ELKHART -- Pushing iron with a purpose finally has gotten Jon Smoker to the top of the heap.
Smoker’s buddy of more than two decades, Bruce Andresen, manager of Steve’s Gym/Elkhart Martial Arts, marvels at the motivation shown by the 66-year-old powerlifter.
Smoker’s rudder is a sense of responsibility to make the most of the gift of good health with which he has been blessed throughout his life.
“There’s a woman at my church who has a degenerative disease,” Smoker said. “I had been training her. Watching her, I realize how lucky I am.
“There’s a line in the movie ‘Titanic.’ (Rose) was talking about (Jack Dawson) and she said, ‘(Jack) saved me in every way a person can be saved.’ That’s what weightlifting has done for me. It saved me from my dark side; I’ll let it go at that.
“There’s a spiritual dimension to weightlifting; almost a Zen aspect. You have to have everything in your life in balance. You need to cut down on unnecessary stress. Stress is a lifter’s enemy.”
So are the Russians, sort of.
Last Sunday, Smoker channeled all his emotion, then got a boost from a burst of patriotism by the crowd in Grand Rapids, Mich., at the Amateur World Powerlifting Congress event, to set a world record in the Masters (over 65 years old) 181-pound class.
“That was a really big deal,” Smoker said with a wide smile. “Beating a Russian, that’s the gold standard.”
Looking like a toned-up, 5-foot-4, 168-pound version of Santa Claus with long white hair, a goatee, and an earring in his left ear, Smoker is in recovery mode after lifting a combined 1,067 pounds to better the year-old record of Russian Vladimir Tkachenko.
Smoker achieved a squat of 396 pounds, a 246-pound bench press and 425-pound dead lift to break the record.
“When they announced that I was going for a record held by a Russian, the crowd went nuts,” Smoker said. “That got me through when I was wearing down.”
A competitive lifter for 41 years, Smoker has navigated the ups and downs of the sport.
“For a lot of lifters, over the years, life gets in the way,” Andresen said. “Success causes some to implode. A guy like Jon, now he’s into giving back.”
Smoker, a manager at the Indiana Department of Family Resources Elkhart branch, had been a strength coach at Memorial High School from 1977-86. Since then, he has privately worked with several other young athletes.
“If they’re not self-motivated, I’m the wrong guy (to coach them),” Smoker said.
Smoker has first-hand experience in the evolution of weightlifting. He reluctantly admitted that, early in his career, he had given into the temptation around the gym to use performance-enhancing drugs.
“The panic attacks I had were terrible,” Smoker said. “It was bad for my personal life.”
That’s why he was thrilled when drug-free weightlifting federations were born in 1983. To this day, that’s the only competition in which he will be involved.
“I want to know that everyone I’m competing with isn’t cheating,” Smoker said.
He has seen new techniques. He has watched weightlifting gear, designed to add support in order to lift more, become popular, then fall into a “gear-free” class, just like “drug-free.” Resistance work with flexible bands is now in vogue.
Still, the basic premise is the same.
“It’s the Mount Everest Syndrome: If it’s there, do it; go after it,” Smoker said. “I don’t do anything half-a****. I’m in better shape now than I was 20 or 30 years ago. The training I do now would have put me in the hospital back then.
“I’ve learned so much more about how to condition and how to recover. I like to push the envelope.”
As long as the rudder is firmly intact.