by Thom Van Vleck
John O’Brien has been my training partner, member of the JWC, and most of all, friend, for many years now. When I think of what an All-Round athlete is, I think of John. He is good, maybe a better word would be “great” at everything strength related. I have written about him before but I’m hoping to add to what you already know about him and make the case for him being a TRUE All-Rounder.
He has competed in a strongman contests and Olympic lifting meets and placed or won his class in many contests. He has competed in Highland Games and always places high. He has competed in the USAWA with great success in about a dozen meets and has a couple dozen records to his credit. Not to mention he is a world class short steel bender and performing professional strongman with over one hundred performances under his belt. That, to me, it a true All-Round athlete!
John started lifting around the age of 13. His older brother had a weight set at home and then at age 15 he started lifting for sports on programs set up by his coaches. John mainly played baseball until high school and then he made up for lost time. He played football (varsity for three years), wrestling, baseball, and track. He said that he was best at football and baseball, but played the other sports so he could have access to the weight room year around. He also mentioned maybe watching the girls run in track was a bonus! Funny how many of us start lifting to impress girls!
John played on a football team in high school that had a dubious distinction. They lost every game his junior and senior year! The losing streak became so long that David Letterman started to track in on his show and when they finally won (long after John had left) they had some of the team members fly out to New York to be on the show. John was a lineman and played both ways, he also played a couple years of college ball at Graceland College.
Then John entered graduate school at the University of Kansas to become the Chemistry Professor he is now at Truman State in Kirksville. I was around this time that his oldest son was born very premature and lifting ended up being sacrificed for many years. Then about 8 or so years ago John was very overweight and decided to do something about it.
John was training hard and lost 50lbs in the process. There were a couple of students that were entering my JWC Strongman contest and they challenged John to enter, John told me they “teased” him and for them…..that was a bad idea! John not only entered that contest….he won his weight class and rather decisively as I recall.
John had strength, but he is also very athletic, able to adjust to events on the fly. He will tell you he operates off of “brute” strength, but I say it’s more than that. He has an intelligent strength that is also athletic. If strongman contests did not divulge the events, my money would be on John. Recently, we were at Al’s Dino Gym where there is something called the “pill”. A giant pill shaped metal object loaded with sand. John spotted it, walked over and hoisted it…becoming the oldest person to do it (at age 42)….but more than that, what impressed me was his ability to lift it without much planning or practice, or even warm up!!!! He walked up, sized it up, then lifted it! That’s more than brute strength.
John said after that first JWC contest he began to only train for strength, beginning a lifting career in his mid 30’s….when most guys are quitting! Since that time, he has competed in Olympic lifting, Strongman, USAWA, Highland Games, and most recently, Highlander meets. John has done well in all and is a two time masters National Champ in Highlander. More importantly, that first contest was how we met and our friendship began and most of these contests were events we traveled to and/or competed in together!
Another aspect of our relationship started right after that first Strongman Contest that John entered and won. The next day the JWC was doing a strongman evangelism show at the local YMCA. I noticed John was in the front row. He told me later he watched us and thought, “I can do those things” but more than that, he believed in the REASON we were doing them. Which I will go into in Part 2 of my article!
Next: Part 2 of “John O’Brien: True All-Round Athlete”.