“Shortly before winning the silver medal at the USA Power-lifting Championships in 1965, I was working out at Johnny’s Gym in Alameda, California, my home town. The gym owner, Johnny, received a request from San Quentin State Prison for the gym to send over a few of their best lifters to face off against the prison’s best lifters. Johnny’s Gym was chosen because it was known for having some of the strongest power-lifters in the state. At the time, I was the only power-lifter in the US in my weight class (225 lbs.) who had bench pressed 500 lbs. I agreed to be part of the group to go up against the prison inmates.
When we arrived, armed guards escorted us into the prison. As we progressed deeper into the facility’s interior, a succession of steel-barred, electronic doors closed behind us. Finally, we entered into a very large room that served as the inmates’ weight and training area. Alert prison guards positioned themselves strategically along the walls.
On the floor in the center of the room were two benches whose racks were draped with Olympic barbell sets. Two stacks of loose disks of various weights stood ready nearby. A huge inmate stepped out from the crowd. Although he weighed around 250 lbs., there was hardly an ounce of fat on his body. I reached out and, keeping a serious expression he shook my hand. We agreed to compete with the Bench Press, which would consists of three lifts each. We flipped a coin…he would lift first.
With his fellow inmates cheering him on he set his first lift at 425 lbs. and benched it, no problem. The room went silent as I approached the bench, I matched his weight of 425 lbs. and easily made my press. He increase his next set to 475 lbs. The room filled with applause as the crowd cheered him on. I watched his face cringe slightly as he finished his second lift. I matched his weight again and finished my lift in silence. The crowd of inmates roared louder as he began to press his last lift. At 490 lbs. I could see my challenger struggle, almost falter, but succeed in pressing the weight. Now it was my turn. This time I decided to increase the weight instead of matching his. I had already lifted 500 lbs. before, I knew I could do it again. I added 10 lbs. extra to the bar. I lifted the bar and brought it down to my chest. With all my might I heaved the bar back up but a little more than half-way through I struggled, I couldn’t press any more. Slowly I lowered the bar. As soon as my spotters caught it the inmates exploded in wild celebration and swarmed around their winner. Even the guards were cheering for their prisoner.
On the way out of the prison, a teammate of mine said “Paul, you almost had that.” I just shrugged and replied “win some, lose some”. But, the truth was I didn’t feel like a loser at all. I felt really good inside. I’ve always had an intense desire for competition. It thrills me and I always want to come away the winner. Almost always. This time was different. Seeing the look on my challenger’s face and hearing the crowd roar with excitement for their winner was worth the loss. The irony is that if I had won, I wouldn’t have felt like a winner at all. I didn’t need to win that day to be a winner. It was a great lesson about life I will never forget. Hope you enjoyed it, too. As always, love to hear your comments and questions.”