sopranos,” the return of men like Shaw seems to signal a shift in our appetites—a hunger for rougher, more outlandish thrills and ruder challenges. A modern strongman has to have explosive strength as well as raw power, Shaw told me, but most of all he has to be willing to lift almost anything, anywhere. “I’m a fan of functional strength,” he said. “If you’re the strongest man on the planet, you ought to be able to pick up a stone or flip a tire. Those Olympic lifters—how can you call someone the strongest man if he can’t walk over to a car and pick it up?”
Early in March, I went to see Shaw defend his title at the Arnold Strongman Classic, the heaviest competition of its kind in the world. The Classic is held every year in Columbus, Ohio, as part of a sports festival that was founded by Arnold Schwarzenegger and a promoter named Jim Lorimer, in 1989. Like its namesake, the festival is a hybrid beast—part sporting event and part sideshow—that has ballooned to unprecedented size. It’s now billed as the largest athletic festival in the world, with eighteen thousand competitors in forty-five categories. (The London Olympics will have ten thousand five hundred athletes in twenty-six sports.) Lorimer calls it Strength Heaven.
At the Greater Columbus Convention Center, that Friday morning, the main hall felt like a circus tent. Black belts in judo tumbled next to archers, arm wrestlers, and Bulgarian hand-balancers. A thousand ballroom dancers mixed with more than four thousand cheerleaders. In the atrium, a group of oil painters were dabbing furiously at canvases, vying to produce a gold-medal-winning sports portrait. The only unifying theme seemed to be competition, in any form; the only problem was telling the athletes from the audience. A hundred and seventy-five thousand visitors were expected at the festival that weekend, and half of them seemed to be bodybuilders. In the main hall, they made their way from booth to booth, chewing on protein bars and stocking up on free samples. “Yes, I can lift heavy things,” one T-shirt read. “No, I won’t help you move.”
Up the street, at the hotel where most of the strongmen were staying, the breakfast buffet was provisioned like a bomb shelter. One side was lined with steel troughs filled with bacon, potatoes, scrambled eggs, and pancakes. The other side held specialty rations: boiled pasta and rubbery egg whites, white rice, brown rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. This was “clean food,” as strength athletes call it—protein and carbohydrates unadulterated by fat or flavoring. The most competitive bodybuilders eliminate virtually all liquids and salt from their diet in the final days of the contest, to get rid of the water beneath their skin and give their muscles the maximum “cut.” “What do you think I’m doing here, having fun?” I heard one man shout into his cell phone in the lobby. “This is work. This isn’t playing around. My dad died, and I was lifting weights three days later. What am I supposed to do, go home and drop everything to take care of my girlfriend?”
If bodybuilders were the ascetics of the festival, the strongmen were its mead-swigging friars, lumbering by with plates piled high. “It’s a March of the Elephants kind of thing,” Terry Todd told me. “You expect that music to start playing in the background.” Todd and his wife, Jan, have designed the lifts and overseen the judging at the Arnold since 2002. (Like Terry, Jan works at the University of Texas and had an illustrious athletic career: in 1977, she was profiled by Sports Illustrated as “the world’s strongest woman.”) They take unabashed delight in the strongmen and their feats, but as educators and advocates for their sport they have found themselves in an increasingly troubling position. The Arnold, like most strongmen contests, doesn’t test for performance-enhancing drugs, and it’s widely assumed that most of the top competitors take them. (In 2004, when Mariusz Pudzianowski, the dominant strongman at the time, was asked when he’d last taken anabolic steroids, he answered, “What time is it now?”) The result has been an unending drive for more muscle and mass—an arms race unlimited by weight class.
“It’s a little frightening,” Todd told me. “The strength gains dictate that we make the weights higher, but at what point does the shoulder start to separate, or the wrist, or you get a compression fracture? We really don’t know how strong people can be.” Gaining weight has become an occupational necessity for strongmen. The things they lift are so inhumanly heavy that they have no choice but to turn their bodies into massive counterweights. “Centrifugal force is the killer,” Mark Henry, a professional wrestler and one of the greatest of former Arnold champions, told me. “Once the weight starts to move, it’s not going to stop.” Fat is a strongman’s shock absorber, like the bumper on a Volkswagen—his belly’s buffer against the weights that continually slam into it. “I wouldn’t want to be too lean,” Shaw said. When I asked about steroids, he hesitated, then said that he preferred not to talk about them. “I really do wish that there was more drug testing,” he added. “I would be the first one in line.” The same is true for most of the strongmen, Todd told me, but they feel that they have little choice: “You don’t want to take a knife to a gunfight.”
In the past five years, Shaw has added more than a hundred pounds to the svelte three hundred that he weighed at his first contest. “It gets old, it really does,” he said. “Sometimes you’re not hungry, but you have to eat anyway. Training is easy compared to that.” Pudzianowski once told an interviewer that his typical breakfast consisted of ten eggs and two to three pounds of bacon. “Between meals, I eat lots of candy,” he said. Shaw prefers to eat smaller portions every two hours or so, for maximum absorption, supplemented by “gainer shakes” of concentrated protein. (“His one shake is twelve hundred calories,” his girlfriend, a former model for Abercrombie & Fitch, told me. “That’s my intake for the entire day.”) Until he renewed his driver’s license last year, Shaw often got hassled at airports: the guards couldn’t recognize his ten-year-old picture because his face had fleshed out so much. “He’s grown into his ears,” one of his lifting partners, Andy Shaddeau, told me. “Those were not three-hundred-pound ears.”
On the night before the contest, the strongmen were summoned to the convention center for a private audience with Schwarzenegger. I could see them scanning the room for potential hazards as they filed in. The downside of being a giant is that nothing is built to your scale or structural requirements: ceilings loom, seams split, furniture collapses beneath you. “You only have to hit your head a few times before you start to watch out,” Shaw told me. “Going into a restaurant, I have to look at the chairs and make sure that they don’t have arms on them or I won’t fit.” When Shaw went shopping for a Hummer recently, he couldn’t squeeze into the driver’s seat, so he bought a Chevrolet Silverado pickup instead and had the central console ripped out and moved back. Even so, he has trouble reaching across his chest to get the seat belt.
Schwarzenegger had brought along two of his sons: Patrick, a slender, sandy-haired eighteen-year-old, and Christopher, a thickset fourteen-year-old. (It would prove to be a trying weekend for them. The following morning, in front of Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium, the city unveiled an eight-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of their father, while a heckler shouted from the crowd, “Hey, Arnold! How are your wife and kids? Been cheating on your wife today, Arnold?”) Both boys were great fans of the strongmen—“They’re my favorites by far!” Patrick told me. As they sat in the audience, their father talked about being a teen-ager in Vienna, watching the Russian Yury Vlasov clean-and-jerk nearly five hundred pounds. “It was so impressive that I went home and started training,” he said. “Instead of an hour a day, I did two hours a day, and then three hours a day.” Years later, Schwarzenegger said, he was happy to be crowned the most muscular man in the world. But he was “at the same time very angry” because he knew that others could lift more. “So I am, of course, a big admirer of yours,” he said. “You are the real strongest men in the world. I thank you for your training and I thank you for being so powerful.”
The Arnold is an invitational event. Only the top ten strongmen are asked to attend, so most were nearly as big as Shaw. Hafbor Thor Björnsson, an Icelandic behemoth, came in glowering like a Viking, his head honed smooth and his jawline edged by a beard. At twenty-three, he was the youngest of the group but heir to a long line of champions from his island—a fact that he attributed to the springwater. “We are meant to be strong,” he told me. Zydrunas Savickas, a six-time winner from Lithuania, credited his strength to another fluid. “My mother work in milk factory,” he said. When Savickas was three years old, his grandmother found him in her back yard, building a fort out of cinder blocks. Now a baby-faced thirty-six, he was the sport’s elder statesman, voted the most popular athlete in Lithuania and a member of the Vilnius city council. “We have small country,” he said. “Every athlete like diamond in Lithuania.”
There were five Americans in the group, three of whom were serious contenders. Derek Poundstone, from Waterbury, Connecticut, had won the contest in 2009 and 2010, and was the runner-up in 2008. He was the only man here with the chiselled, armor-plated look of a bodybuilder, and he liked to play up that fact with a crowd. (“At some point in the competition, I predict, Derek will tear his shirt off,” Jan Todd told me.) Mike Jenkins, an up-and-coming strongman from Hershey, Pennsylvania, had placed second to Shaw the year before. Six feet six and three hundred and ninety pounds, he had a sharp wit buried in the rubbery form of a Stretch Armstrong doll. “Sometimes people talk to me like they think that I might be mildly retarded,” he told me. “They hear that you lift rocks and pull trucks for a living, they don’t think Nobel Prize. But a lot of us are educated.” Jenkins had a master’s degree from James Madison University, and many of the others had bachelor’s degrees. Most of them had brought wives or girlfriends with them, as petite and straw-boned as their mates were gigantic.
This year’s contest would stretch over two days and five events. Shaw was the odds-on favorite. He hadn’t lost a competition in more than a year, and had been setting personal records in training all winter. But his best event—the Manhood Stones—had been replaced by a barbell lift called Apollon’s Wheels. This played to Savickas’s greatest strength: his immensely powerful arms. “I have a lot of things left to prove,” Shaw told me later, in his hotel room. “Ideally, I’d like to walk away with the most championships ever. But Zydrunas, he’s tough, he’s strong, and I’m sure he’s hungry. He wants to prove that last year was a mistake. I want to prove the opposite.”
Apollon’s Wheels were named for one of the great strongmen of the nineteenth century, Louis (Apollon) Uni. A Frenchman from the southern city of Marsillargues, Uni was visiting a junk yard in Paris one day when he came across a pair of spoked railway wheels that were perfect for his stage show. Mounted on a thick steel axle, they formed a barbell that weighed three hundred and sixty-seven pounds. Apart from Uni, only four men had ever managed to clean-and-jerk the device: Charles Rigoulot, in 1930; John Davis, in 1949; Norbert Schemansky, in 1954; and Mark Henry, in 2002. Todd’s version weighed almost a hundred pounds more. The strongmen, rather than jerk it overhead (the easiest part of the lift), had to raise it to their chest, flip it up to shoulder height, then drop it and repeat the lift as often as possible in ninety seconds.
The strongman stage was at one end of the convention center, elevated above the crowd and flanked by enormous video screens. It was covered with black rubber matting and reinforced with steel beams—the contestants alone weighed close to four thousand pounds. As the strongmen trudged out one by one to attempt the lift, speed metal blasted overhead, and several thousand people whooped them on. But it was a discouraging start. On an ordinary barbell, the grip spins freely, so the plates don’t move as they’re being lifted. But these railway wheels were screwed tight to the axle. The men had to rotate them around as they lifted—murder on the arms and shoulders—then keep them from rolling out of their hands. Dealing with this, while holding on to the two-inch-thick axle, required an awkward grip: one hand over and the other hand under. “Even now, most of the men in our contest can’t clean it,” Todd said.
Travis Ortmayer, a strongman from Texas, took a pass and dropped to the bottom of the ranking. Two British strongmen, Terry Hollands and Laurence Shahlaei, managed one lift each, while Jenkins, Poundstone, and the Russian Mikhail Koklyaev did two. The surprise of the contest was Mike Burke, one of Shaw’s protégés from Colorado, who lifted the wheels three times, his face bulging like an overripe tomato. Then came Savickas. He’d put on considerable weight in recent years, most of which had gone to his gut—a sturdy protuberance on which he liked to rest the barbell between lifts. When he’d raised it to his shoulders three times in less than a minute, he took a little breather, like a traveller setting down a suitcase, then casually lofted up a fourth.
Shaw had done as many or more in training, in the thin air of his gym at five thousand feet. But this time, when he brought the bar up to his chest, something seemed to catch in his left arm. He repositioned his hands, dipped down at the knees, and flipped the weight up beneath his chin. But it didn’t look right. “I don’t know what happened,” he told me later. “The warmups felt really good, and the weight felt light off the ground. But when I went up . . . it’s a hard feeling to describe. Almost like electrical shocks—like three different shocks in a row.”
Afterward, Shaw reached over to touch his arm. By the time I found him backstage, the situation was clear: he had “tweaked” his left biceps. The strange shocks were from strands of tendon snapping loose, rolling up inside his arm like broken rubber bands.
Injuries, sometimes devastating, are almost intrinsic to strongman contests: the inevitable product of extreme weight and sudden motion. In 1977, at the first World’s Strongest Man competition, one of the leaders in the early rounds was Franco Columbu, a former Mr. Olympia from Sardinia who weighed only a hundred and eighty-two pounds—a hundred less than his closest competitor. Columbu might have gone on to win, had the next event not been the Refrigerator Race. This involved strapping a four-hundred-pound appliance, weighted with lead shot, onto your back and scuttling across a lot at Universal Studios. Within a few yards, Columbu’s left leg crumpled beneath him. “It was at an L,” he told me. “All the ligaments were torn, and the calf muscle and the hamstring, and the front patella went to the back.” The injury required seven hours of surgery and threatened to cripple Columbu for life, but he came back to win the Mr. Olympia title again in 1981. (He later settled a lawsuit against the World’s Strongest Man for eight hundred thousand dollars.)
The Arnold has a somewhat better track record—“We’ve never had anyone hurt so bad that they had to be carried away,” Todd told me—but its strongmen are a battle-scarred lot. “Man, you can almost go down the list,” Shaw said. Ortmayer had ripped a pectoral muscle, and Poundstone had fractured his back. One man had damaged his shoulder while lifting the Hammer of Strength, and others had torn hamstrings and trapezius muscles. “In strongman, everybody injured,” Savickas told me. “For us, stop just when it’s broken totally—joints, bones, or muscles.” In 2001, at a strongman contest on the Faeroe Islands, Savickas slipped on some sand while turning Conan’s Wheel and tore the patella tendons off both knees. “I can’t walk,” he recalled. “I am laying down. Everybody says that I can’t back. But I back—and won.”
Shaw’s injury was a small thing by comparison. But there were four events left, each of which would put a terrible strain on what remained of his left biceps. “It’s wide open now,” Mark Henry, the former Arnold champion and a judge at the contest, told me between rounds. “I think Brian’s going to have to withdraw. It’s like your daddy probably told you: if the stove’s hot, don’t touch it.”
Ten minutes later, Shaw was back onstage. Using his right arm only, he proceeded to lift a two-hundred-and-fifty-five-pound circus dumbbell above his head five times. “I was hoping to do eight or nine,” he told me afterward. “My left arm is really stronger than my right.” Even so, he took second place in the event—bested only by Jenkins, who did seven lifts—and was now within striking distance of the over-all lead. But how long would his arm hold out?
Strength like Shaw’s is hard to explain. Yes, he has big muscles, and strength tends to vary in proportion to muscle mass. But exceptions are easy to find. Pound for pound, the strongest girl in the world may be Naomi Kutin, a ten-year-old from Fair Lawn, New Jersey, who weighs only ninety-nine pounds but can squat and deadlift more than twice that much. John Brzenk, perhaps the greatest arm wrestler of all time, is famous for pinning opponents twice his size—his nickname is the Giant Crusher. And I remember, as a boy, being a little puzzled by the fact that the best weight lifter in the world—Vasily Alexeyev, a Russian, who broke eighty world records and won gold medals at the Munich and the Montreal Olympics—looked like the neighborhood plumber. Shaggy shoulders, flaccid arms, pendulous gut: what made him so strong?
“Power is strength divided by time,” John Ivy, a physiologist at the University of Texas, told me. “The person that can generate the force the fastest will be the most powerful.” This depends in part on what you were born with: the best weight lifters have muscles with far more fast-twitch fibres, which provide explosive strength, than slow-twitch fibres, which provide endurance. How and where those muscles are attached also matters: the longer the lever, the stronger the limb. But the biggest variable is what’s known as “recruitment”: how many fibres can you activate at once? A muscle is like a slave galley, with countless rowers pulling separately toward the same goal. Synchronizing that effort requires years of training and the right “neural hookup,” Ivy said. Those who master it can lift far above their weight. Max Sick, a great early-nineteenth-century German strongman, had such complete muscle control that he could make the various groups twitch in time to music. He was only five feet four and a hundred and forty-five pounds, yet he could take a man forty pounds heavier, press him in the air sixteen times with one hand, and hold a mug of beer in the other without spilling it. [cartoon id="a16554"]
The convention center was full of people searching for a shortcut to such strength, and venders trying to convince them that they’d found it. There were seven hundred booths in all, staffed by muscle-bound men and balloon-breasted women, handing out samples with complicated ingredients but simple names: Monster Milk, Devil’s Juice, Hemo Rage, Xtreme Shock. “That’s the fastest-acting testosterone booster on the market,” Ryan Keller, the marketing director for Mutant, a maker of “experimental muscle modifiers,” told me, pointing to a product called Mutant Test. “Then there’s Mutant Pump. It’s for the hard-core guys.” Mutant Pump contains a proprietary compound called Hyperox, which pushes the body’s nitric-oxide production “past all previous limits,” according to its marketing material. This allows the muscles to stay pumped full of blood long after a workout. “You can stop lifting, get in your car, and it’s still working,” Keller said. “Some guys say it almost hurts, it gets so hard.” Shaw uses a similar supplement, called Dark Rage, designed to increase his red-blood-cell count. “When he drinks it, he gets excited and does this little dance,” his girlfriend told me.
Here and there among the salespeople were a few who claimed to be doing damage control. I talked to an insurance agent who said that her firm had a strong “appetite” for extreme sports. When I asked if she would indemnify a strongman, she frowned. “Probably not,” she said. “We do mixed martial arts, but if they have a fifty-per-cent loss ratio we aren’t going to do it.” A few aisles over, I met Tom O’Connor, a physician from Hartford, who called himself the Metabolic Doc. A longtime weight lifter, O’Connor was in the business of treating muscle dysmorphia—a kind of reverse anorexia. The condition is often marked by obsessive bodybuilding, abetted by anabolic steroids. “It’s an absolute epidemic!” O’Connor told me, leaning in so close that I could see his pupils dilate and sweat bead on his forehead. “The men come to me broken and hurt. They come to me with cardiac problems and libido problems and erectile dysfunction.” His solution: low-dose hormone-replacement therapy. The sign above his booth read, “Got Testosterone?”
It was tempting, to a flabby outsider like me, to dismiss all this as anomalous—an extreme subculture. But to athletes it was the new normal. “Are you kidding me?” O’Connor said. “Have you seen what’s happening around here? It’s never going to end.” When I asked Jim Lorimer, the co-founder of the festival, what he thought about rising steroid use, he called it a “knotty problem.” Then he told me a story. In 1970, when he brought the world weight-lifting championships to Columbus, the event was a bust at first. “We were at Ohio State University, at Mershon Auditorium, and the first three days—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday—it was empty. Maybe a few family members.” Then, on the third day, a scandal broke: eight of the nine top lifters tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. * “Well, that Thursday evening Mershon filled up,” Lorimer recalled. “Friday, Saturday, Sunday—it was filled every day. Now, what lesson do you think I learned from that?”
The bigger the body, the bigger the draw. When it comes to steroids, public censure and private acceptance have tended to rise in parallel. In 1998, after Mark McGwire admitted to doping while setting his home-run record, he was attacked in the press and later blackballed from the Hall of Fame. But sales of steroids skyrocketed. Eight years earlier, George H. W. Bush had both criminalized the use of steroids and appointed Arnold Schwarzenegger—the world’s most famous steroid user—chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. “It’s like an oxymoron,” a strongman said. “Arnold is the poster boy. But if you got into a private conversation, do you really think he’d say, ‘I never should have done that’? Of course he would have done it! He’s a movie star and a millionaire because of it. He was governor of California! He could never have done any of that without it.”
Late one afternoon, when the thumping soundtrack in the main hall was giving me a headache, I ducked into one of the side rooms to watch the women’s Olympic weight-lifting trials. The crowd here was a fraction of the size of the one outside, and the atmosphere was almost monastic by comparison. During the lifts, the room would go completely quiet—no whoops or catcalls, just the deep silence of absolute concentration. The athletes, too, seemed to be of a different species from the strongmen: flexible and surprisingly slender, with muscles that had the almost slack look I remembered in Alexeyev. There was a terrific fierceness about them—some would stamp their feet and let out a shriek before grasping the bar—but its focus was inward. The best female lifters can toss the equivalent of two very large men above their heads in a single motion. It’s the closest that humans come to being superheroes, and these women acted accordingly.
“Weight lifting is fifty per cent mental and thirty per cent technique,” Tommy Kono, among the greatest of all American lifters and a spectator in the crowd that day, told me during a break. “Power is only twenty per cent, but everybody has it reversed.” Kono was a prime example of the miraculous change that weight lifting can effect. A Japanese-American from Sacramento, he was a spindly twelve-year-old in 1942, when his family was relocated to an internment camp at Tule Lake, in Northern California. “The name is a misnomer, really,” Kono said. “It was the bottom of a dried-up lake. When the wind blew, it really kicked up a sandstorm, but the dry air helped my asthmatic condition.” It was there, in another boy’s house, that Kono discovered weight lifting and began to train in secret. (His parents didn’t think his body could handle it.) By the time his family was released, in 1945, he had put on ten or fifteen pounds of muscle. By 1952, he was the Olympic gold medalist as a lightweight. He went on to win another gold as a light heavyweight, and a silver as a middleweight.
Kono blamed the decline in American lifting on an influx of foreign coaches. “They brought in the European idea of training five or six days a week, twice a day,” he said. “Instead of being athletes, they became like workers. Rather than improving, they started getting injuries and overtraining. Even the South American countries started passing us up.” This women’s team was an exception. Unlike the men, they’d qualified for two spots at the Olympics. The best athletes were in the middleweight classes: Amanda Sandoval and Rizelyx Rivera, at fifty-eight kilos, and Natalie Burgener, at sixty-nine. But the competition at those weights was so stiff overseas that the heaviest lifters were more likely to get the spots. (At the trials, all that mattered was how your lifts compared with those of others in your weight class worldwide.) And so, once again, Lorimer’s rule held true: the bigger the body, the bigger the draw. To judge by the cheering between lifts, most of the crowd was there to see Holley Mangold.
Mangold was something of a local celebrity. Born and reared in Dayton, she had played football in high school, on the offensive line, and come within a point of winning a state championship. (Her older brother, Nick, is an All-Pro center with the New York Jets.) Although she’d come late to lifting, Mangold had quickly climbed the ranks and was threatening to supplant the country’s top super-heavyweight, Sarah Robles. “My little girl is all about pure power,” her father, Vern, told me. Five feet eight and well over three hundred pounds, Mangold was astonishingly quick and flexible for her size—she could drop into the full splits with ease. “I’m a huge girl,” she said to me. “I’ve always been huge. At three hundred and fifty pounds, I feel sluggish. But at three hundred and thirty I feel like I can conquer the world.”
In the end, Mangold and Robles both made the Olympic team—Mangold winning the clean and jerk, Robles the snatch. But their lifts were well short of medal contention. To Mangold’s coach, Mark Cannella, the gap wasn’t a matter of too much European-style training but of too little. “We need to be more like them,” he said. “They’re breaking it down, videotaping and analyzing every single lift.” Like gymnastics and dance, Olympic lifting requires such balance, flexibility, and form that it greatly rewards early training—it’s like “barbell ballet,” Vern Mangold said. But most American schools have long since replaced their free weights with machines. “It’s a national disgrace,” Arthur Drechsler, of USA Weightlifting, told me. “If you want to fight childhood obesity or increase fitness, no sport can transform you as much as weight lifting—look at Tommy Kono. And it’s one of the safest things you can do. We don’t have spinal-cord injuries. We don’t have head injuries. They just don’t happen. But weight lifting is not part of the public schools.”
Even with the right training, Americans might still not reach the podium. Unlike strongmen and bodybuilders, Olympic athletes are subject to stringent drug tests in this country, including unannounced visits to their homes. Oversight tends to be much spottier abroad. Since 1976, twelve lifters, all but one of them from Eastern Europe, have been stripped of Olympic medals owing to drug use. A weight lifter can expect about a ten-to-fifteen-per-cent boost from performance-enhancing drugs, Terry Todd estimates—just about what separates Mangold from medal contention. It’s a situation that reminds him of Mark Henry, another prodigy who came late to lifting, stayed clean, and fell short of Olympic gold: “If he had started early and didn’t take drugs, he would have beaten them,” Todd said. “If he had used the drugs and started later, he would have beaten them. But two hurdles was too much.”
The strongmen didn’t have that problem. Theirs, for better or for worse, was a sport without a rule book—an unregulated experiment. It set no limits and allowed no excuses. In the elevator at the hotel on the last night, I heard a groan and looked over to see Travis Ortmayer, the strongman from Texas, doubled over with his elbows on his knees. “You all right, Travis?” I asked. “I’ve been better,” he said. “A thing like this puts the beat on you.” The smallest man in the contest by twenty pounds, Ortmayer had been a late substitute for Benedikt Magnusson, an Icelandic strongman who tore one of his biceps in training. “I’ve never zeroed out of a competition like this before,” he said. “Usually, I would have been getting ready since December. But after the World’s I took three months off to give my body a rest.” When I asked him what hurt, he said pretty much everything.
Earlier that day, Ortmayer and the others had completed two more rounds. First came an event called the Austrian Oak, in honor of Schwarzenegger’s nickname as a bodybuilder. This involved lifting a ten-foot log from a stand at close to shoulder height, then pressing it overhead repeatedly. Banded with steel and coiled with thick rope at the ends, the Oak weighed four hundred and fifty-nine pounds—it took five large men to carry it onstage. Four of the strongmen declined to try to lift it at all, and four tried and failed. That left Savickas, who managed one lift, and Jenkins, who did two. Shaw, his left arm in obvious pain, was among those who had to settle for a lighter Oak, of three hundred and ninety-three pounds. But in a display of incredible grit he lifted it seven times in a row—screaming himself hoarse on the sixth try—putting him in fourth place over all.
“Blood, sweat, and tears, broken bones and torn muscles,” the commentator, a former World’s Strongest Man named Bill Kazmaier, told the crowd. “This is strongman. It’s the last man standing.” On the speakers overhead, Alice in Chains sang “Check My Brain.” The Hummer Tire Dead Lift was next: up to eight oversized tires hung on a bar with steel plates—the heaviest of all the lifts. Jenkins conceded the lead early, topping out at nine hundred and twenty-eight pounds. Derek Poundstone, ranked third, outlifted him by over a hundred pounds—more than enough, I thought, to beat Shaw with his biceps half gone. “Get behind an injured man who’s shot in the arm,” Kazmaier shouted. “C’mon, Brian! Everybody’s behind you!” [cartoon id="a16707"]
Shaw’s left hand had begun to lose its grip, but the rules allowed him to secure it to the bar with a nylon strap. As he bent down to take the weight—a thousand and seventy-three pounds, eleven pounds more than Poundstone’s lift—he raised his face toward the crowd and bellowed. Then he blew out his cheeks once, twice, and lurched upward. The crowd was on its feet, as Kazmaier thundered into the microphone, “Power! Power! Power!” The barbell bent beneath its load, and Shaw’s body began to oscillate like a tuning fork. By the time his back was straight, his eyes were burning and blood was streaming from his nose, into his mouth and down his chin. But the lift was good.
He was now tied for second place with Jenkins and Poundstone, just two and a half points behind Savickas. The latter had set a new world record in the dead lift: eleven hundred and seventeen pounds. But the last event—the Timber Carry—was one of Savickas’s worst, whereas Shaw had won it in record time the year before. If he could hang on one more time, the championship would be his.
On their way to Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium that night, for the final event of the contest, the men sat quietly in a private coach, submerged in their thoughts. They had the half-desperate look of soldiers in a convoy, advancing toward a beachhead. Strongman is a brotherhood, they said. There wasn’t much trash talk or posturing at contests like this—the lifts were daunting enough on their own—but I’d often seen them cheer and comfort one another between lifts, and even offer advice. The year before, at the World’s Strongest Man, they had to drag a twenty-two-thousand-pound Titan truck more than eighty feet down a road. Shaw, who prided himself on fastidious preparation, had ordered a pair of custom truck-pulling shoes from England, with high-friction soles. He would have won the contest, had he not given his spare pair to Björnsson, who beat him by half a second.
Victory at the Arnold meant much more than bragging rights: it was a rare chance to earn a living at this sport. The purses for most strongman contests are paltry—three to five thousand dollars—especially given the risks involved. But the winner of the Arnold would take home fifty-five thousand. Shaw and his girlfriend were living in a small two-bedroom apartment not far from his parents. And Jenkins had been laid off from a teaching job that fall, at a high school for troubled teen-agers in Harrisburg. In November, he’d opened up a gym with money that he borrowed from his parents, but business was slow, and he was getting married that summer. “My gosh, fifty-five thousand dollars could change your life,” he told me.
At the auditorium, the bodybuilding finals were just wrapping up. A line of women in high heels and glitter bikinis were posing for photographs backstage, their skin bronzed and lacquered, their implants all in a row. Theirs was the least bulky of the bodybuilding categories—which rose, in order of ascending mass, from Bikini to Figure to Fitness to Ms. International—but they looked as sinewy as velociraptors. When I asked the winner, a diminutive brunette named Sonia Gonzales, what set her apart, she flashed her teeth. “My sex,” she said. Behind the curtain, the male bodybuilders were preparing for the final pose-down. They’d been dehydrating themselves for days, so every vein and striation showed, but their limbs were cramped, their minds depleted. They sat hunched on benches or stood flexing in front of mirrors, as hollow-eyed as statues in a sculpture garden.
The stage set had a classical theme—broken columns against a fiery sky—and a long, low ramp ran in front of it. When the strongman final began, a huge wooden frame, roughly bolted together out of barn timbers, was carried out and placed at one end. The object was to stand inside this frame, lift it by a pair of handles along the sides, and run up the ramp as fast as possible. The frame weighed nearly nine hundred pounds—more than most strongmen could deadlift—and, unlike the previous year, no wrist straps were allowed. This was a problem for Shaw, but no less so for Savickas. The great Lithuanian had lost some of his grip strength over the years, as the weight he’d gained had gone into his fingers. “It’s like putting on a tight pair of gloves, then another pair, and another pair,” Todd told me. “Each one makes it that much harder to grip—there’s flesh where there used to be space.”
The Timber Carry was the climax of the contest and extremely hard on the body. Four of the strongmen never made it up the ramp. The weight tore calluses from their hands, and the frame kept tipping and slipping as they ran. Savickas looked strong at first, then lost his grip, dropping the frame six times before leaving it for good—two yards from the finish line. Others fared better. Travis Ortmayer reached the top in just under nine and a half seconds—good enough for a touch of redemption—and Derek Poundstone was almost two seconds faster. Afterward, Poundstone tore off his shirt and flexed for the crowd, just as Jan Todd had predicted.
When Shaw came to the starting line, he looked loose and light on his feet. He shook the kinks from his arms and bounced on his toes like a boxer, then bent down to pick up the frame. It seemed, for a moment, as he charged up the slope, that he might just make it in time. “I could see the finish line,” he told me the next morning. “But then you’re trying to hold on, and your grip starts to lose it, and it’s just opening, opening, opening. And it’s just . . . pain. I feel the worst pain. I don’t know anything else.” He was less than two feet from the top when the last strands of his biceps tore free, and the frame came thudding down. He managed one last, agonizing push to the finish line, as blinded and enraged as Samson in the temple. Then he stumbled backstage and collapsed.
Victory, in the end, went to Mike Jenkins. He hurtled up the ramp in just under seven and a half seconds—fourteen-hundredths faster than Poundstone—and won the championship by a single point. Later that night, at the trophy presentation, Schwarzenegger asked him how he’d done it: “For schlepping up this weight up the ramp—I mean, how do you train for something like that?” Jenkins levelled his eyes at him, deadpan. “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I do yoga at 6 a.m.,” he said. “Then Tuesdays, Thursdays, I have Zumba at 7 p.m.” Schwarzenegger grinned and nodded. “That’s very impressive,” he said. “I can really visualize you in yoga positions. This is exciting. I think we can sell tickets to that one.”
When I last saw Shaw, he was back home in Colorado, recuperating from surgery. The injury had been worse than he feared. The tendon had all but exploded—“It looked like the end of a mop,” his surgeon, Peter J. Millett, told me—and the muscle had fully retracted inside his arm. To reattach it, they’d had to trim the tendon down, drill a hole through the radius bone, then pull it through and secure it with a titanium button. “He said my tendons were three times the size of normal,” Shaw said. “They had to use a hip retractor.” Still, if he was lucky, the repaired biceps would be even stronger than before and more sturdily attached. “I heard the sutures they used are like the strongest industrial space-age stuff they could find,” Shaw said. I thought of a line that Terry Todd had quoted at the Arnold, from “A Farewell to Arms”: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Shaw’s left arm was in a removable cast, and he said that his skin felt rubbery and numb, but he insisted on driving me around anyway. “There’s never a right time to get hurt,” he said, as we circled past the old basketball courts at his high school, the fields where he used to bale hay for his uncle. “This was supposed to be the performance that people would talk about for years. That’s probably what makes it harder to swallow.” He shook his head. “What’s crazy is, if it had happened on the third rep of that first event, instead of the first, I still would have won.” Even with the injury, Shaw had come within seven seconds of victory—perhaps his greatest feat, though it earned him only fourth place over all. In Fort Lupton, the city council had recently hung a banner across Main Street, declaring it “Home of the World’s Strongest Man.” But the wind had blown the banner down, and it was nowhere to be seen.
Shaw hoped to be back in top form by late summer—time enough to get ready for the World’s Strongest Man, in September. In the meantime, he had nothing to do but wait for his body to heal. Late in the afternoon, he pulled into a Toys R Us to buy a present for his nephew Caiden, who had just turned one. “This isn’t exactly my specialty,” he said. “When my niece had her birthday, I bought her a battery-powered Jeep. Turned out she couldn’t even ride it.” He spent the first few minutes in the electronics section, looking at toys marked for kids age four to nine—“I’d like to buy him a robot or something,” he said—then finally settled on a car with a built-in cannon that shot rubber balls.
By the time we arrived at his parents’ house, the party was in full swing. Relatives were circled in chairs around the living room, while toddlers romped across the carpet in the middle. Shaw sat on the couch, holding himself as still as possible as the kids crawled all over him. He looked happier than I’d seen him in a while. “When Caiden was born, Brian was too intimidated to hold him,” his sister, Julie, told me. “He was six pounds ten ounces and nineteen and a half inches. Curled up in a ball, he was the same size as Brian’s shoe.” She sighed. “I pray my son won’t take after him. Finding clothes is so hard. But I’m sure Caiden will want to bring Brian in for show-and-tell—holy cow! he’s like a superhero!—and he’ll want to rough around with him. I’ll be, like, ‘Brian, you just sit there. Don’t give him a high five. You’ll knock him out.”