WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE THE WORLD’S STRONGEST MAN?
LAURENCE SHAHLAEI steps up to the racetrack. It is 35C in the shade in a stadium in Istanbul and the 28-year-old from Gloucester is about to achieve the impossible: he picks up two huge cylinders in either hand, each weighing more than 330lb, walks up the track and back, picks up an even heavier weight and carries it to a stand, where he hoists it up and places it on top.
Mere mortals couldn’t hope to achieve this but Laurence, who in 2009 won the title of England’s Strongest Man, is now competing in World’s Strongest Man. His progress and those of his fellow competitors will be charted in a new television series soon to start on Channel 5. Will he win? Tune in to find out.
Laurence, whose gentle voice belies his bulk – he’s 6ft 2in and 23d stone – has been fascinated by the world of strong men ever since he saw the competition, which has been running since 1977, on television in 2004. “I’ve always done sports – I was a British champion of kung fu, which I did from the ages of three to 12,” he says. “Then I played rugby and table tennis, which I coached at a national level. But I’d never been in a gym before I became interested in a novice competition.”
Laurence’s first international contest was in 2005. Three years later he was competing for World’s Strongest Man. “I’ve always been competitive,” he says.
If I can’t keep up to standard I will stop, although I’d like to stay involved by commentating or refereeing
Like many of his fellow contestants, Laurence has his own gym which he uses with training partners: in his case it’s a room in a lock-up filled with the kind of equipment he will use in the actual competitions. He trains four times a week with sessions lasting two hours, as well as time in more normal gyms where he will sprint, work on a cross trainer for 30 minutes, use huge hammers against massive tyres and wield kettle balls.
His training partners will be fellow competitors as well as his younger brother Harry, who is now a personal trainer but who used to compete in a more light- weight version of the competition. “The standard is not so high but we can train on the same things,” Laurence explains.
It is a full-on life and not one that was obvious for the Gloucestershire boy. Born to an Iranian father and an English mother who, confusingly, ran a Greek restaurant, it was Laurence’s highly competitive nature that led him to seek out ever more extreme forms of sport. But his personal life is conventional: engaged to Marianne Willsher, who works for a cats’ protection charity, and with a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Ava, Laurence spends most of his free time with his family – although spare moments are also devoted to sports, including tennis and athletics.
His family is supportive, although having Ava changed that: “It’s difficult for Marianne,” he says. “She used to come and watch me in contests but you can’t with a young daughter.” Laurence must also think of the future: although some people do continue into their 40s – strength increases with age – he will one day have to retire. “I’ll see how my body feels,” he says. “If I can’t keep up to standard I will stop, although I’d like to stay involved by commentating or refereeing.”
TERRY Hollands, 32, from Gravesend, Kent, is another competitor and winner of Britain’s Strongest Man in
2007. Having a birth weight of 12lb 14oz, he was always going to be big. These days, he is 6ft 6in and 28st. Married earlier this year to Lauren, a train driver, like Laurence his background did not hint at what was to come. His father was a telecom engineer, his mother worked for the local council and he has an older sister, Julie.
“I always liked watching World’s Strongest Man on TV as a kid, although in my younger years I played rugby,” he says. “In my 20s I went to play in New Zealand but when I came back I wanted a new challenge, so I entered an amateur strongman competition in Kent.” With no training but hyper- fit from rugby – Terry also practised judo to a national level until he was 14 – he won.
Like Laurence, with whom he has trained in the past, Terry has his own gym, a storage unit on a farm in which he keeps his specialist equipment, as well as visiting a standard gym. He trains for two hours a day for a min- imum of three days a week and at the week- ends spends up to four hours practising the events that will come up in the competition.
His family and wife are very supportive, although Lauren does sometimes fret. “She’s really good, helps me with my diet and comes to competitions,” says Terry. “She does worry but she knows I’m passionate about what I do.”
The local community is clearly proud of their strongman son, encouraging him and giving him discounts in restaurants. They know what he does is no mean feat.
And what motivates him to push himself to such extremes? “A lot of people go to the gym for vanity but I go to improve my performance,” says Terry. “I want to be the best I can, whether it’s lifting more weights or managing another repetition.”
Both Laurence and Terry say the world they inhabit is actually extremely friendly, with competitors forming close friendships and egging one another on. “We’re all fans of each other,” says Terry. “If someone goes that little bit further, we know how hard it is and we know how demanding the life is, with the diet and with training so much. We’re very competitive but we’re all great friends as well.”