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Joe's Neighborhood

Lifting to failure — part 1

10/8/2014

The big man in the tight singlet dips his hands into the chalk. His gaze is elsewhere. Fingers spread wide, he brushes his callused palms back and forth letting the white powder fall back into the tin. Smooth as silk. His legs forced bowlegged by the shorts and knee wraps, he makes his way up the ramp. Popeye from days long past. The heavy-metal music crashes around him when he gets to the top. And on the brightly lit stage, the bar with too many heavy weights stares him in the face. There is not enough saliva to go around. Failure is as certain as old age.

The first lift, 590 pounds in the squat, is a disaster. The Czech female announcer has one of two options: “And it was a good lift” or “Sorry, it was no lift.” We wait for the verdict.

“Sorry, it was no lift.”

Iron is unforgiving. You either lift it or you don’t. Period. Sure, you want to talk about the problems of your game at the net, or the opponent’s amazing free throw percentage, or that weak defensive tackle that is getting run over. Go for it. Talk away. But it is meaningless in the universe of power lifters. You either successfully lift the iron up, or you don’t. No guesswork, no instant replay, and certainly no one else to blame. Your knee hurts? The iron doesn’t care. You’re 59 years old? So what. The iron weighs just the same. You’re a man or you’re a woman?  Hmmm… I don’t see any pink or blue weights. Trust me, iron forgives nothing.

Seven guys and one competitor in two cars driving to the Czech Republic. Across Holland, through Germany, racing down the Autobahn to the town of Pilsen in the former Czechoslovakia. Women’s and Men’s World Masters Powerlifting Championships. Once a year, competitors come from around the world for this week-long competition. But this hardcore group of seven came to support just one — a 59-year-old man. An old man in anybody’s book of sport.

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joes1Rik Priester from the Netherlands is not loquacious. He is chronically unshaven. And, yes, unnervingly truthful. And, of course, as big as a barn. Or, more accurately, he can lift a barn. OK, maybe not an actual barn, but he can lift a large motorcycle — a 1998 Honda Shadow Aero weighing in at 623 pounds. Yup, he can do that… I think.

So, of course, 623 pounds are placed on the bar for the next lift. Five spotters swarm on the stage. The spotters are there for safety, but there is a sense of a Greek Chorus about their on-stage-but-not-really-to-be-seen presence. They are big men in their own right. If the bar starts leaning too much, or the weightlifter’s muscles fail, or if it is all just too darn heavy, they swoop in for the rescue. But they are not the show. Nope. They are the Greek Chorus.

Priester is a smidgen intense today. Focused. But, trust me, he is intense on a normal day. “How are you?” A common greeting in Des Moines, Iowa, right? And even if your arm is hanging by a thread and one ear is torn off, you respond: “Great. And you?” Just a variation of Iowa nice. But a “how are you” from Priester is a demand for a mental and physical assessment of your life. Yikes. But such intensity creates loyalty. And so two of his sons and five friends are here in Pilsen to support his quest.

By the way, Priester is too old for this. Injuries that used to never occur now occur — and take months to heal. He’s teaching high school, running a family gym and strength training Olympic athletes in their own search for victory. There is no time for this foolishness. But here he is in the Czech Republic. Sitting in a quiet corner. Contemplating a squat of 623 pounds.

joes2Up the ramp Priester comes again. Blaring over the loudspeakers is music by Linkin Park. The lyrics are not hopeful — “I’ve given up. I’m suffocating. Tell me what the f*** is wrong with me.” Perhaps not as inspirational as one would like.

The bar rests on the middle of his upper back. A place holder. Up the bar goes and off the rack. A humbling recognition of the extreme weight. A staggering backwards step. Oh my. Is this really possible? Then down down down, past the knees. Squat, and you can see raw-eyed understanding of what he’s gotten himself into. And now the hard part. From the core of his being, from that spot below the belly button, curled tight, the weights are pushed upwards and upwards and unbelievably upwards. The legs lock.

joes3“And it was a good lift,” the woman announcer intones.

“I am done after this,” Priester told me a while ago when his knee was bothering him over the course of several weeks. Naturally. The cost is too high. But this was before the Worlds. Anyway, weight lifting is all about failure. You lift until you can’t lift anymore. It is in that spot of failure that all the gains are made — where a person becomes more powerful. If you don’t fail, you don’t grow. A simple lesson.

Next year, Priester turns 60. Age is racing him down. But the age of 60 also means a new age class. The best lift in the squats in that class at the World Championships was 579 pounds. A good lift. But certainly not 623 pounds.

JoeWeegBW“Joe, next year the World Championships are in Denver. What do you think?” And Priester smiles at me. I already know what he thinks. CV           

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines. Joe can be reached by email at josephpweeg@gmail.com.

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