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After becoming the first Welshman to win the UK's Strongest Man crown in 2020, Gavin Bilton has gone out and done it again this weekend.

Bilton only won a single event, the Brick Lift – a Deadlift variation, with the athlete standing on a high platform lifting a bar with a basket of bricks hanging underneath it. However, the Welshman showed great consistency throughout the day, which allowed him to earn a comfortable three-point victory.

Young veteran Paul Smith of England was second. The former World's Strongest Man competitor was able to achieve his best UKSM finish by tying for the win in the Viking Press and claiming the victory in the Carry & Drag. However, Smith had struggled in the Atlas Stones prior to these successes, removing him from title contention. Still, the 26-year-old can be very satisfied with his efforts.

Scotland's Andy Black, a relative newcomer to the sport of strongman, had to settle for third place despite tying on points with Smith. Black, the 2020 Scotland's Strongest Man title holder, has been tipped by former European champion Laurence Shahlaei as having tremendous potential.

The day was not so full of joy for 2018 UK's Strongest Man winner Pa O'Dwyer. The Irishman had issues in the first event, the Truck Push, but battled on before finishing just one point off the podium.

"The mats lifted on me, I couldn’t find ground to push the truck and tore my bicep. I tried my best to climb back up, but it wasn’t meant to be, unfortunately", said O'Dwyer on his Instagram page.

The former champion was not the only athlete to suffer on the final day of UKSM: Andrew Flynn (ENG) dropped out due to a bicep issue, while Louis Jack (SCO) had to withdraw because of an irregular heartbeat.

With his second UK's Strongest Man title, Gavin Bilton of Wales becomes the first man to successfully defend his crown in this competition since Eddie Hall (ENG) won six straight titles from 2011 to 2016.

Bilton will now focus on World's Strongest Man, which gets underway in just over two weeks in Sacramento, Calfornia.

Photo: Former WSM competitor Gerhard van Staden (left) and Chris van der Linde (right) at the 2020 Africa’s Strongest Man contest.

Five weeks before the start of the 2021 World’s Strongest Man (WSM) contest, Strongman Archives caught up with South Africa’s Chris van der Linde, who will be making his first WSM appearance.

Out of the 25 competitors in this year’s lineup, van der Linde will be the only newcomer. This is a rarity: WSM has featured at least two rookies in each of its past 31 editions. Regardless, the 30-year-old from Bloemfontein is far from being intimidated!

“It doesn’t make me nervous. I’m staying in my lane, and I’m not too stressed about the other guys. I’ll be doing the best that I can do, and that will be it!” stated van der Linde.

A Long-Time Lifter

Van der Linde started weight training in the gym when he was 15 years old – therefore, he has been lifting for about half of his life! Two years later, he was already able to bench press 140 kg, and that’s when he realized that he had potential in strength disciplines.

The South African also had an athletic background. Just like so many strongmen, such as Terry Hollands, Konstantine Janashia or Adam Bishop, van der Linde was a rugby player from a young age, competing in the sport from age 6 until he was 21 years old.

“When I left rugby, I started strongman”, explained van der Linde. “I’m a very competitive person, so I had to replace rugby with something.”

Van der Linde was well aware of the existence of the sport of strongman because he had watched World’s Strongest Man on ESPN from a young age. He distinctly remembers being in awe of Mariusz Pudzianowski. Nonetheless, when asked about the athletes he looks up to, the South African mentions Žydrūnas Savickas and Brian Shaw.

Not long after leaving rugby, van der Linde entered his first strongman contest, a local competition in Bloemfontein, approximately nine years ago… and he immediately made his mark by deadlifting 310 kg.

“That’s when the bug bit me the most!” he exclaimed.

After that early success, van der Linde kept working on his craft. In 2015, he took 7th place at South Africa’s Strongest Man in Pretoria. Three years later, he won the 2018 Arnold Africa Open, which featured the best athletes from his continent, and finished 3rd at the South Africa’s Strongest Man contest. These successes got him an invite to the 2018 Official Strongman Games, where he finished a disappointing 14th. However, the experience was well worth it.

“That was my first competition overseas, and I learned a lot. Getting to travel, but also seeing how the other guys operate made a big difference for me”, said van der Linde.

The experience certainly paid off for him: In 2019, van der Linde won the Africa’s Strongest Man crown. Last year, despite an easy 400 kg deadlift and a comfortable 205 kg Atlas stone lift, he lost the title by just half a point.

“It was very disappointing”, admitted van der Linde. “It’s a thorn in my flesh! Especially when I realized that it was by half a point, I was quite mad about it and disappointed in myself. However, there’s no point in looking back… We must look forward and keep going!”

Preparing for WSM

Many international observers were surprised to see Chris van der Linde’s name among this year’s 25 WSM competitors. Did he expect to get an invite?

“No, it came as a surprise. I was actually cooling off in the swimming pool after training when I checked my phone and saw the email. It was crazy, it felt like everything was spinning around… I couldn’t believe it! It’s a dream come true”, mentioned van der Linde.

The newcomer from South Africa expects to impress in the deadlift, but feels good about his chances in every discipline. In spite of his confidence, van der Linde knows he has some work to do in the moving events. He is notably trying to get leaner at the moment in an attempt to improve his speed.

“Strength-wise, I think I’m definitely more than prepared”, he said. “But when you get to this level, small improvements can make a big difference.”

Van der Linde is also getting advice from six-time WSM competitor Gerhard van Staden, who is now a strongman promoter and coach in South Africa.

Future Goals

The 30-year-old has already accomplished one of his main goals by receiving a World’s Strongest Man invite. Still, van der Linde would eventually like to reach the podium at WSM. Gerrit Badenhorst is the only African athlete to have done so, back in 1995 and 1996.

Like many current strongmen, van der Linde would also like to achieve a 500 kg deadlift. His personal best is a raw 420 kg, achieved in a powerlifting exhibition. Why raw? Quite simply because he doesn’t own a suit – the South African doesn’t believe that he can find a suit that fits his massive frame! Van der Linde is hoping to get an invite to the 2021 World Deadlift Championships in August.

With all of his deadlifting prowess and with the potential he showed in the bench press at a young age, one could wonder why the big South African doesn’t compete in powerlifting. However, he definitely prefers strongman.

“I don’t really think powerlifting is for me”, stated Chris van der Linde. “I like the fact that strongman tests overall strength. I do like the squat, the bench and the deadlift… Just not competing exclusively in those three disciplines!”

40 days away from the start of this year's World's Strongest Man (WSM) competition, the official events have been announced for the heats and finals. Here is the official list of disciplines:

June 15 (heats)
- Loading Race
- Squat Lift
- Deadlift

June 16 (heats)
- Fingal's Fingers
- Train Pull

June 17 (heats)
- Overhead Medley
- Pickaxe Hold
- Stone Off

Each group will be performing five or six of the above events. Fingal's Fingers are making their return after a four-year absence, while the Train Pull has not appeared in WSM since 2003. The Pickaxe Hold is a forward hold, an event which was very common at WSM in the 1980s and 1990s.

June 19 (finals)
- Giant's Medley
- Titan's Turntable
- REIGN Keg Toss

June 20 (finals)
- Log Lift
- KNAACK Deadlift
- Atlas Stones

The Giant's Medley will be the first event in the WSM Final for the second year in a row. According to BarBend, Titan's Turntable consists of "pushing an antique locomotive —the 19th century JW Bowker steam engine, to be precise — 180 degrees. The train will be placed on the California State Railroad Museum Turntable, which was built in 1911."

According to various rumours, the Keg Toss will be for maximum height, and the Log Lift will be for maximum weight. However, these details are yet to be confirmed.

The current Strongman Champions League (SCL) season will resume in July after a ten-month hiatus.

The SCL announced ten competitions for 2021 yesterday, including eight individual, open-class contests that will count toward their overall rankings. 2021 will kick off on July 24 for Strongman Champions League; as usual, its first competition will be in Vinstra, Norway. However, there will be no snow this year, prompting SCL to call the event "World's Strongest Viking: Summer Edition".

The organization's directors, Marcel Mostert and Ilkka Kinnunen, have decided that the results from the three SCL events from 2020 will count toward this year's point totals. Ireland's Sean O'Hagan currently leads the SCL standings with 49 points, while Aivars Šmaukstelis is second with 36.

All of these Strongman Champions League contests will add to a very busy latter half of 2021 in the strength world! All the events that will count toward the SCL standings can be found here.

“All I had to do was get two reps... I felt amazing.”

Going into the Axle Press event in heat 5 of the 2017 World’s Strongest Man (WSM) contest, Bryan Benzel was about to shock the strength world. The 30-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska had put himself in a position to win his heat against former finalists Žydrūnas Savickas, Terry Hollands and Nick Best. Benzel had tied for the win in the Squat Lift before dominating the Fingal’s Fingers, and he felt confident going into the 162 kg Axle Press. After all, he had done 170 kg for five reps in training a few weeks earlier.

But on a hot May afternoon in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana, it all went wrong in a matter of seconds. Benzel had torn his bicep.

“It was difficult for so many reasons,” recounted Benzel to Strongman Archives. “As an athlete competing in an individual sport, there is literally nothing worse than putting in the time and effort to improve, exceeding your own expectations, seeing this huge goal that you’ve had forever… and then, in an instant, it’s just gone.

The only thing I was able to think about was, ‘How will I ever be able to make it back here?’”

The American strongman was far from knowing that this was only the beginning of his troubles with his right bicep.

A Background in Heavy Lifting

During his childhood and teenage years, Bryan Benzel had tried his hand at multiple sports, including track and field, before focusing on football. Weighing 260 pounds at the age of 18, the University of Nebraska recruited him to be a walk-on long snapper while he majored in engineering.

However, Bryan had been attracted to strength sports from a young age because his father, Trent Benzel, was a powerlifter. He had always enjoyed spending time in the gym, and this all culminated after a fortuitous meeting.

“My dorm neighbor in college, Chuck Kasson, was a strongman competitor,” explains Benzel. “At that point, I didn’t even know that amateur strongman was a thing. I had seen World’s Strongest Man on television, but I didn’t know much about it. I got a bit of a crash course from Chuck when I was about 18, 19 years old, and just trained for fun for a few years before entering my first powerlifting meet.”

Benzel then moved to Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska, and found a strongman-oriented home gym owned by Jesse Jobe. Not long after that, in the fall of 2010, he decided that strongman was the avenue that suited him more. In Benzel’s opinion, the athleticism required and the variety of lifts to train were more interesting, in spite of the fact that his first training session at Jobe’s Steel Jungle took place in very difficult circumstances.

“A few weeks before that, I’d had surgery to remove two cancerous tumours in my bladder,” recalls Benzel. “For my first time training at Jesse’s, I had a stent going from my kidney to my bladder, in order to keep all that open. It was an interesting training session, although I couldn’t give it my all.”

After about four months of strongman training, at the age of 23, Benzel made the three-hour drive to Kansas City, Missouri to enter his first contest in February of 2011… and won it!

That maiden victory made him hooked on strongman. Benzel competed a lot in 2011, gaining experience and meeting some lifelong friends, such as Spenser Remick. However, Benzel’s first season ended in pain when he passed out while loading a 400-pound Atlas stone, dropping it on his ankle. The accident nearly made the aspiring strongman lose his foot as a cellulitis infection plagued him. Luckily, Benzel recovered, but he had to take some time off.

The athlete from Nebraska then resumed competing, but hit a low point after a bad performance at the 2013 Amateur Nationals in Dallas, Texas.

“I had some time to think during the ten-hour drive after the contest, and I was asking myself ‘Do I really want to keep doing this and, if I do, what do I need to do to be better?’ A lot of people don’t realize that there are maybe five guys in the world who could naturally be good at strongman. In the end, I came to the realization that I strongly wanted to take the next step in order to push myself further in the sport. That was a big turning point for me.”

A year later, Benzel showed up more prepared after changing his nutrition and training harder. It worked out well for him, as he won the 300-pound weight class and took third place overall. This fantastic result qualified him for the 2015 Arnold Amateur Strongman World Championships, where he would face 38 other up-and-coming athletes.

Making a Name for Himself

The Arnold Amateur Strongman World Championships are sometimes overlooked by fans of the sport, but it is a prestigious contest where most future professionals make their first steps on the international scene. The 2015 edition was no exception. Apart from Benzel, athletes such as Tom Stoltman, Konstantine Janashia and Rob Kearney all entered the contest.

However, it was Alexander Lysenko and Benzel who flew through day one. The two of them were tied on 33.85 points, with multiple challengers very close behind them as the field was cut down to 10 athletes. Two events remained: the Max Log Lift and the Power Stairs. Sadly, the former is still a source of regret for Benzel today.

“My technique was very raw, and my clean was a weak point. Back then, if I could clean it, I could press it!” he explains. “I was hoping to get around 400 pounds, but I tweaked something in my tricep and I missed 385… I was so mad at myself for missing it, and I still beat myself up over it.”

Alexander Lysenko ended up successfully pressing the 385-pound log and, despite Benzel’s victory in the Power Stairs, the Russian won the show by only half a point, thus preventing the Nebraskan from reaching his first Arnold Strongman Classic. Benzel had shown that he belonged, but this would not be his last near miss.

A few months later, Benzel qualified for the 2016 Giants Live North American Open, in Martinsville, Indiana. A solid fifth place finish there earned him a spot as a reserve for the 2016 World’s Strongest Man contest, but some withdrawals allowed him to compete in heat 4. However, it was a mixed back for Benzel in his rookie appearance as he had to battle through injury.

“The first event was the Loading Race, and we had to load these huge barrels. They were in the dirt, and my group was the last to go, so the barrels were beat up and they were super slick because of the dirt. I was setting them on my leg to get them into position, and I ended up with five huge hematomas going down my quad. But to be honest, I wasn’t ready for that contest. It was mostly a great learning experience, and I met a lot of awesome people there.”

Which takes us to 2017. Benzel had been invited as a reserve again, but stepped in on short notice to replace Dainis Zageris in heat 5. However, he quickly proved his worth in the Squat Lift before completing the Fingal’s Fingers in just under 47 seconds, shocking head referee Colin Bryce.

“When I got the last finger, I was looking over and he was just standing there with his mouth wide open”, remembers Benzel.

Disaster would strike just a day later.

Getting Back to the Top

Having missed a tremendous opportunity of making the World’s Strongest Man final due to the bicep tear sustained in the Axle Press, Bryan Benzel recovered throughout 2017 and made his international return at the 2018 Arnold South America in São Paulo, Brazil. The American narrowly missed out on the money places by finishing in 7th, and he then immediately flew out to the Philippines, having been invited to WSM 2018 as a reserve for the third time.

Unfortunately, flying took its toll on Benzel, and he contracted a stomach bug which he attributes to the airline food. A day before the start of the contest, he could not touch a single implement during familiarization due to his illness. There was simply no way he would be in shape to compete… but then, the organizers of the show called him in: Cheick “Iron Biby” Sanou had been forced to pull out of heat 3.

“Eric, the producer, asked me ‘We know you’ve been dealing with a stomach issue, but are you ready to compete?’ I said ‘Not really, but like… Am I in?’ This was at 9 PM the day before the contest. The doctors then quickly gave me every possible thing hoping that my stomach would hold up.”

Hold up, it did! Bryan Benzel won the first event, the Load & Carry, and performed well throughout all the events but came up just a bit short, missing the eliminator event by two points. All in all, it was a valiant effort, and Benzel looked forward to making it back to WSM in order to reach his first final.

Struggle in Indiana

Only a month after the 2018 World’s Strongest Man contest ended, 12 strongmen gathered in Martinsville for the 2018 Giants Live North American Open. This was to be the first qualifier for WSM 2019. As is the case with every Giants Live contest, the top three athletes would get guaranteed invitations to the big show.

Benzel performed consistently on that day, and he was in the mix for a podium spot until the very end, notably winning the 100 kg Dumbbell Press with 7 repetitions. He also delivered a brilliant run in the Atlas Stones, completing the set in 25.57 seconds. Unfortunately for Benzel, rising star Trey Mitchell lifted the stones in 25.56 seconds, just one hundredth of a second ahead of him! This meant that Benzel was classified fourth overall, with 39 points, instead of second with 40 points had he lifted the fifth stone a shade faster.

Of course, he still held hopes of getting a WSM invite for 2019, but those were short-lived after he overheard a conversation between tournament director Colin Bryce and Evan Singleton, who had finished 8th in the show.

According to Benzel, Bryce had told Singleton to “make sure he was ready to go” for the 2019 World’s Strongest Man contest. When Benzel asked Bryce if that meant he was going to get an invite as well, the tournament director allegedly told him that he had sealed his own fate by finishing outside the top three places.

“I was like, ‘What the f---?’ I had done everything they asked of me for three years, but it’s like performances don’t actually matter”, bemoans Benzel.

As it turns out, Mark Felix (5th) and Rob Kearney (7th) got invites to compete at WSM 2019, while Singleton was an alternate. Benzel never got a call.

A year later, the Nebraskan finished a lowly 12th at the 2019 Giants Live North American Open while competing injured. Meanwhile, Singleton won the show.

A Serious Injury

On April 10, 2020, all hopes of a glorious return were dashed when Benzel tore his bicep for the second time while training.

“I was loading stones and they felt great, up until the exact moment in this picture when I felt something that felt like I just ripped my radius through my skin and heard what sounded like heavy duty Velcro being pulled apart”, he described on Instagram last year.

This huge setback took a lot of time to recover from, and Benzel has now decided to step away from competing. The athlete who now resides in Pennsylvania with his fiancée, Chelsea, is still passionate for the sport, but feels that competing is not a priority for him at this point. Injuries are part of the problem, but money is also an issue for Benzel, who works as a project manager for a mechanical contractor.

“Every time I went to WSM, I had to take two weeks off work without pay,” he mentions. “I got a little bit of prize money from being there but in the end, I always lost money. I have never been to a contest where I haven’t lost money. I’ve obviously gotten a lot out of competing with the experiences, the friendships… But right now, I’m not in a place where I want to devote all my energy and money into maybe getting an invite some day.”

Another issue raised by the three-time WSM competitor is the lack of transparency in the qualifying process for major competitions.

“The problem with strongman right now is that you have athletes who get invites no matter what they do, with their travels and expenses paid, while others get blacklisted because they turned down an invite once. A lot of fans are starting to open their eyes to that, too. [...] You can’t have contests without athletes. The athletes need to organize and do something about it, because we need to stop getting treated like commodities!” he added.

New Challenges

Despite all the injuries and setbacks, Bryan Benzel still loves strongman, and he was very excited to tell Strongman Archives about his new partnership with Team Affinity, which manufactures strongman apparel and supplements. Benzel is now managing the US branch of the company, allowing him to stay heavily involved in the sport.

“I just really love what the brand stands for,” affirms Benzel. “It’s got the best chalk I’ve ever used, their bags blew me out of the water, and their supplements have great ingredients too. Marcus [Charman, founder of Team Affinity] was looking for someone to take care of distribution in the US, and I decided to pull the trigger!”

Benzel still trains six days a week and his fiancée also trains and competes in the sport.

“It’s just something we really enjoy,” he says. “Strongman will never not be a part of our lives!”

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