(First Published in 2007 in the Daily Telegraph Newspaper)
Adam Lusher asks Andy Bolton if he is in touch with his feminine side…
The 25-stone Englishman is the first person in the world ever to Deadlift 1,000lbs. In America, he’s a hero. Foolishly, Adam Lusher asks some impertinent questions
There are some questions you can ask a 26st Englishman with 21in biceps and a 23in neck. “Are you in touch with your feminine side?” isn’t one of them.
In a backstreet gym in Leeds, Andy Bolton, the 6ft, unshaven “deadlift king”, moves two sweaty, massive hands in my direction. I find myself briefly flying through the air, before landing on a large, smooth boulder — which, on closer inspection, appears to be part of Mr Bolton’s shoulder.
For me, this is very uncomfortable.
For Mr Bolton — for whom I am rapidly developing a great respect — “chucking you about a bit” is easy. He has just returned from New York, after becoming the first man in history to lift a weight of more than 1,000lbs off the floor.
Many have dreamed of such greatness. Indeed, the “deadlift”, raising a load from the ground until you stand up straight with it at arms length, is thought to be humanity’s oldest trial of strength, dating from when men proved themselves by lifting stones.
The video footage from the WPO semi-finals thus captures a moment of true emotion. The heavy metal music blasts out. The announcer yells: “Let’s get ready to ruumblllle!!”. Andy rumbles. The iron bar bends under the weight of 1,003lbs: 71½ stone, 455kgs, or the weight of more than six impolite men.
Then, for one epoch-making moment, the bar, and the weights on either end, leave the ground. Catharsis is complete. Very big men run on stage hugging other very big men. Bolton, his back blue from all the blood vessels that have nearly exploded through his skin, nestles his head on the shoulder of one of the biggest men.
The compere echoes the tenderness. “You can always tell your grandchildren… where you were… when Andy Bolton lifted A THOUSAND FREAKIN’ THREE!!!”
“It was my life’s work,” admits Mr Bolton, when he kindly stops chucking me about. “For 19 years, all my life had been geared to that moment. Even when you’re not training, you are living it, thinking about it.”
“I wasn’t crying,” he adds swiftly. “I was just dazed, shocked. I heard people saying I was crying. I wasn’t.”
I didn’t bother to disagree.
In the US, on the internet chatboards, the plaudits flood in. “Damn. That’s some serious weight,” writes “GettingPumped” of Houston, Texas. “That guy is a fricken’ tank,” agrees “f18jock” from South Carolina.
In the US, where powerlifting is regularly on television and fire departments and universities have their own leagues, Andy Bolton is asked for his autograph in fast food restaurants.
Andy’s training partners complain that making history deserves greater remuneration or celebrity. He doesn’t. “In America, they’re always shouting: ‘Hey, you’re so great.’ And yet I can come back to this gym, walk through them doors and nobody says ‘owt — unless my training routine’s not right.
“It’s how I like it. I want to get on with my work, doing it for the love of it, not chasing glory on the telly.”
In the aromatherapy-free surrounds of Bodies Gym, it seems believable. Mr Bolton fails miserably to fit the stereotype of the taciturn hardman. He seems affable, chatty. He even admits — after only a little probing — that he met Stacy, his wife, as he, er, visited a ladies’ lingerie shop in Florida.
“I was helping my friend buy a present for his girlfriend,” he insists. “Although I might have suggested going into that shop because I saw Stacy inside. But I surprise my wife with flowers many times.”
The ill-judged “feminine side” question seemed a good idea at the time. Perhaps fortunately, he is just having a “relaxing” session today, lifting only light weights, just 573lbs (260kg) or so. “It’s exercising all the little muscles. I still have some. Just not many.”
This training session takes only an hour. The rather more serious training sessions require three hours. Now 36, Mr Bolton has been doing this since he was a 17-year-old rugby league player and spotted the adult squad members lifting weights in the club gym.
“I waited until no one was around, and tried lifting what the big men were doing. Then I added a few kilos to make it more difficult.”
By 1991 he was the world powerlifting champion. Unlike the Olympic sport of weightlifting, powerlifters do not stand and raise the weights above their heads. They deadlift, bench press and squat. The total weight of all three lifts determines the winner. Who is usually Mr Bolton. He retained his world championship in 1992 and 1993. In 2004, he deadlifted 932lbs (423kg), breaking the 19-year-old world record of 923lbs (419kg).
In November 2005, a young Icelandic pretender, Benedikt Magnusson, stole his record by deadlifting 970lbs (440kg). Four months later, Mr Bolton lifted 972lbs (441kg). Mr Magnusson now concentrates on strongman competitions.
Mr Bolton admires the contestants seen on television last week competing for the title of World’s Strongest Man, but echoes the wisdom of the stone-lifting ancients. “The ‘strongest man’ guys are strength athletes. I can’t pick something up and run with it like they can, but when it comes to picking it up to start with… no one’s stronger. Deadlifting is a test of true strength. I am the real strongest man in the world.”
This, it seems, is rather more important than prize money. “It means everything,” he says simply. “I’ve always wanted to be big and strong, for people to know my name and say: ‘That’s Andy Bolton, the world’s strongest man.’ ”
Not even a veneer of 21st-century sophistication can hide such a basic desire, he suggests, looking at me, perhaps a shade unkindly. “Every man wants to be strong. Even you. To some level.”
Who, though, would go to Mr Bolton’s level? “I have sacrificed everything to train,” he admits. “Even my appearance. When you are a bodybuilder, with nice muscles and a tan, you have girls around you. As you start going up to 19, 20 stone; they disappear.”
“I changed jobs to train,” he adds. “I was an apprentice roofer, starting to get good money, and I quit. Going up ladders all day was leaving me too tired to train properly. I got a dead-end factory job instead.”
And, of course, he has something in common with size-zero supermodels: calorie counting. Like the models, he insists he is not obsessed. “I always eat when I am hungry.” Unlike the models, he likes to consume 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day and has a 44in waist.
“I have to take supplements because you can’t pack that amount of food into your body. I’ll have two or three 1,000-calorie protein shakes a day, another protein supplement for breakfast, with four turkey sandwiches. At work I’ll have four beef, chicken or cheese sandwiches. Lunch? No. That’s the mid-morning break. Lunch is chilli or rice. And a steak in the evening.”
The extra bodyweight provides vital powerlifting leverage. “If I take a break and go down to 22 stone I feel weak,” he says.
He was awarded $13,000 dollars for his record-shattering lift. His place in history is assured. He enjoys the support of a wife and baby daughter. He shows no sign of stepping aside to let younger men take his place.
“Once that deadlift sunk in, I was thinking of the next one. The 1,003lbs is gone now. I honestly believe I can do more. I want to do 1,010lbs, 1,020.”
True, he does mention another ambition: “Whenever I go to competitions, I like to bring something back for Madison, my daughter: a soft toy, ‘baby’s first bunny’, a little outfit…” But it seems wiser not to pursue this.
Mr Bolton returns to exercising his “little muscles”.