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Derek Poundstone: Overcomes a Serious Back Injury

(The following is an account of Derek Poundstone's attempt to win the World's Strongest Man contest in North Carolina, USA, in September 2011. There were nine other athletes in the finals of the competition, but the Waterbury Observer focused primarily on Poundstone because he lives in Waterbury, Connecticut. He's our strongman. In tribute to the other athletes we've included several images of their attempts to bring home the championship to their hometown, or country. It was an historic competition.)

Story and Photographs By John Murray. Originally publshed in the Waterbury Observer on October 18, 2011.

The massive bodies of strong man athletes are over-sized shock absorbers that cushion the pounding and abuse sustained during training and competition. Running fifty yards with 1000 pounds on your back places unimaginable stress on knees and ankles and lower backs. Pulling a two-ton Mack Truck 100 feet, pressing 342 pounds overhead for repetitions, and dead-lifting over 900 pounds are athletic feats that few men in the world can perform.

   One such man is Derek Poundstone, from Waterbury, Connecticut. Poundstone, who just turned 30, has won the title of America’s Strongest Man three times, the Arnold Strongman Classic two times, and in 2008 he won the title of ‘Strongest Man On Earth” when he won Fortissimus, a grueling 10-event competition in Canada where he became the only man alive to pick up the 530-pound Louis Cyr stone.

  

The only strong man title to elude Poundstone is the made-for-TV event, the World’s Strongest Man championship. Poundstone came in second place in 2008, fourth place in 2009, ninth place in 2010, and entered the World’s Strongest Man contest this year, at Wingate University, in North Carolina, determined to bring the title back to the Naugatuck Valley.

   Thirty of the strongest men on the planet swooped into North Carolina to try and qualify for the finals, which would boil down to the ten strongest men competing head to head for the championship. The athletes were divided into five groups, with six competitors in each group. The top two finishers in each group would advance to the finals. The nine qualifier events were held from September 15th to the 18th and ranged from a keg toss, to a car walk to a giant dumbbell press.

   Poundstone dominated his group, set a world record in the metal block press, and cruised into the finals. “I felt fantastic in the qualifying round,” Poundstone said before the finals, “I have been injured for the past year, but now I’m feeling great and believe I am ready to challenge for the title.”

   Also advancing to the final was two-time defending champion, Zydrunas Savickas, 6’3”, 395-pounds, from Lithuania, Brian Shaw, a 6’8”, 440-pound behemoth from Colorado, Thor Bjornsson, a 6’9”, 450-pounder from Iceland, Terry Hollands, a 6’6”, 400-pound Englishman and Mike Jenkins, a 6’6, 375-pounder from Pennsylvania.

   Compared to these giants, Derek Poundstone, at 6’1”, 315-pounds, looks lilliputian, but Poundstone has defeated them all.

   “ My definition of the strongest man is who can perform the most amount of work, in the most efficient way, in the least amount of time,” Poundstone said, “and that’s not always the biggest man.”

   The first event of the two-day finals was held September 21st, under a threatening sky. It required the athletes to pick up a nearly 800-pound steel frame, carry it sixty feet, turn around, and carry it back to the starting line as quickly as possible.

   During the warm-ups the competitors examined the handles on the frame they would use to grip the apparatus, and one by one the athletes shook their heads in disgust. ‘The handles were too small for our hands,” Poundstone said. “That makes it hard to grip and hold on. Handles make a huge difference.”


   But Poundstone was quick to point out that the disadvantage was universal. “The handles are too small, but they are too small for everybody.”

   Rebounding from a severe back injury that sidelined him for a year, this was Poundstone’s first competition since snaring his 3rd America’s Strongest Man title in September 2010.

   The steel frame carry set up well for Poundstone because he is both strong and quick. “Frame carry is a great event for me,” Poundstone said. “I’m known for my grip and I seldom get beat.”

   In the second heat Poundstone burst down his lane quicker than defending champion Zydrunas Savickas, or top challenger Brian Shaw. As Poundstone motored forward two giant callouses tore loose from his right hand and he dropped the frame two feet from the turn-a-round line.

   “My skin just let go,” Poundstone said. “It was very painful.” “It was like getting a flat tire on your car,” Poundstone said. “I couldn’t continue.”

   With his family and friends cheering wildly for him to press on, Poundstone held up his bloodied hand, stepped out of the apparatus, and walked the final sixty feet with a scowl on his face. Newcomer Mike Jenkins from Pennsylvania won the event, and Poundstone, who had hoped to snatch victory, and ten points, finished 8th.

   While waiting for the ESPN crew to set up the second event, Poundstone retired to a medical tent to have his injury assessed.

   “It’s a big nasty wound.” Kristin Poundstone, Derek’s wife, said. “They used a scalpel to slice out a quarter-sized chuck of skin from his hand, but he’s going to wrap it up and continue. The finals are a chess match between the top competitors and he’s not out of this yet. It’s one event at a time.”

   His 8th place finish left a huge hole to dig out of, but Derek Poundstone has been clawing his way forward for most of his life. Could he do it one more time?

The Lost Year

   In February of 2010 Poundstone experienced extreme discomfort in his workouts. It was hard to breathe and to move about, but in typical Poundstone style, Derek ignored the pain and pushed towards defending his title at the Arnold Strongman Classic.

   Thirty days later, against extreme competition, Poundstone defeated the reigning World’s Strongest Man, Zydrunas Savickus, to snare his second Arnold Classic in a row. To top off the victory, Poundstone dropped to his knee during the awards ceremony and proposed to his girlfriend, Kristin Nelson, in front of a stunned Arnold Schwarzenegger. Kristin said yes.

  Derek was emotionally on top of the world. Physically, he was a mess, and it was getting worse. Unbeknownst to him, Poundstone had a compression fracture in his back, an injury usually associated with older women battling osteoporosis.

   The pain persisted, and so did Poundstone’s grueling workouts. Some might think that genetics and large muscles are the key to Derek Poundstone’s stunning rise to the title of America’s Strongest Man.

   They would be wrong.

   While having a body like a rhinoceros is important, the secret to Poundstone’s success is the strength of his mind. Everyday in the gym he tortures himself by lifting more weights, more times, than anyone else on the planet.

   “I obliterate myself in training,” Poundstone said. ‘The competition is not as difficult as my workouts.”

   Poundstone is a huge fan of the late long distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who was feared across the globe for his punishing style of racing. "He wouldn’t try and out sprint someone at the end of a five-mile race,” Poundstone said. “He would set a blistering pace on the first lap and dare anyone to try and keep up with him. I love that sense of front running, it came down to, “if you beat me, I’ll make you bleed’, and that’s my mindset. The most important part of my training is strengthening my mind.”

   And as his body began to fail, it was Poundstone’s mind that sustained him. While preparing for the 2010 World’s Strongest Man competition in South Africa, Poundstone tore the quadriceps muscle in his leg. His body screamed stop, yet Poundstone flew to Sun City to compete in what he believed might be his final competition.

   “I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” Poundstone said, “but I thought my career was over, so I went to South Africa and competed like a raging lunatic.”

   Poundstone was in physical agony during the qualifying rounds, but he charged into the finals determined to end his career in a blaze of glory. Instead of victory, Poundstone staggered home in 9th place, and was physically incapable of competing in the deadlift event.

   Disappointed, Poundstone climbed on a plane and flew overnight to Las Vegas where he competed for the title of America’s Strongest Man. Less than 24 hours after the completion of the World’s Strongest Man contest, Poundstone captured his third America’s Strongest Man title, defeating rookie phenom Mike Jenkins in the process.

   “That was insane,” Poundstone said, “but I thought I was done, so I wanted to end my career in style.”

   When Poundstone returned to Waterbury he took time off from training to let his body heal. Instead of seven days a week in the gym, Poundstone scaled back to three times a week. “I thought I was being a little melodramatic about the pain,” Poundstone said, “ but it wasn’t going away.”

   Pain or no pain, Poundstone was determined to resume his career, and in early 2011 he ramped up his training to prepare to defend his title at the Arnold Strongman in March. His mind said yes, but again, his body revolted. Poundstone finally listened to the pain and went to see a doctor.

   Two local doctors performed MRI scans on Poundstone’s back, and the results were inconclusive. Finally, Poundstone’s agent suggested he see an expert in New York City who performed a nuclear bone scan on his back. A radioactive material was injected into Poundstone’s arm and the substance flowed through his body and into his bones. Several hours later a special camera was used to document how the radioactive material was absorbed into the bones.

   Areas of bone repair absorb more radioactive material and show up on the pictures as hot spots, and in Poundstone’s case it revealed a healed fractured vertebrae, with a disc hernination just below.

   “The doctor said I could compete and was healed,” Poundstone said. “I had five epidurial shots and went to the gym and had the best training session of my life.”

   The next day Poundstone couldn’t get out of bed, and shortly after, he dropped out of the Arnold Classic. “For months I had been bummed out thinking my career was over,” Poundstone said. “I didn’t know why I was in such pain, so it was good to have a diagnosis, and a positive prognosis.”

    The key was rest.

   Poundstone took off March, April, May and June. He lost weight, trained lightly a few times a week in the gym, and focused on his upcoming marriage in June, and a honeymoon in Hawaii.

   Training for the World’s Strongest Man competition in North Carolina began in mid-July, giving Poundstone eight weeks to prepare. “Two months is not a lot of time to get ready for a serious competition,” Poundstone said, “but it was my choice to compete, and I went there to win the title.”

The Competition

   The second event in the 2011 World Strongman finals was the Giant Tire Carry, which challenged the athletes to lug 1000 pounds of mammoth tires attached to a metal yoke. Minutes later it was American newcomer Mike Jenkins who scampered home in first place. Jenkin’s girlfriend said Jenkin’s was given an ultimatum by his employer back in Hersey, PA – take time off from work to compete in the World’s Strongest Man contest, and you’re fired.

   Jenkins had lost his job, yet remarkably he had won the first two events and stood alone in first place.

   Pulling a two-ton Mack Truck up a slight incline provided a tough challenge for the finalists. Only three athletes managed to get the truck the length of the course in the alloted time. Poundstone wobbled in the middle of the course, regained his balance and powered his way towards the finish, where he came up two feet short as the horn sounded. Zydrunas Savickas was one of the three competitors to successfully pull the truck across the finish line. The other two were Brian Shaw and Thor Bjornsson. The other four athletes cracked before getting anywhere near the finish line.

   "I’ve never been prouder of a 6th-place truck pull,” Poundstone said. The other four athletes cracked before getting anywhere near the finish line.

   At the end of the first day it was Mike Jenkins in first, Brian Shaw in second, and Zydrunas Savickas in third. Poundstone held down the seventh spot.

   Disappointed, but still optimistic, Poundstone vowed to his friends and family that he would continue to give it his all the next day.

   “I’m known for being a gritty competitor,” Poundstone said. “I might be down, but don’t ever count me out. I will claw my way back into this competition.”

Strongmen As Props

   During most strong man contests across the world the events are contested and the television cameras, if there are any present, will document what unfolds. The World’s Strongest Man Contest is a made-for-TV event with an unnatural cadence, all of which revolves around television angles, production schedules and testy producers. Between events there is excessive down-time as ESPN crews fidget with backgrounds and the athletes are interviewed by three separate film crews - ESPN, British TV and Icelandic TV. In many ways the athletes, who are performing astonishing feats of strength and athleticism, are mere props for the cameras.

   The arrogance of television was on full display during the final act of the competition. The first and second place athletes were set to square off in a head-to-head showdown in the Atlas Stones. With hundreds of spectators screaming and yelling, the two athletes, crouched at the starting line, waited for the signal to begin. Seconds passed, and the athletes, like coiled springs, waited to explode into the event. Seconds more passed, and then a producer yelled, “Relax gentlemen, we don’t like the camera angle.”

    Really?

   Imagine CBS interrupting New England Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady as he’s crouched over center with ten seconds left in the Super Bowl. These indignities are a price these underpaid and underappreciated strongmen athletes bear. The winning purse for the World’s Strongest Man championship is $40,000, about what New York Yankees baseball player Alex Rodrigues makes with each at bat.

   ESPN and the promoters of the event make all the athletes sign an agreement that they cannot divulge the results of the contest until after the show airs on ESPN, December 25th. Derek Poundstone refuses to directly state how he fared in the competition, but the Waterbury Observer witnessed and photographed the event, so we don’t have to ask him. Also, there were hundreds of fans watching with cell phones and digital cameras, so the word is slowly leaking out in social media, blogs and weightlifting forums. This article might be the only article on the planet that documents and reports the results before ESPN airs it in January 2012.

   The strongman athletes are very approachable and pose for photos and sign autographs in-between events. The fans in North Carolina were boisterous, knowledgeable and came from a wide cross section of America. There were doctors, lawyers, students and children in the crowd. One 22-year old girl from Ohio had driven down to Wingate University for the unique opportunity to catch the event. The last three World’s Strongest Man contests were in China, Malta and South Africa. “I have been a fan for the past ten years and this was only a few hundred miles away,” she said, “I had to come.”

   And dozens of Derek Poundstone’s family and friends made the 14-hour drive down to Charlotte, North Carolina, to cheer him on. They wore bright red shirts with “Poundstone Power” printed on the back. They were enthusiastic and impossible to miss.

Final Three Events

   The rain had continued all night long in North Carolina threatening to transform the strongman contest into a swim meet. The first event of the second day was the deadlift contest - the premiere event for weightlifting purists around the world.

   Contrary to the truck pull or giant tire carry, the deadlift is executed in thousands of gyms and high schools across America everyday. A barbell is loaded with weights and an individual bends down, grabs the bar, and stands up. The difference between the local gym and the strongman deadlift is about 700 pounds.

   In a steady drizzle the ten strongmen took turns hoisting 800 pounds, 830 pounds, 870 pounds. One by one they started to drop out of the competition. First day leader Mike Jenkins injured himself. Serbia’s Ervin Katona was out. Iceland’s Stefan Solvi-Petursson and Thor Bjornsson were out. Lithuania’s Vytautas Lalas was out.

   The final five were Brian Shaw, Zydrunas Savickas, Terry Hollands, Laurence Shahlaei and Derek Poundstone.

   In a breath-taking moment of drama, Poundstone set a personal record when he deadlifted 913 pounds. The lift unfolded like a three-act play, and almost took as long as an off-Broadway production.

   In stocking feet Poundstone bent down to attempt the lift. About a foot off the ground the attempt stalled, but Poundstone has developed a unique hitch where he leans backwards, momentarily rests the bar on his knee, and then straightens himself out.

   While not a fluid motion like several of the other top competitors displayed, Poundstone’s lift electrified the crowd as he willed the weight skyward, inch by inch. When he successfully completed the lift he thrust his arms towards the heavens and roared towards his family and friends in the gallery.

   “If there were two more droplets of rain on that bar it wasn’t going to go,” Poundstone said. ‘That took everything I had.”

   Next was the log press where the competitors had to see who could hoist a 342 pound log over their head the most amount of times within a specified time period. Defending champion Zydrunas Zavickas took first with Poundstone tying for second place with Lituania’s Vytautas Lalas.

“Brian Shaw is a force to be reckoned with,” Poundstone said, “I’ve beaten him several times before, but he’s come of age now. I’m glad an American won the title. It’s good for the sport and might help it gain in popularity.”

Reflections

   After the conclusion of the championship Poundstone flew to Connecticut and went back to work as a Naugatuck cop. The Observer caught up with him a few days later in the South End of Waterbury where he was working on a gym he is opening behind Town Auto Parts on Baldwin Street.

   “Initially I was unhappy with my result,” Poundstone said, “because I don’t like to lose. But after thinking about it for a few days I’m very proud of my effort in North Carolina. I set a world record in the overhead block press, set a personal record in the deadlift, and I overcame my back injury to give a solid performance in the World’s Strongest Man competition.”

   Poundstone said that for several years the athletes held the Arnold Strongman Classic as the most prestigious title. (Poundstone won the event in 2009 and 2010)

   “Since 2008 people all over the world have been telling me I’m the world’s strongest man,” Poundstone said. “This is painful to say, but this year the world’s strongest man won the competition in North Carolina. WSM upped its game this year. This was the most amazing display of strength ever put on. Pressing 342 pounds overhead for repetitions is insane. There are Olympic guys who can’t do that. It was an awesome competition and I was honored to have been a part of it.”

   The athletes are getting bigger and stronger and Poundstone said any of the top five in 2011 would have won the championship in any other year. Has time run out on Derek Poundstone’s dream of capturing the only strongman title that has eluded him?

   “The pressure is off now,” Poundstone said. “Things happen for a reason. I have five years left of improving my strength. Where I placed this year will make it all the sweeter when I win it.”

2011 World’s Strongest Man Results
Wingate University, N.C., USA

1. Brian Shaw
2. Zydrunas Savickas
3. Terry Hollands
4. Laurence Shahlaei
5. Derek Poundstone
6. Thor Bjornsson
7. Vytautas Lalas
8. Mike Jenkins
9. Stefan Solvi-Petursson
10. Ervin Katona

(The ESPN telecast will be on ESPN2, January 1st 2012, from 3pm – 9pm. Also on ESPN, January 14th 2012, 4pm – 6pm, January 15th 2012, 2.30pm – 4pm, January 15th 2012, 5.30pm – 7pm, January 22nd 2012, 4.30pm – 5pm and February 5th 2012, 6pm – 7.30pm)

Many thanks to the John Murray and the Waterbury Observer for allowing us to reproduce their brilliant article.

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