CHARLOTTE — Curse you, empty box of Swiss rolls in the passenger seat.
Theyre already quivering, these muscles I havent inventoried in years. Soon Ill 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 wont 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.
Thats when we meet. Hes 30, an Iraq war vet, built like an anvil. Hes bent over a bar that Jenny Craig, Dr. Atkins and an afternoon full of Subway commercials combined couldnt help. Donny Shankle looks like an action figure and sounds like he ought to be cast as one. Im not sure Id bet against either.
Superheroes buy popcorn and overpriced soda to watch him.
Theres 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 Shankles 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 role even to get close.
Eventually hes candid. Most mortals cant lift the weight just to get into the events Shankle often wins.
You cant just show up and say, Im 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 years 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. Heres a guy from one of the first platoons to cross the Iraqi border in 2003. Hes not sweating tough odds, even if theyre quite literally one in hundreds of millions.
Its not impossible, Shankle says. Youve just got to be that one man.
Ive hoisted a weightlifting trophy or two in my day. Problem is, I havent 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.
Everybodys got to start somewhere, he says. Theres not fancy weightlifting. Theres no novelty to it. Its just hard work.
Part of the CrossFit code is doing everything with impeccable form. Im not fighting it, given there are some pretty serious safety lines drawn in the chalk here. Well do the snatch, which is ground to overhead in one motion, and the clean and jerk which stops at shoulder level en route to a final surge toward the ceiling.
I advance past the pipe onto the kiddy bar before posing a rather personal question. Im concerned about this slapping of the bar against the upper thigh to generate hip thrust. Shankle insists its proper form. Im bothered at the idea of, how shall I phrase it, endangering a certain masculine anatomical feature. Shankle tells me not to worry.
If hes game, I am. I can always fall back on the hollow pipe. Hes the human hydraulic jack. Plus, Shankles clearly not the meatheady, biceps-for-brains stereotype some may have. He doesnt prep for competitions with music but with inspirational speeches. Hes the feature of a film festival entry. His reading list would put most to shame, and his blog is a goldmine.
It may be the worlds lone repository for power generation tips, Voltaire quotes, daily biblical commentary and fans calling him, rather aptly, the epitome of badassness.
Shankle sees Im not computing kilograms to pounds too well, and says hell 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 isnt the intimidating part. He makes that part look rather easy. Its when he slams the bar down each time in a felonious ruckus.
Thats 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 bodys been through a full range of motion previously undiscovered. I hang clean upwards of 150. Shankle is at more than double that, and isnt looking near as tired.
Im certain I can top 200. Im 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. Im looking to call it a day.
The result isnt 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 hes not travelling the world training others, Piotrowski is happy to have his staff become students.
He coaches us, Piotrowski says.
Theres an eminent power in what Shankle does, controlled, explosive at the precise moment it has to be. Sometimes you wonder how there arent clouds billowing out of his ears for all the energy hes 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 somebodys head like its nothing, Piotrowski says.
If he likes difficult tasks made easy, hed hate to have to watch me drive home. Fast forward to the driver seat and Im literally praying that the full body cramp doesnt strike until Im home. For a moment more Ill pretend all is well within me.
You lifted good today, man, Shankle says.
Thank goodness. Because Ill be as useless as those empty Swiss roll wrappers tomorrow.
On Your Marks Scoreboard
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. Check out past On Your Marks columns at lakewyliepilot.com. For ideas on who you think Marks should challenge next, email firstname.lastname@example.org.