Comeback of the 800-Pound Gorilla

"Bar's loaded!" yells the referee.

Powerlifter Tim Isaac now has 60 seconds to begin his lift. He takes a deep whiff from a bottle of ammonia to increase the oxygen in his blood, then approaches the bench. As he walks, his tightly strapped bench-press jacket forces his arms straight out, like Frankenstein's monster.

Isaac lies back on the bench, and the fellow powerlifters in the audience whoop with drill-sergeant grunts of "Do it!" and "C'mon!" There are three large spotters to help maneuver the weighted bar, one on either side, and one behind. Isaac sees the bar directly above him and places his hands at a wide grip, opening and closing them repeatedly against the grated, chalk-covered steel bar.

Seconds tick by. Isaac settles on a grip, plants his feet, arches his back and begins to push. He sees his primary spotter help ease the bar up and forward a few inches until it's directly above Isaac's pectorals.

Then the supporting hands open, and Isaac is alone with 802 pounds -- more weight than any other man has ever benched, more weight by far. His closest competitor is Anthony Clark, who benched 775 in 1998 and outweighed Isaac by 80 pounds. Isaac is trying to break his own record.

The crowd is cheering, but Isaac can barely hear it. Greenish veins push through his skin and a red flush blooms across his pectorals, neck and head.

The bar is a wobbly frown, descending in jerky halts. When the steel touches his chest, he is successfully keeping at bay enough potential force to crush his sternum. Powerlifters attempting this much weight can easily shred muscle and dislocate joints; their rocketing blood pressure can prompt an immediate heart attack or stroke.

But, somehow, Isaac pushes the steel back up, and into the waiting hands of his spotters -- the simplest of competitive sport maneuvers, accomplished against enough weight to set a new record.

When asked -- as he frequently is -- what 800 pounds feels like, Isaac says, "Heavy."

Here's a physical description of Tim Isaac: He's 6-foot-1 and 38 years old, with thinning black hair pulled into a ponytail. He has hazel eyes, a persistent shadow of a beard and... and you don't notice any of it. Because the only thing you really notice about Isaac's appearance is how extraordinarily huge he is.

Seeing Isaac for the first time, conversation stumbles a bit. Beneath his loose-fitting shirts purchased from big-and-tall stores are large curved shapes that take a moment to register as muscles. Can those basketball-like things really be pectorals? He is large enough so that when entering a doorway, he reflexively pivots his shoulders a bit to keep from getting wedged. When walking in a parking lot, Isaac sometimes looks for potential handholds on the back of stationary vehicles -- I could lift that minivan.

He's like a real-life, 300-pound action figure, presumably one of the bad guys.

His older brother, Steve, insists Tim's not really bad, he's just built that way. And it took more hours pushing steel against the pull of gravity than anybody could ever count.

"He's always been willing to train harder and longer than anybody else," says the elder Isaac. "And he hasn't made his lifting just about himself. He'll [do demonstrations] in prisons, schools, homeless shelters -- no publicity, no photo-op -- he went there just because he cares about people."

Tim Isaac sits in a leather chair in the Deer Valley office of his company, UltraHealth Products, a contract manufacturer of nutritional supplements. This is a corporate conference room, with a polished wood table, television and broad window looking out to his office lobby.

Upstairs, directly above the conference room, is Isaac's company gym, where he trains to set power-lifting records. The gym is another world -- all exposed ducts, unpainted walls and reflective material on the windows. Occasionally, there's a startling thump from above the conference room as loaded bars drop to the floor.

Filling the rest of the building are Isaac's employees, who seem somewhat unreal, right out of Central Casting. All the men are bodybuilder-huge, the women are fit, and there's even a skinny chemist with glasses and exclamatory hair ensconced in a bubbling laboratory. They're like a crime-fighting team from a television action-comedy, and Isaac their leader on adventures in wheatgrass tablet granulation and lock-outs on the squat rack.

Isaac has been training since he was in high school in Brecksville, Ohio, when he was a scrawny 155 pounds. More than anything, he wanted to be a football player. His mom refused to let him play, explaining that the family couldn't afford the health insurance -- which he later learned was just a "BS excuse" because she was worried that he'd get injured.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd