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.

Intensive training to Isaac is a four-day-per-week affair, and -- in response to his most frequently asked and least-liked question -- no, he says his regimen does not include steroids. Powerlifters are tested for steroid use whenever they set a record, and a doctor who recently treated Isaac for an injury told New Times he found no evidence of steroid use. Isaac prides himself on his drug-free image.

When I note that it's unbelievable that somebody who has trained professionally for more than 20 years has never once tried steroids, Isaac admits to doing one cycle -- prescribed by his doctor -- when he was 20. This was back in the early 1980s, when rest rooms at gyms looked like junkie shooting galleries.

He quit, Isaac says, when he didn't notice much physical improvement and because of a fear of needles. He doesn't like to talk about this, and is angered when the media reveal a popular athlete uses steroids because, he says, high school kids assume that the athlete was great because of the drug use and are more likely to try them.

Isaac hefts a barbell while training in his private gym.
Paolo Vescia
Isaac hefts a barbell while training in his private gym.
Tim Isaac is the only man to bench press more than 800 pounds.
Paolo Vescia
Tim Isaac is the only man to bench press more than 800 pounds.

It's one of the messages of his Samson Power Team: "You don't need drugs to be great." It goes along with "Be the best at whatever you want to do," "Believe in yourself" and "Don't submit to peer pressure."

In the late 1990s, Isaac was following his own advice. He was recovering from his knee injury, focusing now on his bench press, setting world records, believing in himself.

He was doing everything right, when he nearly lost his left arm.

It was a stupid accident, lacking the drama and cautionary message of his previous injury.

He was going about 60 mph on a jet ski at Bartlett Lake in June 1997. He was planning to attempt the 800-pound bench record the next week.

"I had just done three reps at 745, so I felt 800 was definitely there," he says.

He was going too fast, not quite paying attention, when he hit a wake that bounced him several feet into the air. When he came to the surface, he had tremendous pain in his eardrum (broken), one of his feet (also broken) and his left triceps.

The triceps muscle and tendon, he would learn, were completely separated from the joint and rolled under his arm.

"It was like spaghetti in there," says Phoenix osteopath Dr. Michael Steingard, who treated Isaac.

Steingard remembers when Isaac was brought in and, like many who meet Isaac for the first time, being momentarily taken aback. "What kind of human specimen is this?" he remembers thinking.

To fit onto the operating table, Isaac had to be turned on his side. At first, he was impatient to leave.

"His whole attitude was that he was going to break the record no matter what," Steingard says. "I had no idea what record [he was talking about]. He just kept telling me how much weight he could lift, while I was saying, 'I hope you can move your elbow after this.'"

Once Isaac realized the severity of his condition, he became insistent.

"The doctor told me my benching days were done, and I was like, 'There's no way,'" Isaac says. "I can't squat anymore, there's no way you're going to take my bench away. You figure a way to make it work, I don't care what you have to do."

But even Isaac's brother assumed he would quit powerlifting.

"At that point, he had already done a lot of stuff," Steve Isaac says. "It's not like he had anything to prove anymore."

What followed is the stuff of TV movies.

The doctor did his best work. Isaac recovered. He trained harder than ever, and made breaking his previous record of 777 pounds his new goal. Weightlifting is, after all, a microscopic process of breaking down tissue and rebuilding it stronger. Recovery from this sort of injury is weightlifting on a macro-level.

Last July, about 350 spectators packed into the Church on the Street in central Phoenix to watch the outcome of Isaac's efforts.

First, Isaac's son set a world record, 440 pounds in the 16-17-year-old age group.

Then, at a body weight of 308 pounds, Isaac made his attempt -- an agonizing effort, in any case, exacerbated by the injury to his left arm.

The judge ruled the attempt invalid, because Isaac did not lock his left elbow when the bar was extended over his chest.

Isaac, with all the patience of somebody who just spent two years training for this moment, reminded him that locking his elbow was impossible because of his injury.

The referee apologized, having forgotten about Isaac's condition, but a call made in powerlifting is final.

So Isaac did it again, and this time it was official: 802 pounds, a new world record. Isaac's inspiring recovery and comeback was seemingly complete.

Back in his office, Tim Isaac sits with a friend watching a videotape from a 1997 International Powerlifting Association competition. On the tape, he breaks his own record of 751 pounds, by benching 771 pounds. The sequence of events -- the jacket, the ammonia, the spotters, the strained effort -- has the feel of familiar routine.

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