Physics professor gets physical at Games

Posted March 29, 2009, at 11:11 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — At 5-foot-11, 273 pounds, Rob Meulenberg doesn’t quite look like what you might expect a physics professor to look like, but he certainly knows how to apply irresistible force to an immovable object.

He looked right at home on the Brewer Auditorium stage for the Maine Games State Powerlifting Championships Saturday.

Then again, when it comes to powerlifting, there really is no “typical” powerlifter. Friday and Saturday’s State Powerlifting Championships was proof positive of that.

Whether it was the squat, bench press or deadlift, there were sons competing, daughters competing, fathers and mothers competing… There were even some grandfathers pumping some iron.

If that’s not enough of a cross section, consider Meulenberg.

The Philadelphia native who came to Maine by way of California smashed the state record in the squat with a personal-best lift of 832 pounds — yes, 832 pounds — Saturday afternoon. And the amateur powerlifter also happens to be a professional strongman.

Oh, did anyone mention he also happens to be an assistant physics professor at the University of Maine? Talk about a renaissance man.

“This is the first powerlifting event I’ve done since 2000 and I set a personal best. I hit 815 two years ago,” the 32-year-old married father of 2-year-old daughter Abigail said. “I was going to be happy is I broke 820.”

Most people, even some at the two-day competition, would be happy to break 280.

Meulenberg set foot in the Pine Tree State for the first time last Labor Day after being hired by UMaine for a tenured track position. Previously, he taught at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

“I lived in California 10 years and my wife Christa’s a lifelong California resident,” he said.

Talk about a culture (or climate) shock.

“Yeah, I heard this winter was really cold, even for this area, but I didn’t mind it too much,” he said. “We’re both doing well and it’s been fine. I have a great appreciation for the spring now though.”

All Meulenberg did Saturday was smash the previous state record of 650 pounds in the squat by 182 pounds, bench 391 pounds (miniscule by his standards since he has done 500 before, but lifted without a belt Saturday), and another 690 pounds in the deadlift before breaking a callous on his hand while coming back down with the barbell at 716.

“It was bleeding all over and I figured I’d better not chance making it worse with a third lift,” said Meulenberg, who was named best lifter overall at the meet after also breaking the overall lift mark [1,700] with 1,913 total pounds. “I was kind of disappointed, but I guess the deadlift record will just have to wait for next year.”

Not bad for a guy who didn’t even decide to start training for this meet until the middle of last January.

“I started weightlifting when I was 18 and competing when I was 21,” Meulenberg said. “From that point until now, I think I’ve been in 20 powerlifting meets.

“I do the Highland Games too, but I’m also a professional strongman, so I usually train to tow Volkswagens and throw rocks and stuff like that.”

Meulenberg, who qualified for the America’s Strongest Man competition in West Virginia July 25-26, hopes to compete in one of the upper echelon strongman competitions televised on ESPN and ESPN2.

“I might not even be doing this now if my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, didn’t encourage me to stick with it and keep competing when we were in California,” said the current Orono resident.

Family seems to be a constant when it comes to the powerlifters competing at the Maine Championships. Take Joe Cretien, a 13-year-old from Hudson who competes along with his father, Russell.

“My dad has been working out for awhile, probably since high school and I’ve been involved for a year now because I wanted to get stronger for the other sports I’m doing,” said Joe Cretien, who also does soccer, wrestling, and track and field (shot put and discus). “I wanted to lift higher weights and he asked if I wanted to get serious about it.

“We both started competitive lifting this year. He was interested, but wanted to do it the two of us together,” said the New England wrestling champ in the 180-pound class. “If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be lifting anywhere near as well as I am now.”

Cretien set state records in his class in the squat with a lift of 275.58 pounds, in the bench (209) and in deadlift (320).

Russell Cretien, 46, squatted a personal-best 418, did a 370 bench and 365 deadlift but he’s feeling the heat from his son.

“I have to keep up with my son, but he’s going to go by me before too long,” he said with a chuckle. “His personal-best in bench is 240, which for a 13-year-old is just insane.”

Saturday’s meet drew about 200 observers and 35 competitors for a two-day total of 60.

“It seems to go up every year,” said Maine Games executive director Jeff Scully. “I counted over 230 people here Friday. That doesn’t happen.

“Some of these other guys go to nationals and there’ll be 40 people watching. We’ll have 500 for two days. That’s nuts.”

On Friday, Gaelen Saucier of Bangor was presented with the Travis Roy Courage Award by the Maine Center for Integrated Rehab. The wheelchair-bound St. Agatha native is an avid lifter (bench press) who also competes in sled hockey, wheelchair basketball, and quad rugby. He also competes in road races, usually 5K, but in he did 10K’s the last two years. He was paralyzed from the waist down after an accident knocked him off a ladder while trimming trees in 2003, but became more active after his injury than he was before.

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