|Select magazine number|
Vasyl Virastyuk, one of the strongest men on earth
There’s hardly a nation in the world that has no tales about hero warriors of exceptional physical and spiritual prowess, or about men of great, superhuman strength. The Ukrainians also have such stories, and strange as it may seem, there are still fantastically strong men to be found among the Ukrainians who can walk around with four-hundred pounds in each hand, who can overturn eight-hundred pound truck wheels, who can pull five streetcars, coupled together for the distance of sixty feet, the total weight of the cars being 101.5 tons! The man who performed all these stunts — for real, no special effects! — is Vasyl Virastyuk, the strongest person in Ukraine. He has taken part in, and won prizes at the international Strongman contests and is considered to be one of the strongest men in the world.
Vasyl Virastyuk was born in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in 1974. When still in kindergarten, he amazed his teachers by show of strength, and when he went to elementary school and then high school, he did a lot of sports — soccer, swimming, free-style wrestling and even small-bore rifle shooting. But after his elder brother Roman had taken Vasyl to an athletics gym, it was in shot-putting that he discovered his best talent.
Mr Virastyuk was interviewed by Natalya POZNYAK for Welcome to Ukraine.
Have you inherited your build and strength from your parents?
No, not really. My mom is about the average female height, and my father is even a little lower than the average height for men. But my brother Roman and I — we are big. Don’t know why. Family tradition has it that my great-grand-father was very tall, almost two meters in height. I was born big — five kilos and 68 centimeters long. In many respects, I followed in my brother’s footsteps. Roman’s always been for me an example to follow.
As far as I know, there was a time in your life when you had a problem with your height — you were too small for your age. Is it true?
It is. I was upset about it, but Roman showed me an article in a newspaper that gave advice how to deal with the problem of a short stature. Or rather, it was an article about a high jumper who thought he was too short for a successful career in high jumping, and in order to grow he used a special apparatus, with weights fixed to the ankles, that sort of kept stretching him, even when he was asleep. Roman said to me, See, don’t be upset, your height can be taken care of. Do exercises and you’ll grow. I did a lot of things. For example, when I saw a tree with a branch high, but not too high, I did my best to reach it with my finger tips. I stretched my full length at every opportunity. And I did begin to grow. I don’t know whether this helped, or maybe I wanted to grow up so much, but anyway I did grow tall and big.
Was it purely accidental that you got involved in shot-putting?
No, not really. My brother was in this sport, and when his coach, Ivan Shary saw me, he said, that I should also try my luck in it. He’s a great coach, Master of Sports, International Class. He’s got other honorary titles too. He has trained a lot of excellent athletes. My brother remains to be one of the leading shot-putters of the Ukrainian Olympic team. He was the sixth best shot-putter at the Olympics in Atlanta, USA. In Sydney he did not do too well, but now he’s training for the Olympics in Athens.
Did you take part in any big competitions?
I did. In 1998, because of my good performance as a shot-putter, I was invited to join the Ukrainian team at the European shot-putting competition which was held in Hungary. I did not win the first place but I got to the finals. And next year too, I was among the best shot-putters of Europe… In Hungary it was Oleksandr Bahach who won the gold.
So why didn’t you go on with shot-putting?
The work I had then was so low paid that I could hardly keep my almost three-hundred pound body and my soul together. And in big-time sport you not only have to keep fit — you have to train a lot in order to be better than others. I was offered a job in Lviv and had to choose between a good job and shot-putting. After a period of hesitation and thinking things over, I chose to go to Lviv and get that job. But then, a little later, I got involved in those Strongman competitions. In fact, they are very popular all around the world, a lot of people come to take part in them, and also they are televised. And it pays, so you can get along.
Since when were these competitions held?
Internationally, they acquired an official status in 1972, but in many nations of the world similar contests are held at the national level. There are over 100 Strongman competitions and contests held throughout the world. In the United States alone, there are fifty such contests. In fact, they are more like shows, at which contestants demonstrate their strength, toughness, endurance and great will power. There are a lot of events happening at such contests — lifting 180-kilogram ball-shaped stones, throwing metal poles, carrying several-hundred-kilogram weights, overturning 400-kilogram truck wheels, plus so much more. But for strongmen the main thing is not so much to win as to be able to achieve something which seems beyond human ability to achieve — and to do it through a great effort of will power and physical strain. The geography of the participants of Strongman contests widens — at the world Strongman championship of 2000, for example, there were 10 participants, and all of them from different countries — Finland, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Germany, South Africa, Canada, Great Britain, the USA and the Faeroe Islands.
I understand you also took part in the Strongman competitions, didn’t you?
I did. But the way to these international contests was rather long for me. It began in 1997, when my brother and I were invited to take part in the Bohatyrski rozvahy (Strongman Diversions) which were regularly held in the town of Brovary (a satellite town near Kyiv — tr.). We were awarded the first and the second place, in spite of the fact that Oleksandr Bahach, the man who organized those contests, was thought to be the clear favorite. There’s one funny story connected with that competition. When we arrived in Brovary, we stayed at Bahach’s place who told us that the first two prizes were TV sets, and he was sure to get one. He had a television set in his apartment, but he wanted another one, “for the kitchen”, he said. Well, we won those TVs, and he got only the third place. He was shocked, but we gave him one television to mollify him. Later, we were invited several more times to come and participate in similar competitions, but at that time we were still on the Ukrainian team of shot-putters and, on the advice of our coaches, we declined the invitations. After leaving the sport of shot-putting, I decided I could take part in Strongman competitions, and in 1999, in Yalta, I won in four events out of five. And then I began regularly taking part in such competitions held in Ukraine. But it was only in 2001 that I took part in an international contest — it was in Riga, Latvia, and won the fourth place. Then I won the third place at the Strongest Person in Central Europe of 2002, and then the Grand Prix in Salzburg in Austria. A real breakthrough came at the end of 2002, in Hawaii, at the competition organized by the International Federation of the Strongest Athletes. I was the sixth, and the organizers were very much surprised that an internationally unknown athlete performed so well. Within the next year I won the third place in Zambia and thus my reputation was sort of established.
I know that Arnold Schwarzenegger called you one of the most promising strongmen in the world.
I never heard it but I was told that the BBC mentioned that. At the Arnold Classic competition Arnold Schwarzenegger himself handed in the prizes. And then pictures were taken of all us standing on the stage. Mr Schwarzenegger made an impression of a person who is not at all affected by his superstar status, very nice and easy going. There were also many body-builders, stars of body-building present at the competition. There was a big exhibition there and when I went to see it, I walked into the hall full of all those guys whom I had seen on the covers of body-builder magazines. They posed for pictures and gave autographs. For money, by the way. I admit it sort of surprised me then but why not, on the other hand? It’s just a way of earning money.
Did you see any other stars at the Arnold Classic competition?
I did. It was Sylvester Stallone.
Is there anybody among the strongmen of the world whom you look upon as a model to follow?
You know when I was still a boy, I watched Strongman competitions on television and was always impressed by these people who could handle such heavy things. I was particularly fascinated with their ability to lift huge round rocks off the ground — these stones were so smooth there did not seem to be any good purchase for the hands to hold on to. They were my heroes. But when I entered their world myself, I think much of that fascination faded. But still, I held in a particularly high esteem such strongmen as the 2000 world champion Magnus Samuelsson and Svend Karlsen, 2001 world champion, I thought they were special and I was outclassed in comparison to them, but when I was ahead of Karlsen in Hawaii and then ahead of Great Magnus in Zambia I began to realize they are human, not divine, and can be beaten in competitions, and I am one of them! I even think I’ve risen to a level that I can be an example for aspiring athletes to follow…
And to be admired!
I don’t know about that but anyway I know what I’m worth as an athlete. My ambition is to win in a competition with Mariusz Pudzianowski. He’s my number one rival now. If I could beat him at the next world championship, that’d be cool!
What’s the basic difference between, say, shot-putting competitions and Strongman competitions?
Shot-putting is an Olympic sport, and Strongman contests are actually exciting shows. Plus, you can earn money taking part in these shows. Being shows, the Strongman competitions include quite a few stunts to be performed by strongmen, about fifty, which are, I’m sure, amazing to see.
At the competition in Slovakia, for example, we had to throw a heavy barrel over a horizontal pole, to lift weights ranging from 105 to 150 kilos as many times as we could, to carry weights of 200 kilograms in each hand for as long as we could. At a contest in Austria we had to overturn a heavy car. Or to pull a twenty-five ton truck. At the latest competition in Yalta I walked, pulling such a truck, for one meter and twenty five centimeters. That sort of thing. But during my workouts, I use weights of only up to 175 kilograms.
What about other strongmen in Yalta? How far did they pull that truck?
From twenty to thirty centimeters. At a contest in Lviv, I pulled five coupled streetcars, with the overall weight of 101.5 tons. The idea to do it came to me after a competition in Salzburg. I had a few hours for taking walks around the city, and Salzburg architecturally reminded me very much of Lviv — cobblestones, tram tracks. In Salzburg these trams are very old, but nicely restored and maintained. It was then that the idea to pull several streetcars in Lviv came to my head. Upon my return to Ukraine, I talked to people in Lviv who might help get it done and it was organized! The show was part of the celebrations of the Days of Lviv.
Did you perform any other stunts?
Well, I pulled ten automobiles, hooked one to the other, and walked around with two — let’s call them “suitcases,” each one weighing 171 kilograms. It turned out I set records then. They were officially registered and the information about them was sent to the Guinness Book of Records.
Is there anyone among the Ukrainian strongmen who can challenge you?
Yes. My number one Ukrainian rival is Mykhailo Starov from Kharkiv. He won the latest stage of the World Strongman Cup competition. Also, Ihor Pedan is an athlete of great promise. In Zambia he was on the Russian team, but soon after that, he moved to Kyiv and joined the Ukrainian strongmen team.
How do you keep fit? Do you keep a special diet? Or is it a secret?
There’s no secret in it. I do my workouts everyday, and when I set myself a goal I try very hard to achieve it. So, the secret is in trying very hard. A diet? It depends on what you mean by it. Sometimes I have to gain weight to qualify for a competition, and then I eat a lot of chicken breasts, see food and rice. I’ve got my own recipe for cooking all this — I boil the chicken meat, then fry it a little with onions, then add seafood products and then rice, and then I add some white wine. Incidentally, I was told that a similar dish is very popular among the Sumo wrestlers of Japan.
The way you described it suggests you like cooking. Do you?
Yes, when I have time, I cook all kinds of dishes to my own recipes. Sometimes, in a supermarket, pushing the shopping cart in front of me and looking at what’s on the shelves, I see something that gives me a cooking idea. My wife Svitlana likes my soups called solyanka — with pickled cucumbers and kidneys. But my specialty is rice with chicken meat and seafood products. Among the things I like best are open sandwiches with sausage, cured pork and hard cheese — slices of bread with all of these things on top are baked a little in the oven. Just for the cheese to melt somewhat. Even telling you about it makes my mouth water!
Your wife is not a “strongwoman,” is she?
No, she is not but she likes sports. At the moment though her main occupation is taking care of our nine-month-old son, Adam.
May I ask where and how you met?
Sure. Svitlana is an accomplished athlete in her own right. She is in gymnastics, and also went into fitness. We met at the Tavriysky Ihry Festival. I was in the show of strength, and she performed in the breaks between our stunts.
In addition to the countries where the competitions are held, did you travel to any other places?
I did, though, sometimes the places where the competitions are held are exotic and fascinating all in themselves. For example, in Zambia, the place where the world championship was held, was situated very close to the famous waterfall Victoria. It was a dry season, but the locals told us that in the rain season the waterfall looks much more impressive — a sheer wall of water, with so much of tiny water particles suspended in the air that you can’t come close because you can’t see anything. Of the things I have seen I was probably impressed most of all by the lakes in Scotland and by the pyramids in Egypt. As a matter of fact, we with Svitlana went to Egypt on our honeymoon… But I love mountains most. When we were younger, we, with my brother, went hiking in the Carpathians — there’s hardly a place there we have not been to. I’ve seen the mountains in Austria, Switzerland and Andorra. In Andorra we climbed to the altitude of three thousand meters — there was so much snow on the peaks and we were in our shorts and T-shirts. The mountains in Hawaii are all covered in greenery. In general, I have very fond memories of my stay in Hawaii.
If you decide to get away from it all, where would you go?
To a lake, high in the mountains, with no mobile phone with me. I’d make barbecue, and relax for a couple of days, knowing I do not have to do anything — no workouts, no rushing somewhere. Alas, it’s no more than a dream. Lately, I’ve had practically no free time left to chill out. And it begins to get on my nerves.