GODDARD – Eisenhower Middle School art teacher John Conner has experienced big successes as well as daunting setbacks during his career as a strongman athlete.
Conner first tried his hand at weightlifting as a senior in high school. He quickly found out that he was really good at it. At Kansas’s high school weightlifting championship in March 2004, he recorded the best bench press of any high schooler in the state, 280 pounds.
“I started out stronger than most of my friends, and some of them had been lifting for years,” Conner said. “I just got really strong, really fast.”
In 2006, while a student in Wichita State University’s bachelor of fine arts program, he came across a powerlifting and strongman gym near Salina called Big Al’s Dino Gym. He went out to have a look at the gym and met Scott Tully, a veteran strongman who became his primary coach.
“In that gym is every kind of lifting thing you could imagine,” Conner said.
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At the Dino Gym under Tully’s eye, Conner first encountered Atlas stones – spheres of concrete weighing 200 to 420 pounds that strongman competitors lift onto platforms four or five feet off the ground. He found “logs” – bulky cylindrical weights with grips perpendicular to those on standard barbells. And he watched as other athletes hauled heavy weights to the top of five steps, then rushed down to get more weights and repeat the process as quickly as possible.
The first time Conner touched Atlas stones, he managed to lift a 330-pound sphere and set it down on an elevated platform. Success as a strongman was immediately within reach.
Conner quickly started competing in amateur strongman competitions. His first one was in Columbia, Mo.
“The strongman events are usually 60 to 75 seconds,” he said. “It’s rare to go 90, because we usually start gassing out by 40 or 50. The amateur competitions are single day, so you’re going once an hour for five or six hours. There’s a lot of strategy to it.”
Conner started winning or placing in amateur competitions. In 2008, he competed in Iowa’s Strongest Man, one of a handful of amateur competitions where the winner gets to turn pro.
Conner looked at the lineup of events in Iowa and saw that they were all ones where he excelled. He knew he had a good chance to win. The only problem was that the competition was scheduled for the same day as his wedding to his high school sweetheart, Jessica.
Jessica agreed to push their wedding date back a week. All along, she steadfastly supported his strongman ventures, despite the travel, pain and sacrifices.
“He enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want to get in his way,” Jessica said. “I don’t think there was anybody that could’ve gotten in his way, either. He was bound and determined to compete and have fun.”
Jessica’s accommodating attitude paid off: John won, and got his pro card.
That was in June 2008. The summer that followed was a whirlwind of competitions, including America’s Strongest Man, a “Strongest Country” team competition in Ukraine, and North America’s Strongest Man, in Canada.
“Summer of 2009 is kind of where everything started catching up with me. There was a nine-week period where I did six competitions. I even did two in one day – powerlifting in the morning and highland games in the afternoon. My body was just so fatigued,” Conner said.
At a 2009 event, Conner tore the skin on his chest while lifting an Atlas stone. He considered it a minor, if painful, injury, but his doctors later determined that it led to a dangerous staph infection.
Doctors found a 2.5 by 4.5-inch mass pressed against the inside of his sternum. They also determined that his sternum bone was infected, and that his blood was septic. Prior to starting surgery, doctors told his family that his odds of survival were worse than fifty-fifty.
He beat those odds, but at a cost.
Conner weighed 410 pounds when he went to the hospital – heavy enough that medical staff had difficulty positioning him on the operating table. A few weeks later, he weighed 280. He had lost 130 pounds.
Conner had gone from being one of the strongest men in America to needing assistance in order to lift his own body weight out of bed. But he was determined to recover.
Almost as soon as he got off intravenous antibiotics and got word from his doctors that the infection could be considered cured, he started working out again. He startled followers of his YouTube channel, who saw him take a hiatus from posting videos, then return at a dramatically-reduced size.
“I felt like a skeleton,” he said. “But even though I went through all that and came up off my deathbed, I still never deadlifted less than 500 pounds.”
Most doctors he went to had never treated someone with a physique like Conner’s. That might have been part of the explanation for why repeated heart attacks went undetected over three years, from 2010 to 2013.
“I was having these chest pains, and it was different than the pain from the staph,” he said. “Finally, it got so bad that they did an EKG and took some blood, and it showed that I was having heart attacks. We don’t know if it was the trauma (from the infection), but somehow I tore an artery in my heart,” Conner said.
A cath-lab procedure restored circulation, and Conner’s cardiologist put him on preventative drugs, including a statin to control his cholesterol.
Then it turned out that he was allergic to the statin. The drug caused severe neuropathy and pain in his legs. Never mind strongman competition – he was having trouble getting around his house.
“That was another tough time. I was dealing with this leg pain, and that’s also when we had our first kid, and that’s when I started teaching,” he said.
Eisenhower Middle School principal Jerry Longabaugh hired Conner to teach art in 2014. The retiring art teacher was Nancy Fredrickson, a petite woman, so her replacement’s stature was a bit surprising for students.
“Whenever I started showing them how to draw, they didn’t believe that I could do it,” Conner said. “I just don’t fit people’s image of a middle school art teacher.”
Jessica Conner is art teacher at Eisenhower High School; she teaches many of her husband’s former students.
Today, Conner is still dealing with some neuropathic pain in his legs, which has kept him out of competition and limited the amount of strongman-specific training he can undertake. But he’s not giving up. If there is one thing he’s good at, it’s pushing through pain.
“My body’s getting back to where it was,” he said.
To fuel his workouts, Conner consumes about 6,000 calories per day, more than twice the average person’s daily intake. A local company, 316 Meal Prep, is sponsoring him, making the cost of all that food more manageable. Integrity Chiropractic in Derby also signed on as a sponsor.
His dream is to make it back into strongman competition, and then, some day, to World’s Strongest Man, the marquee event in the global sport of strength athletics. Eddie Hall, the reigning World’s Strongest Man champion, has executed a world-record deadlift of 1,102 pounds.
A video Conner posted April 17 shows him deadlifting 915 pounds, using a trap bar.
“I believe in training for the most power, with heavy tension on your weights,” Conner said. “If you spend time lifting light, the next time you grab something heavy, it throws you off. If I lift a weight and start thinking, ‘This feels heavy,’ I’m going to miss the lift.”
Through multiple setbacks and comebacks, Conner has thought about giving up on his pro strongman dreams, but he hasn’t done it yet.
“After all these things, what I hear from doctors is, ‘You need to start exercising.’ Well, that’s what I want to do,” he said. “As long as my spine’s fine and I don’t hurt anything, I want to go for it.”
To view video clips of Conner’s lifts and workouts, visit www.instagram.com/bigjohnconner.