Lift and Learn

After fifty years of marriage, their love remains strong. Very strong.

Every professional athlete and Fortune 500 assistant vice president with a million or two in chump change has a home gym tucked somewhere between the gourmet kitchen and home theater. So you figure a couple of U.S. record-holders for power-lifting would have a pretty sweet set of iron, too. And it's a good bet that, unlike Oprah, they actually use the stuff.

To get to Ed and Juanita Steventon's house, you drive two and a half hours southwest of Denver. Then you park your car at the junction of U.S. 285 and the Chaffee County dirt road by the beat-up mailboxes and wait for Ed to show up in his truck.

"You've got to have four-wheel drive," he explains, "but only eight months out of the year." The four-and-a-half-mile crawl up to the top of the mountain takes about twenty minutes. There's no electricity when you get there, and the phone line was put in only a couple years ago. But, boy, is it worth the trip. Mount Shavano is in Ed and Juanita's backyard; the lights of Salida twinkle far below to the east.

Ed and Juanita Steventon are comrades in arms.
Ed and Juanita Steventon are comrades in arms.

The sprawling home gym is in the east wing of the house. Actually, it's the garage -- a single bay of the garage, if you want to get technical. It holds two old benches -- not the Olympic kind, but beginner's sets, with narrow supports for the barbell. The York dumbbells Ed bought in 1949 are lined up against one wall. Ed built the squat rack himself out of two-by-fours; when he goes heavy, he ties the contraption to a garage support with a piece of rope so it doesn't move. Throw in the dip bars screwed to the log walls, the forty-year-old pulley system the couple uses for lat work, a few old metal plates and the kerosene heater necessary this time of year, and you have the Steventon home gym. In its entirety.

And you thought Rocky had the eye of the tiger.

Your run-of-the-mill Bally iron-pumper may be surprised to learn that you can get really strong without a 25,000-square-foot neon-lit health club, a non-stop techno beat and a tanning bed. Last month, at a state power-lifting competition, Ed and Juanita broke the American records for lifters of their age. Ed bench-pressed, dead-lifted and squatted just under 850 pounds. Juanita lifted a total of 418 pounds.

It was very nearly the highlight of the weekend. But the meet also happened to coincide with the couple's 51st wedding anniversary. "When I was younger -- in my fifties -- seventy seemed real old to me," Ed says. "Now I'm 72, and I've outlived most of my family. And I'll tell you, eighty is looking real good." During the competition, Ed broke the national record for his age group three separate times.

For anyone who thinks pumping iron started with Pumping Iron, consider this: Ed started lifting weights when Arnold Schwarzenegger was still trying to lift his first bottle of formula. When he hit eighteen, Ed was your standard beanpole. So he did what any six-foot, 135-pound weakling would do: He answered an ad in the back of a magazine called Strength and Health that promised to make him a man. "I'd never seen anybody built like that," he recalls.

Thing is, it actually worked. Ed began working out with the adjustable, eighty-pound dumbbell set from York as soon as it arrived. This was well before every disgruntled dentist and nail technician decided to become a "certified personal trainer," so nobody knew quite what to do with the round metal plates with the hole in the middle. But it wasn't exactly splitting the atom, Ed reasoned, so he figured it out on his own. And it wasn't long before his friends and neighbors started to see him change shape.

Every day, he went to his job at the Cudahy meat factory in Newton, in central Kansas, slinging carcasses next to another young man the guys called Big Ed. But Ed kept lifting the dumbbells and kept growing, and soon the meatpackers began holding a daily weigh-in at the factory to see which Ed would be Big Ed for the day. The contest didn't last long: "I eventually became Big Ed all the time," Steventon says.

Non-lifters may not get the logic, but since hard work -- spending twelve hours or more a day hoisting dead animals in freezing conditions -- was already part of Ed's life, lifting weights was a pleasure. Lifting was working out for the sheer joy of the fullness in your muscles and the sweat on your forehead, not to make more money for the bosses. The strain of moving the dumbbells actually relaxed him, helped him unwind after a day of heavy labor.

At twenty, Ed weighed 175 pounds. A photo of him at the time shows a young man who looks like Charles Atlas: smooth-chested, with round, bursting muscles, not like the steroid-bloated, cable-veined posers of today. The new look didn't hurt Ed's romantic life, either. Earlier that year, a friend had set him up with a nice local girl. "When I met him, he had the broad shoulders and small waist," Juanita remembers. "And that's what attracted me to him. 'Course, then he also had all that dark, curly hair..."

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