Curse you, empty box of Swiss rolls in the passenger seat.
They’re already quivering, these muscles I haven’t inventoried in years. Soon I’ll have enough lactic acid pumping through my quads to open a sourdough bakery. I wave politely at the behemoth now cranking up his truck. I won’t let him see me break. But someone will.
I need more than help. I need a time machine and better judgment. Rewind the clock two hours.
That’s when we meet. He’s 30, an Iraq war vet, built like an anvil. He’s bent over a bar that Jenny Craig, Dr. Atkins and an afternoon full of Subway commercials combined couldn’t help. Donny Shankle looks like an action figure and sounds like he ought to be cast for one. I’m not sure I’d bet against either.
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Superheroes buy popcorn and overpriced soda to watch him.
“There’s just something raw about picking up something heavy and picking it up over your head,” he tells me.
Donny Forbis owns Charlotte Weightlifting Club, part of a CrossFit gym tucked beside a small airport almost an hour from Shankle’s home in Fort Mill. Forbis is a facetious fellow, repping my ego with lies of my standing a chance snatching, cleaning and jerking against the house Hercules. Maybe because Forbis knows how long anyone would need on the membership roll even to get close.
Eventually he’s candid. Most mortals can’t lift the weight just to get into the events Shankle often wins.
“You can’t just show up and say, ‘I’m here to take down the Shankle,’” Forbis says.
Louisiana-born, Shankle started moving heavy objects as a Marine stationed in Iraq. He honed his skill in California. He even trained under renowned instructor Ivan Abadjiev, a Bulgarian weightlifting legend. Shankle is a five-time national champion and was the second ranked American lifter heading into last year’s London Olympics.
The national team took one man.
“Every competition up until then is just a stepping stone,” Shankle says of the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, his sole lifting focus now. “Everything else has been accomplished except for that one.”
Shankle has Pan American Games experience, essentially the Olympics of the western hemisphere. But he wants the worlds. Here’s a guy from one of the first platoons to cross the Iraqi border in 2003. He’s not sweating tough odds, even if they’re quite literally one in hundreds of millions.
“It’s not impossible,” Shankle says. “You’ve just got to be that one man.”
I’ve hoisted a weightlifting trophy or two in my day. Problem is, I haven’t hoisted anything heavier than a box of Christmas decorations in the decade since. Shankle starts his morning with my finishing weight. I get a PVC pipe.
“Everybody’s got to start somewhere,” he says. “There’s not fancy weightlifting. There’s no novelty to it. It’s just hard work.”
Part of the CrossFit code is doing everything with impeccable form. I’m not fighting it, given there are some pretty serious safety lines drawn in the chalk here. We’ll do the snatch, which is ground to overhead in one motion, and the clean and jerk, which stops at shoulder level en route.
I advance past the pipe onto the kiddy bar before posing a rather personal question. I’m concerned about this slapping of the bar against the upper thigh to generate hip thrust. Shankle insists its proper form. I’m bothered at the idea of, how shall I phrase it, endangering a certain masculine anatomical feature. Shankle tells me not to worry.
If he’s game, I am. I can always fall back on the hollow pipe. He’s the human hydraulic jack. Plus, Shankle’s clearly not the “meatheady,” biceps-for-brains stereotype some may have. He doesn’t prep for competitions with music but with inspirational speeches. He’s the feature of a film festival entry. His reading list would put most to shame, and his blog is a gold mine.
It may be the world’s lone repository for power generation tips, Voltaire quotes, daily biblical commentary and fans calling him, rather aptly, the “epitome of badassness.”
Shankle sees I’m not computing kilograms to pounds too well, and says he’ll clue me in when he tops 300.
When he finished with the top heavyweight ranking in the country in 2011, Shankle did it by snatching 365 pounds and clean and jerking 446. His 811-pound total topped second place by more than 50 pounds.
His lifting the weight isn’t the intimidating part. He makes that part look rather easy. It’s when he slams the bar down each time in a felonious ruckus.
“That’s the fun part, you know?” Shankle says. “You throw down the bar. You give them a thumbs up or flip the finger, whatever.”
My form improves but at painfully light increments. By the time I snatch more than 100 pounds, my body’s been through a full range of motion previously undiscovered. I hang clean upward of 150. Shankle is at more than double that, and isn’t looking near as tired.
I’m certain I can top 200. I’m more certain I can rip a labrum loose and still fall 100 or more pounds short. Onlookers are starting to gather for the next class. I’m looking to call it a day.
The result isn’t alarming. Bob Piotrowski, owner of Fort Mill CrossFit, leads about 60 members in grassroots, elite fitness training. But when Shankle comes in, as he does weekly when he’s not traveling the world training others, Piotrowski is happy to have his staff become students.
“He coaches us,” Piotrowski says.
There’s an eminent power in what Shankle does, controlled, explosive at the precise moment it has to be.
Sometimes you wonder how there aren’t clouds billowing out of his ears for all the energy he’s generating. Other times he makes it seem dangerously, deceptively easy.
“That is the most beautiful lift you can watch, to see 300 pounds go over somebody’s head like it’s nothing,” Piotrowski says.
If he likes difficult tasks made easy, he’d hate to have to watch me drive home.
Fast forward to the driver seat and I’m literally praying that the full body cramp doesn’t strike until I’m home. For a moment more I’ll pretend all is well within me.
“You lifted good today, man,” Shankle says.
Thank goodness. Because I’ll be as useless as those empty Swiss roll wrappers tomorrow.
Competition: Donny Shankle, national team and national champion weightlifter now living in Fort Mill
Contest: Heaviest lift between the snatch and clean and jerk lifts
Score: Shankle put up 386 pounds in the clean and jerk. Marks hang cleaned 155, which the judges count. Final score: Shankle 386, Marks 155
On Your Marks is a monthly column where reporter John Marks takes on competition from the greater Lake Wylie and Fort Mill areas, challenging them in their field of expertise and profiling what makes them special.