Let’s be clear up front. I am not a fan of fans. Even the idea of “fans” conjures a group of normally sober Iowans, good people, suddenly sprouting bright school colors as they perch on bar stools or couches, their eyes intently focused forward while surrounded by a sea of cheesy potato chips and neon-red little hotdogs. Some 19-year-old on the screen will soon decide whether these normal midwestern folks will spend the next few days wildly ecstatic or morosely depressed. Really, fans are just one step away from multiple personality disorder — there they are, standing at the photocopy machine at work, meek and mild, then, BANG, they become your crazy Uncle Bob and loopy Aunt Thelma. Trust me, I’ve been there, being a fan is not a good thing.
Well, Lolo, I’m a fan. Back when you were at the Drake track for Roosevelt High School, my wife and I stood on the field with mouths agape watching you do the hurdles. We were hooked. LSU, a professional career, and two Olympics have only fanned our enthusiasm. Yup, sure enough, that’s us on the couch.
Here you are again. A new sport. A new Olympics. Good for you. But where do you go from here? What happens when your 38 years old? Or 48 years old? Or even 58 years old?
So I talked to a guy named Rik Priester. A world champion power lifter. Yup, the best in the world in 1990. Back then, he was you. Well, you, but Dutch. And with more hair.
In the beginning his star didn’t shine quite so brightly.
“My mother left my father when I was three or four and got another boyfriend. It did not go well for me. He drank a lot. When you’re young you don’t know, but afterwards. Every day a lot. In the beginning, I don’t think there was any violence. But 10, 11, 12 years old, there was violence a lot. Against my mom and against me. But more towards my mom, but I stand in between. Every day you know your dad comes home, he’s drunk, and the story repeats. Every day the same thing.”
Priester does not volunteer information about himself easily. Maybe this reluctance is his character, or maybe it’s a cultural remnant of Dutch Calvinism. Unclear. Although, he looks directly in my eyes as he relates these earlier years. Perhaps daring me to disbelieve. I don’t.
The violence at home continued until the inevitable confrontation that resulted in Priester running away at 16 to live with his aunt. And at 17, he joined another family — the Dutch marines.
”For six years I did everything — special forces, scuba, anti-terrorist.”
But he left the marines, looking for more opportunity. He tried management at a factory for four years. Didn’t work. He tried schooling to be a fireman. Unsuccessful. He then became a bouncer and started a security business. Not enough.
“I felt I had to do something with my brains. So what can I do at the age of 43 to start studying? I went to the University for physical education at age 43. I was the oldest one. I was twice as old as the other students. In my third year, they invited me at the University to teach. For 12 years I did that at the University. I was very proud. At the same time, also in the third year, I taught at the High School.”
During all this searching for meaningful work, Priester married the remarkable Harriet. Four children followed. Priester is very clear about Harriet, even 31 years later — “I owe her everything.” She rolls her eyes, but smilingly pecks him on the cheek.
And his world championship as a powerlifter? After his 1990 victory, Priester left that world far behind him. He had other things to do.
Five years ago, he opened a family gym with Harriet. Professional athletes began training at the gym. Priester assisted them in their programs. Priester’s knowledge about strength building became known to the Dutch National teams. Within two years of opening the gym, he became the strength coach for the Dutch sailing teams and the Dutch beach volleyball teams. He got results with his protégés that drew attention. By 2012, he was at the Olympics in London with two of his young women. Amazing.
So, quite a story, wouldn’t you say, Lolo. Rags to riches. A life well lived. A beginning, a middle, and an end.
Ahhhhh, not enough for your competitive soul? Try this.
He wiggles his way into the compression suit with some difficulty. An old dog with newfangled equipment. Clearly unhappy with the clothing’s restraint. The mat is squared just right. The weight belt is lifted and placed and then lifted and placed again in the same spot on the bar. A sacred ritual. Effort can only get you so far in this world.
Priester dips under the bar hooked on the rack. Focuses. And then rises up from the ground, shouldering the burden. He steps back delicately, balanced on a fine line, carrying not only the weights, but all of us who have stopped breathing as we watch. He goes down, down, down, into a squat. And now what?
“I started the second time when 52 years old. Squats are my thing. I went up to a certain level. I decided I had to slow down, it’s enough. Then I looked at the results of people competing. So I started adding weights. I now have the Dutch record in squats, but I want the record in deadlift and bench press. I have to finish it. I became second in the world last year at the World Championships in squatting [for all age groups]. I was 57 years old.”
And your goal?
“World champion in September.” Okay, 58 years old and world champion in all age groups. The best in the world. Really?
Back at the gym, Priester gathers himself, then explodes upwards from the squat, shaking the room, raw and wild-eyed. We breath in as he sets down his load. I wipe my brow.
There you go, Lolo. Something to consider as you fly down on that wild ride, tucked in your bobsled, hanging on for dear life, and wondering what is next after this giddy Olympics.
Oh, one more thing. You remember Priester’s wife, Harriet, the woman who is his backbone through thick and thin. I stood next to her in the gym as her husband prepared to lift. She leaned over towards me with a smile.
“Joe, don’t tell anyone,” she said as she was watching her husband lift more weight than anyone in the world, “but I don’t know why they say those power-lifter outfits are sexy.”
Yup, Lolo, I suggest you find a Harriet also.
Now, where are those cheesy potato chips?