By Martha Hicks Leta
If you’ve crossed over the 50-year age mark you’ve probably gotten the “witty” birthday card or two: “Once you’re over the hill, you only pick up speed!” or worse, “Over the hill? What hill? I don’t see any hill!” Whatever the so-called witticism, the implication is that 50 is the threshold to Heaven’s waiting room, where the food is bland, afternoons are spent nodding off in front of “Wheel of Fortune,” and your teeth spend the night in a glass jar. While that may be true for some, it couldn’t be farther from the truth for Cohasset native Bill Coleman who, at the age of 52, qualified to compete in the World Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation’s Championship in Muskegon, MI.
I met with Coleman on a blisteringly hot July afternoon at the Fitness Together studio he manages on Route 3A in Cohasset. Bill, a barrel-chested, squarely built guy with a copper-colored buzz cut, greets me in the blessed air-conditioning with an easy smile and a firm handshake. He looks like he could have been a cop or a drill sergeant in his former life, which might be intimidating, except it’s pretty clear from the start that he likes to laugh. I’ve arrived during a lull in the normally busy schedule of clients coming in for their regular personal training sessions, so we park ourselves by a sunny window at the front of the studio and chat as Bill sneaks bites of his sandwich. It turns out we know some of the same people from former careers in local radio and television. There’s one particularly insufferable person I suggest is “a legend in his own mind” and Bill’s laugh comes out in an impish giggle that evokes a kid hiding in a tree house waiting to drop a water balloon on his sister’s head.
But he grows serious when talk turns to his current obsession, Powerlifting, which is what I’m here to ask him about.
“Powerlifting,” he says, “is a sport that involves three different lifts: barbell squat, bench press and deadlift. Meets gauge how well you do on those three disciplines.”
The competitions Bill enters are sponsored by the American Drug-Free Power Lifting Federation, which provides venues for amateur athletes to compete in legitimate, standardized, drug-tested power lifting. Lifters are divided into specific age and weight classes, competing “equipped” or “unequipped.” Equipped lifters wear an incredibly tight-fitting polyester squat suit, a deadlift suit and bench shirt. They are also permitted wraps for knees, wrists and a belt, whereas unequipped or “raw” competitors are only permitted the most basic garments. Bill competes equipped. The suit is quite challenging to get into, he says. As he describes it I get the image of trying to stuff a Thanksgiving turkey into a beer koozie. It’s not the sort of thing you want to work up a sweat in, he tells me, but it’s necessary to have such support when lifting weights of this scale. We’re talking hundreds of pounds.
It might not seem like a stretch for a personal trainer to be in the kind of shape necessary to compete in powerlifting; even less of a stretch for a guy whose father, the late broadcast personality Ken Coleman, aka “Voice of the Red Sox,” was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame. But the fact is that Bill got into the fitness game relatively late in life. His father’s influence led him and his brother not onto the playing field, but into the radio business. Older brother Casey was a sports caster in Cleveland while Bill worked in the music and sales end of broadcasting. For a while he had his own big band show at WPLM, but was mostly involved in sales. “I was Billy Crystal in ‘City Slickers,’” he says with a chuckle, “I sold air.”
In those days he spent more time at the kind of bars you put beers on rather than the kind you put weights on. Bill’s first wake-up call came when he developed diverticulitis and the doctor gave him the order to drop some of the weight he’d been gathering over the years. He joined a gym and was faithful about going, saw results at first, but nothing spectacular. “I didn’t know there was a difference between working out and training,” Bill says. “I maintained a certain level of fitness, but I never got great results.”
Then in 2001 Bill met professional trainer Saul Shocket, who started writing programs on training for him. Shocket was impressed by Bill’s level of commitment and he began showing him the ropes of competitive powerlifting. By then Coleman was in his mid-40s, late in the game some might say, except that Shocket himself was in his 60s when he set a world record for the deadlift.
By working with an experienced trainer like Shocket, Bill was able to see steady improvements in his skill and strength with each competition. But more than that, he saw that training was helping him navigate the emotionally-gutting challenges mid-life was suddenly hurling at him, the kinds of challenges that drive most people to the kind of bar you put beers on.
“I was about a year or two into training when I lost my father to bacterial meningitis, and then my brother died of pancreatic cancer and shortly after that, my mother passed away. Somewhere in there I got divorced, too. This was all in the span of less than 5 years. The training helped me deal with all the associated loss and stress. People think of exercise as a way to get physically stronger, but I saw then it was much more than that.”
When Bill recognized that fitness was more than a hobby for him, he began taking steps toward making a career out of it. “Learning how to train inspired me to become a trainer myself. I saw that there are things in exercise science that could allow people to achieve goals they never thought of before. It’s fun to know that at my age and weight that I can do more than 90% of the people my age.”
Still, training had challenges that weren’t so fun. At one point Bill hit the wall; he couldn’t get past the 400 lb. mark with the deadlift. “For some reason, each time I tried to pull that weight, I failed. I realized it was more of a mental issue than a strength issue.”
Fortunately for Bill, his trainer had seen this sort of thing before and knew how to fix it. He sent Bill to a hypnotherapist.
“After seeing the hypnotherapist, I was able to lift the weight and have gone up almost 50 more pounds in that lift since. “ To date, Coleman’s personal bests include 446 lbs for the dead lift, 415 lbs for the squat, and 280 for the bench press.
The big test came last February when Bill entered the 2011 Cabin Fever Open in Rockland. A win at this meet would qualify him for the World Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation’s Championship in Muskegon, MI the following June.
Going into the meet Bill felt better than ever; a win was right in his pocket. But then during a routine warm-up something in his knee popped. He knew it wasn’t good, but he wasn’t sure how “not good” it was. “I knew I was going to have a challenge. I iced my knee immediately and that was about all I could do.”
He wrapped the knee extra tight and went for it. The squat came first. He had three tries to get it right or say goodbye to his chances of competing in Worlds. He set the weight at a conservative 325 lbs. and made his first attempt. But when he came up from his squat the judges weren’t having it. Not deep enough, they said. Bill shook it off and reset himself. Second attempt, same thing; the judges didn’t like it. Bill dug deep for his third attempt and nailed it. Now he had to make it through two more events, which meant a total of six more heavy pulls.
Going into the bench press the knee was still aching, but Bill tried to stay positive. “(I hoped) the bench press was manageable,” he says, “but when doing heavier weights you need to drive with your legs, so it was potentially troublesome.” His first attempt at 245 lbs. was successful but still far shy of the 280 lbs. he knew he was capable of. He tried to push up the weight in his next two lifts, but couldn’t do it. Still, the first lift was enough to keep him in the game.
For his final qualifying event he’d have to face down his old nemesis, the lift that had put him up against that mental brick wall not long before. The deadlift is said to be the most challenging of all the gauged lifts because, unlike the other lifts, it begins with the weight at its most difficult point, lying dead on the ground with no stored energy to help move it along.
Reaching down to make his first pull, Bill might have taken a moment to consider the stakes. Knee injuries come with the territory for aging athletes, but still, guys in their early 50s don’t always recover from blown out knees. And at this point, Bill’s livelihood depended on his ability to train others, which at times means having to step in quickly and intervene if clients can’t manage an exercise. It was a lot of pressure. Again, he made the decision to go for it.
He says simply, “I made my first deadlift, qualified for the Worlds with a second attempt at 425 lbs and just missed a personal record at 465 lbs.”
But qualifying to compete in Worlds was bittersweet. After the Rockland meet his knee didn’t recover in time and he was unable to participate. A few visits to various doctors told him he’d need surgery after all. Still, he thinks it was worth it. “I know now that once my knee heals I’ll be able to work my way back to that level of competition. I’m a lot stronger now than I was as a younger man.”
Bill hopes to qualify for Worlds again in 2012. If he’s unable to compete in the squat, he plans to compete in the deadlift as a single event. “My powerlifting goals are 4-3-5. That’s 400 lbs for the squat, which I’ve already passed, so I would re-adjust that to 450. Then 300 lbs for the bench press and a 500 dead lift.”
It occurs to me that if he reaches those goals Bill could lift my entire family. Including the dog.
Bill finishes his sandwich, wipes his hands on a napkin and wads it into a ball. He leans back and looks out past the Fitness Together logo and into the blazing parking lot. “My long term goals are to perform at the best of my ability for as long as I can. Even though I’m getting older, I’m still getting fitter and stronger.” He turns back and smiles. “That’s pretty amazing. It’s good to be in my early 50s and know that I’m moving forward, getting better.”
It is pretty amazing. And it doesn’t sound at all like a guy who thinks he’s over the hill. It sounds more like a guy who’s just begun to climb it.
Bill Coleman manages our FT Cohasset studio
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