GREY power

A decade ago he came close to a heart at­tack and couldn’t lift more than 2kg. Now al­most 70, Ge­of­frey Lewis is a senior strong­man

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - FRONT - By Fiona Harari Pho­tog­ra­phy Stu­art Miller

The gold medal­list

is pre­par­ing to set a new record. He has been ­lim­ber­ing up for half an hour, go­ing through the rhyth­mic rou­tine whose math­e­mat­i­cal ba­sis has marked so many as­pects of his life. For more than a decade he has worked ­dili­gently and me­thod­i­cally to­wards this mo­ment, heav­ing weights daily with an al­most re­li­gious in­ten­sity, al­ways with an eye on the ul­ti­mate goal of lift­ing more than he – or any­one his weight and age – has done be­fore.

Now, on a crisp Sun­day au­tumn morn­ing in sub­ur­ban Can­berra, he is tack­ling a new na­tional record. More than 20 peo­ple are com­pet­ing in the Matti Tikka Pow­er­lift­ing Chal­lenge to­day, men and women test­ing their strength in a trio of events, and al­most 200 peo­ple have packed into a sub­ur­ban gym on a non­de­script shop­ping strip to watch them.

Dressed uni­formly in one-piece squat suits but with a va­ri­ety of body shapes, com­peti­tors in­clude stu­dents and per­sonal train­ers, a phys­io­ther­a­pist and the mother of a six-year-old girl. One man, who will later dead­lift 350kg, looks like a mod­ern-day Her­cules, while the hid­den strength of oth­ers might eas­ily be missed if you passed them any other day on the street.

But the big­gest sur­prise is the gold medal­list him­self. At al­most 70, he is decades older than any other par­tic­i­pant. Slightly built, with di­shev­elled grey hair and a match­ing mous­tache, he is ­wel­comed to the makeshift stage with the ­morn­ing’s most un­usual in­tro­duc­tion: “PhD grad­u­ate in math­e­mat­ics at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney,” the an­nouncer en­thuses over the PA sys­tem, “lec­turer in quan­ti­ta­tive eco­nomics; the bar is loaded for Dr Ge­of­frey Lewis.”

Smil­ing and wav­ing, he emerges from be­hind the dark screens that shroud com­peti­tors from the au­di­ence be­tween lifts, not grunt­ing or ­strut­ting like some of the younger par­tic­i­pants but al­most plod­ding, his skinny legs clad in black knee sup­ports and long socks, a thick lift­ing belt around his waist. Then he steps to the cen­tre of the stage and the room is silent.

The raised bar in front of him is loaded with 105kg – his open­ing gam­bit and the light­est of three squats he will at­tempt this morn­ing. He ap­proaches it cau­tiously, care­fully mea­sur­ing out the size of his grip be­fore lean­ing back and then un­der the bar, tak­ing its enor­mous weight on his slen­der shoul­ders, walk­ing back three steps with it, gulp­ing one, two, three times, suck­ing in his cheeks and slowly crouch­ing.

On the cusp of his eighth decade, he weighs in at 74.25kg but he is about to lift much, much more. And you can’t help won­der­ing how this quiet stamp en­thu­si­ast – who looks more like Ein­stein than a power lifter – be­came one of the strong­est ­se­niors in Aus­tralia. Ge­of­frey Lewis never imag­ined him­self as a strong­man. For much of his life his suc­cesses have been cere­bral: as a school­boy at the se­lec­tive ­Syd­ney High, where he ex­celled in maths; as a doc­toral stu­dent and univer­sity lec­turer; as a ­pay­roll soft­ware en­trepreneur and mem­ber of the Royal Philatelic So­ci­ety Lon­don; and as the man who beat the ac­tor Omar Sharif at bridge in the 1970s and still dis­plays the cel­e­bra­tory black and white pho­to­graph at his Syd­ney home.

Al­though he has al­ways loved sport – he played cricket and rugby at school – his en­thu­si­asm never quite matched his abil­ity. In his youth he was a top stu­dent and an av­er­age ­ath­lete. As a fa­ther of four and grand­fa­ther of seven, his ­sport­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion was lim­ited to a weekly hour of ten­nis. Apart from his 43-year mar­riage, math­e­mat­ics has been among his life’s long­est and most ­for­ma­tive as­so­ci­a­tions. “Most peo­ple think of it as al­ge­bra or arith­metic,” he says ­gen­tly. “I see math­e­mat­ics as ef­fec­tively prob­lem-solv­ing.” And it was crack­ing the ­puz­zle of what to do for his health that led him to the pur­suit of power.

In 2006, he was di­ag­nosed with al­most to­tal block­ages of mul­ti­ple ar­ter­ies. He had four stents in­serted, and re­alised he had come per­ilously close to a heart at­tack at 57. “If you are ever go­ing to change it’s when you have got a life-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tion,” he says as he sits at the gothic ­din­ing table at his home, from where he has run his ­soft­ware busi­ness for more than 30 years.

He was not over­weight, his diet was mostly fine, and he didn’t smoke, but his ex­er­cise reg­i­men needed strength­en­ing. At first he con­sid­ered ­jog­ging, which ap­pealed to his work ethic and his sense of dis­ci­pline. “Once I start on some­thing I am not go­ing to be con­tent with just enough,” he says. But he was wary of de­vel­op­ing dodgy knees, or, even worse, bring­ing on a heart at­tack – the very thing he was work­ing to avoid.

So he set­tled on walk­ing, a task that be­gan gen­tly enough but soon fell into a fa­mil­iar pat­tern. “I be­came ob­sessed,” he says with a shrug. He bought a pe­dome­ter and be­came fix­ated on tak­ing 10,000 steps ev­ery day. The fact that he lived in a six-bed­room Ital­ianate man­sion meant he could make up some of the num­bers at home. But even af­ter he had end­lessly trudged up and down the grand stair­case and to and from the old ball­room that dou­bles as his fam­ily’s ca­sual liv­ing area, there were still many more steps to be taken.

By mid-2009 he had walked 10,000 steps daily, with­out ex­cep­tion, for 370 days. On day 371 he was di­ag­nosed with a de­tached retina and had emer­gency eye surgery. “It was ob­vi­ously very bad news – but it meant I could break that idea of ­hav­ing to walk.”

When he re­cov­ered, his son Mark sug­gested he find a per­sonal trainer and ex­er­cise his up­per body. Lewis had never en­tered a gym be­fore he

walked into An­drew Stowe’s con­verted garage in 2009, aged 60, with min­i­mal strength and even less un­der­stand­ing of its im­por­tance. “The idea of up­per body ex­er­cise? I didn’t even know what it was.” He did not con­sider him­self un­fit, yet the list of what he could do was over­shad­owed by what he could not as Stowe ran him through a se­ries of ex­er­cises. “I couldn’t do push-ups, which I had been able to do at school,” he says. “I could lift two kilo­gram weights. Three ki­los was too much as far as I was con­cerned.” And he didn’t know a dead­lift from a chair­lift.

“When he started he couldn’t sit on a chair and stand back up again,” re­calls Stowe, who waited a year be­fore in­tro­duc­ing his client to weight work. “Strength train­ing is the most vi­tal thing you can do as you get older be­cause the de­vel­op­ment of mus­cle and bone den­sity keeps you mov­ing and ac­tive.”

Pow­er­lift­ing in­volves dead­lifts, squats and bench presses, and Lewis, dogged and an­a­lyt­i­cal, was an ea­ger, if un­likely stu­dent. “He’s com­pletely op­po­site look­ing to what you ex­pect a power lifter to be,” says Stowe. “A stiff breeze would blow him over… If you look at Ge­of­frey and the way he lifts you would think, ‘ Oh no, he is go­ing to hurt him­self, he’s go­ing to blow his knees out’.”

With his av­er­age height and weight, his pale com­plex­ion and no ob­vi­ous mus­cu­lar bulk, in so many ways Lewis does not meet the stereo­type of a strong­man. “There is a frailty about my ap­pear­ance. I am very big in the [lo­cal] his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety; a lot of the ladies are in their 80s and 90s and they put away chairs rather than ex­pect­ing me to do it,” he says.

“When I meet any­body who has known me for a long time, it takes quite a while to be told that I am do­ing this com­pet­i­tive pow­er­lift­ing at this age, or at any age. They think I’m jok­ing.”

But pos­si­bly no one has been more sur­prised by his suc­cess than Lewis, whose early at­tempts moved from sin­gle to dou­ble fig­ures, and soon he was dead­lift­ing 70kg. In March 2012 he took part in his first lift­ing com­pe­ti­tion near New­cas­tle. The fol­low­ing year he dead­lifted 140kg and won gold at the Com­mon­wealth Pow­er­lift­ing Cham­pi­onship in Auck­land in the 60 to 69 age ­cat­e­gory. In Fe­bru­ary this year, he set three na­tional records on the same day.

“Here’s some­thing I never ex­pected to do in my life, lift­ing weights in a com­pe­ti­tion in front of a cou­ple of hun­dred peo­ple. When I walk out on the stage I am just so pleased to be there. I’m smil­ing. No­body else smiles.”

There are only a hand­ful of men in his new age bracket – 70 to 79 years – lift­ing in Aus­tralia (he is deemed to qual­ify for the cat­e­gory be­cause he turns 70 this year). But lack of com­pe­ti­tion does not ex­plain the fact that he can now squat with 117.5kg on his shoul­ders.

“Most peo­ple in their early and mid 20s couldn’t come close to that,” says Stowe, who be­lieves that per­sis­tent prac­tice is the se­cret to Lewis’s suc­cess. “He’s just a com­puter when it comes to train­ing and that’s what’s got him this far. He hasn’t missed a day.”

Plus, he only came to the sport in his early 60s, with­out the wear and tear ex­pe­ri­enced by more sea­soned com­peti­tors. As Lewis says proudly, “I’ve got a body that hasn’t been used.”

“Here’s some­body who is just so atyp­i­cal to the rest of the com­pe­ti­tion,” says Robert Wilks, CEO and na­tional coach of Pow­er­lift­ing Aus­tralia. “You wouldn’t think he’s a ti­tan strength. He looks like this shuf­fling el­derly cit­i­zen ­com­ing up to this huge weight – and lo and be­hold he lifts it.” In Can­berra, a thick fog is shift­ing from the pad­docks that skirt sub­ur­ban Wee­tangera as the pow­er­lift­ing com­pe­ti­tion moves from the open­ing three rounds of squats to bench presses and fi­nally dead­lifts. Af­ter hours of com­pe­ti­tion, the air in­side the gym is warm and damp as Lewis ap­proaches the stage for the last time. So far to­day he has squat­ted with 112.5kg on his shoul­ders and bench-pressed 10kg more than his own body­weight. For his fi­nal ef­fort, 167.5kg has been loaded on to the bar. If he can dead­lift this in the next minute he will set two na­tional records for 70-some­things in his weight range: the heav­i­est dead­lift in Aus­tralia, and the big­gest com­bined lift over the course of a com­pe­ti­tion.

It is early af­ter­noon when he faces the bar for the last time. This is his ninth and fi­nal lift for the day, but even af­ter see­ing his first eight ef­forts it’s still hard to com­pre­hend what he is about to do.

With an enor­mous cheer from the crowd, he walks up to the bar, looks down, and lines up his feet. Then he an­gles his head up­wards, and raises his arms sky­wards as though he is pray­ing for rain. Three breaths out, one quick breath in, and he crouches down, wraps his hands around the bar and slowly heaves the mas­sive weight. He strains and straight­ens, un­til he is fully up­right with 167.5kg in his hands, shoul­ders set, head lean­ing back, mouth agape – and sets two new na­tional records.

He has dead­lifted more than dou­ble his own body­weight, and more than any man his age and weight has ever lifted in an Aus­tralian ­com­pe­ti­tion. He drops the bar to the ground, and does a lit­tle jig, both hands in the air – his ver­sion of a vic­tory dance – as the crowd claps and hoots, and the burly spot­ters around the stage hug him glee­fully.

“All my life I would never have an­tic­i­pated be­ing any­thing like this,” he says in­cred­u­lously, an un­ortho­dox cham­pion who started from zero to be­come an en­dur­ing ex­am­ple of the power of one. “If some­body had told me [a few years ago], ‘You are go­ing to do this’, I would have said, ‘You’ve got the wrong per­son’.”

Strong willed: with wife Lolita; pre­par­ing to lift; below right, with Omar Sharif in 1976

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.