Survival of the Strongest

Pasadena's Anthony Clark is the world's strongest man. You'd think that would make him famous. You'd be wrong.

This had all happened by the time Clark was 13. That same year he heard about God's "unconditional love" at a religious crusade and decided to learn more. "I wanted to know," he says, "who can love you unconditionally?"

He started lifting weights shortly thereafter, and found the perfect outlet for his pain. It sounds cliched, almost a parody of the scrawny character who gets sand kicked in his face and then discovers Charles Atlas, but what might have been cliche for others was truth for Clark. He progressed rapidly as a weight lifter, and became a fine high-school football player at the same time. He chose weightlifting for its solitude, and at some point told himself, "I'm going to be the strongest man in the world." Not I'm going to be strong, or even I'm going to be a champion, but rather, I'm going to be the strongest man in the world. For a few years in his late teens and early 20s, Clark used steroids, then abandoned them because his blood pressure was rising, and he was getting irritable. All the while, he was moving up in the hierarchy of weightlifters, picking up a title here, winning a championship there. Then at one competition, as he lifted a barbell, it suddenly came to him that with that single successful lift he had reached his childhood goal. He was, at least as some measure it, the World's Strongest Man. And how did he feel at that moment? Clark pauses, and then says, almost with embarrassment, "It was as if a weight had been lifted."

But that moment didn't take care of all his burdens. It left a few behind, and even created a few new ones. Among those burdens is this: even Rodney Brisco admits that in the beginning he was skeptical about Clark's claim. When his son asked if his new client were really the strongest man in the world, Brisco responded, "There's a lot of men who want to call themselves the World's Strongest Man, but they don't want to be around when the real strongest man shows up."

My own skepticism about Clark's claim is reinforced when I step inside the place where he trains. The World's Strongest Man works out in a Pasadena gym that runs a summer special for students? The walls inside are covered with mirrors, so you feel like you're stepping into a fun house.

After a moment, I can distinguish the exercisers from their reflections. There are the bodybuilders, preening in a corner. There is the down-your-mass crowd pushing furiously against the pedals of their Stairmasters. And against one wall are Clark and his fellow powerlifters, some of whom will also compete in the upcoming nationals. Clark's companions are loading up his bar so that it curves up in the middle. Clark needs to hit the 960-pound mark tonight to feel that he's on track to defend his title, and, more to the point, to break his own powerlifting record.

Powerlifting is divided into three events: squat, bench press and dead lift (in which the lifter pulls a weight up to his waist, but no higher). The number of pounds you lift in each event is totaled, and the lifter with the highest score wins. So Clark's claim to be the world's strongest is based on raw numbers, not on his ability to lift the back of a Cadillac (though he has done just that). And he is the only man to lift over 2,450 total pounds in the three events. He has the highest bench press ever recorded -- 735 pounds -- and the weightiest squat -- 1,025 pounds. His combined score of 2,460 pounds is a record, and he wants to hit 2,500 in the upcoming Houston meet.

If he can total 2,500, and then go on to bench 800 pounds (no one has even attempted an 800-pound bench press, or at least attempted it and lived to tell the tale) in a September meet in Maryland, Clark is thinking of retiring, even though he's only 27 and still improving. Actually, he's thinking of retiring even if he doesn't meet his goals over the next month. Powerlifting is not a road to longevity. Most of Clark's predecessors as super-heavyweight champion have died in their 30s and early 40s. Among them was the late, great O.D. Wilson, who held the total lift record at 2,430 until Clark broke it three years ago.

Clark isn't a big talker between lifts. He pulls down his girdle-like suit, unwraps his knees and then retreats into his thoughts, looking up only when the two 13-year-old boys he brought to the gym approach him. Clark has a number of young friends whom he takes to the gym, to church and to simply hang out. One of the boys grins sheepishly and admits that, yes, he'd like to become a powerlifter, and that yes, Anthony is a good friend.

Now Clark is mentally prepared to try lifting his 960. The bar's been prepared by his helpers, and he hits it with more authority than he's shown at lower weights. He psyches himself by imagining the barbell as Christ's cross. I start to suggest that Jesus was a scrawny ex-carpenter who couldn't even carry his own cross very far. "Maybe you're Simon, the strongman who had to pitch in on Good Friday," I think, but then keep my sports theology to myself as I ponder Clark's efforts. Most of the time he hits a bar and it goes up; sometimes he hits a bar and it goes up, and then he and the bar come down again, hard. That happened to Clark once in a meet; he fell face-forward with 996 pounds on his neck. As the paramedics arrived, his companions feared he was dead, or at least permanently crippled. But within three hours he was back again, competing.

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