Tribute Interview With Powerlifter Mike Witmer As told to Powerlifting USA by Ben Tatar of CriticalBench.com - December 2009
On Saturday July 18th, 2009 Mike Witmer was taken into the hands of the Lord. He was a great friend, hero and mentor to me and many others. He had a seizure and collapsed during the Third Annual Southwest Florida Strongest Man Contest where he was volunteering. After being taken by ambulance to Lee Memorial Hospital, he had two more seizures. A cat-scan revealed a plum size tumor in his brain. He passed away on Monday July 20th.
In power lifting, Mike Witmer squatted 800lbs in a single ply z-lock suit. He had benched 600lbs (back when 600 was a lot in competition), benched 700lbs in training (when 800lbs was the world record) and dead lifted 770lbs in a singlet. All of these lifts were done with the use of jack racks, no monolifts and using those old cotton knee wraps. Mike competed in strongman competitions, putting 300lbs logs over his head for reps and he flipped 1000lbs tires. He was an excellent football coach and teacher. He was married to Christi Witmer and had a four year old son, Ryan. In honor of this dear friend and dedicated power lifter, the following interview was put together from conversations that I had with Mike through the eleven years that I knew him.
Mike, you have some of the most hardcore power lifting stories of any man who I have ever known. Tell us an extreme power lifting story of your own.
Mike Witmer: This is an extreme and funny story. I trained at Suncoast gym in Tampa, which was like the west-side of the 80s. I trained with Tony Conyers, Joe Ladneir and Bob Chrosniak. Our squat sessions were like contests. One day a bad thunder storm hit, the power went off and we had to open the door by the squat platform to keep from suffocating. It was hot with no air! The storm had shifted and I had 750lbs on my back. The rain came wiping in the door, soaking me, and the thunder was really loud. I was scheduled for a triple. The guys got behind me, and got fired up, due to the conditions and started screaming and yelling, "F the weather hit it!" I did hit my triple. To this day whenever I see those guys they always bring that up!
"As you can see, Mike Witmer was a very intense man. Even through a thunder storm, no power and rain, he was doing full range squats with 750lbs."
Critical Bench: What was your proudest moment in bodybuilding?
Mike Witmer: In body building, I'm most proud of the time I won my weight class and competed for the overall.
"What makes Mike interesting was that he wasn't only a power lifter or a strongman competitor, but he competed in bodybuilding when his body needed to recover from power lifting. He also trained for strongman and the Highland games. He liked all parts of the iron game that were old school and hardcore."
Critical Bench: Mike, you and Christi are sponsored by BMF sports. What is that like for you?
Mike Witmer: A pleasant surprise! "BUD Lyte" and BMF sports are great for power lifting! Bud Lyte is awesome for the sport. He is attempting to take it to the next level and helping the lifters out!
Critical Bench: Do you ever think your son, Ryan will be super strong? (Question was posed in a 2007 email.)
Mike Witmer: As for my son, he is going to be scary strong! He mimics everything I do. I always put the curl bar on the ground and he dead lifts it! Yesterday he went to lift it, it got stuck half way up, and he strained through it and finished it. I have added 10lbs to each side now. He is 2 years old and he pulled it for reps. LOL, it was too funny to watch!
"Mike always told me stories about Ryan's potential to be a hardcore weight lifter or pro athlete. Christi is also tall and a very talented lifter. Mike talked about the heart that Ryan showed. There's no doubt in my mind that Ryan is genetically gifted."
Critical Bench: You trained with the man with the biggest bench ever, Ryan Kennelly for a long time. Give us a funny and memorable moment!
Mike Witmer: Ryan and I ordered some bands. We trained in a commercial gym and didn't know how to use them. Ryan doubled them under the power-rack and looped them over the bar. He got under the bar, I lifted off, and the entire rack came off the ground and slung through the wall!
"Mike was Ryan's Kennelly training partner, just when Kennelly came on the scene and became a household name in power lifting."
Critical Bench: Can you share a memory with Ryan Kennelly from the Arnold?
Mike Witmer: I was lifting off for Ryan. I looked at him in the warm-up room, and said, "Just another Saturday at the gym, buddy!" We walked out onto the stage with hundreds of people watching with bright lights beaming down. Ryan lied on the bench just as we noticed ourselves on the jumbo-tron screen. Then the spotlight goes on Ryan; he looks up at me and says, "Bullshit another Saturday in the gym!"
"Mike used to go to the Arnold to root Ryan Kennelly and all of his other power lifting friends on. In person, the aura of Mike was clearly larger than life and he always had great things to say to people."
Critical Bench: Name me three power lifters who have been with you for a long time?
Mike Witmer: Danny Aguire, Dave Beers and Wayne Myers.
Critical Bench: What does your iron journey mean to you?
Mike Witmer: The journey is what I cherish the most. There is not a week that goes by that I don't think back about it. There was a lot of work and sweat that goes into it. And I wouldn't trade it in for a million dollars! The lifetime friends I have met are priceless!
"If you sent Mike a text message or an email he would respond right away with a thoughtful response. His response would make you laugh, make you think or fire you up. I admired his ability to embrace both the positive and darker aspects of life. He was a deep thinker, a good listener who could think outside the box. He lived fully. He lived everyday as if it were his last."
Critical Bench: What makes the Witmer Monster different from everyone else?
Mike Witmer: I think I'm different from everyone because I do this sport with passion and try to help others along the way.
"Mike motivated people to stay out of jail and instead inspired them to stay in school."
Critical Bench: Mike, what are your thoughts on the people who love what you do, people who are afraid of you and people you inspire?
Mike Witmer: For people who love me, I respect them. I try to help people who love what I do. For people who fear me, I tell those afraid that we we're all scared of Santa at one time.
For people who I inspire, I try to continue to light the fire.
"Mike didn't care what people thought. He was tough as nails. He was a very whole and well rounded individual who interacted with a wide range of people. Whether a person was living through darkness or light Mike could show compassion because he was a balanced person who could inspire people from different walks of life and states of being."
Critical Bench: Why did you like to be a hardcore lifter instead of an everyday gym lifter?
Mike Witmer: I have always liked being "not normal" in everything I have done. Anyone can be in the middle. Life is way too short!
"Mike always wanted to be the best that he could be. Mike lived to be exceptional in a world that naturally likes to conform and attain status that is viewed as mediocre."
Critical Bench: What is your advice for people facing extreme adversity of any kind?
Mike Witmer: With adversity, there will always be the silver lining in the cloud; the key is too tough it out until you get there!
"Although anyone who becomes someone faces adversity, Mike never had a problem with adversity because he knew that the essence of adversity is what makes the ride and glory of success worth it."
Critical Bench: Mike, of all the world records, which ones are your top three favorites and why?
Lee Moran's 1003 squat. The collar broke, weights went flying and he still managed to get back under the weight and squat it!
Heiseys 925 dead lift. That was unheard of back then.
Ryan Kennelly's 800 bench
"Mike use to analyze everything he could. He would analyze everything from sports predictions, to comparing and contrasting different aspects of life with me."
Critical Bench: You have done so much. How do you want to be remembered?
Mike Witmer: I want to be remembered as the strong guy who loved people and was a good dad, husband and educator.
"Mike was all of those things. It's rare to know someone who had Mike's experience, level of living, intellectual depth, intensity and passion."
Critical Bench: What makes you happy?
Mike Witmer: What makes me happy...when I come home and my little boy runs to me yelling DADDY. And of course, being strong!
"Mike was always proud of his son."
Critical Bench: Mike, give us a heartfelt emotional power lifting story of yours.
Mike Witmer: I had retired from lifting for a year and I decided to train Special Olympic kids. They were doing a meet in the town next to me and begged me to lift with them. I trained only for six weeks. I said that I had retired and was hardly lifting at all.
Well, I figured after six weeks, I could at least hit a little weight to make my special Olympians happy and proud.
I opened with 500 on the squat. Now this was after I had a best squat of 825. It was hard on my ego, but I wanted to just do it for the boys! Well, one of my nemeses was there, Mark Dimuduk. We used to battle back and forth through the years. We had a love hate relationship. He comes up to me, and says, well Witmer, "I won't brag about this win, you're just doing this meet to impress your specials kids. You'll just get your ass kicked again, and they will get to see it anyway!"
I went from 500 to 600, figured maybe I could stay close to Mark and maybe pull some kind of miracle off. I hit a very, very hard 600! Mark goes from 700 to 750 misses on depth. I take 650, keeping me within striking distance. I get fired up and was the crowd favorite, due to the special Olympic kids! People were screaming and yelling, my boys were so excited! I dug down deep, refusing to miss and grunted out the hardest squat of my life! Well, Mark's bench was his weak point. I always had a good bench. Plus, while I was retired, I benched more than I did anything.
Well, he hit a 450 and I matched him with a 450. It was raw since I had thrown my
shirt out when I retired. LOL....here we go, dead lift time. I opened with 500,
having no idea where I was at. Mark opens with 650, pops it easy. He then gets
cocky and takes a big jump. Mark was a great dead lifter. He goes 775, which
I have seen him hit a million of times, but he loses his grip and tears his
hand. My chance, I thought! I went 650. Man it was an all day pull. I thought there is no way I can pull 700 for the win.
I was lighter, so the tie goes to me. Mark bows out, after seeing my hard
pull, thinking he had secured the win. One thing Mark didn't realize about
me…..I HATE TO LOSE! And will do anything to win! I called for a 700 and the
win. Mark just shook his head, and said, "You couldn't stand not being
competitive with me huh?" I said," No, I can't stand not beating you once again!"
I tell my boys," I need this one to win!" They look at me, with their trusting eyes, and tell me, "You can't lose coach. You're the strongest man in the world!" To them, I was! I was invincible to them! I COULDNT let them down!
I got really cranked up screaming to the top of my lungs. The crowd was
going crazy! The special Olympic kids' parents were in frenzy by now. I grabbed
that bar, closed my eyes and pulled like I have never pulled before! It was
so slow, it didn't look real. I got it! The judge says DOWN! I am ecstatic!
My boys, their parents and other lifters rush me. One of my boys, a 250lb
Down syndrome kid, knocks me to the ground in joy! The rest of my boys jump
me, kissing me and telling me they loved me. The parents hugged me after I got
up while other lifters shook my hands! I collapsed in pure mental drain and
cried. It was another amazing high of my life!
Critical Bench: That was Mike Witmer. Being friends with him was like winning a championship that would last forever! Every time you trained or did anything, you were riding a "high" because Mike Witmer always talked to the highest part of your spirit and you would celebrate all the great results that would follow. He was an amazing father. He always spoke well about his wife Christi and showed interest in everything she ever did.
He took teams from a smaller school to beating powerhouse teams in football. He took average genetic guys to becoming lifters who people would call "extraordinary." He was just amazing like that. For me personally, this loss is the death of an era. However, I know that when a soul mate dies, we feel that a part of us dies. However, I think our soul mates, our heroes, would want us to carry their gifts everywhere. They always roam our souls and that can't change or break.
Mike Witmer, was balls to the wall. Mike's big goal came from advice from his father, "In the end, see life as a ride." He had priceless friends. He encouraged us to always try to improve. He lived and trained with passion. He had a great wife and son. He enjoyed his teaching job. I sometimes would ask him to take an old man perspective, play life backwards to see if he was in the right place. He would look back and shout, "WHOAAA WHAT A RIDE IT HAS BEEN!"
He inspires us to do the same...To live, love, go balls to the wall and to be happy being you. When you train and feel like quitting, listen to him yell, "DON'T YOU QUIT, SHOW ME THAT ANIMAL DESIRE!" See Mike's smile every time you take a step. In the legacy of Mike Witmer, you can serve him by keeping the "hardcore" edge of power lifting around and keeping the brotherhood mentality of power lifting forever! RIP Mike, you will be missed, but your spirit and what you meant to all of us will be with us forever.