Indy's Ron Palmer is "The Michael Jordan of Powerlifting"
It’s fall of 1991, a Friday evening. Ronald Palmer, a student and soccer player for Long Beach Community College, goes through a routine workout at the school’s gym. A routine bench press. Another student above him raises a dumbbell and begins his routine “reps.” But he forgets to secure the clamp that holds the 25-pound plate in place. A simple mistake. He raises the dumbbell and the weight slips.
Working out with trainer Rocky Tilson.
A routine shatters. Twenty-five pounds comes crashing down on Palmer’s head. There’s no blood — no problem. “I just blacked out for a moment.” Palmer returns to his dorm room and falls asleep. You will never be the same. Here is a cane. Here are suggestions about how to live your new life. Apply for SSI. The next day, Saturday, is soccer day. Palmer’s father drives to Long Beach to see the game. Something’s missing. Where’s Ron? In his room, Palmer sleeps. A deep sleep. Ron Palmer is comatose. Where’s Ron? Dad enters Palmer’s room. He won’t wake up. Hours later, Palmer is in surgery. A softball-size blood clot is being removed from his brain. You will need to relearn how to walk and talk. You’ll never be the same. Today, Palmer is officially, pound-for-pound, “the world’s strongest man.” He is one of two men who has lifted 12 times his body weight. Arnold Schwarzenegger called him “the Michael Jordan of powerlifting.” Total concentrationYour life won’t be the same. Born in Peru, Ind., Ron Palmer moved to California at the age of 12. In high school he played football, and in college, he played soccer. “I came in too late for the football season, so I tried soccer.” He knew little of the fundamentals, but his coach knew he was a natural athlete. Just teach him the basics — rules and formations — and he will shine. But one day 25 pounds came crashing down. Palmer remained semi-comatose for a week. The right side of Palmer’s skull was crushed, affecting his left side: “I had no sense of balance. I stuttered when I tried to talk. To reach for something took total concentration.” At the 2003 World Powerlifting Championships in Columbus, Ohio, Palmer, age 30, reaches for a bar that contains 788.14 pounds; he dips beneath it and raises it with his legs, his shoulders, his body, his soul. Combine his squat lift with a 473.99-pound bench press and a 688.94-pound deadlift; Palmer has set a world record for the 165-pound division, lifting a combined weight of 1,951.07 pounds. Fast-forward to Los Angeles, June 2003, at the Senior Nationals. This time Palmer competes in the 181-pound division. He wins, setting another record. He lifts a combined weight of 2,010 pounds (squats 804 pounds; benches 512 pounds and deadlifts 694 pounds). He also wins the Best Overall Lifter award. “I always do my best lifting in competition,” Palmer says quietly. “I’m a competitor. I break my records in competition.” He adds, “I remember reading a quote that stuck with me and still motivates me: Courage is not the lack of fear; it is the strength of knowing what to do in the face of fear.” Someone approaches him after the meet, asking if he ever considered being a stunt-double in Hollywood. After the accident, Palmer returned from California to his mother’s house in Peru because his dad was unable to attend to his physical needs: “It was pretty depressing. I went from an up-and-coming soccer star, living close to L.A., going to college, to moving back to a small town.” He hadn’t begun powerlifting; he was still trying to lift the dark weight of depression: “Part of the depression was probably due to withdrawal from morphine and all of the pain killers.” But another part of the weight came from trying to recognize Ronald Palmer: “When I was in the hospital, I didn’t see myself for a while. When I finally looked at myself in the mirror, I saw Frankenstein, a swollen head with stitches all over.” Back in Indiana, Palmer began lifting again, trying to regain his strength. “After the accident, I went from being a strong, athletic 140-pound man, to a 90-pound weakling,” says the soft-spoken Palmer. “I wanted strength again.” He moved to Indianapolis and began doing local powerlifting tournaments. Enter Rocky Tilson, in 1993: “I had heard that Rocky was a good trainer, who could take people to the next level.” The Lionheart Rocky Tilson owns Rock’s Health and Nutrition on Indianapolis’ far Eastside. At 40, he has a physique that even young men long for. At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, Tilson is an imposing figure. He trains the Indy Power Team, one of three prominent powerlifting clubs in the country. In fact, in the nationals last year, each of the six Indy team members received gold medals. Tilson, too, still competes. Tilson, a man who is seldom at a loss for words, has difficulty describing Palmer’s success. “It’s mostly genetic. I’ve never seen a man who can do what he does.” What is more surprising is that his strength is natural. “Ron, nor myself, has ever used steroids of any kind.” It’s part genetic and part heart. After his accident, his daughter’s mother christened Palmer as the “Lionheart.” A name that stuck. Ronald “the Lionheart” Palmer is pound-for-pound the strongest man in the world. Your life won’t be the same. At the 2002 World Powerlifting Championships in Helsinki, Finland, Palmer is the only gold medal winner on the American team. Tilson has Palmer on a strict training schedule. Surprisingly, the strongest man in the world trains only two days a week. According to Tilson, “It’s not quantity but quality. Sometimes less is more. When you’re lifting this kind of weight, your muscles need time to rest.” What kind of weight? Normally, Palmer begins his warm-up with 10 reps at 135 pounds; each time more weight is added. By the time his warm-up is finished, he is benching over 400 pounds. Tilson says, “Ron will work out until he is literally sick. He may throw up two or three times during a workout. And it’s not that he has a weak stomach. It’s because he works that hard. The other night we had to almost carry him out of the gym.” Palmer states, “My goal is to go to the limit and then some.” Palmer has six-pack abs, training only twice a week. His diet includes whatever he wants. If he is trying to make weight for a competition, he cuts some meat and dairy products. Like strength, high metabolism is a gift. Here is a cane. Here are suggestions about how to live your new life. Apply for SSI. Palmer is currently the No. 1 powerlifter in the world in both the 165 and the 181 pound class. His face, exploding from the weight upon his back, shines from the cover of Powerlifting USA (April 2003). He is the second man in history to lift 12 times his body weight: 1,951.07 pounds, a number reached by combining his 788.14-pound squat, a 473.99-pound bench press and a 688.94-pound deadlift. A writer for Powerlifting USA said that Palmer’s record would never be broken. And if it ever is, that lifter hasn’t been born yet. That comment motivated Palmer, motivated him to lift a combined weight of 2,010. So much for unbreakable records. Counting the cost What’s the cost? The sheer exertion of lifting so much weight takes its toll. The day after Palmer is “almost carried out” of the gym, slight reddish-pink spots dot his face. They are hardly noticeable, but they are there, a part of the sport. Tilson explains that often, after a competition, the lifter’s eyes and skin are bloodshot, due to the small capillaries that burst under so much pressure. “After some heavy squats, it’s normal to have bruised streaks that run across your inner-thighs.” Nosebleeds and blood-shot eyes, blood even pooling in the bottom eyelid are part of powerlifting. Ten years ago, you have a softball-size blood clot removed from your head. How much pressure do you want to put on your system? Will the seizures, the memory lapses return? Or will a simple aneurism end the fun for good? Tilson states that powerlifting is safe compared to most sports. “A recent study listed powerlifting as the 17th or 18th most dangerous sport.” (British cross-country came in at No. 1.) For Palmer, powerlifting is a stepping stone. “I want to move on to something bigger than powerlifting.” Later this summer he will fly to California to talk about the possibilities of working as a stunt double. A book is in the planning. Modeling and acting seem natural for the chiseled, light-skinned African-American with green eyes. Tilson says, “He has it all.” Palmer just sits quietly, as if calmly waiting for the next adversary, the next opponent. Encouraging through strength The strongest man in the world walks into a bar … It must feel good, knowing that all eyes are on you; women stare, men avoid eye contact when possible and smile uneasily when eyes meet. “Yeah, I guess, that’s OK,” Palmer reflects. “Powerlifting and bodybuilding are really ego-driven. I’m not an ego-driven guy. Most people who know me think that I’m pretty humble.” Palmer hopes to put more time into the Lionheart Charity Foundation, an organization he and Tilson have created. He explains that the purpose of the foundation will be to help underprivileged children through mentoring. “My life is about overcoming. I want to encourage others that through strength — like that of a lion — and heart, people can overcome anything. I want to be a living example that, no matter what the tragedy, you can succeed.” Last Christmas, the two staged a Lionheart Tournament, in which each participant had to bring a toy that would later be distributed among needy children. More than 500 toys were collected, toys that were distributed to underprivileged children by Palmer acting as Santa Claus and the 6-foot-4 Tilson as the unlikely elf. As Palmer’s manager, Tilson sees Palmer’s future as wide-open. “Here is a strong, good-looking young man with an incredible story.” At present, acting, endorsements and modeling jobs are being considered. Palmer says, “I’m wanting to do something bigger than powerlifting. Lifting will only last so long. But I want to reach children, mentor them, and offer encouragement.” A Hollywood career. A book. A foundation. A wide-open future. Palmer knows to expect the unexpected. Sometimes a 25-pound weight comes crashing down, and the routine is broken. Life changes. You will never be the same. Here is a cane. Here are suggestions about how to live your new life. Apply for SSI. Ron “Lionheart” Palmer, pound-for-pound, the strongest man in the world. Life changes.
Ron “Lionheart” Palmer
Ranked No. 1 in the world in the 165-pound class Ranked No. 1 in the world in the 181-pound class WPC WORLD CHAMPION WPO LIGHTWEIGHT CHAMPION MULTIPLE WORLD RECORD HOLDER MULITPLE NATIONAL RECORD HOLDER 2003 WPO Finals Lightweight Champion 1,951.07 total at 165 bodyweight 788.14 squat; 473.99 bench; 688.94 deadlift World Record Total Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 28 2002 WPO Semi-Finalist 1,889 total at 165 bodyweight 733 squat; 468 bench; 688 deadlift World Record Total New Orleans, La., Nov. 8 2002 WPC World Championships Gold Medal Winner 1,939 total at 181 bodyweight 766 squat; 468 bench; 705 deadlift ONLY GOLD MEDAL WINNER FOR TEAM USA Helsinki, Finland, Oct. 25 2002 Senior Nationals Gold Medal Winner 1,900 total at 181 bodyweight 744 squat; 468 bench, 688 deadlift York, Pa., June 12 2003 Senior Nationals Gold Medal Winner 2,010 total at 181 bodyweight 804 squat; 512 bench, 694 deadlift Los Angeles, Calif., June 14 To contact Ron Palmer, who, in addition to Rocky Tilson, trains athletes, call 862-6033 or 627-1166.