He's got the power - and he can prove it

Larry Atkinson came late to the sport of weight lifting, but now he may be the strongest man his age in the US

Weight-lifting rooms are notoriously intimidating places. So there was nothing easy about one of Larry Atkinson's first visits to the gym where some of Maryland's most powerful men hang out.

He entered the room, walked up to a guy called "Big Rick," and inquired about getting a uniform for what would be his first competition.

"Big Rick" looked down at Atkinson - all 5 feet and 5 inches of him - and asked, "Are you a powerlifter?"

Atkinson, who was 75 years old at the time, paused, considered the question, and stared back at the giant in front of him.

Then he answered: "I wanna be."

Thus began the powerlifting career of the man who is arguably the strongest person his age in America.

This unofficial title, of course, is difficult to prove. Very few 75-year-olds lift weights seriously, and even fewer have the guts to dress up in a skintight uniform and strut their stuff in front of a crowd at competition.

In fact, at the two meets in which Atkinson competed over the summer, he was the only entrant in his 75-to-79 age category. It's a distinction that his wife of 34 years, Mary Lee, is quick to point out.

"When I came home afterwards, my wife asked me how I did," Atkinson recalls. "I said I got first place. Then she asked me how many people I competed against, and I said none.

"She really takes the wind out of my sails," he adds with a laugh. "But that's not the point. I compete against myself and I compete against the records of other lifters from the last 50 years."

Atkinson, who lives in Monkton, Md., says he holds state and national records in bench press, curling, and a combination event of dead lift and bench press. At a summer event, which he won, Atkinson benched 120 pounds and dead-lifted 230 pounds.

He's also won three medals (two silver and one gold) in Maryland Senior Olympics walking competitions.

Atkinson, a veterinarian at Laurel Race Course in Maryland, has thick wrists and legs like tree trunks. Before he pumps iron, he laces up his jet-black weight-lifting shoes and occasionally puts on a singlet. When the weights get heavier, he grunts and groans and his face turns as red as a tomato.

"Look at that," says his personal trainer, Mike Ochranek, with more than a hint of pride. "His form is perfect!"

Atkinson started working out with Ochranek 1-1/2 years ago after reading in the newspaper about one of Ochranek's other clients, a 66-year-old woman named Kate Kelly. Ochranek also turned her into a competitive powerlifter.

Ochranek seems to have found a niche.

"They say you need a target market for any business, and for a long while I had no idea what mine was," says Ochranek, who also coaches nearby at NASA's gym. "Now I think I'm moving in the right direction."

Atkinson grew up in Baltimore, not far from Pimlico Race Track, and horses were his first love.

After going off to the Navy as an air gunner from 1944 to 1946, and then the University of Pennsylvania for veterinary school, Atkinson returned to Baltimore and found his second love: Mary Lee.

Her family raised livestock, and one of the calves was sick. They called in a veterinarian, and Atkinson fell for the family's young daughter.

Since then, Atkinson has spent the better part of his career working at the state's many race tracks, caring for the horses. It's a physical profession, often involving getting a huge animal to do something it doesn't want to do.

"Lots of times I have to wrestle with the horses a little," Atkinson explains.

In his day, he's taken care of some of the legendary horses that have come through Maryland, including Seattle Slew and War Emblem. He's worked the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, six times.

"They were all classy horses," he says about the famous winners. "They stand like champions and nothing fazes them."

As Atkinson got up in years, his weight started ballooning. One day he was reading in the newspaper about heavyweight boxing champ Larry Holmes, and he realized they both were the same weight, 220 pounds.

He became determined to shed the surplus pounds, and started taking health-related classes at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. In 1995 he volunteered for a university exercise study that involved weight lifting. He realized he was one of the strongest men in his group.

In a year and a half of working out, his legs grew in diameter by 28 percent.

"I got hooked on serious weight training," he says. "I just like it.

"Some people my age like to play golf, but for my taste golf is a silly sport. It takes too much time. There's not enough excitement for me."

Atkinson now weighs in at about 150 pounds, cutting a much leaner profile than he used to. Health concerns were his primary reason, but another was that he wanted to compete in the 148-pound weight class.

The way he sees it, he's already set all the records at the higher weight, 181, so he might as well set his sights on a new target. He's already set a few records in his new division.

One problem, though, is that the age divisions in competition only go up to 79 years. "I told [the event organizers] that four years from now y'all will need a new weight class because I'll still be lifting," Atkinson says. "They said they'll do it."

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