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Sixty-one years old and comfortable in his retirement, Eldon Olson can look proudly back to the day he benched 515 pounds, a personal best for the competitive power lifter and the culmination of countless hours of toil and self-discipline.

The best part? It all seems like yesterday.

"That was back in 2001," said Olson, who moved to Billings with his wife three years ago after retiring from a 35-year career in law enforcement, much of it spent in California.

These days, Olson is still going strong - very strong.

He nearly matched his record 18 months ago, benching 500 pounds.

In mid-November, at an international power-lifting competition hosted by the World Association of Benchers and Deadlifters in Las Vegas, Olson turned in a championship performance. Competing against current and retired law enforcement officers and firefighters, he benched 369.2 pounds and dead-lifted 402.2 pounds.

The performances earned top-place finishes in his division and set world records for police/fire competitors ages 56 and older in his weight class. Overall, he took second place in the dead lift and third place in benching for all men in his age and weight group.

More than 690 competitors from 17 countries and 37 states competed in the power-lifting competition, held Nov. 15-20, said the organization's president, Gus Rethwisch. The association, referred to as WABDL, was founded 10 years ago.

Strength training has been a lifelong interest for Olson, who had to be physically fit for a varied career in law enforcement, including stints in the Drug Enforcement Agency and with police departments in Provo, Utah; Oakland, Calif.; and Ione, Calif.

But it wasn't until 1986 that Olson got serious. He and a fellow lifter, Jim Sheffield, began training together, pumping iron two hours a night, three to four times a week. The pair missed only a month of workouts in their 17 years of working together, he said.

"It was kind of like my way of releasing tension," he said. "I liked the discipline."

It took four years to reach his first major goal - benching three plates, or 330 pounds.

"Once I got there I was just really elated, but at the same time I said 'OK, I want four plates,' which is about 405 pounds," Olson said.

His training continues at Plaza Fitness in Billings.

Power lifting involves heaving massive amounts of weight in a controlled way. Competitors lift the weights only once, following a judge's commands and hewing to a rigid set of rules dictating a lifter's form. A bench will not count, for example, if the contender raises a heel, shoulder or even a shoulder blade to gain leverage.

"This is not like throwing around weights in the gym," Olson said.

Nor should power lifting be confused with bodybuilding, which is body sculpting. Olson said he avoids mirrors, and you won't find a single tube of cocoa butter in his gym bag.

"I tried bodybuilding, but I found out I was just too butt ugly," he said.

Olson credits his success to determination, hard work and the discipline to set goals then pursue them - values he inherited from his grandfather, an immigrant who built a ranch in Northern California. Olson will participate only in contests that enforce strict drug testing.

"We take a lot of pride in that - it's what the good Lord gave us, and that's all," he said.

Olson's ethic reverberated far beyond life in the gym, his family said.

"It was in everything he would do," said Jason Olson of Cooney Reservoir, one of four children. He said family always came first for Olson despite the hours in the gym.

While the family has always counted on Olson, his strength is needed now more than ever. His wife, Peggy Olson, 59, is suffering terminal cancer - the result of a virulent relapse during what's been a 20-year battle with the disease.

Jason Olson said his father has never flagged in support for his wife, making sure that she's eating a protein-rich diet and following her treatment course doggedly.

"He's kind of like her coach," he said.

Olson said his wife's strength has not been matched in any gym he's been to.

"She has the guts and courage of a gunnery sergeant, she really does," Olson said.

Contact Lance Benzel at lbenzel@billingsgazette.com or 657-1357.

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