Lift and Learn
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.
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..."
At some level, Ed had always known that this life was about more than just him, and so when he was drafted on his 21st birthday, he made his plans without thinking twice. In April 1952, he finished basic training, made a brief stop in Wichita to marry Juanita, then hopped a plane for Korea. "He got the honeymoon cruise, and I stayed home," Juanita says.
Ed spent a year and a half in Korea, some of it in North Korea, in a combat-ordnance unit. Juanita would write to him. "I'm not gonna have any weights in my house," she said in one letter. "There's just no sense in it, and I just don't see the point."
Ed responded politely but firmly: "I was lifting weights before I ever met you, and I will continue to lift weights."
"And that was the end of it," he says today.
"I was wrong," admits Juanita.
Besides, Ed was going to considerable trouble to get in his workouts. He and a buddy from Georgia, a gator wrestler named Boyette, were the only ones interested in something as foolish as pushing iron around in a war zone, so they had to make do. They convinced some of the guys to cut wheels of inch-and-a-half armor with a torch. A hole burned in the middle completed the barbell plates. The local Koreans hired by the Army to help out on the base would come and gawk when the two giant Americans worked out. They gasped when Ed lifted big; they called him Ox.
Eventually, the commanding officer gave Ed and Boyette a tent in which to put their equipment. He was supportive of them because they supported him: Ed and Boyette were so much bigger and stronger than everyone else, they were the guys called whenever a fight broke out. "I was big enough so that when I told them to sit down and shut up, they'd sit down and shut up," recalls Ed.
Ed arrived back in Wichita on the last day of October 1953 and immediately returned to work at the meat-processing plant. It wasn't the best job, but, again, this wasn't about him. "I never did like it there," he says, "but I needed the work, and with little ones coming along and mouths to feed -- mine being the biggest -- I couldn't afford to quit."
After 28 years, though, Cudahy took care of that for him, shutting the plant because there wasn't enough work, they said. Ed found that hard to believe: He'd been going to work at 2 and 3 a.m., coming home for a quick dinner and then returning to work until 8 or 9 p.m. His kids had grown up accustomed to his empty chair at holiday dinners because, after all, that's when people needed their hams.
Losing the job was tough, but in retrospect, Ed sees it as a blessing. "It's depressing to come back home and call up guys I used to work with," he says. "They catch me up on all the guys who've died or who got crippled up from working in the cold. I'm sure that if the plant hadn't closed, I wouldn't be alive today."
After Korea, Ed topped out at 215 pounds of sculpted muscle. His 36-inch chest was now 50 inches. His 10-inch teenage arms had swelled to over 18 inches. He came in second in the Mr. Wichita contest ("The other guy had a better tan than me," he gripes) and joined the first gym in the city in 1956. A photo from those days shows him in white briefs and bare feet, posing like a Greek statue; next to him is Ed "Strangler" Lewis, a professional wrestler. Both were to be featured speakers at a local Boy Scout gathering.
Still, Ed's hobby continued to confound people. Today it's considered a character flaw not to exercise; back then, he was an oddity -- and, every so often, a local celebrity. He would be called in to perform stunts of strength to inspire his church's youth group, squeezing metal soda caps between his fingers five at a time, or bending twelve-inch-long, 3/8-inch bridge spikes with his hands.
For his most famous act, he attached wooden seats to either end of a long pole and had members of the congregation sit in them while he lifted with his back. "One time," remembers Juanita, "he lifted both the pastor and the Sunday school superintendent."
"Once we added up all the weight, and it was just over 1,000 pounds," says Ed. "'Course, it wasn't a full squat..." Nobody noticed. Grownups who were kids then still approach Ed's kids and ask if their father continues to work out with weights.
He does. Over the past five decades, the only time he hasn't was when duty called -- either in the form of much-needed overtime (he'd landed another job at the local Cessna airplane factory) or when his kids needed him around. All four of them became superior athletes because of Ed, who built them their own tiny pieces of weight equipment when they were little. Each of the Steventon children earned four varsity letters in swimming.
"He always put us ahead of himself," says Brian, a pharmacist in Newton and the oldest of the kids. "He always put his marriage before himself. He had very high standards. There was no smoking, no drinking, no cussing in our house. If there was any place he and Mom couldn't take the kids, they just wouldn't go. We learned the family comes before your own needs."
Ed and Juanita bought this chunk of Colorado paradise a quarter-century ago. In 1980, they began building their retirement cabin by themselves. When it came time to lift the cut logs -- some ten feet long and more than a foot in diameter -- Ed lifted every one of them into place himself, hauling them up the ladder on his shoulder or heaving them into position while Juanita kept the other end in line with a broom handle. It took a few years, but he built everything in the house -- from the walls to the cabinet doors.
There's not much involving work and discipline that Ed has shied away from, and everything he's done, he has seen through to the end. A few years back, a friend told him he ought to try running. "There's a race coming up," the friend said. "You don't have to run the whole thing -- you could walk some of the way."
"Well, maybe you don't have to," Ed replied. "But I do."
He started off running a single block, then three, then a mile. During building breaks, he would run the four and a half miles down to the mailbox, then back up. Then down again and up. Then down and up again. "He'd work on the house all day, and then he'd go out running and it'd get dark," Juanita remembers. "I'd start to worrying." Still, on weekends Juanita followed him in the car, to make sure he got all his miles in.
Ed ran the Pikes Peak marathon seven times before giving the sport up for good to return to weightlifting. He didn't break any records, but, he points out, "I never did walk no races."
Just being around Ed has been healthy. In 1999, Juanita was cleaning out the garage during one of Ed's workouts when she picked up one of his bars and moved it aside. "It was in the way," she explains.
"Do you know who much you just lifted?" Ed asked. It was eighty pounds. Juanita was about to turn seventy.
After nearly a half-century of marriage, Ed had discovered something new about his wife. So he started training Juanita. And after a while, she began entering power-lifting competitions, too. In her second meet, she dead-lifted nearly 200 pounds. At the moment, Juanita holds Kansas and Colorado records for her age.
It's not all about records, though. At one Kansas competition last year, Ed, Juanita, Brian and Brian's son all competed -- three generations of power-lifting Steventons. That was nice. Last spring, when Juanita was diagnosed with colon cancer, her surgeon was worried about inflicting a brutal operation on an elderly woman -- until he X-rayed her heart and saw that, at 72, she was as fit as an average 45-year-old. She astounded everyone with her quick recovery.
"When I see other people with their oxygen tubes and walking bent over," says Ed, "I think how fortunate I am -- that even though I get discouraged that I can't do what I once did, I am blessed that I can do what I do."
"That's why I continue to work out," Ed says. "If the day ever comes where I can't take care of myself or Juanita, well, I dread that day. So I told him, 'We're gonna be up here until you have to drive up and carry me down.'"
That will mark the first time in Ed's life that he hasn't done his own heavy lifting.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.