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70 years of lifting: Canadian man, 85, could cinch weightlifting championship

Olympic-style weightlifting isn’t just about strength or power. It’s about speed, coordination, focus.

More than five decades ago, Marcel Perron learned that in a visceral way.

The 85-year-old lifter — then a young member of the Canadian national team — was at a Montreal bus depot when he spotted a driver surrounded by three assailants.

“They were mad at him. I don’t know why … but I knocked them, bop-bop,” he said. “You have to be explosive, swift,” he said.

For years Perron worked as a nightclub bouncer — “a small bouncer … I was not big, but I was fast.”

Now the senior gym junkie is on track to win the World Masters Weightlifting championship, an annual contest hosted this year in Montreal where nearly 800 men and women over 34 are competing by age and weight class.

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Currently the oldest competitor, Perron may not hoist the heaviest weights over his head, but the title of grandmaster is determined by a formula that accounts for age and weight, making the spry 156-pounder the man to beat after he clean and jerked 61 kilograms — equivalent to almost two La-Z-Boy recliners.

The event, which kicked off Friday, draws entrants from 60 countries, including Genice Paullay-Beazley, 50, who was working out hours after her flight touched down from New Zealand on Saturday morning.

A member of that country’s national Olympic weightlifting body and owner of a CrossFit studio in Auckland, Paullay-Beazley came to the sport by way of bodybuilding after starting to pump iron at 16 in New York City, where she grew up.

“This wasn’t really available to women then,” she recalled, adding that weightlifting has grown “exponentially” in the last decade or so.

“It’s exploded, at least for us in New Zealand,” she said. “It’s been actually really liberating to carry a little more skin on me, a little more fat on me, and care more about getting weight over my head than what my butt looks like in a bathing suit.”

Most rewarding has been discovering the strength, skill and technique her body is capable of, she said.

“It’s my catharsis. I’m a mom. I own a business. This is the only thing I do for me, really.”

As Paullay-Beazley speaks, steel weights periodically crash to the ground in the training zone, walled off by a black curtain that shakes with the floor panels while men and women in Lycra onesies squat, chalk their palms and fling down barbells.

At the snack counter nearby, a tray of hard-boiled eggs complements the chips and sports drinks on offer.

For Owen Duguay, 69, it’s not the protein but the persistence and mental discipline that keep him tethered to the sport.

“I like that when you first start out, you set a goal. And my goal was to get back in shape,” said Duguay, a retired tax collector who used to run a weightlifting club in Sherbrooke, Que.

He developed tendinitis recently, which required constant stretching and icing.

“I had to overcome that and start over again from zero and gradually build my way up,” said Duguay, an internationally qualified referee.

“Weightlifting is my passion. It’s the sport I like so much that 50 years later, I’m still lifting.”

Mario Robitaille, 54, has felt that same gravitational pull since 1978, when he first met Marcel Perron, the now-85-year-old local superstar.

Robitaille, part of the organizing committee this year, was about 14 when he started to lift.

“It gives the idea to the young that you have to put in effort if you want to succeed,” he said. “The more you train, the more you can lift. No shortcuts.”

The week-long contest Robitaille helps oversee takes place in the shadow of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, at the Centre Pierre-Charbonneau. But he says shadier side of weightlifting — and many Olympic sports — has no place at the Masters contest.

“You cannot compete and take drugs,” he said. Roughly 10 per cent of all competitors are selected for random tests of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, according to the organization.

Perron, who used to use his lunch hour to bench-press and dead-lift in the basement of the foundry where he once worked, said he’s never considered doping.

A firefighter for 15 years and lifelong Montrealer, he retired 35 years ago to focus on weightlifting. He gets some help from sponsors for international contests but mostly pays his own way, often taking out an informal loan.

“I remember many years ago somebody phoned me at home who was supposed to be a sponsor,” Perron recalled. “I said, ‘OK, what can you do?’ He said, ‘I will buy you a (wheel)chair.’

“I shut the line,” he said. “Too bad I didn’t break the phone.”

Established in the mid-1980s, the World Masters Weightlifting competition runs Aug. 16 to 24 in Montreal.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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