“You think that was hard. That wasn’t hard.”
These words were my introduction to Donny Shankle. He had just cleaned 220 kilograms (484 pounds!) off the blocks turned to the camera that was filming him and essentially told the world that he had more in the tank.
I was turned onto Shankle by a client, actually, in a discussion about the catapult versus classic triple extension technique of weightlifting (often referred to as Olympic Lifting). Donny was, at that time, lifting at California Strength which would put out videos of their top lifters on YouTube fairly regularly and before anyone else was really doing so.
Shankle was second in line for the US Olympic team for the 2012 games in London but do to poor international showings by the US (the number of qualifying athletes for a country is determined by a fairly complex system that involves the results of qualifying competitions for two years prior to the games) the US could only send one athlete in the sport. In subsequent years, Donny has faced several major injuries including a broken neck and a dislocated shoulder and became a bit of a vagabond, leaving Cal Strength and going on the weightlifters version of a walkabout, traveling the world to train. In the meantime, he had become an almost mythical legend. The lifter with incredible strength, deep philosophical ideas about the sport and the desire to move from place to place on seemingly a whim. If someone told me Shankle was half human, half bear I wouldn’t argue.
When Shankle announced on his latest blog that he had taken up residence in Warwick, NY, a mere 90 minute drive from my home, to train for his comeback and coach weightlifting, I immediately reached out to see if he would do any one-on-one coaching so I could improve my technique and coaching abilities. I was surprised to get an email back not more than an hour later. He told me that he trained the Warwick Weightlifting Club on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, listing the training hours in military time (Shankle is a veteran having served in the first Iraq war). He closed with “Let me know if you can drop in”. What choice did I have? I told him I would be there on Saturday.
The gym was a cinder-block square in the back of what was seemingly an abandoned manufacturing facility. When we (I brought my training partner Kyle with me) pulled in and parked next to a doe enjoying her lunch a bald, tattooed man named Ryan (who we later found out was co-owner of the facility) met us at our car.
“That’s Donny’s spot. He’s not going like it if you park there.”
Without a word, we backed up and parked across the lot.
Within 5 minutes of warming up, Shankle entered the gym. We introduced ourselves to him and he repeated our names. Not so much speaking them, but projecting them across the entire facility. He actually misheard Kyle’s name and repeated it as “Carl”. I was shocked when he corrected him.
The more time we spent around him the more we realized that Donny was a nice, caring, if somewhat intimidating, guy. He took us aside and explained the warm-ups and how to choose our attempts (the program for that day called for max attempts of the snatch, clean and jerk and squat). He earnestly wrote our best lifts up on the board with all the other lifters (for me that would be 94kg in the snatch and 126kg in the clean and jerk). He told us which platforms to lift on.
Donny’s approach is for you to try to hit a personal record on something every time you entered the gym. So when I worked up to a seemingly easy 90kg on the snatch, Donny seemed to get really excited:
“92 then 95. Definitely!”
When I went on to clunk on 92 – twice – Donny very calmly and emotionlessly looked at me and simply said “clean and jerk”.
Moving onto the clean and jerk, I actually felt really great. The nerves from lifting in front of Shankle disappeared and I was simply trying to lift the most weight possible. I actually almost lost 115kg because I jerked it too hard, having to control the weight so it didn’t fly over my head.
“That was 115, what should I go for next, Donny?” It was the only question I asked him the entire day.
I smoked the clean on 120 almost too easily. But once I stood up I knew something immediately was wrong. Having a few hundred pounds resting against your shoulders and up against your throat, it’s not uncommon for a lifter to get light-headed when standing up from a clean. Normally I would bail out, but normally I’m not lifting in front of Shankle.
Staring across the gym at an “X” made from black electrical tape that had been my eye-line all day and waiting for it to come into focus I decided that I was not going to not attempt a jerk. So I waited. And waited. And everyone in the gym knew what was happening. Finally, after 25 seconds or so, I got my act together and attempted a jerk. But with so much time passing and that weight sitting on me for so long, the bar never got past my eyebrows.
Immediately, everyone commented on how it looked like I was going down. And how awesome it was that I fought through it. Then I heard Donny.
With that, I guess I was done with my attempts at a PR.
I paired up with another guy my size and we hit the squat rack across the gym. I had worked up to a single at 350 pounds, not near my all time max but heavier than I’d been in a while. I turned to find Donny to see if I should keep going but, just like that, he was gone. He had apparently left to catch a flight. Supposedly to Hawaii. Or maybe he just disappeared into the woods.
I wonder if he’ll be back.