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Mike MacDonald was a bench-presser for the ages

Mike MacDonald

Mike MacDonald’s arms helped him become a bench-pressing icon, which made the sight of his pencil-thin wrists so jarring.

Balancing, say, 600 pounds aloft, they had to look comically inadequate.

“You see my wrists? Mike’s were a half-inch bigger than mine,” Deborah Stephens, 64, said of her late brother last week.

Those wrists, cartoonish as they may have been, were part of a powerful package that carried MacDonald, a 1966 graduate of Duluth Cathedral, to the pinnacle of his sport. In many regards, that’s precisely where he stayed. Despite all the advancements wrought by technology, two of the 36 world records MacDonald set nearly 40 years ago remain untouched.

This is a man who was way ahead of his time.

MacDonald, as unassuming as he was headstrong, died of leukemia Jan. 9 in Eveleth. He was 69.

Born in 1948, MacDonald didn’t get into lifting weights seriously until he was 17 or 18. One day, he walked into a Duluth gym and saw grown men hoisting hundreds of pounds.

“And he lifted more than all of them,” his brother, Jeff MacDonald, said.

Credit for that likely goes to all the pushups MacDonald had done while his three sisters sat on his back.

The workouts never stopped. MacDonald was 5-foot-9 tops and, if ever there were an hourglass figure, it belonged to him. A barrel-chested upper body and tree trunks for thighs were connected by a compact waist. MacDonald was fastidious about nutrition, which was a key element of his Mac’s Gym on Miller Trunk Highway, and never drank or smoked.

Other lifters sought his advice, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made a habit of connecting with MacDonald when he visited the Twin Ports.

“If you wanted to get bigger and stronger, well, who’d you talk to? You talked to Mike,” Jeff said.

Crowds loved the undersized MacDonald “because he did what they didn’t think he could do,” Stephens said.

Like breaking the world record in the 181-pound class four times on a single day during a meet in Oklahoma.

According to the May 2010 issue of “Powerlifting USA” magazine, MacDonald benched 476 pounds, 491, 501.75 and 509.25, resting a mere three minutes between each lift. Even more remarkably, he held bench-press world records in four weight classes simultaneously for five straight years, from 1976-81.

That speaks to MacDonald’s longevity, as well as his versatility. He’d set a new standard in one class, add weight, notch another record, add weight, and so on.

The reverse also held true. Ahead of one meet, MacDonald checked in overweight for his division. So he went to the sauna, but must have stayed inside too long.

“He came out, passed out on the floor, then got up and set a world record,” Stephens said.

MacDonald’s popularity surged to the point that meet organizers often picked up his travel tab just to get him to their events. When he had to pay his own way, the notoriously frugal MacDonald didn’t splurge. There were no entourages or five-star hotels. Instead, he’d drive, sleeping in his car along the way.

Now that’s a Minnesota minimalist.

Despite his strength, MacDonald was a softie, a gentle and compassionate man. He was especially close with his mother, 95-year-old June MacDonald-Nesgoda. MacDonald was an avid fisherman, but never could bring himself to hunt. Stephens said that’s because he couldn’t kill anything.

As such, when MacDonald served in Vietnam with the United States Navy, he did so as a medical corpsman and received the Medal of Valor for his courage in battle.

Upon returning from war, MacDonald went back to dominating on the bench. His two records that endure: 582 pounds in the 220-pound class and 603 pounds in the 242 class. They were set in 1979 and 1977, respectively, and both are “full meet” marks, meaning participants started with the squat, then benched and ended with the deadlift. So MacDonald already was taxed from squatting when he lifted from the bench.

A pioneer of the cambered bar — a bent bar that came to be known as the “MacDonald Bar” — he had more than 100 lifts of 500 pounds, and hit 600 17 times. Officially, his personal best was 608.87 pounds. Unofficially, it was 620. And he accomplished all that without the assistance of “lifting shirts” and other modern luxuries and adaptations that once prompted MacDonald to declare the sport no longer credible and “a joke.”

MacDonald was, as so often has been said, the world’s greatest raw bench presser. He was planning to add to his legend in the master division before cancer started to ravage his body.

“Mike MacDonald is unequivocally the greatest bench presser who ever walked the face of the Earth,” Judd Biasiotto wrote in “Powerlifting USA.”

Nobody would have gleaned that from talking to MacDonald. He didn’t flaunt his success.

Nor did he celebrate his victories. Understated is an understatement.

“He’d go home, sit down and have a glass of milk” after winning, Stephens said.

Mike MacDonald drank a lot of milk.