Building a Strong Man - Pacific Standard
How attempting the improbable, and chasing the past, led one man to find a community—and himself.

One gun shot. A single bullet, right between the eyes, from 30 feet away. That was the fate of Joseph "The Mighty Atom" Greenstein, an old-time strongman, who could bend steel rods the way a clown twists up balloons. He could warp galvanized steel, defeat the elements with his bare hands; but he wasn't a magician, he couldn't predict the future. The gunman had fallen for his wife and now the strongest man on Earth was on the wrong side of a pistol, powerless.

The Greensteins had left Poland for Galveston, Texas, at the turn of the 20th century. Joseph found work on the docks and in the oil fields. At night, he worked the ring, wrestling under the name Kid Greenstein. He was 5'4", 140 pounds, too small to stick out in a crowd, but in the ring, under the lights, he was already something of a legend. Undefeatable. Unthinkably strong. He was a ball of muscle, a rock that could not be moved.

A single bullet. It seemed too small, too weak, too feeble, to defeat The Mighty Atom. It was. He lived; in fact, he left the hospital the very same day. As the legend goes, the bullet met a surface it couldn't penetrate. Against the force of Greenstein's skull, it flattened up like a coin before falling harmlessly to the ground.

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In many ways, the survival of The Mighty Atom ensured the survival of the strongman.

The gunshot marked a turning point in his life. Convinced that the power of his mind and his physical condition were the reason he'd survived, Greenstein began performing feats of strength with regularity. Over the years, his act grew more extreme, and the crowd grew along with it.

He plied his trade on Coney Island, the last great refuge for the old-time strongman. There, among the fire breathers, the glass eaters, and the sword swallowers, he made his bid for the title of greatest strongman alive.

"I'm overwhelmed with scrap metal. I think it may become a bit of a problem."

Greenstein was an original, a man determined to break the rules the rest of us are forced to accept. To watch him bend steel, or hammer nails into wood with his bare hands, or break chains by flexing his chest, or slip a coin between his teeth and then snap it like a cracker, was to step into a fantasy world, full of new rules and possibilities. But Greenstein wasn't alone.

There are others, though not many. Chris Schoeck is one of the few people on Earth who also knows what it feels like to use the strength of both body and mind to break steel, to feel it give way under pressure. When that steel goes, Schoeck, 47, says, it's a dangerous euphoria. Afterwards, you crave more. Schoeck has known that feeling before. For more than a decade, beginning before he was even a teenager, he found it through the bottle. But he's a strongman, a strong man, and he's since kicked that habit. Now he gets his fix with steel.

Schoeck bends steel in the basement, a storage unit really, of his New York apartment. He keeps the resulting shapes afterwards, a pile of mangled trophies. To you and I, it would all look the same. Scrap metal. Junk. Not to him. It's a 3,000-pound training log.

"It's like sedimentary rock," he says. "You dig through it and you find different layers of stuff, which you were proud of then, but you look at it now and you're doing stuff at an entirely different level."

Upstairs, in his apartment, he used to have boxes filled with playing cards. He trains with those, too, ripping through a new pack like it's a sheet of paper. Afterwards, he gathers up the pieces, wraps them tight with a rubber band, and then tears through them again. It's a cost-cutting maneuver. When your training requires that you destroy your equipment, things can get expensive.

When the boxes started piling up, and Schoeck was running out of space, he called a hoarding service. He said goodbye to the cards, but not the steel. Not yet.

"I'm overwhelmed with scrap metal," he says. "I think it may become a bit of a problem."

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Like The Mighty Atom, Schoeck is diminutive: Five-foot seven, 150 pounds. He's always been small, always felt small. Growing up, he says, he was the type of kid to get sand kicked in his face. Maybe in part because of this, he'd always been fascinated by strength.

Schoeck was 12 years old when he saw his first strongman. A real-life superhero. The strongman handed Schoeck one of his trophies, Schoeck held it in his arms like a baby, and he's never stopped holding onto that moment. In his professional life, he became a personal trainer. Then, influenced by the strongmen he saw on Coney Island as a child, he bought some steel nails, and pushed until one gave. He brought it to his gym and showed it to the strongest people he could find. They couldn't replicate the feat.

Chris Schoeck in Coney Island. (Photo: BOND/360)

Chris Schoeck in Coney Island. (Photo: BOND/360)

His life had become cyclical, Schoeck says, the same doors opening and closing, but when that nail bent, the routine was interrupted. A new world opened up. Schoeck left the gym, went home, got on his computer, and found a strongman in Philadelphia named Greg Matonick.

Matonick wasn't a small guy. He had forearms like railroad spikes. On his right arm he had a tattoo of Frankenstein. The sleeves were cut off his shirt. His silver hair was greased back in an effortless wave. Piles of bars and rods and horseshoes—all steel, and all twisted—lay stacked on tables throughout his workshop.

"I was just mesmerized," Schoeck says now. "These were the things you only read about in comic books. I felt like I was not only getting to meet them, but someday, maybe, I could get to be part of that group."

In the shop, Schoeck tried to bend a nail. This time, nothing happened. Then a spike. Nothing. Then Matonick handed him a steel bar. It wasn't thick, it wasn't herculean, but still, it was steel.

"I was mesmerized. These were the things you only read about in comic books. I felt like someday, maybe, I could get to be part of that group."

Matonick wrapped the ends with towels, and placed it between Schoeck's legs. He told Schoeck, when he was ready, to pull as hard as he could. He did. The bar gave. Matonick said, "Kid, you have something special here." Schoeck remembers the date: January 23, 2010.

"It was a pivotal point in my life," he says. "I actually impressed a strongman with Frankenstein on his forearm. That was something I needed in my life. Up until that point I sort of had reconciled myself to just going through life and missing out."

With new motivation, Schoeck dove further down the strongman rabbit hole. Matonick put him in touch with Chris "Haircules" Rider, a giant, with long red hair, braided into pigtails. His calling card is fastening chains to the end of his pigtails, and a car to the end of the chains, and then, with a great purple vein throbbing in his neck, walking backward, pulling the car with each step.

Haircules began training Schoeck and the effects were immediate. He grew bigger and stronger, then, as is strongman tradition, Schoeck adopted a new name: Wonder. As in, you can't help but wonder how this guy, this tiny man, bends steel.

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He can't put an exact percentage on it, but a large part of being a strongman, Schoeck says, is mental strength.

In 2007, a group of Harvard researchers tested how the relationship between exercise and health is moderated by one's mind. Eighty-four female room attendants working in seven different hotels were split into two control groups. One group was told that, by cleaning rooms, they were satisfying the Surgeon General's recommendations for an active lifestyle. They were, essentially, working out. The second group wasn't told this. Four weeks later, the informed group had gotten stronger, they'd lost weight, and their blood pressure, body fat, and body mass index had all improved. Their behavior hadn't changed, but their focus had. The results were tangible.

To be an old-time strongman or strongwoman, you have to able to contract your mind with the same ease as flexing your bicep; you have to be able to outthink the impossible. "You have to train yourself to turn off certain receptors in your body that limit you from tearing yourself apart," Schoeck says. The pain, he says, is something you learn to embrace.

"I get out of this steel what most people get out of personal relationships."

He remembers Matonick in his last days, mind still powerful, but body beginning to fail. His back was ravished. He would keep one leg raised, to help ease the pain. With his leg elevated, he told Schoeck, "Chris, I'm getting stronger right now." Now, Schoeck knows what he meant.

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Schoeck's mind wasn't always strong. Not around others. Before he was Wonder, when he was still Chris, he ran alone through the New York streets. In a documentary, Bending Steel, that follows him into the world of strongmen, Schoeck confides to the the camera that holding friends and family close never seemed worth the time. Instead, he says, "I get out of this steel what most people get out of personal relationships."

To be a strongman, though, also means to perform, to capture a crowd. Schoeck is learning that, too. It can be overwhelming, he says, but it's getting better. In his basement, early on in his training, he'd film his sessions—not just the bends, but the banter as well. Afterwards, he'd review the footage with Haircules, to figure out what worked and what didn't. Now, his routine is becoming more relaxed, more natural. "I'm developing a little more panache," he says.

Schoeck has a support network of fellow strongmen. That same group he once spent days dreaming about, he's since joined.

"We may live hours from each other but we call each other. We have conversations. We sort of selflessly support each other," Schoeck says. "That's an unusual feeling for me. It's a great feeling of self worth to have other people find value in you, to see that you're a worthwhile person and, on top of that, to recognize that you're good at something. It's an affirmation of me as a person, as a good person, as a strong person."

In Bending Steel, Schoeck says, "I've lived in New York all my life, but there's a part of me that has always felt a little extraterrestrial." He’s breathing the same air as everyone else now. He approaches people, talks to them. Sometimes, he says, the conversations even last awhile.

"I don't think, a few years ago, I would have done that," he says. "I might have gone out but I certainly wouldn't have made an effort to talk to somebody. This would seem subtle for most people but they were rather major steps for me."

Now, when Schoeck leaves his apartment, he walks. There's no need to run.

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The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

Lead Photo: Chris Schoeck in Coney Island. (Photo: BOND/360)

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