An old article about the death of a friend

It has been happening. Just like my coaches and friends warned me about over twenty years ago. In the past year, three of my friends have died. Two of my childhood heroes are shells of men even though they are only in their fifties. In the tiny throwing community, guys who toss the shot, disc, hammer and javelin, the talk of early deaths, heart attacks, and terrible joint problems are becoming as commonplace of a discussion as the weather.

I saw it happening, too. A mediocre thrower would suddenly start dominating local and regional competition. In Olympic lifting, a lifter who had been making the usual progress would within months add forty pounds in the snatch and sometimes more in the clean and jerk. You could see the other effects, too, the bloated self-confidence, the terrible skin traumas, and then the injuries. It seemed that everywhere one looked you saw blown biceps, dislocated elbows, and popped ligaments as the body failed to keep up with the increased load and intensity over such a short amount of time.

And, we all denied it.

I listened in shock as a former world record holder in the discus told a group of high school seniors at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs: “I took ’em and never had any side effects, but I was told I couldn’t tell you to take ‘em, so I won’t.” We watched men go from regional runner ups to national level competitors, then literally disappear from the sport in less than a few years. And, if it could get worse, a father, now a coach at a Salt Lake City high school, provide “’em” for his own sons. The lying, the deceit, the cheating, …I thought that was the worst of it.

Until I got that phone call that one of my training partners had died. Age 35, three kids, …heart attack. A glorious athlete with all the numbers that stagger people: over 230 in the discus, over 800 in the squat, mid-300 snatch, over ten feet in the standing long jump. We were friends, too. We drove to meets together, trained together, partied together and gave clinics together. My wife, Tiffini, pregnant with my seven-year-old daughter Lindsay, cooked up a huge turkey dinner to celebrate our success at a big meet. After dinner, we talked about training. An injured wrist made him turn to the disc from the shot put. “You know, I have never thrown the discus clean.”

What? “Yes, I started juicing at 16 as a shot-putter, my coach gave them to me, so when I picked up the disc, I was already heavy into them.” No way. “Yes.” When I put the telephone down after hearing about his death, my mind drifted back to that dinner. Since 16. Died at 35. My brother-in-law, Craig Hemingway, was with me when the call came. After I hung up, I told him that my friend had died. Craig answered: “Well, you won.”

It took me weeks to understand that insight. Walking my dog with my wife and two daughters, I understood Craig’s point. I had just finished training; I was focusing on an upcoming weightlifting meet. It was that simple: I won. I was alive, strong, and healthy. I was 42.

Obviously, I am talking about anabolic steroids. They have been the curse of the strength sports since the early 1960’s. “The answer to all questions,” proclaimed one very famous powerlifter. Of course, he forgot to tell his audience that he would have multiple heart surgeries in his thirties. “Die big” proclaims the hoards of wannabe “Mr. Galaxies.” Unfortunately, you just die.

But what else died? Training knowledge was another casualty. Almost two generations of athletes have lost the classic methods of lifting. Drugs allow more volume, so “more” became the rage. More exercises, more days a week, more sets, more reps, more supplements, more, more, more. Isolation exercises became the fashion culminating in the rise of machines that continue to attempt to isolate each muscle from the other. A new problem emerged: if a group of us are all training on machines, how do we measure progress?

The first machines had “weights.” Numbers were stenciled on the weight stacks, ’40,’ ‘50′ and on up to the last plate. Soon, the ordinary numbers replaced the weight numbers. Now, it is usually the letters of the alphabet. How do we measure progress? Well, I began with ‘E,” but now I am doing ‘J’ for the same number of reps. I hear there is a Russian who does ‘Q.” NO WAY! Way.

So, how do you measure progress? In the pre-drug era, you could look at your bench, squat, clean, snatch or press bests and compare those numbers to people lifting in meets or articles about athletes in the magazine. A 200 pound snatch for a 200 pound man seems like a good measuring stick. But, how do you compare plates on a machine. You can’t. Let’s look in the mirror. Now, pick up the soft-core porn bodybuilding magazine and compare yourself to this month’s champ.

With the mirror and magazine as the only standard, what can you fall back on? Two things: go to the gym pusher and get signed up for a felony transaction or blame mom and dad. Mom and dad? Yes, blame your genetics. The third option is to do both: take drugs and blame genetics.

Of course, there are those willing to take enough drugs to make it work. Does it work? Flip through any bodybuilding magazine over two years old and look at the competitors. Besides those who have died, see if you can see a name that would be in a bodybuilding competition next month. Go to a magazine five years old. Do you even recognize the names?

Compare these may flies with the careers of Davis, Kono and Schemansky. These men all had careers that spanned decades; Skee was still stalking national titles into his mid-forties. Why the long careers? I argue that the slow and steady progress of using fundamental training principles is the key to long term success. It can be stated in a thousand different ways, but I like “Go Hard, Go Heavy and Go Home. Repeat.”

Yet, a larger question still haunts me. How we stop the deaths, the injuries, and the destruction of this plague of steroids. I can’t enforce the crystal clear Federal laws when police officers in many areas are regular steroid users. As a citizen of Salt Lake City, I doubt the Olympic committee will do anything in the area of drug use after the widespread and unapologetic corruption of the leaders of “the movement.” I can’t compete with the muscle rags that promote pornography, questionable lifestyles, and “secret” mumbo jumbo that keeps adolescent boys shelling out their allowances for the next issue.

Let me give some simple ideas that may slow (I pray we stop) the progress of the steroid pushers: 1. Use poundage on the bar as a standard and use standard lifts. Compare progress by looking at what other lifters at the same weight and age lifted. Use the standards: press, snatch, clean and jerk, squat, deadlift and bench press. Maybe one or two other lifts would make this list, but stick with the standards.

2. Use a mirror when you comb your hair and brush your teeth. Don’t use it to measure progress as an athlete. True, before and after pictures have their value in fat loss programs or prepping for a bodybuilding contest. But, if you are not on a fat loss program or getting ready for Mr. Vermont, why use them? Mirrors, on the other hand, lead to vanity, a classic deadly sin. Vanity leads to …

3. Convince yourself, and others, that success is the steps one takes towards a worthy goal. First, determine a goal. As a high school athlete, I wanted a college scholarship. I had to go to a Junior College first, but I got my goal. Is a college degree a worthy goal? I think most people would agree it is. Is a fuller pec a worthy goal? Next, determine the steps you will need to take. If you need help on the steps, read Dino Training again. But, remember, be sure you have those other goals listed, too. The professional, personal, social, and other worthy things you wish to achieve in your life.

4. Redefine “winning.” Take a moment with my brother-in-law’s insight. “Well, you won.”

I’m still lifting. I’m still throwing. I’m still walking with my wife and girls. I’m alive and I’m still trying to help others climb the mountain. I miss my friends and I don’t want to bury anymore needlessly.

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