Although not used as frequently in World’s Strongest Man contests as some other disciplines, the Power Stairs have still played a crucial role in determining the outcomes of both qualifiers and finals over the years. The basic aim is to take an implement (or implements) up a set of stairs, holding it by the handle on top, in the quickest time possible. The event has been used in a number of formats. In its first outings, there were three implements used and each had to be taken in turn from the bottom of the stairs to the top. The athlete who manages it in the fastest time wins.
When the Power Stairs were initially used at WSM, the athletes competed in pairs, with three implements to be lifted. The stairs were constructed so that one competitor would be on one side, with the other athlete on the opposite side, obscured from each other’s view by the stairs themselves. Aside from the stress on the back and grip, for some competitors, their height would be a factor. Their biomechanics meant that the having to lift the implements high enough to get it onto the next step was a huge challenge. This wasn’t the case for all, however, as this obstacle was sometimes overcome by choosing footwear with raised soles. However, other shorter (relatively speaking) athletes would have no such problems, due to their sheer strength and technique. Equally, it was not a given that the taller competitors would automatically excel in the event. As with so many other WSM disciplines, the combination of technical expertise, brute strength, willpower and endurance are what will guarantee success.
In the 1996 final, the three weights used were each 200kgs, and the platform was six steps high, meaning that to complete the course, there were eighteen steps to be mastered. The weights themselves were the ‘Duck Walk’ implements, which have been seen on numerous other occasions at both WSM and Britain’s Strongest Man in various events. On this occasion, the South African Gerrit Badenhorst used his immense lower back strength to take the win in 48.42 seconds, with the Finn Jorma Ojanaho taking second.
In Las Vegas in 1997, the Power Stairs were seen in just one of the qualifying rounds, with Heinz Ollesch in 46.35 seconds claiming top spot. 1998 WSM winner Magnus Samuelsson was a place further back, with Badenhorst in third. Twelve months down the line, and Morocco replaced the USA as the host country. Magnus Samuelsson emerged as the fastest man in the final with 38.47 seconds. Twice WSM champion Jouko Ahola came in at just over a second further back, with 39.75. Samuelsson would go on to take the overall title that year. The performances of Ahola and Samuelsson provided an excellent illustration of how taller and shorter competitors could be evenly matched. Whilst the Swede had a substantial height advantage, Ahola’s tremendous back strength and explosiveness were enough to see him run Samuelsson close.
Sun City in 2000 saw the first significant changes to the Power Stairs on a number of fronts. The purpose built stairs were gone, and instead competitors had to tackle the twenty-four steps from the bottom to the top of the Sun City Amphitheatre. As a consequence, there was just one 200kg implement to be lifted and the athletes would now begin side by side, with each having a lane to stay within as they negotiated the stairs. Unlike the previous arrangement, the steps in the Amphitheatre were not a uniform height and the surface was often uneven underfoot. When the thin air at this high above sea level was factored into the equation, it was always going to be tough for many of the athletes. Derek Boyer, who won the event in his heat in 49 seconds also noted that the width of the steps began to vary considerably the nearer to the top he got. 2000 WSM winner Janne Virtanen took his group, posting 31.5 seconds, whilst in his heat five-time champion Mariusz Pudzianowski broke the thirty second barrier, with 28 seconds dead. Pudzianowski had to settle for second place in the Power Stairs in the final however with the German Martin Muhr, who was renowned for his speed and fitness, recording 27.9 seconds. The Pole did manage second place, 0.8 seconds slower than Muhr.
By 2006, and on the second visit of WSM to China in as many years, the Power Stairs in the final underwent another alteration. The 200 kg Duck Walk implements were replaced by 225 kg cylinders, which had to be carried up twenty-three stairs in the stifling Sanyan humidity. The athletes would now be competing five abreast, and the 25 kg increase in weight, coupled to the handles of these new implements meant that grip could now become a major factor. Whilst the steps were not as high as in previous years, this was more than offset by the additional 25 kgs and the design of the cylinders. Ultimately the new implement made no difference to Pudzianowski, finishing in 26.33 seconds and taking a clear first place, distancing the field by some margin in the process. For others, the handles on the cylinders left their hands in varying states of distress. The Latvian Raivis Vidzis suffered more than any other of the finalists, with the callouses stripped from his bloodied hands at the finish.
The 225kg cylinders were retained in 2008, but the number of steps was reduced to fourteen on the banks of the Kanawha river in Charleston, West Virginia. However, the reduction in the number of steps was countered by their height and depth, as these were the highest steps ever used in this discipline at WSM. For almost all competitors there would be no opportunity to take a brief touch on each step as has been seen in the past with the likes of Pudzianowski and Muhr, who sometimes looked as though they were bouncing the weights up the steps due to how quickly they were moving. Mariusz and Phil Pfister both attempted this on a number of steps, but as they neared the top this became impossible. Instead the implements were hoisted onto the next step and had to be lifted forwards before there was any thought of attempting to move it to the stair above. The cumulative fatigue of this added movement on each step would be crucial in deciding the outcome, and only three out of the ten finalists completed the course. Regardless of the added difficulties that were present in 2008, the outcome was a familiar one with Pudzianowski taking 40.94 seconds, almost fourteen seconds quicker than Derek Poundstone in second place. The Polish legend went on to secure his fifth WSM title, and Poundstone’s impressive WSM debut saw him clinch second place after a final event decider.
WSM returned to Sun City in 2010, and the Amphitheatre was the location as it had been on the last visit to South Africa. The 225kg cylinders were again the implements to be moved, but the steps to be used differed from ten years earlier. In 2010 although there were ‘only’ twelve steps to be negotiated, they were twice the height of those seen in 2000, at around about 50 cm in height. Moreover, as in 2008 the design of the steps meant that on each stair there was a need to move the weight forward (around a metre) for all but a few athletes before trying to lift the cylinder to the next step. Equally, the heat and altitude added another dimension to the event. As in 2000, the competitors lined up in adjacent lanes, competing two at a time.
Brian Shaw’s wingspan and height enabled him to not take an extra movement forward on the steps and his fitness meant that he kept up a fast pace, winning his heat in an impressive 41.58 seconds. Englishman Terry Hollands won his group in commanding fashion, being the only competitor to navigate all twelve steps, in 48.52 seconds. For Richard Skog and Derek Poundstone, who were in the same group as Hollands, the Power Stairs provided no respite for their already torn hands (which occurred during the previous event, the Giant Farmer’s Walk) and saw them damaged yet further. Twice a finalist, the Serbian Ervin Katona triumphed in his qualifier in 61.01 seconds.
Ultimately, the only way to be a consistent performer in the Power Stairs is to have the explosive power to move from step to step quickly, aligned with the cardiovascular ability to maintain this pace from the bottom to the top. This remains the case regardless of the number of steps or the implements being used. For someone such as Brian Shaw his height would be of far less use if he didn’t have the stamina or grip to complete the course. Whereas the shorter Pudzianowski’s outstanding speed and fitness would be negated if he had lacked the power to move the weight from step to step in a competitive time. As with so many other disciplines, it is this combination which has been proven to be a successful formula in the Power Stairs on every occasion.
November 3, 2011 | by WSM