COLUMBIA — Squeegee in hand, Ben Appleton takes a deep breath and begins. He scrapes, left to right and right to left, up and down the window. This should be a blur of man and window.
After all, Appleton is the fastest window washer in the United States. His co-workers call him "Superman" because of his "jaw-dropping" speed.
But watching Appleton in action is more a study in well-paced efficiency than blazing-hot speed. Cars aren’t slowing down in the parking lot so their drivers can stop and stare. Someone could hold up a sign — “Look, it’s the fastest window washer in the country!” — and people might not believe it.
Appleton has proof, though, in the form of two medals he almost sheepishly carted back from Florida in February. Appleton works at the Shepherd’s Co., a window-cleaning business in Fulton, and traveled to the International Window Cleaning Association’s annual conference in St. Pete Beach, Fla., Feb. 16-19. He had heard about the convention's contests a couple of weeks before, but he hadn’t given them too much thought. To many people, a window-washing competition might seem silly. To Appleton, it was kind of a big deal.
The speed and medley contests are the highlight of the convention, which is billed as an opportunity for window washers from around the world to network, learn about safety practices, get safety certified and browse new equipment. Believe it or not, window washers traveled to Florida from places like France and the Philippines to attend. And, judging by the crowd that comes out every year to cheer at the competition, most attendees would rather spend their time watching races than buying new buckets.
In the speed competition, where Appleton placed second, the contestants cleaned three 45-square-inch windows, each about the size of a square kitchen tabletop, in the least amount of time. In the medley, Appleton's third-place finish, participants cleaned windows of all shapes and sizes. In each competition, time was added for smudges. IWCA associate director Mandie Bannwarth said the techniques used in the contests are definitely a precise science.
The competitions themselves are shrouded in a layer of window-washing secrecy — if there is such a thing. They’re named for Jim Willingham and Rod Woodward, both deceased, who apparently contributed a great deal to the window-washing world. The IWCA's website credits Willingham with turning speed window cleaning into a sport, and Bannwarth said he is remembered both for his speed and for his somewhat controversial techniques — apparently he'd use too little water so removing it would take less time. There’s even a moment of silence before each competition in memory of these founders before the 15 or 20 contestants pick up their equipment and begin scraping like madmen.
Those moments of silence might have been somewhat compromised this year. Appleton, who didn’t decide to enter the competition until about two hours before it started, said the equipment arrived late. The contests were supposed to take place early in the evening, but the windows, the squeegees, everything — none of it was set up until about 10 p.m. This left audience members bored and anxious. Luckily, there was a nearby distraction.
“You have to remember,” Appleton said. “These guys have been sitting, waiting for two hours for the windows to show up, and they’re in a conference room. And right out front of the conference room, there’s a bar.”
It sounds like a bad joke. What do you get when you put a group of tipsy window washers in a room with a bunch of glass?
No one, not even Appleton himself, is positive why he was so reluctant to enter the contest. His co-worker Kara Welker said that from the first moment he heard about it, Appleton didn’t really want to compete. He's modest. He doesn't enjoy the spotlight.
“I didn’t think he was going to," Welker said. "You really can’t talk him into doing something he doesn’t want to do.”
And his last-minute decision to take up his squeegee, the one that led him into the spotlight of window-washing fame? It took him until he saw the other participants practicing. Judging their speed, he knew he had a chance.
Bannwarth said she doesn’t think many of the participants take the contest too seriously — except possibly the speed winner, Frank Lauret, who travels from France every year — but Appleton did seem to have a certain respect for the race. Somehow, he didn’t even crack a smile when describing the moments of silence.
It’s almost as if before he participated and before he saw the contests in person, Appleton didn’t think they were worth his attention. But now that he’s seen the laid-back atmosphere and realized no one’s moving at supersonic speed, the race has become a thing of gravity to him — sort of the opposite of what you’d expect.
“Now that I’ve done it, I think I can cut some time off," Appleton said. "I was 17.5 seconds for three windows. The French guy (Lauret) was 11.75. I think I can get better. Now that I’ve done it, I have it in my blood.”
When Appleton returned to Missouri with his two medals — silver in speed and bronze in medley — he got a hero’s welcome.
His co-workers, who have called him “Superman” for a long time, just saw the win as adding to the truth of that nickname.