Day 9: The Olympic Strongman
I am on a nine-week road trip to drive approximately 16,000 miles around the country for my next book, The Six Pack, to be published by Hachette in 2024, about myth vs. reality in pro wrestling and 1980s WWF wrestlers. This is my travel blog.
Along Dahl Road on the outskirts of Hinckley, Minnesota, a long, rectangular white building sits a couple hundred yards off the road. Traffic is sparse, and a field of mowed lush green grass surrounds the building, cut into the landscape of birch trees. A boisterous black dog patrols the property where a couple young kids ride their bikes in circles in the kind of unsupervised play that was once commonplace. Down the dirt driveway, past the tractor and truck with a boat hitched to its rear, the building, which from the road looks like a warehouse, turns out to be a residence, still being put together.
There's a grey folding chair on the cement ground just outside the first entrance, and on that chair sits a man who once pressed more than 500 pounds over his head, the first American to do so. In 1972 he represented our country in the Olympics in weightlifting, and while he didn't place, he was one of the strongest men in the world. At 6'2" he weighed 321 pounds. All three of his brothers played in the NFL, and his brother Jack coached the Seattle Seahawks, but football was just never Ken Patera's thing.
Sitting on that chair, the muscle having long turned soft and with a bushy white beard, Patera looks like he's at a mall in December waiting for a kid to jump on his lap. And he's just as jolly too.
He struggles to his feet when I pull up, wobbling on two black Velcro shoes that he doesn't bother putting on all the way, his heels pressing against the back ridges, and extends a gentle handshake with massive, rounded fingers (wrestlers are known for giving limp fish handshakes, which back in the day signaled that you were in on the con of wrestling being entertainment, not sport).
"Let's get inside, these fucking mosquitoes are awful," he bellows, each word spoken with the force of a hard-earned rep on the bench.
"You're out there 30 seconds and these bugs fucking eat you up."
Inside the door is the dwelling of a person who gives zero shits. Fox Business News bellows the latest bad news from the living area, and along one wall are several blue plastic bins that still haven't been unpacked since Ken moved here to live with his daughter in January. Next to that is a barrel stuffed with three- and four-foot trophies from Ken's weightlifting days, caked with dust and some of them in multiple pieces.
"You see I take good care of them," he says with a deep belly laugh.
I pull out the tallest one, wipe away some crud, and set it on a kitchen table strewn with expired oxycotin, bank statements, and bug spray.
"Which one's this?" I ask.
He pauses to inspect, then says, "World championships, 1969."
Over the next three hours, he polishes off three doubles (whiskey/water) and tells me about an improbable life spent in professional wrestling and prison (he did two years for scuffling with police after throwing a rock threw a McDonald's window out of frustration when he showed up after closing). We discuss his dislike of Vince McMahon, his three divorces, and his "three illegitimate children."
"Looking back over your life, do you think back and think about things you wish you hadn't done, regrets?" I ask.
His blue eyes open a tick wider.
"Are you kidding me? Every goddamn day!" he shouts.