PUMPED: Martins Licis not stopping after becoming World’s Strongest Man 

View Photo Gallery
  • Martins Licis, left, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, talks with Rob Kearney while the two train at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, watches the technique of Rob Kearney while the two train at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, trains at Lightning Fitness in South Windsor, Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, trains at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, talks with Rob Kearney while the two train at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney, left, gives Martins Licis some tips while the two train at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis, left, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, talks with Rob Kearney while the two train at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Romark Weiss films Martins Licis, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, while he trains at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cory Medlar films Rob Kearney, at right, and Martins Licis, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, while they train at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins talks with Rob Kearney while the two train at Lightning Fitness in South Windsor, Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, trains at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis worlds strongest man 2019, trains at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis worlds strongest man 2019, at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, talks with Rob Kearney while the two train at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis, who was crowned World’s Strongest Man 2019, at Lightning Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Martins Licis, center, raises the trophy after winning the World’s Strongest Man championship in June in Bradenton, Florida. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/NEAL PRUCHANSKY

  • Martins Licis shortly after arriving in California to train as a strongman. COURTESY KRISTAPS LICIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/13/2019 5:23:33 PM

AMHERST — The World’s Strongest Man slammed a 735-pound yoke to the turf. A thud echoed through Lightning Fitness’ warehouse space in South Windsor, Connecticut, after Martins Licis dropped the weight — an H-shaped mass of metal carried over the shoulders.

Martins, who grew up in Amherst, was having a rough training day. Maybe the 6-foot-3, 330-pounder’s hips were tight after a car ride from New York. He had appeared on the Jerry O’ show the previous day, lifting a fridge with a man inside. Maybe he had trained too hard too recently, and his muscles hadn’t recovered. Whatever the cause, Martins was frustrated.

“I want to be invincible, and I’m not achieving that right now,” he said.

Martins expects a lot of himself. He won the World’s Strongest Man title for the first time in June by a wide margin at a competition in Bradenton, Florida.

“It’s a childhood dream come true and feels like I’m on the top of one mountain, but I’m also looking at the top of another, taller mountain,” said Martins, 28. “There’s a breath of relief but also all this extra pressure.”

Martins spent Labor Day weekend in New England visiting family and friends, training with Wilbraham-based professional strongman Rob Kearney, and shooting videos for his own YouTube channel, which boasts nearly 111,000 subscribers. Lightning Fitness members and fans introduced themselves to Martins and his team, videographer Romark Weiss and manager/handler Lindsey Bowen, throughout the session. Martins shook everyone’s hand, wrapping their knuckles in his giant paw.

A passion is born

Growing up, The World’s Strongest Man idolized astrophysicist Neil deGrass Tyson, TV’s “crocodile hunter” Steve Irwin and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“When Martins was little, did I foresee this happening? No way,” said his mother, Anita Licis-Ribak. “He was dreaming of becoming a physicist, for example. He was interested in stars and space. He knew nature really well.”

The Licis family — Martins and his parents, Anita and Kristaps — moved to Amherst from Latvia in 1994. They came after meeting longtime Keene State College professor Neal Pruchansky when he taught at Riga Technical University with the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. Pruchansky and the Licis family became close friends in Latvia, even spending holidays together.

Kristaps enrolled in UMass’ finance Ph.D. program in 1996, and Anita started pursuing a master’s degree in interior design the same year. Without the supportive, multigenerational family that surrounded the family in Latvia, Anita often brought Martins to the design studio.

“You could do your thing,” Kristaps said. “He would be for hours there in his world, constructing and bending things.”

Martins was a self-described couch potato growing up. When he was 9, Kristaps told him enough and brought him to the gym. They started with exercises using Martins’ body weight so he could hone his technique.

“I hated it,” Martins said. “He kept pushing me, and after a year I fell in love with it.”

He spent summers in Latvia at his grandfather’s farm. Imants Licis competed in Olympic weightlifting in his youth and worked as a sculptor. Martins helped with the farm work, carrying milk and lifting rocks.

“Then I saw on TV these massive monsters also doing farm work, but for competition. And that was strongman,” Martins said. “Strongman is about being able to lift whatever’s in front of you, testing the realm of possibility and human strength. That’s what I truly fell in love with.”

He developed a rhythm in strength, but it wasn’t his world, yet. That changed in the summer of 2003. Martins, just out of sixth grade, waited at a downtown Amherst bus stop when a high school kid, one out of a group of four or five, accosted him for money. He didn’t have any.

“I’m going to knock you in the face if you don’t give me money,” he recalled the boy saying.

“Alright, well then bring it,” Martins recalled saying, before turning away. He felt his face hit the asphalt immediately.

“I took a moment to collect my thoughts and realized I’d been punched,” Martins said. “I felt with my tongue a gaping hole in the side of my mouth.”

He stood to fight back. The assailant’s friends stepped in, and they all whaled on Martins. He kept getting up trying to walk away, and they kept knocking him down.

He crossed the street with a black eye and the hole in his mouth that needed stitches.

“I remember being so humiliated, wishing I had much more strength and power to be able to stand up for myself,” Martins said. “I was already getting passionate in lifting before I got mugged, but after that it quadrupled my drive so no one would ever be able to mess with me again.”

Martins continued lifting weights through high school. He played football briefly but gravitated more toward individual pursuits such as wrestling and art.

“He produced some really beautiful, delicate drawings — real sensitivity to line and to detail,” said Amherst-Pelham Regional High School art teacher Ben Sears. “A guy that size could have been a bully, he was never like that. He was very sweet.”

After graduating in 2009, Martins briefly studied computer science at Springfield Technical Community College, then received a personal training certification at the school. Among other jobs, he delivered pizza, working for Athena’s in Amherst. Near the end of October in 2010, Martins and his friend Mikel Monleon waited for delivery calls. Monleon told Martins he was packing up and moving to California in a few weeks.

“Can I go with you?” Martins said.

Martins had had enough of New England winters. He’d recently broken up with a girl and wanted a fresh start.

“I wanted to go to a place with pretty ladies, palm trees and a better community for strength and fitness,” Martins said.

He sold his Subaru, and they filled Monleon’s Mitsubishi Eclipse to the roof. Bags blocked the rear window, and Martins’ knees pressed to his chest in the passenger seat for the three-day drive to southern California.

After a week or two, Martins found maintenance work in Inglewood.

Dead rats sometimes fell out of walls he knocked down, he said. Martins stepped on a nail once and got electrocuted another time.

“It was pretty miserable, but every time I saw a palm tree I lit up with so much joy,” he said.

A month in, Martins lost his phone on the job. It was his alarm. He didn’t wake up for work the next day and never returned.

“At this point, I truly felt depressed,” Martins said.

He spent two weeks at home watching TV wrapped in a sleeping bag.

Eventually, he snapped out of his daze.

“I came out here not to do maintenance,” Martins said. “I came here to be a strongman.”

He became a personal trainer at a 24-hour Fitness in West Hollywood for a few months, then sought out local strongman shows. Martins found Odd Haugen’s Strength Classic. He called, and Haugen told Martins to come and check out the equipment because it was significantly heavier than that found at amateur events.

“They were way too heavy for him,” Haugen said of the implements. “He wasn’t very big.”

Martins weighed “only” 220-230 pounds, but Haugen saw potential and invited him to come train at his gym.

So Martins drove an hour from his home in North Hollywood to Thousand Oaks on the weekends. As he bulked up, Martins annually asked Haugen if he could compete in his pro-am showcase. Haugen kept him out for three years.

When he finally let Martins compete in 2015, he won.

“It was unreal — it felt like mission accomplished. But also, this is the beginning,” Martins said. “I like to tell myself that when I reach a big goal: This is just the start of my next chapter.”

The victory earned Martins his professional strongman card and got him inducted into one of the world’s most exclusive fraternities.

Strongman life

Strongman competitions, or strength athletics, originated with British Highland games in the early 19th century. The World’s Strongest Man debuted in 1977. Other top-level events including the Arnold Strongman Classic and Giants Live Tour followed in the early 2000s. They involve lifting, carrying, holding and throwing heavy objects.

Strongmen are paid from competition results and through sponsorship. SBD Apparel, Rogue Fitness and Kinda Fit, Kinda Fat Apparel are Martins’ sponsors. He also generates income from YouTube and works as a personal trainer for online clients.

Around 50 men compete at the sport’s highest level, and they are all friends.

“We welcome everybody with open arms because we know what it’s taken to get to the level where we’re at,” said Kearney, a World’s Strongest Man qualifier.

No one picks up competing in strongman instantaneously. It takes years of proper nutrition, consuming upward of 7,000 calories daily to gain bulk, and hours in the gym to build muscle. The athletes endure pain and soreness from working out, along with injuries.

Strongmen usually spend four days a week in a gym for two to three hours. When a contest approaches, that number increases to around six days, mostly assembling and breaking down implements.

Progress comes slowly, and gratification is scarce.

“When we hit a new PR (personal record) or we win an event, it’s like a feeling of euphoria like, ‘S—t, I finally did it,’” Kearney said. “It’s that one moment that makes you feel invincible to keep you pushing forward.”

Road to victory

Martins’ victory at the 2015 Odd Haugen Strength Classic earned him an invite to Giants Live in Iceland. He continued his ascent, placing third in his first major international competition to qualify for the 2016 World’s Strongest Man in Kasane, Botswana. A sixth-place finish preceded fourths in 2017 (Gaborone, Botswana) and 2018 (Manila in the Philippines) before Martins broke through this year in Bradenton.

The victory didn’t surprise anyone. Martins started this year with a second-place finish at the Arnold Strongman Classic in Ohio, falling 4½ points shy of Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, then the reigning World’s Strongest Man, who played The Mountain on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

“I thought I had a few more years before I could catch up to him,” Martins said. “I realized there were multiple mistakes I made. That was a light bulb moment: I can beat everyone.”

An April trip to Iceland to train with Björnsson confirmed that. Martins saw he was close to or better than Björnsson during their training and grew more confident.

“That was everything I needed,” Martins said. “I (went) into World’s to win it, no questions needed.”

Haugen noticed the change when Martins returned and planned to attend the 2019 World’s Strongest Man in Florida, a trip the 69-year-old rarely makes despite placing sixth in the event in his 50s.

“I said, ‘I gotta be there this year because I smell something big happening,’” Haugen said.

Martins ran away with his heat to automatically qualify for the finals.

“I’ve never been more focused,” Martins said. “It was some kind of different world I was in, like nothing else existed.”

The crowds shouted “Martiiiiins” whenever he walked by. In between events, Martins took selfies and signed autographs. His demeanor shifted from gentle to giant as soon as his turn to compete neared.

“You have two Martins. You have Martins, and you have MARTIIIINS,” Haugen said. “He can totally relax, and he can turn it on. It’s like Superman. You take the suit off ... it’s the M sign for him.”

Martins essentially locked up the trophy by the start of the final, signature event: the Atlas Stones, only needing fifth place in that event to secure the title. Competitors hoist five spherical stones of increasing weight to ascending heights.

“It felt like everything was in slow motion,” Martins said.

Once he put the last 460-pound stone on its pedestal, Martins raised one finger to the sky. He blew kisses to the crowd, then beamed through two TV interviews, his face a light shade of purple and covered in sweat. Among his family and a long list of supporters, Martins dedicated the victory to Weiss and Bowen, his close friends and integral parts of “Team Martins.” He hugged his family, telling Kristaps “Happy Father’s Day,” since he won the title June 16.

After the crowds cleared, Martins returned to his hotel. Family and friends joined him for coffee and a meal. Anita sat next to Martins and put her hand on his shoulder. He rested his head on hers. It was a rare moment together, as Anita lives in Barcelona and Kristaps in Amherst.

“Just being silent, quiet like that for a little bit together, it’s a very meaningful and nourishing experience,” Anita said. “Just being silent together, like drawing in all of the significance of everything happening.”


Please support the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s COVID-19 coverage

Thank you for your support of the Gazette.




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy