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 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