Andrew Holowchak is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wilkes University, Pennsylvania, USA. He is the author or several books, including "Philosophy of Sport: Critical Readings, Crucial Issues", "The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed," and several on Thomas Jefferson.
I conducted the following interview with the legendary Lithuanian strongman Žydrūnas Savickas on Saturday morning, March 7th of 2009, just prior to the final day of the Arnold Strongman Classic. Though he did not compete in 2009, Savickas had won the previous six ASCs. He is also a two-time winner of the International Federation of Strength Athletes (IFSA) World Strongman Championships (2005 and 2006), the 2009 Fortissimus challenge, and numerous other strongman contests. He is regarded by many to be the strongest man who has ever lived. The interview was conducted through a Lithuanian translator.
(MAH) M. Andrew Holowchak: Žydrūnas, I'd first like to thank you for taking the time to be interviewed. My first question is this: Do you have a philosophy of life? If so, how is strength related to that philosophy of life:
(ŽS) Žydrūnas Savickas: First, it is important for me to do better with each competition and each competition is a competition with myself -- not against anybody else. I need to compete with myself -- that's most important.
MAH: So this self-competition, is it because you have elevated yourself above the other athletes so much that you cannot compete with them anymore or merely that you do your best in contests when you forget about others and focus on and compare yourself with yourself?
ŽS: This competition with myself helps me be hard to beat. That's because I know my strengths. I'm always going to make myself better and that makes it harder fore other guys to beat me. It makes me more difficult to compete against, because I always try to improve with each competition -- to be better than I was before. I put the mark higher, and that's why everyone has to catch up to me.
MAH: So it's an internal source of strength mainly that drives you -- there is something inside of you that drives you as opposed to something external like fame, money?
ŽS: Yah, I am always looking for better results with each competition -- to be better than previous competitions. That's the single aim for me.
MAH: How did you become interested in strength sports? When did you start getting the bug, as it were, to want to lift weights and want to be in strongman?
ŽS: When I was 13 years old, I started going to the gym and that's when Lithuania was starting -- getting interested in strongman competitions. That's when I got interested. At 16 years, I was in my first competition.
MAH: Wow, at 16 years of age?
MAH: What makes you wish to continue in the sport of strongman? What is it about the sport of strongman, what is it about lifting -- about being strong?
ŽS: I feel like I have room to grow -- that's why I don't want to stop now and that's why I continue to lift. As soon as I feel there's not going to be room to grow, I'm going to stop immediately.
MAH: So, as soon as there's no more progress?
MAH: What are your favorite strength events and do you have any one event -- is there any one event that you like best?
ŽS: The most? I like most -- um, I like all the events. It is very hard for me to decide which event I like the most, but one of my favorites is the (overhead) log press.
ŽS: I like doing competitions with more weight involved. With more weight involved, I feel that that's my strength and I can be better than everyone else. That's how -- I mean, all these strength competitions with heavy weights -- that's my power. I'm not very strong at long distances and stuff (i.e., events where strongmen have to carry heavy objects for long distances and endurance and strength are being measured equally), but I still make progress in those events.
MAH: Along those lines, I was talking with someone yesterday about some of the events in the World's Strongest Man Contest, events where -- you remember O.D. Wilson -- when he lost to Jón Páll Sigmarsson (four-time winner of the World's Strongest Man Contest, between 1984 and 1990), on the very last event of some contest, which was an endurance contest?
MAH: Anyway, you know that I don't consider the World's Strongest Man Contest to be a good contest for deciding the strongest man in the world -- that something -- something like the Arnold Classic is better. Do you agree with that?
ŽS: Yes, there are too many, like you said, endurance events and not enough pure strength events. I agree that being the strongest man in the world is more about strength and not about endurance. At the Arnold Classic, the contest is balanced, so that you really decide who is the strongest. The contest is set up so you can be strong in one event and you can be weak in another, but there is balance to the contest.
ŽS: Yes, overall balance where you can really find out who is the strongest.
MAH: Okay, I'm going to turn to the history of strength sports. Out of all the people who have lifted, who are some of your favorites -- who are some of the athletes you have idolized, or you have looked up to and have drawn inspiration from?
ŽS: When I began to lift, I had no idols -- not anybody. I didn't follow anybody. I didn't have any favorites, until recently. [Pause] Louis Cyr is kind of like an idol to me, because I got a lot of ideas from him and I agree with a lot of his training philosophy (legendary Canadian strongman and one of the world's first inordinately strong humans. Cyr is reported to have lifted a platform on his back with 18 men, performed a dumbbell push-press of 273 pounds with one hand, and resisted the pull of four draft horses, two in each arm, by being a human link between each team of two). But now, in more recent years, Bill Kazmaier (three-time World's Strongest Man winner from 1980 to 1982 and one of the strongest men to have ever lived), but there was no one, when I started.
MAH: As someone who has watched you over the years, the person who comes to mind is Bill Kazmaier -- especially when it comes to brute shoulder strength. Let me ask, do you think that you have the strongest shoulders ever?
ŽS: It's hard to tell. I don't want to be boastful -- to be stuck up. Most of the shoulder-press records are mine and I press more from strength, not from technique.
MAH: Yes, like Bill Kazmaier. You too press mostly with your shoulders and arms and not with your legs and that's very impressive to me.
MAH: Okay, who are the five strongest men who ever lived in the sport of strongman? How would you rate them -- including yourself? I understand there's modesty involved here, but . . .
ŽS: I can perhaps give you the top five, but not rank them. I won't say who should be first, or second, or . . .
ŽS: I just want to give five names -- the ones who are now the best, not from the past.
MAH: That's fine.
ŽS: Bill Kazmaier [slight pause], Magnús Ver Magnússon (from Iceland and a four-time World's Strongest Man winner from 1991 to 1996), [slight pause], Rico Kiri [slight pause], me [with short laugh], and, um, [very long pause] . . .
MAH: You've got Vasyl Virastyuk (Ukrainian strongman and the only person to win both the WSM Contest - 2004 - and the IFSA contest for the strongest man in the world -2007 -)., Pudzianowski . . .
ŽS: Ah, Virastyuk is not a good deadlifter, so I cannot put him in the top five. And, uh, maybe, [very long pause], and Mikhail Koklyaev, maybe, he could be . . .
MAH: He looks strong in this year's contest, doesn't he!
ŽS: The last place is maybe for Koklyaev or Poundstone, but it will be decided in a couple of years -- maybe after this contest (Savickas later indicated to me in an email - Apri21, 2009 - that Poundstone, with his win at the ASC in 2009, deserved the fifth spot. Savickas did not compete.).
MAH: Okay. I'm going to turn now to strength and philosophy -- some of the questions that are more important for my book. What have -- this is a question that is very similar to the very first one -- what have you learned about yourself from strength training? What has it taught you?
ŽS: That I'll reach whatever goal I set for myself -- that if you want something in life and you work hard for it, you'll always reach it. So, that's my philosophy.
MAH: Let me ask you a question about efficiency -- that's something I'm very interest in.
ŽS: Efficiency is very important, because being a great strongman is very hard and it takes several years and you have to work hard for it. It's not just something that you decide to do and then do it in a day. It's a lifestyle, basically. And if you have an injury, it won't happen.
MAH: Let me ask -- say something more about efficiency. One of the things I'm pushing towards is linking up efficiency with beauty in sport. For instance, I don't consider Pudzianowski to be one of the all-time strongest lifters, but I do consider him to be a very efficient lifter and I think that he is technically a very beautiful lifter. He doesn't waste energy through unnecessary motions and he's only 300 pounds. That's the sense of efficiency that I'm getting at. How important is efficiency as something beautiful? Do you think of efficiency as beautiful at all, or is it something different?
ŽS: If you aim is beauty, then efficiency doesn't matter. If you want beauty, then you do it for beauty, not just for the result. You're never going to be the strongest and the most beautiful . . . (here there was a misunderstanding about "beauty." I was thinking of efficiency as aesthetical, While Savickas was thinking about having a good-looking physique, while competing. This confusion was most likely the result of his lack of proficiency with English and my complete ignorance of Lithuanian).
MAH: I don't mean that sense of beauty. Let my try to explain better, with help of our translator. I mean by "beauty" a sense of efficiency or economy -- economy of movement. Do you know -- is that a better word, economy? By economical, I mean something like "not wasting energy" -- not wasting energy when one does something. Doing something very economically, efficiently . . .
ŽS: I lift everything efficiently, not just because I try to save time, but because I have limited energy in any competition. But I always have enough time to reach whatever goal I have. In any competition -- well, I've never had a weight in an event that was too heavy -- that was too much for me.
MAH: So, the weight's never beaten you yet. You've always had something left.
ŽS: Yes, always something left -- something --
MAH: And that's what drives --
ŽS: That's why I'm coming back and coming back stronger. Yes. That's why I feel like, when there'll be no more steps on the ladder left . . .
MAH: Okay, you said in an interview after last year's Arnold Strongman Classic -- someone interviewed you and it went on YouTube -- and you mentioned "luck." And I thought that it was a very, very interesting comment. You said, "I owe some of my lifting success to luck." What did you mean by that?
ŽS: Every competition -- and it doesn't matter how strong and ready you are -- it's all . . . if you get injured, you know, it's very heavy, so at any step, at any moment you can get injured and that will set you back and that's why it is . . . [pause]. At the first couple of ASCs, I got injured, though I was strong enough, ready. I still won -- even with the injuries. That was luck, truly luck, because with those injuries I had, most others wouldn't have competed. And I have had competitions in the past where I was stronger than everyone else, but I still lost, just because I was unlucky.
MAH: Unlucky, is that sometimes because of the --
ŽS: Mostly I've made mistakes (technical or deliberative mistakes that impacted the outcome). It was a mistake that cost me. That's why I lost.
MAH: Okay, this question is related to the last one: How much a part of your sport is pain? Do you have a philosophy of pain, if that makes any sense?
ŽS: It's a lot of pain, basically -- legs, back, hands, shoulders. Basically, it's a lot of pain. All sports -- they're mostly about pain.
MAH: Ah, I would say this sport [strongman] more than other sports. Is that way --
ŽS: I agree.
MAH: Being able to excel, being able to accomplish in the sport of strongman, being able to overcome pain and setbacks -- are those things that make you think that you can do anything you want to? Is that what's driving you to want to do things like politics in the future?
ŽS: This sport makes you mentally strong and basically prepares you for anything. In the future you can get ready for anything, you know, when you are successful -- have overcome the setbacks of strongman.
MAH: Along those lines, I consider the sport of strongman to be a very, very dangerous sport -- in terms of the possibility of very serious injury and -- let's be honest, when you get men who weigh from 300 to 400 pounds -- men who weigh 140, 150, 160, 170, even 180 kilos -- when your bodyweight gets up, the risks are even greater. Some people have even died in the sport of strongman. How long can you continue in such a dangerous sport.
ŽS: Both of my knees have been surgically repaired. I get through the sport almost on a day-to-day basis. Before my knee injuries nothing could set me back. But after the surgeries, I am much more careful about lifting. I don't jump over my head, so to speak. If I plan to do something [in training], I no longer try to do too much more than what I planned -- kind of, living day-by-day, puting on more weight later, leaving something for next time.
ŽS: You don't have to you know -- mentally you can't be thinking about all the dangers, because it can set you back.
MAH: No, you can't. You can't. Certainly. Okay a couple more questions. What are the limits of human physical strength? More specifically, what do you think your limits, as a strongman-athlete, are? Where do you see yourself ending up? what lifts do you see yourself doing before you're done? What are the limits of Žydrūnas Savickas in strongman?
ŽS: In general, there are no limits for the human body. For me, on the log press, I can do 10 more kilos. I've done 210 (462 pounds). I can do 220 (484).
MAH: What do you think you'll be able to do on the [Hummer] tire deadlift?
ŽS: I think I can lift 525 or 540 kilos. (1,157 - 1,190 pounds).
MAH: 540 kilos -- that's astonishing! What was the most lifted yesterday?
ŽS: Yesterday was 462 kilos.
MAH: Two more questions -- one more question, actually. Who do you think will be the next great strength athlete in the sport of strongman? You mentioned a couple --
ŽS: Okay, okay.
MAH: Who will be the next person to replace you?
ŽS: I think that Poundstone will be [a case of] wait-and-see. After last year, he didn't really bring anything to the table. In the next year or two, we'll see how it's going to be decided. The year before last, he made a big jump, but after last year, he hasn't done much. We'll see. Twenty years in the sport, I have been able to add kilos to every lift, but he has had a big jump, and then nothing. (In response to my email comment about Poundstone's record-smashing 15 reps with the circus dumbbell, Savickas replied (April 21st, 2009) that the record was more the result of Poundstone's purchase of a similar dumbbell, with which he practiced abundantly prior to the contest. I would agree as I saw Poundstone pop out 10 reps with a similar dumbbell in training on YouTube).
MAH: Will you be competing in the World's Strongest Man, or is that a contest you will be avoiding?
ŽS: I would like to compete in World's Strongest Man one more time. Maybe this year.