Sticks and Stones
By Keith Wassung
Timothy Pearson removed his sunglasses and wiped the sweat of his face and neck with a small towel. The hot Namibian sun beat down on his head and neck creating an endless river of sweat. It was his first trip to Africa, but it would not be his last.
Timothy stood six foot one and weighed a solid 320lbs. Despite his massive frame, he moved as gracefully as a mountain lion. People often assumed that Timothy was a professional football player or wrestler. Though he possessed the talent and skills for both, he had eschewed team sports in order to pursue a career as a professional strongman.
For many years, it had debated as to who was the strongest man in the world. Was it a power lifter or an Olympic lifter? Maybe a track athlete or a football player. Perhaps an un-known garage athlete. In 1977, the debate finally turned into reality as eight strength athletes came together at Universal Studios in California in order to compete in tests of strength and to determine once and for all, who was actually the World’s Strongest Man. The contest was as huge success and it spawned an entire series of strongman contests all over the world. The sport eventually ceased to become an event between different disciplines and evolved into its own sport.
Timothy had wanted to be a strongman ever since he had seen the Worlds Strongest Man on ESPN when he was a young boy. Visions of the legendary Bill Kazmaier hurling kegs into the back of a truck were never far from this thoughts. Other boys dreamed of scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl or hitting the winning home run in the World Series, but Timothy only dreamed of lifting, pulling and throwing ponderous objects.
He competed in his first strongman competition at age 18, a local event that featured only four events. He placed eighth out of nine, a disappointing performance, which only inspired him to train even harder. Six years later he was in Windhoek, Namibia competing in his first World’s Strongest Man competition. He had done very well in the competition, winning the Fingal Fingers, a grueling event named after a legendary Scottish-Celtic warrior. The event looks deceptively easy, but is actually very demanding as a series of progressively heaver, hinged poles or fingers are lifted from the ground and then flipped over to the other side. He also won the log lift and placed high in the rest of the events, resulting in second place going into the final event.
It's been said again and again that hitting a pitched baseball is the most difficult known athletic task. Whoever said that had never attempted to lift the Atlas Stones, which are used in Strongman competitions. Five large round stones, ranging in weight from 265 to 400lbs are placed on the ground in a line. Beginning with the smallest stone, the athletes pick up the stone, carry it a short distance to a loading platform and then carefully place it on top of the platform. This is repeated for each successively heavier stone. Unless one has actually attempted this feat, it is difficult to imagine how tough it is. There is nothing to hold onto. The athletes are dead tired after a day of competing, which is why the Atlas stones are traditionally the last event in a strongman contest.
Timothy waited nervously for his turn at the stones. A decent performance would earn him the runner-up spot in the World’s Strongest Man competition. In the back of his mind, he realized that a win at this event would mean an overall victory. His name was called for his turn and he acknowledged the enthusiastic crowd with a wave of his hand. He was matched up against the man who held the first place position and was also the defending World’s Strongest Man Champion. This Eastern European athlete was the prototype modern strongman competitor, heavily muscled, fast and athletic. His best event just happened to be the Atlas Stones.
The athletes took their mark and were given the start command. Timothy raced toward the first stone. He easily picked up the first stone and moved it towards the first loading platform. Setting the stone into place, he raced back for the second stone and already found himself a few steps behind the leader. The heat was fierce. The organizers had considered moving the competition to a place where the heat was not as severe as the African sun, but hell was already booked for that week. Timothy handled the second and third stone with little difficulty but found himself falling furthering behind the defending champion. He picked up the fourth stone and carried it towards the platform, his legs, back and arms screaming with muscular fatigue. He heard his parents, who were in the crowd shouting encouragement to him and this caused him to kick his effort in high gear. He placed the fourth stone onto the platform and quickly turned and raced towards the fifth and final stone. He was still behind the champion, but he had gained a couple of steps from the previous stone. He grasped the fifth stone and with great effort headed towards the platform. His competitor was already at the platform and was lifting the ponderous stone up onto the surface. In less then two seconds he would once again be crowned World's Strongest Man and Timothy would be the runner-up. Timothy was less than three steps away from the platform when his competitor's stone rolled off the platform and onto the ground. The champion quickly grabbed the stone and began lifting it back up, but not before Timothy eased the enormous stone onto the platform. He had done it, he was the World’s Strongest Man. He raised his exhausted arms in victory as the crowd gave him a thunderous round of applause.
The former champion was the first to reach Timothy. He hugged Timothy in a genuine display of sportsmanship and whispered into his ear “Enjoy your title, we will meet again soon”.
Timothy scanned the crowd in search of his parents. He heard his mother’s voice call out to him and he quickly turned towards her.
“Timmy, what are you doing?” said his mother. Timothy quickly lowered his arms from their victory salute and said “Nothing, just messing around”.” Is that your father’s bowling ball”? She asked. “Yes M’am, I was using it to practice the Atlas Stones event-I am training to compete in the World’s Strongest Man” replied her eleven year old son. Timmy’s mother suppressed a smile. She had been watching her son from the kitchen window. He would fill two five-gallon buckets with water and then would struggle to race back and forth across their lawn with them. She had also seen him out by the woodpile, repeatedly lifting logs over his head. Today he had lined up a series of crates and buckets in the yard-it almost looked like he was created a model of Stonehenge. She watched him race to lift and carry weighted objects, such as a bag of dog food and her husband’s bowling ball on top of each platform.
“Well my little strongman, it’s almost time for dinner, so clean up this mess and put your father’s bowling ball back to where it belongs,” said his mother, who then turned and walked back to the house. Timmy quickly put away his homemade atlas stone platforms and then picked up the bowling ball. He was relieved that his mother had not noticed that the bowling ball was covered with dirt and grass and would need to be cleaned before he took it into the house.
As he cleaned up the yard, he noticed the now fading champion watching him with nodding approval. He had beaten the champion every day this week but he knew he had to continue to improve. The bowling ball was getting to easy to lift and he needed to train with a heavier object. He had his eye on the pumpkins in his parent's garden, but they would not be ready for another two months. His mother had a giant stockpot with a lid; he could fill the pot with sand, duct tape the lid to the pot and then use that for a stone. He would have to move his platform to where it could not be seen from the house by his mother and he would have to wash the pot thoroughly before sneaking it back into her kitchen.
Tonight, he would fall asleep and dream of winning the World’s Strongest Man and tomorrow he would take one step closer to living that dream.