Dead Man Lifting

I first saw the news on @phillysab’s Instagram account.

“Sending good wishes to my friend and competitor @attitudenation on a speed recovery.” Accompanying the caption was a picture of Jon North laying seemingly lifeless in a hospital bed. The picture was a repost from the account of North’s wife, Jessica.

As I scrolled my feed, every third or fourth post was filled with a similar sentiment.

“Prayers for Jon North”

“Get well soon, champ”

After digging a bit deeper I learned that Jon suffered a massive cardiac arrest while with his family – his wife and 2 year-old son – on an average weekday visit to the Portland Zoo. According to the reports, the episode had left him dead – as in no heartbeat or brain activity – for 16 minutes. There is less than a 10% chance of a person surviving such an incident. There is a less than 2% chance of doing so without severe brain damage.

He was 30 years old at the time.

For those of you who don’t know, Jon North was a National Champion and multiple time USA Team member in the sport of weightlifting (as in Olympic Weightlifting). Besides being a talented athlete, North was an explosive and entertaining character who is rightfully regarded as one of the key reasons for the growth of the sport since 2011.

One of the major players on the California Strength team, North became known for his antics – slamming bars after successful lifts, throwing squat stands, hamming it up for the camera and general infectious enthusiasm – as the sport was first being exposed to the public via a burgeoning platform known as YouTube.

Historically, weightlifting has been a sport that banked on tradition and reverence. Jon North turned that entire idea on its head. Treating weightlifting meets and practices more like WWE spectacles than the golf matches they had been for years in the US.

North and Cal Strength happen to hit it big right around the time that I really got into weightlifting and I immediately became a fan. North and his crew of lifters seemed to be living the dream. Spending all day shirtlessly lifting massive weights in a warehouse outside of Sacramento. Screaming and ranting and competing for cash incentives their coach Glenn Pendlay would proffer in order to spur these guys into making bigger and bigger snatches and clean and jerks.

So when I got the opportunity to spend a Sunday in New Jersey learning from and lifting with North in a shitty CrossFit box I immediately jumped at the opportunity. But before I get into that experience let me tell you a bit more about Jon – because his history reads more like a Jason Bourne novel than the pamphlet that could accurately describe the careers of most of the other top athletes in this fringe sport.

North first got into training while living in a flop house addicted to crystal meth. A drug that he got hooked on while partying with his father when he was a teenager. Yup, you read that right. North’s Dad, a successful businessman, would take Jon out to the nightclubs and they’d spend the night partying and taking drugs.

As Jon tells the story, one night a strung out housemate popped in a video of Pumping Iron, the legendary documentary responsible for bringing bodybuilding and Arnold Schwarzenegger into the public consciousness and he was transformed. The next day he hit the gym and left his drug life behind.

After finding weightlifting while training for college football, Jon became hooked on the sport and dropped out of college to pursue his goal of becoming National Champion. While bouncing around from team to team, developing his skills as both Jon North the weightlifter and Jon North the showman (he would show up at local meets with “Arnold” scrawled down his arm or his team’s name written in marker on his cheeks), he landed at the aforementioned California Strength and under the tutelage of his mentor Donny Shankle rose the ranks and became not only a national champ but the highest ranked weightlifter in the US and member of Team USA.

So much happens to Jon after this that detailing it all would be less of a blog post and more of a book (a biography has indeed been written about him) but I’ll try to deliver the highlights.

He leaves Cal Strength with his coach and a significant number of his teammates to move across country and start the first and, to date, only professional weightlifting team in the US, Muscle Driver USA. He leaves MDUSA under mysterious terms and opens his own gym in North Carolina. Along with lifting himself, he starts a weightlifting team out of his gym and names himself as the head coach. The gym is denied a CrossFit affiliate so Jon decides that he is going to start affiliating gyms himself under his brand “Attitude Nation”. USA Weightlfting enacts several rules seeming aimed at directly curtailing Jon’s antics (commonly referred to as “The Bar Slam Rule”).

Feeling the USAW rules were a witch hunt aimed at him, Jon starts his own weightlifting federation – the AWF – which is geared more towards high energy, CrossFit-style weightlifting meets. He closes the Charlotte gym and trains full time with Coach Travis Mash at Mash’s gym in Winston-Salem. He competes at the Arnold Classic in which he is repeatedly warned – but not penalized – for his antics including slamming the bar after made lifts. He retires from the USAW following the meet.

He leaves Mash, moves across the country and decides he wants to be a bodybuilder. He very successfully trains and competes in his first show coming in third place. During preparation for his second show he decides, ten days prior to competing, to drop out of the show. He decides to return to weightlifting just in time to be suspended by USAW for not filling his whereabout papers correctly with the US Anti-Doping Agency. He finds Jesus. He starts an online weightlifting team called The Dark Orchestra with training partner Jared Enderton. He starts an in-person annex of his weightlifting team inside a CrossFit gym in Oregon. He starts and quits weightlfting several more times. He shuts down the AWF.

Then he dies at the zoo.

To be fair, I may not have the order exactly correct. To also be fair, I’ve also left out a bunch of other left turns that Jon took during these three of four years. Such is the life of Jon North.

As I mentioned paragraphs ago, Kyle, Jose, Adam (one of our interns of long ago) and I got to spend the afternoon listening to and lifting with Jon years back. North’s weightlifting technique has always been controversial so I was really excited to learn it from the man himself. And when you really break it down it’s not that dissimilar from other weightlifting styles out there that prioritize bar-body contact over the straight, high-pull triple extension style that was popular during the rise of CrossFit. A few things became definitively clear – Jon really likes to talk, he’s so addicted to caffeine that I thought he might kiss me on the mouth when I grabbed him a Red Bull at a local convenience store during a break and he was truly passionate about weightlifting.

During our lunch break our small group had the opportunity to chat with Jon and I found him to be very different than his public persona. He was humble, considerate with his words and seemed to have a genuine love and appreciation for anyone who was willing to spend a Sunday in a stifling hot gym to learn from him. He even detailed his plan to go to Europe and live like a homeless person for a month. He invited Adam to come along with him. I’m pretty sure he was sincere about it.

I’m not sure why the news of Jon’s illness had hit me so hard but it affected me enough that it was on my mind for several weeks. I even brought it up to people who didn’t know Jon North from Jon Hamm. I just needed to talk to about it.

Maybe it’s because of that interaction during our lunch break where we got to see a glimpse of the man behind the legend. Maybe it’s because he was such an integral part of my early love of weightlifting and I feel like I owe him one. Or maybe it’s because he’s a family man who’s clearly struggled with some demons and has always found solace in the gym.

Jon recently announced that he’s making a comeback. He currently has an emergency defibrillator permanently implanted in his chest to shock him back to life if his heart fails him again. He also has an infant daughter who is struggling with her own heart disease and will certainly need a heart transplant to survive childhood. His ban from USAW is lifted next February and he has already announced that he’ll be competing shortly thereafter. His goal is to make the 2024 Olympics. He’ll be 38 years old at the time.

There certainly seem to be more people rooting against Jon than for him at this point. Maybe that was the risk of the cocky, brash character of Jon North that he developed in his championship days. That once he was knocked off that pedestal the haters would have plenty of ammunition for their claims that he’ll never be the lifter he once was. That he’s too old. That others have gotten too good. That maybe he was never that good in the first place.

To call Jon a long shot is optimistic. And there are certainly younger and more talented lifters to follow at this point. Yet I find myself rooting my ass off for him. I find myself hoping that the dead man finds a way to step back on the platform and add another kilo to the bar.

Because if he can do it…