Feats of Strength

Strongman Dave Ostlund makes a living lifting cars, rocks and beer kegs

Dave Ostlund ’03 is one of the world’s best athletes you’ve never heard of.

He’s a wizard at the Farmer’s Walk. He’s a natural with Atlas Stones. And never underestimate his skill in the Hercules Hold.

Ostlund competes nationally and internationally as a professional strongman. The quirky but physically demanding sport consists of a variety of power and endurance displays, measured in maximum lifts or in repetitions on the clock. Athletes lift or tip cars, deadlift logs or tractor tires, and even hurl boulders and empty beer kegs.

Ostlund was exposed to some strongman activities while a Tommie undergraduate. He jumped headfirst into the sport after he graduated in 2003 and has never looked back.

“Once I tried it I was hooked,” he said.

Ostlund has competed in 19 states and 12 countries during his 10-year career. He’s entered events as close to home as Grand Avenue in St. Paul and as far away as China and Russia. He’s also traveled to tournaments in South America, Canada, Norway, Latvia, Poland, Sweden, Belarus and Ukraine, as well as competitions across the United States.

The 6-foot-7-inch, 355-pound Ostlund joked that the toughest challenge of his trips is the occasional middle-seat assignment on an airplane. (And you thought your airline pillow seemed small.)

He’s represented himself ably at the sport’s signature event, the World’s Strongest Man competitions. Ostlund has posted top-10 finishes in four of the last five WSM events. He placed ninth in 2005 in Chengdu, China; took sixth in 2007 in Anaheim, Calif.; finished third in the 2008 event in Charleston, W.V.; and took eighth in the 2009 competition in Valletta, Malta.

In the last 27 years, only one American – Charleston, W.V., firefighter Phil Pfister, in 2006 – has won the WSM competition. Ostlund is one of only seven Americans to place in the top three in the last 20 years at WSM championships.

Since he gained professional status in 2004, he’s reached a level where his travel expenses are covered and he’s able to pocket prize money at bigger events.

Ostlund trains two to five hours a day, five days a week. A typical breakfast includes 8-12 eggs, a cup of oatmeal and fruit. Lunch includes a pound of beef or chicken, rice or potatoes with vegetables. Dinner includes a pound of beef, pasta, fruit and vegetables. He currently has two sponsorship deals that provide some of the fuel that his body needs to run at a high level – protein powder and vitamins from Xtreme Formulations supplement company; and locally-produced ground beef from Thousand Hills Cattle Co. of Cannon Falls, Minn.

But it’s not prize money, endorsements or recognition that motivate him. He simply likes the challenge of pushing himself to new limits.

“The competition drives me to levels that I’m not sure I could reach if I was just lifting weights in my garage,” Ostlund said. “What I aspire to is to be at my peak, have really good training and honestly feel like I’ve gotten everything out of my body. It’s a thrill when I can perform so far beyond my expectations that it almost feels like an out-of-body experience.”

When he’s not playing Superman with rigid training, traveling and competing schedules, Ostlund displays a Clark Kent demeanor. He juggles responsibilities at home with his wife, fellow Tommie graduate Kate Strachota ’03, and their 15-month-old son, Will. He works part-time jobs in the property management field and works a summer shift helping out in St. Paul at Cretin-Derham Hall’s weight room. He also sells a product he invented called Elite Tacky – a pine tar for weightlifters.

“When you see him in the weight room, he’s massive,” said St. Thomas strength and conditioning coach Ty Stenzel. “I think some people are intimidated by him, but when you sit and talk to him, he’s just a normal guy. He doesn’t show a lot of emotion, but he’s fiercely competitive – one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever met. In a strength sport like strongman, you don’t waste a lot of energy on the rah-rah stuff and you don’t do a lot of yelling, screaming and snorting. In team sports where chemistry is important you see more of that. But in strongman, you have to save all your energy for the training and competition.”

Here’s a sign that Ostlund has been around awhile – he’s outlived two of his main training sites. “I grew up working out at one of the Northwest Racquet Clubs in Bloomington, but they tore it down,” he said. He often trained at St. Thomas’ O’Shaughnessy Hall weight room, too, but had to change his routine when the building was razed in March.

This summer, he spent most of his time lifting in his Edina garage, or making a short drive to Bloomington to his brother’s home, a more spacious property where he keeps unusual training implements like heavy rocks and beer kegs.

The Twin Cities native played baseball and football in youth sports. At Edina High, he gravitated toward the throwing events in track and field and won all-conference honors.

“I found out I liked the laid-back coaching environment of an individual sport like track and field,” Ostlund said. “Strongman is very much an individual sport. There’s nobody there telling you what to do and when to do it. You have to develop your own workouts and your own training regimen.”

Ostlund’s interest in strongman began during his St. Thomas days (1999-2003). He didn’t pursue varsity sports at St. Thomas but spent many hours in the O’Shaughnessy Hall weight room.

That’s where he caught the eye of former St. Thomas football coach Don Roney, who asked Stenzel, ‘Who’s that huge kid lifting weights?’”

“I tried to talk him into playing football for St. Thomas,” said Stenzel, who over the years helped Ostlund with his technique on specific lifts. “I think he could have played for our team and, who knows, maybe even beyond. But he was a tall skinny guy in those days compared to what he’s done to build up his body now.”

Ostlund weighed about 240 pounds when he came to college but over the next few years grew to 270 pounds. After he fully committed to training did he gradually fill out his frame to reach 350 pounds.

“I watched the World’s Strongest Man competition on TV a few times, and I thought it was some pretty cool stuff,” he said. “I liked the idea of lifting a 250-pound rock instead of a barbell, and I gradually got into it.”

Near the end of his sophomore year, Ostlund entered his first strongman contest in Lac du Flambeau, Wis. He won that event and caught the bug for the sport.

He competed in another event that summer in South Dakota, then entered five events in 2002. As a college senior in 2003, he had a breakthrough year as an amateur with six victories among 11 competitions in nine different states. He took third at NAS Nationals in South Carolina.

“The 2003 events were the first time I competed with the goal of earning my pro status,” Ostlund said. That goal was met in 2004 in Idaho, where he won the Strongest in the West competition.

He went on to compete in 14 events in 2005, and has traveled to six or seven events each year since. He was slowed in 2009 by a torn bicep muscle incurred in the Arnold Strongman competition in Columbus, Ohio (named after bodybuilder-turned-governor Schwarzenegger), but managed to finish ninth last fall in the World’s Strongest Man event.

In preparation for this fall’s WSM event, Ostlund traveled this summer to competitions in Norway and Romania, and acknowledged that strongman competitions have a larger following in Europe and in the former Soviet nations. “In the United States, it’s off the radar compared with all the main professional team sports,” he said. “But you know that going in. I like a little bit of the anonymous nature of the sport. At least the people who follow it really understand and appreciate it.”

Count Stenzel among Ostlund’s biggest admirers. “People on the outside have no clue how hard it is to compete at his level,” Stenzel said. “He just likes the work. He likes to challenge himself.”

Ostlund considers the dead lift the best true test of strength. For the record, his best dead lift is 830 pounds; his best squat is 770 pounds; and his best bench press is 450 pounds.

Ostlund’s advice for would-be strongmen?

“Make sure you love lifting heavy stuff, and you don’t mind physical pain.”

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