Survival of the Strongest

It's a Monday night at the Gold's Gym at the Fuqua exit off 45 South, and Anthony Clark of Pasadena is inside, training with a little circle of powerlifters.

All of the powerlifters look impressive, but even in this assemblage of muscle, Clark stands out. At five-feet-seven and 325 pounds, Clark is almost square. His 60-something-inch chest (it's nearly as big around as he is tall) is webbed with the scar tissue of his stretch marks. His arms look approximately like railroad ties.

His face has a similar overabundance of detail. It's as if Clark were five people, including various races and both genders, packed into one body. He's half-Filipino, and half African-American, but his rich copper coloring and dreamy, heavy-lidded eyes suggest nothing so much as the South Seas. His lush and defined lips droop almost as dramatically as his eyes, and his hands are so broad that the tips of an average person's fingers can just begin to curl around the palm, which is coarse from years of lifting weights.

Lifting weights is something Anthony Clark does as well, or better, than anyone else in the world. Tonight, he's trying to work his way up to the 920-pound mark, a level he needs to reach in order to be on track in his training for an upcoming competition. On this evening, Clark is the center of the powerlifters' attention, and once he reaches the 750-pound mark on the squats, his companions begin wrapping his knees before every attempt. The wrap is so thick, and is bound so tightly, that Clark has to be pulled to his feet after it's fastened. Then a lifter climbs up on a bench behind him and tugs ferociously at his rubber suit, which consists of trunks and a halter top, beneath which he wears shorts and a T-shirt. With great difficulty, the suit pulls up over Clark's belly.

Clark looks entirely lost in his pre-lift mental routine. His relaxed body gives like a massive doll as his helpers yank up the

suit, then buckle the purple Reebok air-pump belt across his broad belly. After everyone steps away, the life comes back into Clark's big eyes, as if he's seeing the weight, now set for 850 pounds, for the first time. Someone slaps powder across his shoulders, and Clark then pours powder liberally across his hands. He steps up under the slightly arched bar, then lunges upward, slamming his shoulders into the bar as if it were a tackling dummy and he were trying to make the team.

There's a thud when he hits the bar, which doesn't move, and a grunt from Clark. He waits, looking into the mirrored wall in front of his face, but not seeing himself. Then he pushes upward, frees the bar from its rack and steps back.

His face is already trembling. The bar biting into his back simply has to hurt, no matter how much muscle he's piled on top of his bones. Clark says that at this moment it "feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, just like it was on Jesus."

His companions yell instructions at him -- "keep your head up, keep your back straight" -- as if they have to shout to be heard over the weight, which is no doubt roaring right behind his ears.

With a spotter at either end of the barbell, and one behind bending with him like a protecting shadow, Clark begins the descent that gives the "squat" its name, his whole body trembling, his face now shaking and contorted. He looks like he's going to explode.

Clark sinks so that his upper legs and butt are perpendicular to his knees and parallel to the ground. Then, encouraged and guided by his helpers, he drops another fraction of an inch. In competition, a lift won't count unless a lifter doesn't drop "below parallel."

Then Clark begins to rise, pushing up against the nearly half ton of weights on his shoulders. He shakes harder as he rises; he's clearly fighting the weight. Once straightened, he steps forward, lowers his head, drops the weight back on its rack, and then listens to the critique. "You need to get down lower," one of his spotters says. "You were leaning."

Clark doesn't respond. His face is still red as his body works to recover from the strain he just put it under. And watching this, I think: It's not easy being the World's Strongest Man.

The World's Strongest Man? That's a phrase that conjures up images of cheap carnivals and mustachioed sideshow attractions in leopard-skin wraps. But according to Mike Lambert, the soft-spoken and thoughtful-sounding editor of Powerlifting USA, it's not a joke designation. "Oh, they're very legitimate," Lambert says when I call his magazine's California office. "There's probably only 25 or 30 men who have ever bench-pressed 600 pounds," he adds, and Clark is one of them.

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David Theis
Contact: David Theis