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Vasyl Virastyuk, the strongest man on earth
Vasyl Virastyuk, a Ukrainian from the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine, holds the title of the Strongest Man on Earth. He was interviewed by Yevhen BUDKO, Mizhnarodny Turyzm senior editor.
Vasyl Virastyuk is 31 years old; he is 191 centimetres tall and he weighs 155 kilograms. He has won several Strong Man world championships, and is the captain of the Ukrainian Strong Men national team who have once again proved to be the strongest in the world. The members of the team can easily handle 400-kilo truck tyres, walk around with 200-kilo weights in each hand, and can pull 5 streetcars coupled to each other — and do a lot of other amazing things.
Mr Virastyuk’s parents are ordinary people with no athletic inclinations. In his early childhood, Vasyl was smaller than his age peers and his parents feared he would grow up to be a man of a short stature. Mr Virastyuk is grateful to his parents for “making a personality out of me.” His athletic pursuits were encouraged by his brother Roman, a shot-putter in his own right, and a member of the Ukrainian Olympic team. Another person who proved to be instrumental in Mr Virastyuk’s sports career was Ivan Shary, the first coach of the future Strongest Man.
Vasyl began his sports career as a shot-putter, but there was very little money to be earned in Ukraine as a full-time shot-putter at that time, and he found a job of a security guard. In 2003, he tried himself in Strongman competitions, and it took him but little time to prove that he was among the strongest in the world. He has collected an impressive collection of prizes to which he added the one he won last year at the World’s Strongest Man competitions held in the Bahamas. The next world Strongman championship will be held in Ukraine and Mr Virastyuk will certainly take part.
Has this year been successful for you?
Not really. I hope next year will be a better one. At the very first major competition this year, Arnold Classic, I was injured. These competitions are held in California, USA, under the patronage of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I managed to win only the second place. The biceps in my upper arm got damaged by overstrain and an operation had to be made (at the time of the interview the big scar on Mr Virastyuk’s arm where the elbow joint is, was highly conspicuous) to fix it. Then it took a long time to heal, and I was able to take part in competitions only in September. The world championship was held in Quebec, Canada, but I was not yet in my best shape and managed to win only the second place. The first place went to Zhadrunas Savitskas from Lithuania. Incidentally, at the three previous championships he was the runner-up. In the Bahamas last year I was the first.
Did you take part in any more recent competitions?
I did. An international competition with the participation of athletes from Ukraine, Great Britain, Russia and the USA was held in Ukraine, not far from Zaporizhzhya, on the island of Khortytsya. The Ukrainian team won but the Russians put up a good fight. We did not expect their team to be so strong. There was also a strongman contest held in Kyiv on Sofiyivsky Maydan, and I won that too. In Sevastopol, Crimea, the world strongman team championship was held at the end of October. The Ukrainian team has come second in the competition.
Did you have many injuries in your athletic career?
The one I got in California was the first serious one. But minor injuries happen all the time — scratches or lesions, mostly. It happens both during workouts and at competitions. But sometimes the damage can be described as not so much serious but rather as a very unpleasant one. For example, a Canadian athlete during the competition in Quebec, handling a heavy stone ball, got his pinkie practically sheared off!
Your relatives and friends must be pretty nervous when you go to compete…
They are! My mother is particularly uptight. She even weeps when she watches the competitions on TV. We look strong and we are strong, but believe me, after competitions we are completely drained… My wife is also an athlete of sorts. She is in fitness. She knows that when I’m taking part in some competitions, she should better keep a very low profile.
What makes you keep trying so hard? Money? Prestige? Fame?
I’m a professional, and a professional by implication is the one who always tries to do his absolute best, no matter what.
The Ukrainian heavy-weight boxers, brothers Klychko, have won an international fame and as a side result, many young people in Ukraine have begun going into boxing, and into sports in general. Do you observe heightened interest in strongman sport among your fellow countrymen?
As a matter of fact, it was thanks to our victories at strongman competitions that people in Ukraine have learnt about the existence of this sport. There was a definite upsurge of interest and the number of young people who come to the gyms for workouts has considerably increased. They have an example to follow. But, of course, I wish many more people would do sports, juts to keep fit.
When we, strongmen, go to different places in Ukraine just to show what we can do and thus get people interested, we suggest that those who come to see our feats of strength join in and try themselves. Of course, we give those who do screw up courage and come forward, weights that would not be too heavy for them to handle. It’s more than fun — it’s a direct encouragement for many to go in for sports… Most of the athletes, who are in the strongman sport now, came over to it from power lifting, wrestling, shot putting, hammer-throwing and other similar sports.
There are four athletes, you included, on the Ukrainian strongman team. Do you know if there are others who may become strong competitors?
The competitions we hold in Ukraine, Bohatyr roku (Strongman of the Year), for example, attract a lot of athletes, and there are about ten among them who are very good. Some of them started training after they had seen me on the television during some competitions.
How will you describe the members of your team — partners, friends, team-mates?
I don’t think any word would do the job of describing us — we are more than friends or team-mates — we are The Team, we are a unit…
What happens when someone leaves — for whatever reason?
It does happen. Igor Pedan, for example, left to go back to Russia. He’s a Russian, and after he had left, our team was joined by Oleksandr Pekanov, and our team has become even stronger. True, that the Russian team has become stronger too… It so happens that in the last few years all the top places at strongman competitions are regularly won by athletes from the former Soviet Union — Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, Estonians… I can’t tell why that happens. Probably, there’s something in us that differs us from the western athletes… I find that at some deep human level, it’s difficult for the westerners to understand us. At competitions, we stick together, though we represent different countries of the former Soviet Union, and we are often called collectively and in jest “the balalaika team.”
You don’t find all those dances and songs with which strongman competitions are interspersed, somehow make the competitions less serious or something, do you?
No, I don’t. Strongman competitions are a very tough sport, and must be taken very seriously and those dances and songs introduce an element of extra fun which I find welcome. They sort of add energy to my reserves. Strongman competitions is a great show besides being a sport, and those dances and songs help the athletes relax and get accustomed to the cameras and to the whole atmosphere of the show. It’s a boost, it adds to the excitement, it’s like having a small glass of cognac.
Are there any competitions with a strong national flavour?
I know only of one — Highlanders’ Games which are held in Scotland. They’ve been regularly held for hundreds of years. I was told that the games originated ages ago in the trials of strength held to determine who would qualify for the royal guards. And the Scottish maintain their traditions — look at their kilts as, probably, the best known example of keeping a tradition.
What about Ukrainians?
We do not seem to be too good at maintaining our traditions. There was a tradition of strength competitions too but only now we have begun to revive it.
You can do a lot to encourage the revival of such a tradition, can’t you?
In my native town, Ivano-Frankivsk, we hold the Vasyl Cup competitions. Well, we have had only two such competitions so far, but the second time it was already an international event. The mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk supports the idea and we hope that we’ll make it a truly important sport event. Welcome to join in! And sponsors are also welcome.
Is there anything that you prefer to do during the competitions — you know, lifting weights, carrying weights, handling weights?
No, there is not. I’m trained well enough to handle pretty much anything.
Is it true that you often go to do your workouts to the country house of one of your coaches?
It is true. I often go to the house of Mr Volodymyr Kyba, president of the Federation of the Strongest Athletes of Ukraine to do my workouts — he’s got all the necessary equipment there, and to the house of Petrovych in the village of Chapayevtsi, not far from Kyiv. He makes special, customized apparatus for workouts. I call it “going to have workouts in Petrovych’s garden.”
What do you do on your vacations?
I do not have vacations. The last time I had one was three years ago. My wife and I went to Egypt. And it so happened that while I was in Egypt ten of our Ukrainian bohatyri (strong men) got harnessed to the biggest plane in the world — which is incidentally made in Ukraine and is called Mriya, or Dream, — and pulled so hard that they managed to roll the huge plane for some distance. This feat got entered in the Guinness Book of Records.
Were you sorry you were not there to take part in that feat?
No, not really. We had a good time in Egypt… My workouts and training take much of my time. I have to be in good shape all the time… Strongman competitions may be a good show to watch, but believe me, there’s so much hard work that goes into being a strongman and that remains unseen by the public.
But if you had several days of free time, where would you go?
I’d go to a tropical country to spend several days on a hot beach, and then I’d go to a place where I’d be able to do some mountain skiing, preferably in the Carpathians.
I heard athletes who take part in international competitions complain that they travel much but see very little…
The same here. All you see are gyms, hotel rooms where you rest, saving energy before the competitions — and after the competitions all you want to do is to relax and take it easy. Sometimes, you join sightseeing tours… and hope that may be some time you’ll go back to have a better look at all those paradisiacal places… At best, you can get a general impression of the place the competitions are held at, or about people of that country. In the USA, for example, I liked the way Americans socialize — they come up to you, introduce themselves, congratulate you on your success, if any, tell a few words about themselves, that sort of thing. And when Ukrainians come up to you to socialize all they can manage to say, is “Oh, man, I seen you somewheres!” I think we, in Ukraine, have to learn yet how to be civil and socialize.
You are definitely a man of a very big size — how does it feel to be a man of such size in everyday life?
Well, not too easy, I’d say. The furniture in our apartment had to be customized. I sleep on a separate, custom-made bed. And, of course, the clothes have to be extra-large size.
You must be on what one should probably call a special diet?
Not really. It’s not true that to be strong you have to eat a lot. Eating too much will just make you fat… I eat a lot of meat, fish and seafood in general, and I’m careful about eating pastry, bread or spaghetti.
You moved to Kyiv from a provincial town — did you get accustomed to living in the capital which also happens to be the biggest city in Ukraine?
I can’t say I got fully accustomed though three years have already passed since I moved to Kyiv. I don’t like living in such a big city. People are so indifferent to each other… I’d rather be living close to or in the Carpathians if I could but now my occupation is of the kind that makes it imperative that I be living in the capital… I grew up among friendly people and among beautiful nature — it was so nice… Every urbanite should go and live for some time in the countryside to come to know how nicely it feels.
In November, we’ll mark the first anniversary of what came to be called “Orange Revolution.” You were not among those who regularly came to Mayadan, the focal point of the revolution, to show your support, were you?
I was not… I wonder when the political and economic situation in Ukraine will get settled at last — and many of the people we meet when we go abroad, ask the same question, Why is it that you are having all those revolutions and trouble all the time?.. Ukraine has changed a lot since last year, and I hope it has changed for the better. But it seems it’s a bit too early to say what these changes will actually lead to. Many people are badly disappointed by the split in the “orange” government, many people hoped that there would be fantastic changes — and soon. But things do not happen that way — changes come gradually if they are to be profound and decisive… I did not join the protesters on Mayadan, because, frankly, I did not like the people who grouped around Mr Yushchenko right from the start. Now it turns out they were really no good and were sacked by the president. Last year, both Yanukovych’s supporters and Yushchenko’s supporters tried hard to engage me into supporting their cause, but I avoided to be dragged in either by the “blue-and-white forces” or by the “orange forces.” I did not want to be a puppet in the hands of unscrupulous politicians. And I continue to refuse to be drawn in. I do what I like doing, I work very hard, I give all of my time and efforts to do my thing and win. I wish everybody in this country would have a similar attitude to what they are doing.
Once, in an interview, you said that you had done better than those strongmen you had once admired. What next?
I have to keep up with my own achievements. And I’m looking forward to the next world championship.
The photos are from
Vasyl VIRASTYUK’s archive
The winners of the World Strongman Championship;