The Strongest Men in the World

The competition popularized by Magnus Ver Magnusson is ready for its close-up

Dave Ostlund dips his massive paw into pine tar and claps his sticky hands together like a giant playing patty-cake. The 6-foot 7-inch, 330-pound man grunts, his eyes taking on a feral quality, then he squats down to hoist a massive 400-pound boulder.

Thus begins his frantic but precise march toward the garage. When Ostlund reaches the finish line, he looks to a friend who, at his signal, puts down a car tire. Crash! Ostlund drops the massive weight into the rubber doughnut, careful so as not to crater the asphalt driveway.

"That wasn't bad," says his training partner, Karl Gillingham, a 42-year-old strongman who lives in Northfield.

"It wasn't that good," Ostlund says. "It has to be a lot better than that."

Better if he hopes to qualify for this year's World's Strongest Man, the international competition that pits tree-trunk men against each other in contests modeled after the challenges of Hercules. At 26 years old, the Edina native has competed in the event the past two years, and is ranked among the strongest men in America.

The World's Strongest Man was first televised in 1977, albeit under a different name. "CBS's standards and practices wouldn't allow us to call it World's Strongest Man, because there was no way we could verify it, so we called it World's Strongest Men, because without question these were some of the world's strongest men," says Barry Frank, the vice chairman of IMG Media who created the event.

He got the idea from his college roommate's friend, a thick-muscled man who ripped phone books in half to impress his friends. "It got me thinking about strongmen and all the feats they could do," Frank recalls, speaking from his New York offices. "In the movies, you'd see trailers of guys pulling airplanes, and there was one where a sailor catches a cannonball in his stomach. And the next thing I knew, I had created a competition. The first year, we had a lot of football players, a couple track athletes, and the Incredible Hulk—what's his name? Lou Ferrigno."

The show was a hit, and a few years later it migrated to ABC, where it quietly changed its name to the World's Strongest Man, on the theory that the organizers had now tested enough athletes to definitively make the claim. The sport's first breakout star was Magnus Ver Magnusson, an Icelandic heavyweight who won four titles in the 1990s, including three consecutively from 1994 to 1996. Ver Magnusson became a celebrity of sorts in dorm rooms and frat houses, the natural habitat of the TV show's target demographic: the young American male. "They're up late at night, studying or drinking beer, and they see these and get hooked on them," says Frank, adding that in 2006, ESPN aired no fewer than 791 episodes.

It was Ver Magnusson who first caught Ostlund's attention as he was growing up in Edina. In high school, he played football and threw the discus, but what he liked best was lifting weights in the gym. One day he was flipping channels when he landed on the 1994 World's Strongest Man competition. "I couldn't turn the channel," Ostlund says, as he recalls Ver Magnusson's championship performance. "Right away, when I saw it, I wanted to start trying that in my training—to see how hard it was to lift a rock instead of a bar."

Ostlund dug up some suitable stones at his father's cabin in Hackensack and weighed them. "He's broken a few scales," his father, Jim, says with a chuckle.

By his sophomore year at the University of St. Thomas, where he majored in real estate, Ostlund was ready for his first contest. At a strongman challenge in northeast Wisconsin, Ostlund was at first intimidated by the chiseled physiques of the gym rats in attendance. But there's a difference between aesthetic muscle and load capacity. Ostlund finished first that day, winning the medicine-ball throw and the carry-and-drag, while finishing respectably in the truck pull, the yoke walk, and the colorfully named "farmer's walk/tire flip medley."

After his initial success, Ostlund got serious about training. He salvaged an old tractor tire to toss around his yard and found a recipe to make "Atlas Stones," round rocks weighing hundreds of pounds: Just pour concrete into a plaster cast of a beach ball and voilà! "I found a recipe on the internet," Ostlund says, a bit sheepishly. "It was pretty time-consuming and messy."

The worst part was the eating. All day was consumed by consumption: a dozen eggs for breakfast, a protein shake for brunch, two chicken breasts for lunch, egg whites for a snack, coffee and amino acids before training, a special fast-digesting protein drink right after, and two quarter-pound hamburgers for dinner. "The worst is waking up and you're dead tired, but you know if you don't wake up now you won't have time to eat enough," Ostlund says. "Sometimes you're full and you have to eat anyway."

His dedication paid off. In 2005, Ostlund qualified for the finals of the World's Strongest Man, held in China. Sitting in his house near Minnehaha Falls, Ostlund proudly screens the television footage of his debut. He carried two refrigerators for 20 meters in 25.9 seconds, schlepped a 220-pound anchor for 20 meters before returning to drag its 440-pound chain, and dead lifted 8 beer kegs at once. But Ostlund was most impressive on the Atlas Stones, inspiring one announcer to cheer, "He's a machine! He's a master of the stones this early in his career!"

After his performance—he finished ninth overall—some observers began saying that Ostlund might have what it takes to be the future face of the sport. "He looks like someone you'd be happy to have over to your house for dinner," says Randall Strossen, president of IronMind Enterprises, a California company that sells equipment to strongmen. "He doesn't look like a walking pharmacy. He's just a big, strong, healthy guy."

But Ostlund will have plenty of competition. Capitalizing on the sport's popularity on college campuses, the World's Strongest Man is about to launch a spin-off designed to find higher education's strongest man. Next year, students at 57 universities will compete within their conferences—SEC, Big 10, ACC, Big 12, and Pac 10—with the winner getting a bid to compete in the big show. "This is a major expansion of the brand," crows Frank.

Yet some traditionalists worry that the new series signals a shift away from the sport's gritty roots. Gillingham, a veteran of World's Strongest Man, outperformed more than half the field of competitors last year, but wasn't awarded a spot in the televised event. He can't help but suspect it's because his aging, battered body—powerful though it may be—lacked the camera-friendly quality producers desired. "They want 20-year-olds who look like they're on The Real World," complains Gillingham. "They want people who make a big scene—paint their face, hit stuff, and fall down afterwards. They want entertainers."

Standing in his driveway, watching Ostlund and other young men train for an upcoming event, Gillingham wonders how much longer he'll be able to compete, now that the sport has gone Hollywood. "The strongest man in the world isn't even in the World's Strongest Man competition," he says. "Zydrunas Savickas. He has no personality for TV."

Postscript: On June 16, Ostlund finished first at the WSM Super Series Grand Prix at Muscle Beach, and Gillingham finished fourth, guaranteeing each of them a spot in the 2007 MET-Rx World's Strongest Man contest.

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