When you think of the classic strongman, images come to mind of barrel-chested behemoths manhandling objects that would give the average person a hernia just by looking at it. Chris Schoeck isn’t that tall (5’7″) nor is he particularly muscular (he cuts a lean 155 lbs.) but he’s perfected a skill that’s given him far more than bragging rights.
Director Dave Carroll’s surprisingly touching documentary Bending Steel homes in on Schoeck taking his hobby of bending steel beams, rods, and wrenches from the secret sanctity of his basement to center stage in front of a crowd at New York City’s Coney Island. In the film, Schoeck isn’t braggadocio about his remarkable feats—quite the contrary, he’s locked inside a loneliness of his own design. It was as if he only participated in life when it was necessary.
But under the tutelage of his mentor Chris Rider, Schoeck discovers a second family in his fellow strongmen and how to command a stage bigger and more crowded than a basement for one. Now, the unassuming strongman wants to eventually phase out his day job as a trainer to revitalize the old-school form of entertainment.
Chris “Wonder” Schoeck spoke with Fast Company about why bending steel is like confession, what was going through his mind during the documentary’s heartfelt climax, and his lessons in perseverance.
How did you get into bending steel in the first place?
I was an active Olympic weightlifter and I injured my shoulder. That injury prevented me from completely extending the shoulder, and if you can’t do that you’re excluded from the two basic lifts. But I loved the training and I wanted to continue being with those people. And the person who gave me my first weightlifting trophy, Joe Rollino, an old-time Brooklyn strongman, I remember him shaking my hand and I said, “Wow, that guy’s got some grip.” And somebody told me he used to bend quarters. And I guess that seed was planted in my mind. I went out and bought various pieces of steel and started pushing on them without knowing what I was doing, and all of a sudden one bent.
In the film, we see how training to become a strongman slowly brings you out of your introverted world. How have you grown since the camera stopped rolling?
Starting with the performance aspect, I no longer dread being in front of people. I enjoy it. I like the crowds and I started to be able to work with the personalities. I would say the most impact this avocation has had on my life is it has taught me that I’m somewhat of a valuable person—I have something to contribute and the world has something to offer and I should get out there and expose myself to people, and I might actually like what I see.
What about bending steel gives you that feeling of fulfillment?
Not that many people can do it. Going back to the comic books: What does Superman do? He bends steel. Though women do it, it’s sort of a masculine display of strength. When done in front of people, it’s an endless source of amazement—it’s like magic, but it’s not magic. It has also helped me eliminate self-imposed limitations. It’s given me a unique skill. I honestly feel like I have something that’s a little bit special, and that’s a nice feeling when you go out into the world.
Watching strongmen bend steel is a slightly nerve-wracking (and very intense) spectacle. What goes through your mind when you’re trying to muscle a two-inch slab of solid steel between your legs?
I see an item I want to bend–a wrench, a spike, or a rod–and I picture it bent in my mind. It’s finished in my mind before I even pick it up. And once I pick it up, the only thing I do is I go through the motions. I would say in the beginning when you’re training, pain is often a limiting factor. But through training, you learn not to let yourself feel things. When you approach a bend, you prepare to go 100%. Everything else is out of your mind—you’re focused on one thing. You place the object on your thigh, you see where the fulcrum is, and you push—you push quickly and you push as hard as you can, and once it gets going, you don’t stop.
You’re not a big guy, so why can’t musclebound giants do what you can do?
When I hand out items that I bend in front of people, there are a lot of big guys that come up who are bodybuilders and they can’t bend it. Part of the reason for that is all their training consists of isolating muscle and fighting against gravity. It’s almost exactly the opposite of what I do. They control inertia—I try to develop as much inertia as I can.
You hit a brick wall of sorts in the movie when your attempts to bend a two-inch-thick piece of steel doesn’t work in practice. But in the end, you’re able to conquer the steel—and in front of an audience, no less. What was going through your mind then?
When I took that bar off the wall that morning to go to Coney Island, I tried to bend it in my apartment and it wouldn’t budge. So when I got out there, I was truly entering the unknown but I knew that I couldn’t fail. It kept going through my head, “You gotta stick with it—you gotta keep pulling and it’ll go.” The first couple of times when it didn’t go, I was about to be deflated pretty quick. I kept saying, “One more time! One more time!” And then all of a sudden, I felt it give. And once it gave, bang, I kept pulling. That was a highlight in my life. When I see that bar, it was a pivotal point in my life. I was different from that point on in a better way.
How are you different now?
It’s personal growth. You learn it’s not so much about what you bend, it’s the effort and the struggle you put behind it. The community and the friendships I’ve developed out of this are certainly enduring and supportive and they’ve almost become like a second family to me. I do know that this particular activity got me out of a very difficult shell. I was in a funk for a very long period of time. I’ve learned to enjoy the physical part, too. It’s a rather masculine feeling. I don’t drink, but I can tell you after being able to tear a deck of poker cards, I walk into a bar and order a Shirley Temple and I don’t feel inhibited at all! I feel comfortable just being Chris. I don’t feel the need to hide and when I go out I don’t feel the need to be artificial or to try to be somebody else. I learned that Chris is a lousy somebody else—I’m most successful when I play myself.
You give ample tribute to the great strongman Joseph Greenstien, aka The Mighty Atom—so, what do you want your legacy to be?
I would like to bring back bending steel as a legitimate form of entertainment. From what I’ve seen, there are enough people who like it, it’s just a question of getting out there and getting enough big venues. I would also hope that it does something for Coney Island—it’s a very unique and special place.
Bending Steel is available August 4 on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant Video, and Vudu.