Muscling past dated concept

Weightlifting: Veterinarian Larry Atkinson sees no reason why, at 75, he has to sit back in a rocking chair and get flabby.

Weightlifting

August 02, 2002|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Larry Atkinson, 75, is off his rocker. He must be, in order to pick up a barbell and hoist 230 pounds.

Atkinson is too busy lifting weights and carrying off trophies to set on the front porch and snooze.

"There's this universal mind-set of, `My God, he's 75, he should be pushing up daisies,' " says Atkinson, of Monkton. "You should see the reception I get at competitions. Everyone applauds like I'm Lazarus come back from the dead.

"Well, I'm here to straighten out their brains."

And take home some hardware.

The 10-inch trophy sits atop the television in Atkinson's cottage in northern Baltimore County. "First Place, 2002 Iron Man Open," the inscription reads. He won it in June at a regional powerlifting contest in Towson. Atkinson took the Masters Division (age 70-79) with a combined heave of 350 pounds in the dead lift and bench press.

First, the silver-haired muscleman grasped a 230-pound barbell off the mat and straightened, raising it to his waist and holding it there for several seconds. Then, lying on his back, he lifted a 120-pound weight off his chest to arm's length and back.

Not a bad performance for a guy who has been around since the first talking movies.

That evening, as he cradled his gold-plated victory cup, Atkinson opened the front door and exclaimed, "I got first place!"

Mary Lee Atkinson looked first at the trophy, then at her husband and asked: "How many people were you competing against?"

"None."

It's lonely at the top. The 2002 USA Powerlifting National Championships held in May in Charlottesville, Va., drew six men to compete in the eldest group (age 70-74). None was as old as Atkinson, who did not enter that category.

"There may be 50 people lifting competitively in this country who are at least 70 years old," says Mike Lambert, editor of Powerlifting USA magazine.

Atkinson doesn't need others to get him pumped, he says: "You have to defeat the enemy, and in this sport, the enemy is the weights."

Nobody kicks sand in this man's face; sawdust is another story. An equine veterinarian, Atkinson examines horses at Maryland tracks most mornings, scratching the lame ones from the day's racing card.

When he's not at the track, he's often at the gym. Once a week, that would be the Baltimore Veterans Administration Medical Center. Twice a week, it's the Howard County studio of his personal fitness trainer.

Weightlifting conjures up one of these images: a pot-bellied Olympian with an Iron Curtain scowl and a three-day growth. Or a preening bodybuilder with Coppertone biceps and a Schwarzenegger pose.

Atkinson, who is 5 feet 5, fits neither description. In his workout garb, a dark blue wrestling singlet, he resembles an extra in a Keystone Cops film.

"Like my Max Sennett swimsuit?" he asks a visitor.

He thinks, looks and acts young. He galloped horses well into his 60s. Retire? Pshaw. He likes his job. His wife is 57 years old - 18 years his junior.

"I think she's glad I'm doing this," he says. "The fitter you are, the more you enjoy life."

Lifting, he says, melts fat, strengthens bones and increases longevity. A husky 180 pounds in January, when he began training seriously, Atkinson has shed 12 pounds en route to his goal of 145.

"He's a pretty strong guy. Sometimes he lifts more than the younger ones," says Brian Washington of Woodlawn, president of the U.S. Bench Press Federation, which sponsors local events.

Most active seniors ride stationary bikes, do aerobics, or stroll the malls. They shun weights for fear of injury, says Mike Ochranek, a fitness trainer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Beltsville.

Their nightmare workout? Snap. Crackle. Pop breaks down.

"Seniors don't see lifting as an option," Ochranek says. "They think they're too old."

In fact, he says, graying first-timers who step gingerly into a modest, supervised weightlifting program often see immediate results.

"Giving seniors who never exercise a 5-pound weight for each arm is like giving them a new life," says Ochranek, who operates a training studio in his Elkridge home. "They find strength they haven't had in years."

Atkinson, who has worked with him at the studio for four hours a week since January, seems driven, says Ochranek, 46.

"He has really impressed me. Scared me, too," the trainer says. "Larry is as ambitious as they come, but he wants to compete [in events], like, every three months. That's too much wear and tear on his body - on anyone's body.

"He'll leg press more than 400 pounds. That worries me. I've only trained two 75-year-olds. This is uncharted water, for him and me both."

Poppycock, says Atkinson, a Navy veteran of WWII who has been pumping iron since age 67 with nary as much as a pulled muscle, even as his workouts progressed from sporadic to routine.

During one recent two-hour workout, his trainer asks him to dead-lift 135 pounds, five times in succession. "It's gonna be tough," Ochranek warns.

... 3 ... 4 ... 5. "Piece of cake," says Atkinson, a bit red of face.

The trainer eyes him warily. "Can you do more?"

... 8 ... 9 ... 10. Break time.

"I'm exhilarated," Atkinson says. "There's a saying, `An old man is someone 10 years older than me.' Well, I have no concept of being old. It's a subjective feeling."

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