A cuddly power lifter World champion: Meet Crofton's Kirk Karwoski, a 276-pound mass of contradictions. He can lift 1,000 pounds, then for relaxation he'll curl up on his couch with his kitten "Boo-Boo."

December 18, 1995|By Drake Witham | Drake Witham,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Record-setting weightlifters aren't supposed to cuddle with kittens and spend hours on the sofa watching television, but Kirk Karwoski does. At 276 pounds, the five-time world power lifting champion from Crofton does whatever he wants.

His 5-foot-9 frame is wrapped with muscle and conflict. He trains harder than other power lifters, but he's lazy. During competitions, he calls attention to himself with yells and guttural grunts before lifting hundreds of pounds. At home, he calls his kitten "Boo-Boo" before gently lifting the furry mass into his massive arms. He jokes about having a split personality.

Even his passion, power lifting, is a contradiction.

"The human body is not meant to be walking around with 1,000 pounds on the back," Karwoski said.

But that's what he did in July, when he squatted a world-record 1,003 pounds in New Orleans. The 29-year-old has bad disks and bone spurs growing from his three compressed vertebrae, but he can't stop lifting weights. He knows it's bad. He knows it's good.

"There's two of me," Karwoski said. "I'm a real lunatic. I'm raging. But once I get the bar behind me, I'm focused. It's a really cool high. That's why I do this, the adrenalin high."

The good has outweighed the bad lately. Karwoski has won the past five world titles in his weight class. He holds three world records and has more medals, trophies and plaques in his apartment than he ever possibly could lift.

"He's the Lawrence Taylor of power lifting," said Marty Gallagher, a former masters power lifting champion and former training partner. "He's possibly got the strongest legs in the world. Genetically, I've worked with better athletes, but he could not be denied."

Even his mother, Nancy Cherry, could never tell him what to do. When she tried to get him into wrestling, he wouldn't have any part of it. When she told her 12-year-old son he couldn't have a weight set for Christmas, Karwoski had his grandmother get him one.

"I didn't learn until he was about 16 that whenever I had an opinion, he thought the opposite," Cherry said.

A chubby, "borderline fat kid," Karwoski taught himself how to lift weights, and, by the age of 14, won a power lifting competition at Arundel High School. Power lifting consists of three events: the squat, the bench press and the dead lift, in which the lifter brings the bar to his waist. Karwoski played football in high school, but it was in these three events that he excelled.

"I just wanted to be really big and really strong," Karwoski said. "I knew I could be really good at this."

He had no idea how good until he started to train with Gallagher after high school.

"He was a little weight-changer boy, a boy amongst men, but he was chock-full of ego and tenacity," Gallagher said. "He's got a very good temperament for this sport. He's an extrovert and a very hard trainer."

Karwoski followed Gallagher's advice and two years later was in Peru for the junior world championships. He "bombed out," missing all of his lifts. So discouraged by his failure was Karwoski that he gave up lifting for his longest period ever -- three weeks. The desire to be bigger and stronger soon won out, though, and he returned to the gym. In 1990, he qualified for the world championships in the Netherlands and set the world record for the squat, but came in second overall.

"I had a great day. I haven't lifted that well since, but I haven't had to," Karwoski said. "I haven't lost since."

He's won the super-heavyweight title in Sweden twice, England, South Africa and last month in Finland. Karwoski works for Parker Mailing and has endorsements to pay for his travel expenses.

"How'd it go?" his mother asks him when he returns to Crofton.

"I won."

"I know that. How'd it go?" she asks again.

He rarely gets to go sightseeing because his division lifts on the last day of the competition, but you wouldn't know by looking at his apartment. Samurai swords are crossed above the mantel from a trip to Hawaii, and five African masks are above his bed. He has one large trophy in the living room with a few medals draped over it, but most of his hardware is stuffed in another room -- he said he doesn't want to overdo it. There are few toy gorillas in various poses near the trophy, which Karwoski explains with a shrug and "well, look at me."

But unless you see him lift, the gorilla image doesn't work. He approaches the bar in a rage, making primal screams.

"It can be kind of scary how intense he is," Cherry said. "There's a bit of showmanship there."

He's now in a frenzy as he settles under the bar preparing to squat. As he lifts the bar, his face is a contorted mixture of reddened skin and bulging veins. The strain increases as he squats, his legs trembling. Just when it looks as if his eyes will pop out of his head, he raises the bar and occasionally the world record.

"In this strange little cult sport, he already has his place in the Hall of Fame, and he can improve on that over the next 10 years," Gallagher said.

If he wants to. The records and world titles are coming so regularly that Karwoski struggles to find new challenges. Last year, he dropped 40 pounds to compete in a lighter division.

"It felt wonderful. My back felt good, but it was a lot of work," Karwoski said. "I was spending two hours a day just preparing food and eating 14 times a day, even getting up in the middle of the night to eat."

He set the world record for squatting in the lower weight class, but, at 242 pounds, felt small.

"I felt tiny, like a little kid," he said. "I thought the wind would blow me over."

A steady diet of potato chips brought back the weight, the back pain and the inconsistencies. At times, he feels his success has brought expectations, a need for challenges and pressure that threatens to crush him.

But like a 1,000-pound squat, he simply stands up under the weight.

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