The Strongest Man in the World: A New Era of Strength Competitions Tests the Limits of the Human Body
The strongman still fascinates us with feats and exhibitions of raw power.
Tossing the caber, pulling buses or planes or hauling boulders over distances in record speed have traditionally been the spectacles in which enormous men (and some women) with exaggerated physiques and attributes test themselves against each other.
It is not just a spectacle. There are entire industries built around strength training, from special diets tailored to each individual’s needs by nutritionists who specialize in body builders to meal replacement supplements to weight training centered gyms to an enormous global trade in illegal drugs and trainers who create body builders.
Today, the object of the strength game is to push the envelope on human performance and capability- and big business and corporate interests are funding these new efforts.
The giant of Fort Lupton was born, like a cowbird’s chick, to parents of ordinary size. His father, Jay Shaw, a lineman for a local power company, was six feet tall; his mother, Bonnie, was an inch or so shorter. At the age of three months, Brian weighed seventeen pounds. At two years, he could grab his Sit ‘n Spin and toss it nearly across the room. In photographs of his grade-school classes, he always looked out of place, his grinning, elephant-eared face floating like a parade balloon above the other kids in line. They used to pile on his back during recess, his mother told me—not because they didn’t like him but because they wanted to see how many of them he could carry. “I just think Brian has been blessed,” she said. “He has been blessed with size.”
Fort Lupton is a city of eight thousand on the dry plains north of Denver. In a bigger place, Shaw might have been corralled into peewee football at eight or nine, and found his way among other oversized boys. But the local teams were lousy and, aside from a few Punt, Pass & Kick contests—which he won with discouraging ease—Shaw stuck to basketball. By seventh grade, he was six feet tall and weighed more than two hundred pounds. When he went in for a dunk on his hoop at home, he snapped off the pole, leaving a jagged stump in the driveway. By his late teens, his bulk had become a menace. One player knocked himself out running into Shaw’s chest; another met with his elbow coming down with a rebound, and was carried off with a broken nose and shattered facial bones. “It was bad,” Shaw told me. “One guy, we dove for a ball together, and I literally broke his back. It wasn’t that I was a dirty player. I wasn’t even trying to do it hard.”
Like other very large men, Shaw has a surprisingly sweet nature. His voice is higher and smaller than you’d expect, and he tends to inflect it with question marks. His face has the bulbous charm of a potato carving. “He’s almost overly friendly,” Terry Todd, a former champion weight lifter and an instructor at the University of Texas, told me. “It’s like he thinks that if he’s not you’ll be frightened of him and run away.” At six feet eight and four hundred and thirty pounds, Shaw has such a massive build that most men don’t bother trying to measure up. His torso is three feet wide at the shoulders; his biceps are nearly two feet around. His neck is thicker than other men’s thighs. “I know I’m big,” he told me. “I’ve been big my whole life. I’ve never had to prove how tough I am.”
In the summer of 2005, when Shaw was twenty-three, he went to Las Vegas for a strength-and-conditioning convention. He was feeling a little adrift. He had a degree in wellness management from Black Hills State University, in South Dakota, and was due to start a master’s program at Arizona State that fall. But after moving to Tempe, a few weeks earlier, and working out with the football team, he was beginning to have second thoughts. “This was a big Division I, Pac-10 school, but I was a little surprised, to be honest,” he told me. “I was so much stronger than all of them.” One day at the convention, Shaw came upon a booth run by Sorinex, a company that has designed weight-lifting systems for the Denver Broncos and other football programs. The founder, Richard Sorin, liked to collect equipment used by old-time strongmen and had set out a few items for passersby to try. There were some kettle bells lying around, like cannonballs with handles attached, and a clumsy-looking thing called a Thomas Inch dumbbell.