Ambassadors of Strength
By Alex Oey
When you face the best in the world, your goal is to be the best in the world.
Four area powerlifters made good on their goals, all finishing in the top five of their weight classes with Minneota’s Brad Gillingham notching his sixth career world championship at the International Powerlifting Federation’s First Classic World Men’s Championships, which concluded June 16 in Suzdal, Russia. And for all four lifters, the trip and experience could be summed up in one word – amazing.
Marshall native Luke Klein, Minneota graduate Sam Derynck and Southwest Minnesota State graduate Tony Schwebach traveled with Gillingham to Russia to compete in the the world powerlifting championships. And the road there wasn’t necessarily smooth.
The journey from southwest Minnesota to Suzdal began at midnight on June 9 with a drive to Minneapolis for a 7 a.m. flight to New York. After a four-hour layover, the nine-hour flight to Moscow marked the beginning of the real journey.
As everyone gathered their luggage, Derynck was left not holding a bag.
“We’re waiting, everyone is getting their bag and I’m waiting for my bag. Nothing,” Derynck said. “We get to baggage claim and it was left in New York. It was four hours behind. All my lifting gear was in there and it was on the wrong plane. It was headed to Moscow. They said they would have it to me in time for the next morning, but I was still nervous about that.”
After the baggage ordeal, the lifters got their second taste of Russia, this time on the road.
“(In Moscow) we got on a six-hour, jam-packed, crammed ride in a large van/small bus-type vehicle,” Gillingham said. “We had baggage laying in the aisle, no room and it was absolutely as hot as it could be in stop-and-go traffic on bumpy roads. It was scary driving to say the least.”
After reaching Suzdal, Derynck ran into his second bump in the road, finding that he was still above his lifting weight after the trip.
“When we left Marshall I was a couple pounds over,” the former wrestler said. “We get there, I check my weight and I was still a pound over. I couldn’t eat or drink anything.”
Derynck made it through the night, and everything came together the next morning when he made weight and received his luggage, just in time to lift.
“I got my bag at 8:30 in the morning, I weighed in at 11 and I lifted at 1:30 that afternoon,” Derynck said. “It felt like after I got my bag it was time to go and everything was fine. I don’t have to worry about anything else, just lifting.”
And lift he did.
Derynck set personal records in the squat (440 pounds), bench press (303 pounds) and dead lift (551 pounds), and found himself just over five pounds shy of finishing in third place.
“I really wanted to get on the podium,” Derynck said. “I came close, but I felt good. I was happy with what I did. I wanted to get our gym off to the right start.”
Gillingham said Derynck got the Jackal’s Gym crew off to a strong start.
“Sam could not have lifted better. He lifted even a little more than we thought,” Gillingham said. “He made all of his lifts. He did everything possible. He lifted beyond perfect, he fell just a little bit short.”
After a solid performance from Derynck and a day off, it was Schwebach’s turn to compete.
Schwebach finished fifth in his weight class, making his first seven lifts before grip troubles cost him in the dead lift.
“My grip had failed on the last two dead lifts, which was a little disappointing because I made heavier weight in training without much trouble,” Schwebach said. “That’s just kind of what happens.”
“Tony was doing the same thing Sam did,” Gillingham added. “Everything was going perfect. He really lifted absolutely awesome. He simply got into a problem with his grip.
“He was trying 611 pounds, and he just couldn’t hold on to it. When he repeated it, we changed his grip a little bit and he almost made it. He had it right to the top and it just came out of his hands. There’s not much you can do there. He’s plenty strong, it was just one of those days.”
Klein was the first of the Jackal’s Gym lifters to reach the podium, finishing second in the junior super heavyweight division by overcoming what could have been a meet-ending miss in the bench press.
“I get pretty nervous. You try to treat it like a normal meet, but the conditions for this one were pretty hot and you had all those big guys in a little room and everyone is dehydrated,” Klein said. “I had a pretty rough day. I missed my opening bench on a miscommunication with the judge.
“It made me really nervous. Brad came back to the warm-up room and talked to me a little bit and that really helped me get focused. I made it the second time pretty easy and I was pretty fired up because I wasn’t going to bomb out.”
Klein finished second in the squat and the bench before gutting out a first-place finish in the dead lift with a lift of 677 pounds.
“When I got to the dead lift I was telling Tony and everyone else that I was not going to lose that one,” Klein said. “Tony was back there helping me and the two U.S. coaches were figuring that all out for me.
“Tony really knows what I can do. The U.S. coaches were doing well too, but lifting with Tony three days a week, he really understands what I would be able to do.”
“When you’re at that level, everything has to work out perfect,” Gillingham added. “He got second, which is great.”
On the final day of competition it was time for the class everyone was there to watch: the open super heavyweight class, which Gillingham was hoping to capture.
Earlier that week, Gillingham wasn’t sure what he was going to be able to perform at his best after tweaking a muscle in his chest.
“I was sitting at the gym Friday night before we left and I was doing some light finishing weights, getting a good workout before we go, and I end up straining my pectoral muscle,” Gillingham said. “I knew it wasn’t torn, it wasn’t the tendon, it was up in the muscle. I go in Sunday afternoon and had all kinds of pain in there. I left not being very happy. You start thinking, ‘did I do something wrong?'”
After the long flights and bus ride to Suzdal, Gillingham found the man that would get him back on track.
“As part of the complex, there was a health club there. I think it was one of their old sports training centers of some sort,” Gillingham said. “There was an older Russian massage guy/physical therapist working there.
“Somehow, through broken English, I told him what was wrong. I went to him three days in a row and he worked on it. On the third day, in broken English, he gets out something to the tune of, ‘Yeesterday, no guut. Today, very guut.’ He was saying he didn’t feel the cramping and lumps in there.”
Despite feeling better, Gillingham knew that he didn’t want to repeat his 2003 performance.
“I made the mistake back in 2003. I had a similar injury, so I tried to overcompensate by trying to squat too much and that came back to burn me,” Gillingham said. “I probably tried to squat less this year to make sure I got all three in and put myself in position to pull it out at the end.”
After finishing seventh in the squat, it was time to test his chest with the bench press.
“I had to lower all of my expectations,” the six-time world champion said. “I brought my hands in real close and, instead of being explosive, I lowered it real steady and steady back up.”
After two events, Gillingham was right where he wanted to be, set up perfectly for his best event – the dead lift.
“Going into the dead lift, I was in 10th place, but after my first pull I was in second,” Gillingham said. “After my second pull I moved into first.”
And that’s when Gillingham had to wait to see if the lifter from Kazakhstan could make his next lift. When he missed, Gillingham was able to comfortably move up and set the first Classic IPF dead lift record at 826 pounds.
“I could have definitely pushed it up there, but I went up and did 826 as a last lift,” Gillingham said. “Sometimes the numbers don’t always reflect your strength level, but the goal is to always put yourself in a position to win and make sure you do that.”
For the three other lifters, watching Gillingham win his sixth world championship in 15 appearances was an experience in itself.
“It was unbelievable. It was really an honor to watch him win it and be there in person,” Derynck said. “It was probably my favorite part of the whole trip, watching him win it.”
“It’s amazing to me that he was the oldest one there and still he’s the best,” Klein said. “Nobody can catch him. He’s only getting better with age.”
“It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” added Schwebach. “He was so amped up for it, especially his last dead lift for a world record. It was awesome to watch.”
For Gillingham, who has been a proponent of raw lifting (lifting without the aid of special equipment/clothing) for much of his career, winning the inaugural raw world championship is a special win.
“I want to be a trendsetter in that. It’s something I’ve really been outspoken about over the years,” Gillingham said. “Historically, I’ll always go down as the first super heavyweight classic raw world champion.”