Comeback of the 800-Pound Gorilla

When you've broken the world bench-press record nine times over, you can impress anybody with your strength. Except, perhaps, yourself.

Powerlifting -- competitions of pure strength where lifters perform squats, dead-lifts and bench presses -- became his focus instead. He trained constantly to increase his size and strength.

"Making 200 pounds [body weight] was the toughest," he says. "I had to stuff myself until I felt like I was going to throw up all the time."

Steve Isaac says his brother found powerlifting attractive because it fulfilled a need to compete.

Isaac prepares to bench while his son Tim Jr. looks on.
Paolo Vescia
Isaac prepares to bench while his son Tim Jr. looks on.
Although Isaac blew out both his knees in an accident, he can still squat a few pounds.
Paolo Vescia
Although Isaac blew out both his knees in an accident, he can still squat a few pounds.

"[In powerlifting], he felt he was in nobody else's shadow," his brother says, "and just kept doing it over the years and it created an identity for him."

During those years, Isaac built his muscles, pound by pound, like stone blocks in a pyramid. It required the sort of intensive self-dedication that some admire, and others find obscenely narcissistic. Then, just when Isaac started to become a major figure in powerlifting, his temple collapsed.

As Isaac tells it, simultaneously blowing out both his kneecaps under the weight of more than 1,000 pounds wasn't his fault.

It was 1990, and Isaac was performing with the Samson Power Team, a WWF-style ensemble that tours schools and prisons. The team is Isaac's creation, an opportunity for powerlifters to demonstrate their ability while imparting a message of self-reliance.

At the time, squats were Isaac's best contest category. His big hips and thick legs were ideal for handling intense amounts of weight. He had just set a squat record -- the first of 10 world records in his career -- and was planning to break it at a demonstration at Blue Ridge High School.

To some, breaking a record during an exhibition wouldn't make sense. It doesn't count, you see. There are no judges to make it official, and the effort risks injury. Isaac's explanation is characteristically benevolent.

"Kids love this stuff, and when they're yelling and screaming, you don't want to let them down," he says. "I've been to 15 national competitions and five world championships, and if I had my choice to lift for a world championship or lift for a group of kids, I'd rather lift for the kids. Kids appreciate it more, and I don't really feel like I'm doing it for myself, I feel like I'm doing it for them."

At Blue Ridge, he was a bit worried about the stage. It didn't seem entirely sturdy. He and his teammates performed their show anyway, climaxing with Isaac's record-breaking attempt at squatting 1,045 pounds.

The entire school watched as Isaac held a bar packed with so much weight it curved over his shoulders like a coat. The stage held, it didn't collapse. But, Isaac says, it didn't need to.

"I just felt a little shake," he says.

Later, he would describe the noise he heard to Sports Illustrated as "a pair of two-by-fours snapping." Those were his patellar tendons as they broke from his shins and wrapped around his kneecaps.

Isaac went down, and his spotters ran from the collapsing steel mass.

Somehow, Isaac managed to avoid getting crushed under the bar and plates. But the pain was extraordinary. The assembly room, previously alive with cheering kids, went silent with shock.

Doctors would tell him it looked like "bombs went off in your knees."

"You can't come back from that; I can't squat like that again," Isaac says. Then, almost as an afterthought, he adds, "I can't run, I can only kind of walk fast."

For many lifters, an injury so severe would have concluded their competitive years. Even today, when descending stairs, Isaac must take them very slowly -- an odd sight for somebody wrapped in bulky muscle. The other members of his Samson Power Team all quit within a month of the accident.

But Isaac wasn't done powerlifting, and powerlifting wasn't done with him.

"C'mon! Big air! Big air!" Isaac yells.

Isaac's son, 17-year-old Tim Jr., is under the squat rack. He's doing lock-outs, where a lifter holds more weight than he can squat on his shoulders and stands for five to 10 seconds, getting acclimated to the burden.

Tim plays on the offensive line for the Phoenix Christian Junior/Senior High School football team, which won the Division 2A state championship last year. ("He's played in every game for two years," Isaac boasts.)

Isaac started teaching his son strength training at 7 years old, which many fitness experts say is too young. But Isaac counters that he trained his son in proper form and nutrition. In July, Tim Jr. set the world record in bench press for his age group.

Still, Isaac expresses some frustration.

"He's 5' 9", I don't know if he'll get taller or not," he says, pondering. "He's got a really small mom, tiny. I don't know what I was thinking. I wanted a football player and so I married some girl who's 5 feet tall and weighs 93 pounds."

He says it with a laugh, but it's only partly a joke. "I wish he was a little bigger," Isaac says.

Later, Tim Jr. collapses after doing lock-outs, and the other lifters tease him -- "That's just a fake pass-out, not a real pass-out."

Isaac says the fainting was no big deal, just some lightheadedness, a normal part of intensive training.

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