'Are you about to lift that?': Teammates practice all-but-impossible feats of strength for upcoming Strongman competition

lfarrell@islandpacket.comMay 26, 2014 

When Krystle Neves works out at Anytime Fitness in Beaufort, guys sometimes drop what they're doing so they can stare at her.

They're not being creepy. In fact, Neves doesn't even notice the attention.

The 29-year-old has only one thing on her mind, and that is to squat down and raise 315 pounds inch by inch by inch until she's standing upright with the full weight of it resting in the palms of her hands.

It's something most men can't do. And that's what stops them in their tracks.

Occasionally, they'll catch her as she's adding weight to her bar.

"They're like, 'Ummm ... What's going on? Are you about to lift that?,' " Neves said. "It's a cool feeling to see people be impressed by what you do."

Neves -- along with six other teammates from Anytime Fitness -- has been training for South Carolina's Strongest Man and Woman competition, which will be held May 31 in Simpsonville. The event is the first one in the Upstate to be sanctioned by the North American Strongman organization. Competitors will demonstrate their strength by pushing and pulling a truck, completing a ground-to-overhead medley with a keg, a log and a circus dumbbell, and other feats.

The local team was formed by Neves' fiance, Dan Puccini, who is a trainer at the gym and has taken part in more than 20 Strongman competitions nationally.

The contest is a full day, but each event is only 60 seconds. Contenders compete in five events. That's three months of preparation -- of 4:30 a.m. workouts while balancing two and three jobs; of flipping a 250-pound tractor tire in a dark parking lot, using the satisfying thud of it as inspiration to flip it again; of making a thousand little adjustments to their form so they can eke out a personal best -- for five minutes of competition.

"It's a fever," said team member Rondell Blue of Beaufort. "You keep pushing yourself to the limit. You set a lot of personal goals and you knock them down."

The team trains together, but it is every man for himself in competition, albeit in an encouraging atmosphere.

"One of the things I like about Strongman," Puccini said, "is that it's a true brotherhood. The other four guys I'm competing against are right there cheering me on and giving me advice. If they see my grip is wrong, they'll tell me.

"Rather than see me do something wrong, which would mean they'd win, they help me improve ... for the pure love of the sport. Everybody's there for everybody."

Blue, a veterinary technician at Alpha Genesis in Yemassee who played football and basketball through high school, noted the difference between traditional team sports and Strongman.

In team sports "they play the best guys first," the 39-year-old said, "and everybody else gets a few minutes. (With Strongman) everybody gets an equal amount of time in the game. ... There is no failure. There is no loss."

It was this support that appealed to teammate Brianne Hibl.

Hibl, who is a veterinarian at Alpha Genesis, was training with the hopes of becoming a professional ballerina when she was told she didn't have the right body for it.

While this wasn't the outcome the now-28-year-old had hoped for, she wasn't going to let it stop her from enjoying what she loved. It wasn't until she flipped her first tractor tire two years ago, though, that Hibl perhaps found her true passion.

"I got hooked," she said.

At her first competition, she was sure she'd make a fool out of herself. But she copied what her competitors were doing and soon got the hang of it.

"I tried to throw an axle across the room and they were like, 'OK, you haven't done this before have you?' And they were right on the sidelines giving advice, 'try this, go there, try that,' " she said.

Of course, being able to compete in Strongman events requires more than just physical strength or knowing how to position yourself in a heavy lift. Sometimes it's sheer force of will that carries competitors through it.

"Visualization and meditation are a huge and essential part for any sport," Puccini said. "If you can physically see yourself do something in your mind, you can physically do it in real life."

Perhaps that's how he's able to single-handedly move things that typically require a motor.

"I've pulled a semi, a firetruck, a double-decker bus ..."

His fiancee has a similar lineup.

"I've pulled a 50,000 pound semi-wrecker," Neves said. "And I pulled that 50 feet in a minute. ... Some of the guys didn't even move it, so that was pretty cool. That was the heaviest thing I've ever pulled."

On a recent Sunday morning, the group rolled into the gym for a 5 a.m. workout.

"We're 20 days from competition so we've got to go heavy today guys," Puccini told them.

They lined up for tire flips and took turns practicing deadlifts that were rigged for maximum resistance. They lifted -- from the ground to their chest -- an Atlas stone, a 200-pound concrete ball that Puccini made, using what sounds like a recipe for the world's worst pinata.

The sounds of their efforts -- the clanging of equipment, the personalized grunts of "Aargh" and "Bwah" and one loud and empathic "Rawr!" -- overtook the screechy metal music playing on the gym's sound system.

"This is why we work out when we do," Puccini said. "We make a lot of noise."

Hibl agreed. "If you're not making noises, it's not heavy enough."

Christopher Hodges, a lifelong Beaufort resident and member of the team, typically sneaks in his workouts between two jobs and taking care of his family. He said he's exhausted, but he has no trouble citing what motivates him to keep getting stronger.

"When I was at a competition in Florida, as we were walking around during a break, my 3-year-old called out to people ... 'My daddy is Super Man!' "

Follow Lowcountry Life editor Liz Farrell at twitter.com/elizfarrell.

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