Legends of WSM: Žydrūnas Savickas

“He pulls like a machine with hydraulics…he’s the strongest man ever.” – Bill Kazmaier

Strength isn’t like speed. The latter is one of the many gifts that come with youth, usually waning once you reach your third decade of life. A fifty year old wouldn’t stand a chance against his twenty-five year old self in a sprint. Strength is different.

Gradually, strength roots itself into our limbs. It matures at a slower rate and its decline is no overnight thing; indeed, “grandpa strength” isn’t a stereotype made of candyfloss. One’s hair may turn grey, their reactions may dull, but even pensioners will amaze you with their strong backs and vice-like grip. The potential to be strong is great, and one man has realised this potential more than anyone else.

Žydrūnas Savickas started lifting seriously at 13. Now 38 he has put his body through an incredible amount of competition. It’s customary for strongmen to break down at some point; not so with Savickas. All the toil has had the effect of fertiliser, nourishing muscles which are accountable for over 40 world records. With next to no leg drive in pressing events, and minimal shaking in the deadlift, slowly but surely, Big Z shifts whatever is put in front of him.

The first real flickers of this strength were on display in 1995 when Žydrūnas won Lithuanian’s 125kg+ powerlifting competition. He also won the ‘96 and ’97 competitions, becoming the first native to squat over 400kg/882lbs. Good as these accomplishments were, this was mere scaffolding for bigger and better things. In 1989 Žydrūnas had caught WSM on the television, and since that fateful day his main goal was set.

1998 was the year of Sweden’s Magnus Samuelsson, but if you happened to catch group 7 of the heats you will have seen a 23-year-old Žydrūnas try his utmost to make the final. It was a no show in 1999, but he remained Lithuanian’s brightest hope and bossed their powerlifting championship once more. A more experienced Zavickas entered 2000’s WSM; unable to lift the final Atlas Stone he was cruelly denied the chance to qualify. The scoreboard read 27 points apiece with Phil Pfister. Count back had the last say.

Disappointed but unscathed; that would soon change.

In 2001 Žydrūnas tore both of his patellar tendons during a competition in the Faroe Islands. Slipping on some sand as he carried the Conan’s Wheel, the big man recalled, “I can’t walk, I am laying down. Everybody says that I can’t come back.” For the few who kept the faith, none could have imagined how great this comeback would be.

The world of strongman was introduced to its new powerhouse when Mariusz Pudzianowski stormed to the top in 2002. This time Zavickas not only made the final but got second place. He repeated this feat in 2003, and again in 2004. No strongman had ever been so successful without taking the crown at least once, but with The Dominator in full stride it didn’t look possible. And with that notion floating about, Žydrūnas began his 5 year absence from WSM.

The ISFA (International Federation of Strength Athletics), once partners with WSM, had been making their own way since 2004, and so participation in one excluded you from the other. Zavickas went on to win the IFSA’s Grand Prix’s from 2005 until their end in 2007. In the coming years the SCL (Strongman’s Champion’s League) would also gain momentum as a significant Strongman competition, but, after WSM, the most decorated title has to go to the Arnold Strongman Classic.

It’s no surprise that Arnold Schwarzenegger remains a hero to many strength athletes (Žydrūnas included), and from 2003-2008 the growing Lithuanian amazed the body-building icon with his oppressive performances. Largely a static-based showdown, it’s all about lifting the heaviest weights. In this sense the winner truly is the world’s strongest man, but that didn’t change the fact Big Z had yet to raise that MET-Rx trophy. And for a man who lives for challenges the enticing truth was, given its various demands, WSM is probably the hardest of all titles to capture.

Fresh off his historic fifth title, Mariusz aimed for a sixth in 2009. Žydrūnas was focused on derailing his plans but, with that sizeable gut, there was concern over whether he was athletic enough to hold his own in the more dynamic events. Well, the first event (the Fingal’s Fingers) gave us a definitive answer as Savickas tipped all five over in a world record time of 28.69s. He sustained his lead, beat Mariusz in the head-to-head deadlift and confirmed his supremacy in the Atlas Stones. As he often does, Žydrūnas let his interviewer know that he was “very happy”.

2010 saw Colorado’s Brian Shaw take his giant steps towards glory. He pushed the reigning champion hard who (it must be said) had been suffering from an injury. Beating Savickas to the last stone put them dead even at 51.5 points apiece. It was time for count back to decide a winner which, mercifully, pointed towards Žydrūnas. In 2011 Shaw would not be denied.

With the addition of Iceland’s 6’9” Hafþór Björnsson it’s apparent that strongmen are bigger than ever; either near or over the 400lbs/180kg mark. Meals have multiplied and supplements are consumed like candy. Being the best doesn’t just mean hard work but high maintenance .To retain such bulk around 6,000-8,000 calories per day is on the menu. For Savickas, who also works with the city council, training is considered “more like a rest between jobs.”

In 2012, for the second year on the run, WSM took place in America. With home advantage Shaw hoped to claim his second title but this time it was his turn to be injured. Once again Žydrūnas broke his log lift world record on his way to that milestone third title. 12 months later and over 7000 miles west in Sanya, China, another chapter was written in the ongoing rivalry between these two monster men. Žydrūnas was a little shaky to begin with as Brian slipped into pole position. The max-deadlift event surely meant top points for Lithuania but Shaw outdid himself, setting a new world record of 442.5kg/975lbs. Big Z was fired up as he attempted to equal the feat, and then the strangest thing happened. He failed.

It was an exciting head-to-head on the Atlas Stones with Shaw securing that final one just before Zydrunas. WSM 2013 was his. The old campaigner took it his fifth runner-up trophy.

A good seven years younger than his rival, Shaw really does look like the future of WSM, though there can be no guarantees while Žydrūnas is in action. Unlike the boxer who denies his failing powers, Zavickas has said he will quit the moment he stops improving. The implications of this are as enticing for the fans as they are worrying for the competitors.

So long as Big Z reaches for the chalk and prepares to lift, the possibilities of strength are unknown.