Disabled Michigan veteran sets powerlifting records
By RACHEL GRECO | Lansing State Journal | Published: August 12, 2018
ST. JOHNS, Mich. (AP) — At 5 feet 8 inches tall and 198 pounds, his chest is expansive and unforgiving, clearly defined under the worn, red T-shirt he's wearing. His arms are massive. When he bends his elbow, his biceps bulge and stand tall, showing off solid muscle.
If ever someone lived up to their name, it's Bobby Body.
At national and international powerlifting competitions he's set records, bench pressing more than double his own weight.
He gets plenty of questions about his last name, but his missing left leg is often the first thing people notice about him.
It was amputated above the knee five years ago, the result of an injury Body sustained while he was in the U.S. Army. The convoy he was in was hit by four underground explosives during a deployment to Iraq. Rehabilitation and surgeries couldn't save it.
When Body's lying on the bench getting ready to lift a bar loaded with over 440 pounds of weight, the prosthetic leg he wears lays on the floor, just off to the side of the action.
Powerlifters who compete in bench press will tell you "leg drive," planting one's feet firmly on the ground during a lift, is one of the keys to success. Without it, most lifters might struggle to keep their balance. They have to rely largely on their back, chest and shoulders to lift the bar.
Body's been doing that for four years.
In a sport dominated by able-bodied competitors he's won national and world championships, and last May he set a drug-tested world record in his weight class, bench pressing 460 pounds "raw," or without the help of supportive padding or shirts.
"I've had tons of people ask me, 'How do you do it?'" Body, 44, told the Lansing State Journal . "It's always been, fight, scratch, claw, push, kick, punch. Do what you have to do to survive. I wasn't going to allow it to defeat me."
Four years ago, when Body started going to a gym near his home in St. Johns, he wasn't interested in competing, setting records or even building muscle.
He was there to exercise demons.
A therapist he was seeing for a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis suggested he go. Working out, the therapist told Body, could be a healthy outlet for aggression and frustration.
Body had plenty of both.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2004, eager to get back into the military after a three-year stint as a U.S. Marine that ended after his knee was injured on an obstacle course.
Military service offered Body the kind of family he'd been without growing up.
Body's mother left when he was five. He was 10 when his father went to prison. Body and his sister, MayDene, ended up at the VFW National Home for Children in Eaton Rapids.
Both attended high school in the small Eaton County community.
"I was the darkest guy in the entire town," Body said, laughing. His mother was Asian, his father African American. "But I had tons of friends."
He was serving in Iraq in February of 2006 when an underground explosive blew the door of his Humvee into his left side. Shoulder surgery fixed the damage to his left arm, but the impact of the blast cut off blood flow to the bones in his leg, and severely damaged cartilage and tendons. Three years of rehabilitation and surgery on his left leg led to his medical retirement from the Army.
"I was devastated because the military was going to be my career," Body said. "It was, 'What am I going to do with myself? I don't want to do anything else. I want to be part of the military.'"
Four years after he moved to St. Johns doctors at a veterans affairs hospital in Ann Arbor told him they couldn't repair the damage to his leg. They amputated it in September of 2013.
Body's ex-wife Terri maintains a close relationship with him. They divorced earlier this year but remain friends, she said, and are raising their son Jayden, 6, together.
She said the amputation was a blessing in disguise. Before it was removed, his left leg often gave out without warning, she said.
"He fell more times with his leg than he ever did with his prosthetic," Terri said.
Becoming disabled, Body said, has simply meant he's had to push himself "just a little bit harder." That was the attitude he took at the gym, but he never intended to take up power lifting.
He stumbled into the sport by chance.
Body was acting out of curiosity the day another powerlifter saw him bench press over 300 pounds.
He'd never lifted that kind of weight before, but he'd given it a try just to see if he could.
"That's not bad for someone with one leg," he remembers hearing the lifter say. "Have you ever considered powerlifting?"
Body said he thought the suggestion seemed a far-cry from reality.
"At first, I was like, 'I'm an amputee. There's no way I could compete against anybody in power lifting."
"Is that your stage name?" people often ask him at competitions.
Two decades ago when Body was studying criminal justice at Ferris State University a rugby coach didn't believe him when he explained that Bobby Body was his given name.
It took showing the coach a driver's license to convince him.
"It's always been Body, and it's not even Robert," Body said. "It's actually Bobby. Most people just call me Bobby. I don't have a preference. Bobby makes me sound like a little boy, but Bob makes me sound like an old man."
His name, albeit fitting, is just a quirky coincidence, a "conversation starter," he said.
Body didn't attend his first powerlifting competition until early 2014. It was "the coolest thing" he'd ever seen, he said.
Powerlifting offers a supportive environment for pushing yourself, Body said. Competitors don't behave as adversaries. They rally behind each other.
"There's no trash talking," Body said. "Not just the crowd, but the athletes themselves were cheering the lifters on. That's the one thing I like about the sport."
Body started training in early 2014, researching methods for strengthening his chest, arms and shoulder muscles. His prosthetic can't sustain weight during a lift, so he removes it, tucking his right leg back when he's lying on the bench.
Body won his first national competition in May of that year, bench pressing 386 pounds in the drug-tested division for his weight.
"That's when I was like, OK. It's on now,'" he said.
Today Body holds national records for drug-tested bench press, and he has won the last three world championships in drug-tested bench press.
Fellow powerlifter Bobby Faber of Flint said Body's a force to be reckoned with.
"Probably 60 percent of your strength on bench press comes from your leg drive," Faber said. "It's impressive. That means he doesn't half-ass train. He's made it a very, very long way in the sport."
Skip Spencer agreed. Body is impressive, said the Grand Rapids powerlifter, especially when you consider what he's been able to lift using only upper-body strength.
"Tell you what, from the waist up he's very, very strong," Spencer said. "A lot of what he's doing is just with his back and shoulders. Either you want to do this, or you don't. He wants to do it."
Body is a regular at Snap Fitness Gym in St. Johns.
Tuesdays he works on his shoulders, Wednesdays his back, and on Thursday his triceps and biceps — but Monday is devoted to lifting weights on the bench press.
It's a gradual process, Body said, building one's tolerance for lifting more than twice their own weight. It can take weeks to increase your highest weight by just a few pounds.
Body aims to beat his own world-record of bench pressing 460 pounds this November when he competes in the International Powerlifting League Championship in Las Vegas.
Body said he has a lot of work to do before then.
"Even though people don't realize it there really is a science behind bench pressing," he said.
Body spends Mondays gradually increasing the weight on his bar. Two repetitions at 425 pounds, then a rest, then another two at 441 pounds. Body is already lifting more than 460 pounds in training, but he aims to come as close as he can to lifting 500 pounds in November's competition.
Snap Fitness Gym owner Robb Miller, who powerlifted in college, said Body's accomplishments extend beyond the sport.
Body assists other gym members on a regular basis, Miller said.
"His biggest strength isn't his muscles," he said. "It's his heart."
Officials at Disabled American Veterans say the same. In 2016 the charitable organization named Body their Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year, and in June of this year he was presented with the DAV Victories for Veterans Award.
DAV's National Executive Director Barry Jesinoski said the honors stem from Body's willingness to share his story with other veterans. In the last three years Body has spoken before veteran's groups, and with individual veterans one-on-one about what he's been through.
"When Bobby shares his story, it reminds other wounded veterans about the courage and dedication they may have lost touch with following an injury," he said in an email to the State Journal.
Body said he's always aimed to reach at least one other veteran who's struggled like he has.
"I may speak to 100 people but with the law of averages, at least one person is going to listen to what I have to say, and that's my mission," he said.
None of what Body's accomplished surprises people who know him, Terri said.
"He deserves all the praise," she said. "He keeps coming back stronger. Nothing has ever stopped him."
No two people face the same struggle, Body said.
"I never use the words, 'I understand,' because unless I'm sitting in your shoes, I'm not going to understand," he said. "I can tell them what I did, what worked for me. I'm willing to do that."
In a July 18, 2018 photo, competitive powerlifter Bobby Body works out at Snap Fitness in St. Johns, Mich. Body went through years of rehabilitation and surgeries after he was injured as a U.S. Army deployment to Iraq in 2006 and holds national records for drug-tested bench press which he has won the last three world championships.
MATTHEW DAE SMITH/LANSING STATE JOURNAL VIA AP