- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

He lifts cast-iron plates for sport, cars for fun and Jay Leno because, well, why not? He can touch his toes, dunk a basketball, even land a standing backflip. From his 22-inch biceps to his — gulp — 22-inch neck, Shane Hamman is an athlete in need of a monogrammed cape, an Olympian culled from the Sunday comics.

Of course, even Superman had a weakness — and in Hamman’s case, Kryptonite lurks in the pasta aisle.

“Something about those spaghetti sauce jars is hard to open, man,” Hamman says with a laugh. “I’ve had it before where I couldn’t get it. Then my mom grabs it and pops it open. It’s kind of embarrassing.”

For the strongest man in American weightlifting, power is a relative term. A 5-foot-9, 370-pound fireplug from Mustang, Okla., Hamman holds every major United States record in the sport, including a two-lift total of 940.5 pounds — the approximate weight of a racehorse.

To medal at the upcoming Athens Olympics, however, Hamman will need to do Smarty Jones one better, increasing his personal best by at least 50 pounds (think Willie Shoemaker on hunger strike, or perhaps a water-soaked Mini-Me).

The reason? Burly, top-rung rivals like Iran’s Hossein Rezazadeh, a Sydney gold medalist who has hoisted 1,047 vein-popping pounds in competition and plans to go even heavier come August.

No American superheavyweight has won a weightlifting medal since Mario Martinez at the boycotted Los Angeles Games in 1984. The last U.S. men’s gold in the sport came in 1960.

“It’s feasible,” Hamman says. “I have more strength than these guys that are lifting world records, but I still have little technique problems. I haven’t reached my potential yet.”

Work in progress

Though his 62-inch chest suggests otherwise, the 31-year-old Hamman is something of a work in progress, still mastering the cleans and jerks of a sport in which athletes often peak after a decade or more of practice.

Eight years ago, Hamman was the world’s top powerlifter, a self-taught prodigy who broke 14 international records and uncorked a 1,008-pound squat (think a pair of golf carts, one for each shoulder).

For his Herculean efforts, however, Hamman received, well, squat; on the plus side, he managed to avoid a hernia. Still, a single night of watching the weightlifting contest at the Atlanta Games made Hamman want more. At least more than his Professional Putt-Putt-obscure sport could provide.

“I was like, man, powerlifting will never be like this,” Hamman recalls. “You can’t make any money. If anything, I was in the hole.”

To make the transition, Hamman had to forget everything he knew about pumping iron. While powerlifting’s deadlifts and bench presses are quivering tests of localized strength, molasses-slow and painful, weightlifting’s compound movements require balance, quickness, full-body explosion.

A perfect lift — even of 400-plus pounds — feels nearly weightless.

“It’s a weird feeling,” Hamman says. “In powerlifting, everything is heavy. There’s not a lot of speed, technique, flexibility involved. When I switched over, everyone told me I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Undeterred, Hamman hooked up with Steve Miller, a club coach and state lifting champ in Norman, Okla. Miller handed him a broomstick. Time to practice. Hamman wanted to laugh — until he kept landing on his keister.

For a month, Hamman hoisted nothing heavier than an oversized wooden dowel. Snatch. Clean. Jerk. Repeat. Eventually, he graduated to a 44-pound bar, Superman helping little old ladies cross the street.

“I felt stupid,” Hamman says. “I went from squatting 1,000 pounds to falling down with a broomstick, just losing my balance. It’s hard to snatch if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Under pressure

Aided by the freaky athletic ability that makes him a single-digit handicap golfer — and no, we’re not making that up — Hamman proved a quick study. He broke his own American record in the snatch to make the 2000 Olympic team, finishing 10th at the Sydney Games.

At the 2002 World Championships, Hamman overcame the flu to set two American records, including a 517-pound clean and jerk. Disappointed in his fifth-place finish, he vowed to improve in Athens.

“He’s one to set goals,” says Jason Hamman, Shane’s older brother. “Doesn’t matter how long term. He’ll follow through with it.”

Hamman almost didn’t get the chance. At last year’s Worlds, he felt creaky and out of sync, bad luck at a meet that served as the national team qualifier for the Olympics.

After missing his first two attempts in the clean and jerk, Hamman stood on an elevated platform, shaky and alone. Before him was a barbell, decked out with 501 pounds of pressure.

Stick the lift, and Hamman would send himself and two teammates to Greece; blow it, and they would suffer the same home-for-the-Games fate as USA Baseball.

Unable to watch, USA Weightlifting president Dennis Snethen buried his face in his hands.

“My stomach was in knots,” recalls Wesley Barnett, executive director of USA Weightlifting. “My mouth was just dry. I was in disbelief. It probably contributed a couple more gray hairs on my head.”

Hamman gripped the bar. He nearly blacked out, then hoisted it over his head. Falling to his knees, he pointed to the ceiling, thanking God for the hands-down ugliest lift of his life.

Afterward, Hamman attended a celebratory dinner with his family, a close-knit clan that lives in a cluster of homes on a dusty, dead-end road in Mustang. He hardly said a word.

“I’ve never been more exhausted,” Hamman says. “I couldn’t smile or anything. I was just sitting there.”

Raising Shane

Hamman’s somber mood was unusual in two respects: one, he’s generally puckish; two, he really likes to eat.

Mashed potatoes. Protein shakes. Three T-bone steaks in a single sitting. In Hamman’s world, South Beach is a hip ‘n’ sunny vacation destination; Atkins a mealy-mouthed suggestion falling on carb-clogged ears.

“Shane doesn’t eat that much,” insists his mother, Carol. “The truth of the matter is that his older brothers eat more than he does.”

A self-described “small kid,” Hamman lived in the shadow of big brothers Lonnie (now 6-foot-2, 270) and Jason (5-foot-9, 210). Nevertheless, spectators often approached Carol at Shane’s youth soccer games, marveling at the boy’s muscular legs.

Between eighth and ninth grade, the rest of Hamman’s body caught up in one 50-pound spurt. As a 210-pound sophomore, he smashed all of his high school football team’s weightlifting records, benching 275 pounds and squatting 500.

By age 16, Hamman was hanging out at a local gym, reading powerlifting magazines and asking local lifters for training tips. Working for his father’s produce business, he carried five 40-pound boxes of bananas at a time.

“It came to a point where my brothers knew not to mess with me anymore,” Hamman says.

Family lore holds that Shane resembles his great-grandfather, Perry Sanders. A squat, farm-strong laborer from Arkansas, Sanders was known for carrying railroad track ties across his broad shoulders.

“Every town he would go to, the first thing he would do was ask for the town strongman,” Carol says. “Then he would fight him. And whip him.”

The burdens of buffness

Hamman is too nice to brawl. Still, there’s a little Sanders in his blood. When opponents are warming up, Hamman likes to stand on the opposite platform, stare his rivals in the eyes and lift at the same time — a weightlifting faux pas on par with running through the other team’s layup line.

Hamman’s reasoning? Turnabout is unfair play.

“Hey, I’m intimidated by some of these guys,” he says. “There are some ugly dudes in here, man. Everybody grows their back hair out as much as possible. And most of the other countries, I don’t think they take showers for, like, a month. They try to stink on purpose.”

B.O. isn’t a strongman’s sole indignity. Friends often ask Hamman to help them move furniture, wrongly assuming that his strapping physique makes him a human dolly.

“Most of the time, I’ll say I’ve got a heavy workout tomorrow and can’t do it,” Hamman says. “I can see it in the news: ‘Shane Hamman blows his knee out helping someone move their couch.’”

Though he often travels and speaks at the behest of Olympic sponsors, Hamman doesn’t own a suit, mostly because his 18-inch forearms and 35-inch thighs make shopping a bit dicey. Airline seats aren’t much better.

A few years back, Hamman — who usually buys two tickets — wedged himself into a single seat and flew to a meet in Europe. By the time he got off the plane, he had a pulled muscle in his leg.

Hamman isn’t crazy about seat belts, either. Particularly when he’s driving his pickup truck from Oklahoma to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.

“It chokes me, man,” he says. “But I have to wear it in Texas, because I’ve gotten two tickets there already.”

Still, Hamman isn’t complaining. Since moving to Colorado, he’s grown close to his unofficial host family, allowing their teenage daughters to braid his signature goatee. He also speaks to school assemblies on behalf of Rachel’s Challenge, an anti-violence group founded by Columbine father Darrell Scott.

In recent years, Hamman has appeared on Leno and Regis, lifting both network gabbers over his head. Why? Just because.

“I used to do things like that for fun, pick up the back of cars and walk them down the road,” Hamman says. “But that was when I was younger and crazy. I’m not up for the nutty stuff anymore, especially coming toward the Olympics.”

So no more host hoisting, backflips or prodigious feats of Superman-shaming power. As Athens approaches, the strongest man in American weightlifting is saving his energy for the lifts that count. And letting mom handle those pesky jars of pasta sauce.

“Oh, I just get lucky with those,” Carol Hamman says with a laugh. “I suspect they’ve mostly been opened already.”

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