Six steaks a day: Ire­land’s strong man

Limerick man is three-time Ir­ish cham­pion, UK cham­pion and has his eye on the World Cham­pi­onships

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Malachy Clerkin


Break­fast shake – eight eggs, 200g oats, two scoops of pro­tein Pa O’Dwyer leans on a bench, happy out, chat­ting away like a farmer over a gate. Ire­land’s strong­est man is a 23-stone block of easy hu­mour, push­ing up to­wards 24 when com­pe­ti­tion time comes near. “Strong­man is the old­est sport in the world,” he smiles as you cock a du­bi­ous eye­brow. “Sure go away back to caveman times and that’s how they chose their leader – it was who­ever could lift the heav­i­est stone. I must be a caveman by trade, so.”

We’re in a gym called The Body Build­ing in an in­dus­trial es­tate in Ra­heen, south of Limerick city. “It’s a grand spot, they leave me train away for noth­ing. I said to them be­fore Ire­land’s Strong­est Man that if I win it, you’ve to let me train here for free. They said only if you win it. And sure now I’ve won it three years in a row.”

To­day is a non-lift­ing day but he’s here be­cause he does some per­sonal train­ing to pay the bills. Of­fi­cially, that’s the day job. In an ideal world, his po­si­tion at the top of his sport would be enough to keep him but it isn’t. There’s not a lot of juice in be­ing Ire­land’s strong­est man. There’s not even enough in win­ning the ti­tle of UK’s strong­est man, as he did dur­ing the sum­mer.

“Ah, it’s not a main­stream sport and there isn’t a whole pile be­hind it,” he shrugs. “I’m UK strong­est man and Ire­land’s strong­est man. So I’m the best there is, but it’s still not main­stream enough that it would pay me enough. Now, maybe if I was English over in Eng­land, the ti­tle of UK’s Strong­est Man would see you looked after. I’m in the wrong coun­try to be looked after!”


10oz steak, pota­toes, veg O’Dwyer is 33. He’s 12 years do­ing this and doesn’t imag­ine he’s even half­way through his ca­reer. One of his con­tem­po­raries in Eng­land re­cently did the big­gest squat weight of his life at the age of 48, just the 34 years after lift­ing for the first time. “I’ll be lift­ing till they put me in the ground,” O’Dwyer says.

He grew up work­ing on a farm out in Rathkeale and by his early-20s he was work­ing on the roads. It was bru­tal work, out in all weath­ers, early starts, no let-up. And when it was done, it was straight to the pub.

“When you’re work­ing on the roads, there’s a heap of drink­ing that goes along with it,” he says. “You’d be for­ever go­ing for pints and then back to work the next morn­ing. It was just a con­stant merry-go-round. Then the girl I was with got preg­nant and I said, ‘Shit, I have to straighten my­self out here’. I was drink­ing a lot to be hon­est and I was go­ing down a bad road.

“I was 21-years-old and I was about 11 stone. I met this fella out one Fri­day night and I knew that he was into weightlift­ing. I said, ‘Ah, I need to go to a gym or some­thing some of these days.’ So he said, ‘Look, if you’re in­ter­ested, come in Mon­day evening.’ I went in and he gave me a bar to lift and I just loved it in­stantly. It was the first time in my life that I’d lifted any­thing like that. That was 12 years ago and I’ve never gone more than three days in the mean­time with­out train­ing. It’s your whole life, re­ally.”


10oz steak, pota­toes, veg He fishes out his phone. “Here, did you ever hear of Ed­die Hall?” When you give him a blank face in re­sponse, O’Dwyer smiles and pulls up YouTube. In the strong­man world, Ed­die Hall of Stoke-on-Trent is a myth­i­cal fig­ure. Back in 2016, Hall did a 500kg dead­lift. Half a ton on the bar, lifted, and held at his waist.

In lift­ing, half a ton is the four-minute mile. The pre­vi­ous world record was 465kg. Adding an­other 35kg to that was pre­sumed to be be­yond hu­man ca­pac­ity. When Hall de­clared he was go­ing to do it, the de­ri­sion in­side the body­build­ing com­mu­nity was ab­so­lute. No chance, mate. Can’t be done.

“Lo and be­hold, on the day, he lifted 500kg,” O’Dwyer says. “There were 20,000 peo­ple in the crowd, ba­si­cally there to watch him fail. But he did it. Not a bother on hi . . . well, I won’t say not a bother on him be­cause he passed out straight away.

“He bled from the nose and ears. The pres­sure over­whelmed his body. Like, the hu­man isn’t sup­posed to lift half a ton off the ground. When you lift, you take in a deep breath and you hold it and all the blood rushes to your head un­der that se­vere amount of pres­sure.

“Blood poured out his nose, they called the medics on stage straight away. That’s the joys of it. No­body will do that again. I don’t think you’ll see that matched for 20 years.”

Meal Four, 1.30pm

10oz steak, pota­toes, veg From that very first ses­sion at the age of 21, lift­ing flicked a switch he hadn’t re­alised was even in him. He’d never played any real or­gan­ised sport be­fore other than the usual stuff at school. But now, all he wanted was com­pe­ti­tion.

“At the start, it was just try­ing to be stronger than the guy I was train­ing with. Then it was try­ing to be stronger than the group of guys around me. Then it was get­ting big­ger. Then it was be­ing the strong­est guy in the gym. Each time I got some­where, I wanted to go fur­ther. I loved the idea of get­ting to be a heavy­weight. I re­acted to the weights very well. Straight away, I put weight on my shoul­ders and my back. It just worked.”

The first strong­man com­pe­ti­tion he went to was in Cork some­time around 2011. He hadn’t a clue what to do, or re­ally even about what was in­volved. He’d seen it on TV around Christ­mas, the same as ev­ery­one. It was all about lift­ing roll logs and bar­rels and stones and all that carry-on. He knew what he knew but he didn’t know a lot.

“I landed be­low and I was one of the small­est men there. I was just go­ing, ‘Je­sus, what am I at here?’ These big fat fel­las with the beards and ev­ery­thing, they were mon­sters com­pared to me. And I just thought I was wast­ing my time straight away. But I had a crack at it any­way and I nearly won the show.

“The only rea­son I didn’t was tech­nique. In the last event, the lads that beat me were able to lift the stone bet­ter than me be­cause their tech­nique was bet­ter. They were more used to it. I came third or fourth or what­ever it was, but that set me off. I knew then that if I could keep train­ing and keep im­prov­ing my tech­nique, that was go­ing to be key to it.”


10oz steak, pota­toes, veg The eat­ing is a tor­ture, a seam of mis­ery run­ning through O’Dwyer’s day from long be­fore dawn un­til well after dusk. In the run up to com­pe­ti­tion, he needs to hit 10,000 calo­ries a day, four times that of a nor­mal male in his 30s. By mid-af­ter­noon, he will al­ready have con­sumed over 1,100 grams of red meat along with what­ever veg­eta­bles and pasta/pota­toes he can wash down along­side.

“I haven’t been hun­gry in seven years,” he says.

He can eat what he likes but what he’d like most of all is to eat noth­ing. He does it be­cause he has to. Eat­ing is a du­ti­ful and joy­less rit­ual, its sole pur­pose the feed­ing of his abun­dant mus­cle mass. He has built up so much mus­cle over the years that it is a glut­tonous beast now, al­ways need­ing more, greed­ily burn­ing through what­ever is put in front of it.

“It’s the worst part of it, def­i­nitely,” he says. “I’ve seen my­self at mid­night cook­ing a steak and I’d have had six or seven of them eaten al­ready through the day at that stage. And you’d just be chew­ing it, wash­ing it down with wa­ter and on to the next bite. Fill your mouth with steak, chew it, wash it down with wa­ter. Fill your mouth with pasta, wash it down with wa­ter.”


Two chicken breasts, veg­etable and wa­ter blended in a shake Some days, when he’s stuck in the gym giv­ing per­sonal train­ing ses­sions, he doesn’t have time to cook a steak. So he does the only thing he can – he cracks open the chicken and veg­etable shake he has brought with him and drinks it down. As a culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ence it’s an abom­i­na­tion. As a build­ing block in the day of a strong­man, it’s a turgid, soul-crush­ing es­sen­tial.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, he hap­pens upon a treat. He has friends who are hunters so he’s able to source veni­son from time to time. An­other friend is a chef who will of­ten send him some mar­i­nated horse­meat burg­ers or a nice batch of wild boar. But mostly, it’s just a chore. Or worse, a se­ries of chores tak­ing up right up to bed­time.

“If I don’t eat that last steak, the one at 11.30 or what­ever, then I’ll go to bed not hav­ing eaten since 8.30 or nine o’clock,” he ex­plains. “So by the time I wake up the next day at 6am, you’re talk­ing nine or 10 hours since the last time I ate. With the size of my mus­cles, even when I’m asleep, they’d be burn­ing away. I could lose any­thing up to a pound overnight.

“So if I went a week with­out hav­ing that last steak late at night, that could be seven pounds gone. If I went two weeks, that would be a stone of pure mus­cle gone. I can’t af­ford to lose that, it would take me far too long to build it back up for com­pe­ti­tion. So that’s why I have to keep eat­ing that late at night, even though it’s a pain in the hole.”


10oz steak, pota­toes, veg You might have seen him on TV. The night be­fore Limerick’s All-Ire­land, he was on Up For The Match, yukking it up with Des and Gráinne. They came up with an age-old gim­mick, hav­ing him make a grand en­trance into stu­dio with a Limerick woman sit­ting on one shoul­der and a Gal­way woman on the other. The Limerick jer­sey was scream­ing for mercy plas­tered across his chest and the crowd ate up ev­ery bit.

Later, he was sit­ting in the green room when he saw JP McManus sit­ting across from him. He made sure to say hello and shake his hand and catch his eye but he couldn’t bring him­self to pop the ques­tion.

He knows his life would im­prove by de­grees if he could get some proper spon­sor­ship or back­ing – and he wouldn’t be a bit shy about ask­ing, ei­ther – but he knew too that it was a spe­cial week­end in McManus’s life. Not to be ru­ined.

“Ah, it wasn’t the time or the place. Wouldn’t be right.” Pause. Beat. Smile. “Je­sus, wouldn’t it be great, though?”

Meal Eight, 11.30pm

10oz steak, pota­toes, veg So why do it? Be­cause it’s who he is. In life, we owe our­selves noth­ing more than to glide on our own best wind. For some peo­ple, that’s per­fect­ing Rach­mani­noff’s Se­cond Pi­ano Con­certo and play­ing it in front of a packed crowd at the NCH. For Pa O’Dwyer, it’s strap­ping an ar­tic truck to his shoul­ders and drag­ging it up a run­ning track. He also does it be­cause he’s the best at it, the best by a dis­tance. For three years run­ning, he’s been top of the tree in Ire­land.

This sum­mer, he went to St Al­ban’s in Eng­land and be­came the first Ir­ish­man to win the UK’s Ul­ti­mate Strong­man. Chan­nel 5 in the UK are show­ing the fi­nal this com­ing Tues­day night, giv­ing O’Dwyer his mo­ment in the sun.

The aim for 2019 is to make it to the 42nd edi­tion of the World’s Strong­est Man. By win­ning the UK ti­tle, he has qual­i­fied for the 30-man field but no Ir­ish­man has ever made it to the fi­nal 10. He will have to make it through the whit­tling-down process ahead of the fi­nal, to be held at an as-yet undis­closed lo­ca­tion.

“Last year it was the Philip­pines, the year be­fore it was Botswana. They don’t tell you un­til a week be­fore­hand where it is. They want to keep it ex­clu­sive and they don’t want any­thing get­ting out about the re­sult of it so that they can sell it to ESPN af­ter­wards. So you only find out a week be­fore and it could be any­where in the world.

“They want you to go alone, not bring any fam­ily or friends, noth­ing like that. They know well that if fam­ily or friends come along, they’ll film it and put it all over so­cial me­dia. So you’ll end up out in the mid­dle of nowhere in some shit­hole with a cou­ple of lo­cals watch­ing you and they don’t have a clue what they’re look­ing at.”

If it so hap­pens that they’re look­ing at Pa O’Dwyer, they’ll be look­ing at a life ful­filled. Wher­ever it turns out to be.

Eat­ing is a du­ti­ful and joy­less rit­ual, its sole pur­pose the feed­ing of his abun­dant mus­cle mass. But he did it. Not a bother on hi . . . well, I won’t say not a bother on him be­cause he passed out straight away


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