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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,...
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"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.

He couldn't play football, but he nonetheless admired the football jocks with their huge arms, wanting to be just like them. Or even bigger. "I would see guys who were seriously into lifting. I always thought that was the coolest thing," he says.

At first, Isaac tried to be a professional bodybuilder, but quickly discovered his genetics were unsuitable for the sport.

"Unless you've got the little hips, long biceps and nice big peak, you're never going to win the big contests," he says. "Those guys not only look good, they'd look good whether they ever trained or not."

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.

"[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.

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.

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.

"This is one of my best," he says, rewinding and playing it again. "This was a near-perfect bench."

He's playing the videotape to show what a national competition looks like, but admits to watching it on his own sometimes, when he's feeling down.

Isaac's friend and fellow powerlifter, visible as a spotter on the videotape, is revolted by the sight of his slimmer former self. "Look how skinny my neck was," he says. "Look at my wrists."

Today Isaac is the heaviest he's ever weighed. He frequently monitors his blood pressure, and admits to being a bit concerned about his health. All muscle or not, 300 pounds is still 300 pounds -- and that's heart attack country at the age of 38. He takes his nutritional supplements, but has no aversion to wolfing down a cheeseburger and fries at Denny's. He has the shallow breathing of a large man.

Isaac has no regrets, however. The extra weight, the injuries to his knees, the hours in the gym, all are part of who he is and what he loves. He says that his suffering has made him a more effective role model for kids needing evidence that strength -- inner strength -- can conquer any external challenges.

He's training for another competition in May. And by the time he's 40, he plans to slim down to 275 and bench 825 pounds -- which would not only set a new record, but also make him the only person ever to bench triple his body weight in a high weight class.

Isaac watches the video. "It's still not back to that level," he says, frustrated.

"It" referring to the left arm that helped him bench 800 pounds.

He sighs. "I'm still not 100 percent."

Contact James Hibberd at his online address: [email protected]

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