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.

Back at Gold's Gym, Clark lies flat on his back, with 715 pounds resting on the bar above his face. After he's settled onto the bench, and his face has gone blank with concentration, his spotters lift the weight off its rack, their faces red and trembling with the effort. When Clark raises his hands to take the weight, he shows the most unusual aspect of his technique. He has his hands turned inward, with his fingers facing his feet rather than his head. No other championship lifter uses such a grip. Mike Lambert speculates that the traditional grip is "too confining for Anthony," in that it requires his hands be closer together.

Clark takes the 715 pounds, makes a whistling sort of breathing noise, lowers the weight onto his great belly, hesitates, then, after his companions have given the signal, forces it back up. His legs and feet tremble, but not uncontrollably, and he powers the bar steadily up into the hands of his spotters, who with great difficulty transfer it back to its rack.

Clark sits up and breathes heavily, his curls wet with sweat. "It's getting better," he says.

As I watch, I think back to my conversation with Lambert, when I'd asked him who would be Clark's major competition in the upcoming nationals. Lambert had pondered for a moment, then answered, "Anthony doesn't really have any competition. Thirty years ago there was a guy named Paul Douglas who was ahead of his time. It took years for his records to be broken. Now Anthony is like that."

The comparison would please Clark, I'd thought. He had told me that Paul Douglas was his hero and role model, especially in that Douglas eventually quit lifting to evangelize.

"If he's clearly the best," I finally asked Lambert, "are people jealous of him, then?"

"Not really," Lambert had answered, his voice soothing and calm, not at all like I imagined a powerlifting devotee's. "Anthony is a hero."

We're in Anthony Clark's dark van, rumbling around otherworldly Pasadena. As we turn into the scrubby and unfinished-looking town, an inspirational tape recorded by Les Brown thunders out of the speakers. Clark looks more relaxed today than I've ever seen him. He seems to have unclenched his Diego Rivera eyes and let me look in under the great arch of his eyebrows. Clark's body has become like a book or, better, a mural on which you can read his life. It's been a hard one. One friend says about him, "You can measure how big the trauma [of his childhood] was by looking at how hard he's worked to overcome it."

After a short drive, we pull into the President and First Lady health club where Clark's mother, Betty, a short, lively 52-year-old, runs the pro shop, which is adorned with pictures of her son.

She reminds him of how, when he was 12, she would look into his bedroom and find that he'd slipped out and walked the considerable distance to his father's house. "I forgot all about that," Clark says, sounding truly amazed. Clark says that he and his siblings "all have a lot of bitterness and self-hatred in our hearts," because of their upbringing, but that they nevertheless remain close, and love each other. As if to demonstrate that all this is so, he takes me to his two-bedroom apartment. His youngest brother moved in a year ago, bringing along his wife and baby, and has never left. So the World's Strongest Man has almost no space to live in. The apartment's carpet is bleak and stained, and everything feels crowded. A few nice pieces -- a black leather sofa and an imposing big-screen television -- dominate the living room.

More claustrophobic is Clark's bedroom, which is so full of trophies, books and magazines that it looks like it's closing in on him. He has a few girlie photos on its walls, but he's turned them around and written inspirational messages on their backs. One reads, "Don't Give Up. Don't Give In. Fight the Good Fight. Win. Win."

It's a relief to return to his luxurious van. "I see now why you need a van," I say. "This is your own space."

Tonight is one of the last nights that Clark will practice his squats before competing in the nationals, and he's got 1,003 pounds on his back. His face is shaking as if he were standing in a wind tunnel; his eyes bulge as if trying frantically to see a way out of their predicament. I'd like to ask if any powerlifter has ever lost an eyeball while doing a squat, but restrain myself. Clark's brother Larry, who is himself muscled up, stands behind Clark as the group yells instructions. "Keep your head up!" "Don't lean forward!"

Clark hasn't squatted 1,000 in a year, but now he bends, with his brother behind him, shadowing him down. He pauses at parallel, lowers himself another fraction, then slams up through the weight, the bar grinding into his back until he and the spotters have crashed it back into its place on the rack.

Clark is exultant afterwards. He is his own competition, and he is winning. In fact, this phase of the competition may be almost over. "I'm thinking about taking 'World's Strongest Man' off my van," he says. "That's not what's important."

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