Being a strongman is different than being a man who is strong. Clint Maundrell is adamant about this.
A man, or woman, who is strong might be able to flip a tire, sprint with a sand bag, pull a sledge or win a tug-of-war contest. But it takes a strongman-one word-to put in the effort and training that will allow a competitor to complete those tasks faster, quicker than his or her adversaries. And it takes a certain mental toughness.
"There's more to being a strongman than just being strong," said Maundrell, who won the competition last year and, having graduated, is training for a strongman competition in Edmonton next month.
For the strongmen and women of Sardis secondary school, competing means overcoming one's fears and doing so before hundreds of high school classmates.
Next week the school will hold its annual strongman competition. Male and female competitors in Grades 10 through 12 will engage in a week of strength contests at the end of which champions in each weight category will be crowned.
There is no provincial championship. There are no scholarships to be had or banners to bring home. And yet the competition has become much more than a weeklong lunchtime diversion for students looking to test their strength.
For Maundrell, the drive to become a strongman kept him coming back to school when he was contemplating dropping out.
"I wasn't really good in school," he said. "It wasn't really appealing to me."
It was Sardis physical education coach Bob Fitzsimmons who encouraged Maundrell, then in Grade 10, to register-and train for-the 2009 strongman competition.
Maundrell built his muscle and trained for the competition's disciplines by lifting hay bales and heaving heavy chunks of wood in the backyard of his Greendale home.
"There's motivation and you have a goal," he said of the allure of Strongman. "I hadn't had a goal in a good two years and I had a goal again. I had a goal to do something. I wanted to do it bad. I wanted to place on the podium in my first year."
And he did: despite competing against boys one and two years older than him, Maundrell finished third in his first competition.
His love of school did not grow over time. But Maundrell continued coming to class. The next year, he aimed for second place-and achieved that goal.
In his senior year, in 2012, Maundrell struggled through personal issues that again tempted him to drop out.
"In my Grade 12 year, I didn't really want to be in school, I had a lot of problems," he said. "Bodybuilding and training for strongman [allowed me to] ignore everything. . . . When I would go to the gym or I would sit out here and work out, in a theoretical sense it was my temple."
Maundrell describes winning Strongman last year as "like being on top of a mountain. It was like climbing that peak to perfection, to where you wanted to be. That's what you waited for. That's what you wanted to do. And that's what I wanted to do.
"When I placed first and they handed me that trophy, I don't even know how to explain it," he said. "It was an amazing feeling to have people cheer for you and congratulate you and [to] have been working that hard to progress it that far for three years."
Everybody, it seems has a different reason to compete.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a dozen students gather at Xceed Training Centre to throw sandbags, flip 400-pound tires, lift weights and do everything else they can to prepare for this year's event, which runs all next week at the school.
P.J. Retief, a trainer at the gym and former back-to-back Strongman champion, has organized the sessions alongside his brother Louis, a Grade 12 Sardis student. P.J. won Strongman in 2010 and 2011, the year he graduated; Louis triumphed last year. This year, the younger Retief says his goal is to keep the family name on top for four years straight.
Austin Ensz has a much different motivation.
"This year, I just want to redeem myself," said a still-winded Ensz shortly after shuttling sandbags across Xceed's cement back lot.
Last year, as a Grade 10 student, he fared poorly having entered Strongman on a whim while on a diet prompted by an upcoming mixed martial arts fight.
This year's competition is about showing himself that last year's finish was an aberration.
Tori Kuhn, one of two girls training on the Saturday, said that while competitors are racing against the clock and each other, a camaraderie develops.
In 2012, the battle for third place in the women's division came down to a tug-of-war between Kuhn and Sarah Muxlow.
Both girls were determined to come out on top. But afterwards, Kuhn was satisfied with her effort.
"Last year, when I lost against Sarah, I was actually happy for her," Kuhn said.
As a senior this year, Kuhn wants that third spot.
"I want to make the podium this year," she said.
NOW A SCHOOL TRADITION
Kuhn will be in tough, though. Seventeen strongwomen-more than ever before-have signed up to compete and this will be the first year the competition has two weight classes for girls.
In this, its 15th year, the event has grown so large that organizers were forced to cap the total number of participants because of time constraints.
That success is gratifying for Bob and Alison Fitzsimmons, the teachers who built the event into what it has become.
The pair initially conceived of Strongman as a way to involve kids on the periphery of school sports. Since its debut in 1999 it's become popular throughout the school, but Alison says it still draws students who aren't normally at the centre of Sardis culture.
"It's a whole cross-section of kids," she said. "I meet a whole bunch of kids in Strongman who I've never seen before."
Now, with cool kids and edgy kids and girls and jocks all taking part, the event has grown to the point where the two longtime teachers know the event they've created will endure even when they're long gone. "It's just part of Sardis now," Alison said. "It's part of Sardis culture and Sardis tradition and I don't think it's ever going to go away."
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