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Feats of strength in Astoria, Queens

Chris Schoeck bends a bar in the basement of his Astoria apartment building in the documentary "Bending Steel." Photo courtesy of Dave Carroll
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As I walked into the after-party at Red Door NYC in Chelsea, I slipped behind a red curtain and shuffled my way past an old Prohibition-style bar, through a thick crowd, to the vaudeville stage. There stood a hefty man with a long braid of red hair, whose booming hands were clasped around a hammer. Slowly the hammer bent and contorted. I looked to my right and assumed the smaller man I saw waiting in the wings was an assistant. Little did I know this man was Chris “Wonder” Schoeck, and he was waiting for his mentor, Chris Rider, to finish with the hammer so he could finally take his hands to some steel.

It must have been fate when director Dave Carroll met Schoeck in the laundry room of their Astoria apartment building in December 2010, as together they have made “Bending Steel,” one of the most emotionally effective films at Tribeca Film Festival this year. While not everyone can relate to severe strength training, let alone trying to deform a steel object, almost anyone can connect to the story behind Schoeck’s struggle to make the impossible possible.

When the shy, yet endearing Schoeck told Carroll he was training to be an oldetime strongman, Carroll wasn’t sure what to think.

“I had this idea of a guy in a leopard skin leotard,” said Carroll.

This isn’t a far-fetched thought, as very few strongmen have remained since the death of vaudeville, and the birth of television. Initially Carroll and producer Ryan Scafuro planned to make a short film, but as they got to know Schoeck on a deeper level, and studied the history of strongmen, they knew a feature was in the works. As Schoeck began to truly challenge himself, Scafuro and Carroll started to realize that there was much more to bending steel than initially perceived.

Schoeck, always an introverted man, had struggled letting others in, and his parents remained a stiff presence in his life. Bending steel not only allowed him to channel his energy, but to train to achieve a feat that requires an incredible amount of physical and mental focus. We see Schoeck’s development unfold before our very eyes, as the documentary is filmed in chronological order.

“I felt it was really important to tell the story the way it happened to us,” said Carroll.

The filmmaking duo didn’t know Schoeck very well, yet slowly the group became quite tight-knit, spending long hours together, which allowed Schoeck to open up for the cameras.

Shoeck teamed up with Rider, a household name within the strongmen community. Rider is the direct disciple of Dennis Rogers, who makes his living in the field. He has worked alongside David Blaine and has been featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show. Rogers is the student of Slim “The Hammerman” Farman, who took the place of the one and only Mighty Atom, or Joe Greenstein, the minuscule king of early 20th-century strongmen. Clearly, the craft has a direct lineage, one that is being upheld through a “guild-like” group of men. Looking at Schoeck, one can’t help but be reminded of Greenstein, as both their strength defy their weight and size. The group is continuing to revive the old tradition and have been performing for vastly expanding audiences on Coney Island.

Through training, Schoeck has cracked open his shell, and has overcome his monumental fear of performing, something that he had resisted since childhood. As the film was shot in a matter of 10 months, we see his inner revolution unfold, until a brilliant transformation ensues.

“It started me on a journey that helped me begin to understand that there is something potentially powerful, strong, good, unique within me,” said Schoeck. “It started to give me some self-esteem, and it gave me the ability to branch out, try and see different things.”

The film illustrates this shift very clearly.

He continues, “There was me before, and me afterwards. And the shift sort of occurred very very rapidly, and my life changed that that point.”

What’s more is that strongmen are not in competition with one another. As opposed to something uber-macho like pro-wrestling, the strongmen profession encompasses more vulnerability than one may believe on the outset. It is a group of men, working together in harmony, to overcome their own doubts and darkness, regardless of what is going on in their lives. After all, is that what true strength really is?

Chris “Wonder” Schoeck will take part in the Olde Time Coney Island Strongmen Spectacular, at Coney Island USA, 1208 Surf Ave., Brooklyn on Sunday, May 19.

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