LESLIE — Steve Schmidt takes a steel horseshoe and a pair of worn gloves out of a wire cabinet in his homemade gym.
His hands are dry and pink from the frigid weather outside. From a nearby table, he grabs a leather mouthpiece.
What: Steve Schmidt will attempt to break the Guinness world record in the teeth lift. He will attempt to lift 220.5 pounds 25 times in one minute.
When: 9 a.m. Saturday
Where: Clark's Gym, 703C Grace Lane. Take Interstate 70, Exit 131.
Additional information: The event is open to the public. Schmidt will have bending material on hand in case a performance is requested.
After he is positioned, feet shoulder-width apart and arms ready, he bends the horseshoe with his teeth. Watching him bend it is like watching a car wreck. It’s impossible to look away no matter how much the sight makes you cringe. You know there’s nothing you can do to help his cause, so you just sit and watch in awe.
Schmidt, 54, appears to be an average guy. But at 5 feet 10 inches tall and 225 pounds, his strength is something you’d find in a comic book character.
When Schmidt bends another horseshoe, this time with his bare hands, his muscles strain against his shirt, and it becomes obvious where his strength comes from. His hands rotate in opposite directions to twist the metal into an “S” shape, while his face contorts and turns a deep shade of radish red and the veins in his strained neck pop out, branches of a tree in a winter landscape.
Schmidt is the nation’s undisputed teeth-lifting champion. He’ll make the 90-mile trip to Columbia from Leslie on Saturday to attempt a Guinness World Record in the teeth lift. The current record stands at 24 repetitions with 220.5 pounds in one minute. Schmidt knows he can raise the bar higher, so to speak.
“I’ve been breaking the record the past two years every time I’ve worked out,” he said.
What’s it feel like to lift so much weight with your mouth?
“It really strains the neck and I’m glad to get it over with,” he said. “I’m sore the next day.”
The leather mouth guard Schmidt uses is attached to a hook and chain that latches on to a set of weights. He has at least four mouthpieces lying around his gym, a former chicken coop that doesn't have electricity.
When Schmidt isn’t lifting weights he is working on his farm, a family tradition that dates back five generations. Growing up the only son on a farm clearly does the body good.
His 205-acre farm features cattle and 13 dogs, a mixture of border collies and Labradors. The dogs stay outside in a large pen near Schmidt’s home. But the talent he has had for years is cultivated on the other side of the house – in his gym.
The wooden structure lacks a door. Schmidt said a door used to be there, but when it was closed it became too dark for him to see inside. To maintain his physique, Schmidt trains twice a week. He spends about an hour on each body part, working his arms twice and his legs and teeth once a week.
Inside the gym, a bench sits in the corner and dumbbells are scattered across the muddy floor. An old, beige living room chair for his dogs to rest on sits opposite the press. Hanging from the wooden rafters are dozens of steel bars, horseshoes and other items Schmidt will eventually bend with his teeth. A punching bag with tears in it is duct-taped to a column in the middle of the room.
Inspirational quotes — “What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” — Socrates and “I haven’t failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” — Benjamin Franklin — line the back wall.
“Challenging myself keeps me motivated,” he said. Schmidt also pulls train cars, diesel trucks and tractor-trailers with his teeth.
He’s no stranger, however, to failure. Once, for a single repetition attempt, he lifted 410 pounds at home with his teeth. But later, during a competition, he hit 390 pounds and could lift no more.
“I kept breaking mouth pieces, so that was working against me,” he said. “I kept worrying that something bad was going to happen.”
Despite his one failed effort, Schmidt maintains that he has confidence going into every attempt, including his future goals.
“I want a plane. I’m looking for a big plane to pull with my teeth,” he said with enthusiasm. “I’ve never read of anyone pulling a plane. It goes back to that movie ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ — I want that plane.”
He insists he has never been injured or lost a tooth when performing, and his last trip to the dentist was in 1998.
Schmidt has a collection of more than 100 trophies in his home, all lying in a box upstairs. The only indications that he is a lifting champion are two plaques that grace the wall of his living room. But, Kathleen Schmidt, his wife and biggest fan, insisted on putting them there.
She is also his manager, answering the steady flow of phone calls from people hoping to schedule Schmidt for a performance. Like most of his family, which includes two married sons and three grandchildren, she wasn’t initially enthusiastic when Schmidt decided to start throwing dental caution to the wind.
“I was concerned at first,” Kathleen Schmidt said. “I know Steve knows himself and what he can do. I have confidence in him. I think everything he’s done is very exciting.”
When Schmidt travels for performances, he bends about $40 to $50 worth of steel, the cost of which is covered by the income he makes, which varies from show to show. Every time he bends something, he gives it away to the audience so they can see he does not use trickery.
“The big horseshoes run about $10 each, but I don’t bend those often,” he said. “Usually, the small ones are $2.50 apiece.”
The little money left over from performances he donates to the local Humane Society.
His fame has stretched beyond the Franklin County limits. His Web site, steveschmidtmo.com, is his main marketing tool. He also has a 46-minute DVD featuring his greatest lifting feats, and he can also be found on YouTube. He’s booked solid for the year, including opening the state fair.
Schmidt began lifting weights in 1977 when he was a nose tackle for his high school football team. Because rural Missouri lacks gyms, he eventually stumbled upon a guy named Bill Clark, who owns Clark’s Gym in Columbia.
Clark, 77, said he met Schmidt 30 years ago at a lifting competition and struck up a friendship with him.
“He looked like anyone on the street and he’s sort of a regular guy,” Clark said. “But he’s a whole different cat and does things that very few people in the country do.”
Schmidt competes through the United States All-Round Weightlifting Association, which Clark founded in 1988. The organization started in Missouri and has since branched out to the East Coast, said Michael Locondro, store manager and event coordinator of York Barbell in York, Penn. The USAWA has 150 members and is the national branch of the International All-Round Weightlifting Association.
“There are different weightlifting organizations across the country for power lifting, body building, the Olympics,” he said. “As far as I know, the USAWA is the only one for all-round lifting.”
As Schmidt gives a demonstration of the weight he will lift Saturday, the fatigue starts to set in. He’s not gasping for breath, but the amount of physical strain he’s endured in the past 30 minutes creeps to the surface.
With roughed-up hands and his black shirt dirty from bending muddy horseshoes, Schmidt goes back to work, his dog Champ trailing behind.