Let’s finally come back to meet some good friends of strength in one of the many interviews of Grip and Bend Italia that we like so much, to listen, learn, get closer to characters who often appear to us mythological and very distant from us.
Today I have the pleasure of having a conversation with a man who does not love being in the spotlight, but who thanks to his passion for the Old time strong man, shows his strength in public, showing off an unexpected power, until becoming the protagonist of a documentary film!
Let’s talk about Chris “The Wonder” Schoeck !!!
This interview will be different from the others, it will not be a question and answer, but I will leave Chris free to tell his story, because we had a long exchange of emails and I prefer to condense everything like a story.
I would also like to correct an error in a previous article, due to incorrectly translated information, Chris is not a war veteran! Sorry for the mistake!
So here is his story:
I’ll start by providing you with a basic introduction to myself. I was born in Queens NY,(12/20/67) and was educated at a Lutheran school 9-12 only to graduate from Queens College in1991. I was sort of a problem kid. The problems began way before high school. I was plagued with some rather difficult learning disabilities which really prevented academic success. I can say that having spent great effort trying to straighten them out was useless, especially considering that I was dependent upon alcohol.
Alcohol was my primary focus from a very early age. From my first experience with it my life was irrevocably changed. I with out reservations, believe that dependency is genetic. That in itself is unfortunately not an excuse or reason for poor behavior. Nobody, despite great effort could have changed the behavior: I was not interested. I was going to self destruct until I either experienced a rather unpleasant death or physically could not do it anymore. There were plenty good intentions on the part of all adults. Our society directs vast amounts of effort and resources to this issue.
I liked to read… some of my favorite books were Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, The Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci and of course Poor Richards Almanack. Go figure? You would think that someone with those interests would have distinguished himself? In school you are interacting with people, for me other people were just there. I never developed any enduring relationships, and that never seemed to bother me? I was always my own man. Even as a kid, I always felt detached.
When Andre the Giant died, I was visibly shaken. Never met him nor was I interested in professional wrestling? Odd!
During my early youth, I did pursue swimming rather aggressively. I suppose you could say that was participation in team activity. Gosh I’m going guess that was from 10-16? I swam the breast stroke for the local club. I did train hard, but again even though with a team, I was alone and other people were just there. I liked being good at it, and I liked the workout. As an adult I am totally disinterested in water sports? Go figure?
After my swimming career, I took up martial arts. At this point in life l was well into bad behavior. In spite of this behavior, I managed to attain an admirable level of skill. I loved the intense workout. It kept me from completely falling apart. Rigorous training in some sort of sport was ultimately a salvation. Granted it became my tool to a better life.
I was not disinterested in school, but I lacked certain important skill necessary for achievement. Doing well in academia was not in the cards. I often chose books that required strong basic skills. I had big expectations which were not realistic given my skill level. I had dreams, but minus being a disciplined student performance in those areas was not likely.
This you can imagine was very frustrating. I never mastered these basic skills, and when I tried, it required unusual effort. As I grew to adult hood many of those basic skills were necessary for elementary jobs. Not in possession of them, unfortunately relegated me to repetitive jobs. I had the tenacity to take basic uninteresting jobs. However, I had the Steel to use a sledgehammer. The job required the use of a ten pound hammer. I grabbed a twelve pound hammer and swung it harder and faster than the rest. I was determined to succeed with muscles in my back and an oath on my lips.
Most of my piers chose better occupations. I was washing dishes and very frustrated. That was after stumbling through Queens College in 1991. I managed to graduate from The Culinary Institute of America in 1995. A job as a chef required organizational skills which I never developed. That’s not mentioning that I dreamed of going to law school, and somehow becoming a name on Wall St. I must have applied to 10 law school unsuccessfully. Basically, I was a bruised and frustrated man.
In school, I found little distinction. I was always compelled to participate in group activities. I never really enjoyed group sports, but I did enjoy working out. This is an area where I could have succeeded, but alcohol had a terrible grip on me. I was killing my self ,and years later I was put in contact with a childhood friend who became a physician He was surprised that I was alive!
Was I ever a person that preferred action over paperwork? I can’t really say? I couldn’t take effective action. I suppose I was a like a powerful steamship without a rudder. Tons of smoke, but no destination.
I effectively gave up drinking in 1991, and then had to succeed in a world with no education. If your looking to distinguish yourself: a solid education is essential. I did have a few compelling curiosities, but without the basic higher education they were dreams. I then was stuck functioning having missed those critical years. I spent years with regrets. However, at 43 I grabbed the bull by the horns and learned to make the very best of my situation. A little late, but that’s part of what bending steel did for me. Many people find the strength to go on, but bending steel taught me to press on even when I couldn’t find the strength.
The turning point…
As I mentioned earlier, I missed out on school and proper development. In about 2007? I became involved with Olympic weight lifting. That’s quite a leap in years! I fell into it like a fish to water. In late 2009, I received a trophy from an old time strongman who allegedly was over 100 years old. His name was Joe Rollino. Joe was an old time strongman. He had hands like a bag of door knobs. Very impressed, I quickly got schooled by my team on who this amazingly vital man was.
I bought steel spikes and bars. I knew nothing, and I certainly experienced 0 success at bending. Oh in January 2010 almost months after meeting Joe , I began my strength journey. It met with a welder from NJ. His name was Greg Matonick. A real old time strongman! Unfortunately, he was undergoing severe cardiac issues which led to him passing several years later. He handed me a steel bar, and I bent it. He said “ kid you got something special” He said it with such sincerity. Never in my recollection had a person with such talent said this to me. I was off on a mission, and he recommended that I locate a mentor. He suggested Chris Rider from PA.
Anyway I met Chris for the first training session in I guess February of 2010? He was a little shocked when I called him out of the blue, and I showed a strong desire to become an old time strongman. Well we set up a date. I saw Chris roughly once every 5 weeks for a year or maybe more. Each session was roughly 5 hours. We would practice several feats, and I would practice diligently in between sessions. Then upon next session review my practice and add to my training. Chris, as you can tell is a giant. Chris is also right handed, and I am a lefty. I am very left handed, but I managed to learn with some proficiency. That adaption surprised me.
Chris and I sparked up a friendship. We participated in many big shows on Coney Island. Much of the movie was filmed on Coney Island. Coney Island being a spot through history for these type of activities. We did these shows with the help of many other strongmen who featured in our film. It really made me feel part of history. Chris, encouraged and taught me to do strength feats which I never believed anyone could do. Tearing poker cards? Bending horseshoes? I rip through cards like gangbusters thanks to practice and his tutelage. Card tearing was not something that I thought could be done, at least not with plastic coated durable cards.
Oh Slim was and is still a legend. He was bit by hammer leveraging back when he was a kid of I believe 18? He leveraged off the ground a 14lbs hammer at one of Joseph L Greenstein performances in a PA market. The Mighty Atom said something to the effect “ that will make you famous”. Boy did hammers make him world famous. Slim is a larger than life man. Everyone loves Slim. He is a friend and mentor to us all. Slim is a towering powerful man. At once 6’9” now slightly shorter at 85. Slim said he is bit shorter now that his bones have settled a bit.
He was a force and powerful man. At 50 nobody would mess with him. He spent a career in a granite quarry swinging a sledge hammer, drank nothing but brandy and sucking cigars. He was a mans man. He had a strong allegiance to his family, and a solid sense of right vs wrong. His kindness is not a sign of weakness. He went on to lever 32lbs on a 36”! A worlds record which stands to this day. He did perform in our movie. When younger, he performed in Madison Square Garden. That performance was legendary. He performed with snapped wrists!!!
Joseph L Greenstein or aka “ The Mighty Atom” was a strong positive influence on all strongmen. Many people our age never actually had the chance to meet him, but his legacy was given to us through the The Mighty Atom, an account of the Atoms unusual life.
He was a model for moral and physical strength. He had experiences that built strong character, and which created an indomitable spirit. The author of this book unfortunately became a thorn in the side of the folks that created our movie. He claimed to have exclusive rights to everything related to the Atom. Legally false, his rights passed with the passage of the Atom. For us he was a real life super hero. He certainly was capable of unimaginable strongman feats. Some of his feats have never been replicated- like biting a spike in half. One of these spikes remains in the York Barbell museum.
Dennis Rogers was the grandmaster of our group. He was influenced by the Atom, and I believe was very much influenced by the Atom. Dennis was a major influence in the career of Chris Rider. Dennis also gave me the name Wonder. It stuck well as people wonder how a man of my stature could do some of the things that I do. Dennis continues to be a source of encouragement for me. He is also a friend, and a figure that played an important role in our movie.
The sequence: first the Atom then Slim, then Dennis then Chris R then me. This is the lineage which we tried to portray as accurately as possible in the movie. The movie tried to show how this activity changed my life. It showed how a powerful group of men changed my life. This activity , and those who participate in it, irrevocable changed me for the better. I am indeed grateful to them all!
Never will I forget Greg! Though we had limited meetings, he managed to create a powerful sense of wholesome self. It was because of Greg that I was fortunate enough to meet Chris R. Greg was a fine man, and he was a mentor to many. Greg indeed was an incredible strongman who also was a first rate welder!
Bending Steel is an intimate documentary that explores the lost art of the old times strongman and a man’s struggle to overcome the limits of body and mind.
Directed by Dave Carrol and written by Dave Carrol and Ray Scafuro.
You play Chris Schoeck, Chris Rider, Slim The Hammerman, Dennis Rogers and other important characters from the oldtime force.