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Memphis Flyer Hard Pressed

How fitness made it into a shopping-center parking lot

By Mary Cashiola

JULY 26, 1999:  A red-and-white striped tent sits in the shopping-center parking lot, billowing in the wind. There are a few people inside, mostly women and children, drinking Cokes and waiting. At the front of the tent sits a makeshift stage.

I am here for the Desoto County Bench Press Competition, and I am not entirely sure if this is it. I spy a blonde teenager wearing a STAFF T-shirt and decide to ask her. She immediately launches into a sales pitch for Fitness Unlimited, a gym in the Bullfrog Corner strip mall at Elvis Presley and Goodman.

"Do you want to join?" she asks, as peppy as a puppy.

"Uh, no, I already have a gym."

"Oh." She looks disappointed.

"This is the Bench Press Competition, right?" I ask.

She brightens again. "Do you want to sign up?"

I had thought about competing. I've never bench-pressed anything, but who knows? Maybe I'm a closet Wonder Woman, just waiting to begin my road to body-building beauty. I don't feel that way inside, but, like I said, you never know.

But I completely chicken out. "Uh, no."

People begin to gather around the stage; one woman catches my eye. She is gorgeous: long, blonde hair, perfect body clad in a black sports bra and tiny shorts. And she's wearing weight-lifting gloves. Thank heavens I didn't sign up for the bench-pressing contest.

Another woman says that they are going to have an aerobics demonstration. About eight people stand in front of an instructor, the gorgeous woman included, and begin to step side to side.

Ten minutes later, the class is still going strong. Are they going to do an entire class? While the tent provides some shade, it does nothing to combat the heat. A drop of sweat is running down my leg.

It doesn't seem to be affecting the aerobics class. The music has picked up tempo and they're bouncing around, smiling, punching at each other in time to the beat. Part of me, the insane part, wants to throw down my notepad and flail along wildly.

The moment passes. The gorgeous woman begs a friend for a hair tie.

Finally the class is over. A couple of guys drag a bench in front of the stage and contestants start to warm up.

Event organizer Jason Alsbroa explains that each contestant gets three warm-up sets. "You do your warm-up and then you think about what weight you want to do. If you do it and you think you can do more, you go again."

Another staff member says into a microphone, "This is Joe. He's a middleweight at 180 pounds and he'll be going for 320."

Joe has trouble pressing the weight. The audience starts chanting, "C'mon, Joe!" faster and faster until Joe brings the barbell back up.

After a few more lifters, men pressing 225 to 285 pounds, a man wearing a grayed T-shirt walks to the front. His elbows are wrapped with tape and his legs are surprisingly smooth.

"This is Todd. He is a light heavyweight at 208 pounds, and he's going for 405." The crowd is very happy about this. They whistle and yell. "You go, Todd!"

Todd presses the weight quickly and cleanly, one down, one up. Sitting back up, his face is beet-red; he tears the tape from his elbows and removes his gloves.

The crowd is ecstatic.

A few more lifters take their turns. Some of them have trouble and the crowd tries to help them by screaming encouragement. But it's when the spotters bark, "PUSH IT!" that the lifters give it their all.

Then the super heavyweights lift. Keith, a barrel-chested football type, quickly sews it up with a lift of 415 pounds. Todd is called back to the front to see if he wants to challenge.

He does. He re-tapes his elbows and sits on the bench as the weight is prepared, his hands clasp between his legs. He looks resolved. Determined. He lifts 420 pounds, more than twice his weight.

After Keith takes on 425, Todd's elbows are bound back up. He presses 430 to win the Desoto County Bench Pressing competition overall, as well as the light heavyweight division.

"This is the first power-lifting I've done," Fulwood says. A police officer, Fulwood says that he works out four or five days a week with his squad, lifting about 400 pounds on his heavy days.

I ask one of the organizers when the women's competition is going to be, and she says that there isn't going to be one.

"No women signed up," she explains.

I immediately wish I had signed up. Why didn't I sign up? I could've won. I could've been the Desoto County female bench-pressing champion. I could've been something.

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