The Bar is Loaded (Article Banner)

This article was previously posted earlier on the original NASA website.

I returned to the lifting platform after a 15 year lay-off on November 8th at the Masters Nationals in Mesa, Arizona. I had about 2 months of decent training under my belt and what I thought was a new and improved attitude. In the late eighties and early nineties I would concern myself more with my competition: where was I going to place; what did they lift on their openers; what will they attempt next; what suit are they using, etc., etc. Today I boast a new attitude – one that I was proud of: lift for me. Get the lifts I want and enjoy the sport of powerlifting and powersports for the pure joy of it. Compete against myself and father time. That was before the start of the Masters. By the end of that day my attitude and approach to the sport changed dramatically.

My lifting itself wasn’t much to brag about. I make no excuses and it’s a long road back. But, I did go 8 for 9 raw and surprised myself in the deadlift. It was that deadlift and the catalyst leading up to my third pull that permanently changed my perspective. I didn’t realize it at the time but that deadlift started the night before the meet.

This was a two-day event and I spent the first day announcing and judging a flight. This is a significant change in and of itself. Fifteen years prior I would have loaded and spotted on day one. Ah, the benefits of age and rank! After day one and during weigh-ins I had the fortunate opportunity to commiserate and fellowship with lifters from both days.   I talked at length with Rich Kahle on the form and function of lifting; the ‘old days’ in New Mexico; and weight loss strategy. I bragged to anyone within ear-shot about my son Dallas – the USMC recruit who was in the middle of phase 1 boot camp at the Marine Corp Recruiting Depot in San Diego. I re-united with a dear old friend from Arizona – Earl Evatt. I remember when Earl first showed up at NASA events and was overjoyed to see how active he remained in the organization. And, I had the great fortune to spend 15 minutes in conversation with Tom Manno.

Tom and Diane Manno have been gracious hosts of this meet for several years. They would set up a spread of food and drink for all during Saturday evening’s check-in. Tom would spend his time talking, laughing and encouraging lifters. This Saturday evening was indeed special. Tom and Diane came in to the room and the illumination of the lights brightened significantly. Tom was valiantly determined to be the Tom that everyone knew and loved. Tom spent time with individuals in the room as well as small groups. For the next two hours Tom shared of himself to all. I was spellbound by his presence. No one saw a man beaten down by a hideous disease. We all seen Tom for what he is: a man larger that life. You see, Tom’s strength wasn’t found in his 710 lb. World Record bench – Tom’s strength lied in his uncanny ability to leave everyone feeling better – period. For those who knew Tom, you know exactly what I mean.

I went to sleep that evening thinking about what a wonderful experience. I also thought this may be the last time I see Tom. There is no way he will have the energy to show up tomorrow. I felt blessed and lucky to have spent time with him earlier that evening. I was wrong about his energy. As the lifting progressed into the 2nd round of squats, Mr. Manno walked through the door. And, by the time we proceeded to the bench on flight B platform, Tom was sitting in the head referee’s chair! For as long as I live I will never, ever forget the time me, Nico and Jay spent benching on the platform judged by Tom Manno. Nico had returned from shoulder surgery and was experiencing sporadic training sessions. However, the presence of Mr. Manno in the chair inspired Nico to a raw bench of 430 – a good 20 lbs. more than even he expected.

The meet proceeded along as meets do and it was time to deadlift. I had pulled 545 x 2 in training two weeks prior. I felt 556 was within my grasp. As I waited for my deadlift opener I engaged in conversation with Mr. Evatt. Earl recalled with a gleam in his eye how he always remembered my 600 pull in 1994 after a 3 year layoff (in 1994 I had returned from my first layoff of the sport – 3 years. I trained for a little under 6 months and was able to pull 600 in a first generation squat suit).

I struggled through 2 attempts – all whites though – on this Sunday (529 & 556). I came to the conclusion that I had been training without a belt and competing with a belt was throwing me off (given the fact that I sport a ‘husky’ mid-section). I tossed the belt aside. I seen Earl was a side judge. Earl Evatt was NASA’s Athlete of the Year in 2007. Since that time Earl has undergone knee-replacement surgery and is battling a crippling hip condition. I decided it was time to man-up. I asked for 600 lbs. on the bar and dedicated the lift to Earl. I do realize that I’m early in my training and 600 lbs. constitutes only a fair lift for a 275lber. But, in my book, powerlifting is anyone who attempts max effort on their third attempt. I don’t care what the weight is. You have my undying respect at that point.

I’ve always struggled with clarity of thought concerning the deadlift. It has really never felt right – just pulling without ‘feeling’ the weight first. That Sunday during the Masters Nationals was the exception. As I approached the bar I thought of three things: the challenge facing my son in phase I boot camp; Earl Evatt’s support of NASA and me personally; and the incredibly valiant struggle of Tom Manno. I grabbed hold of the bar, raised my head into position and glanced forward only to see Tom in the audience. Tom stood. There it was – clarity. I had only one choice – stand. And I did. And it was in that lift that my approach changed. Powerlifting wasn’t just about me competing against myself. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. It can be about friendship, about encouragement, about giving freely, about making other lifters feel, well, better.

I want to be like Tom. No, I’ll never bench 710 lbs. I don’t care if you wrap me in a seven-ply shirt – it ain’t happening. But I want to be “that guy”. The guy who sets his challenges and tribulations aside for others. The guy who’s physical strength is dwarfed by his kindness and generosity of spirit. The guy who makes everyone feel better.

I want to be like Tom.