Local weightlifter vaults onto regional scene
The weightlifter brings the bench-press bar down to his chest and back up.
As he goes through the lifting motion, his yells crescendo with the weight's continued movement.
But for Tonganoxie's A.J. Eller, those yells don't necessarily result from pressing a bar loaded with weights.
Eller, who lifts competitively, must wear a special rubber shirt all competitors are required to throw on for Natural Athlete Strength Association tournaments.
That shirt, however, requires about three people to put on a lifter, along with a bottle of baby powder. This process usually takes anywhere from five to 10 minutes because Eller said the shirt literally could fit a 3-year-old.
The lifter then keeps the shirt on throughout the competition, which lasts from 30 to 45 minutes.
When the lifters are yelling during the lift, chances are their shoulders and underarms are hurting from the constrictive shirt.
"It's pretty excruciating," Eller said.
But Eller, who has lifted competitively the last two years, has looked past that temporary pain.
Winning a few titles can make that short-term discomfort go away.
A 2001 Tonganoxie High graduate, Eller has won a Midwest Bench Press Championship, a NASA Regional title and the Kansas State Bench Press Championships in the last year.
Finding his forte
Eller competed in cross country, basketball and track while at THS, but his true love was weightlifting, which he started when he was 15. Eller will turn 21 later this month.
When working out in weightlifting classes at THS, Eller noticed that the amount he lifted was above what charts showed for his weight. Eller tracked that progress and continued lifting. Aside from a rotator cuff injury that sidelined him for six months, Eller has been lifting ever since.
"I knew this was something I was good in, so I stuck with it," Eller said.
Bench-press participants are allowed three lifts per tournament.
After notifying the announcer of the desired weight, the lifter approaches the bench and attempts the lift. But unlike the pole vault, in which participants can drop their height, lifters can't drop down to a lower weight if they can't lift their desired amount.
"You have to know what you can lift," Eller said. "That's what I like because it's all mental."
Some more experienced lifters delegate someone to tell the announcer what weight they want. Eller said that helps mentally because the lifter doesn't worry about what the weight might be and just lifts.
Another advantage, Eller said, comes with arm length. The shorter the arms the better, Eller said, which works out perfectly for the local lifter.
"I have a wider grip than most," Eller said. "I go as wide as possible.
"Guys with long arms have a disadvantage at some point."
Eller competes in the 165-181 weight class. Age divisions go from 19-and-younger and 20-23 to older divisions such as 40, 50 and 60. Eller has seen some of the older lifters compete.
"It's one of those things you look at and think, 'Wow, I hope I can do that when I'm that age,'" Eller said.
Eller never has lost a bench press tournament during his two years of professional competition.
He has competed in Iowa and Kansas with the closest competition being in Salina. In Sigourney, Iowa, Eller clinched the title in the Midwest competition and also won state and regional titles in Salina.
Eller usually competes against five to seven opponents at each tournament.
Eller's winning streak will be tested in February when the lifter competes in the NASA Powerlifting Bench Press Championships in Oklahoma City.
"Those are the big, big dogs," Eller said. "I'm not expecting anything there, but I'll give it my all. We'll see what happens."
The manager of Midwest Health Club in Tonganoxie, Eller has his trophies perched high atop a furniture piece in his office, almost as if they're out of normal sight.
But Eller said he had someone to thank for helping him succeed in powerlifting.
"I do owe my talent to my father," Eller said. "He keeps after it."
Dan Eller encouraged A.J. to lift when he was 15. Dan himself lifted consistently in high school and college and A.J. has followed in those footsteps.
However, 10 years ago Dan was informed he had blood pressure and heart problems.
When those symptoms became serious in 1996, A.J. offered to lift with his father.
Obviously both are heavily involved today. Dan lifts six times a week, while A.J. hits the bench press three times per week. His workout cycle currently is seven weeks on and two weeks off.
Down the road
At this point, Eller is happy working at the health club and pursuing a degree at the University of Kansas.
A sports science major, Eller would like to attain a master's in exercise physiology after he has a bachelor's degree.
"That's down the road, but definitely is on my agenda," Eller said.
Ultimately, however, Eller's dream is to develop his own style of weightlifting. Through his education and from observing people lift, Eller hopes to create an ideal lifting system.
"People lose their form and that's where they get a lot of injuries," Eller said.