By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff
Craig Bongelli’s first year as a professional strongman hasn’t held up the way it was envisioned.
The 22-year-old Kitchener native was eager to test his mettle by lugging engine blocks, towing fire trucks and flipping 850-pound tires with his bare hands against the province’s best in July at Kitchener City Hall.
That never happened. But at least Bongelli is still alive.
It is not a stretch to say the former boxer nearly killed himself opening up a gym on Mill Street in Kitchener. An ugly two-inch-long scar that runs across his right wrist is tangible proof.
While renovating his new digs at True North Barbell, Bongelli, a 6’2”, 310-pound behemoth, was replacing windows outside his future office when a pane of glass shattered and sliced his right forearm down to the bone.
A nicked artery started to spurt blood, so Bongelli went to call his girlfriend, Alyssa Coppolino.
“But I started to black out, that’s when I realized maybe my plan should be to call an ambulance first and then call Alyssa,” said Bongelli, a personal trainer who turned to Strongman competitions a couple of years ago. “They told me another centimetre or so and it could have been a lot worse — I could have died.”
Even then, Bongelli played it cool when he got a hold of Coppolino, who was working at a golf course in New Dundee.
“It was a text saying ‘I’m cut, it’s no big deal, but give me a call,’” Coppolino said. “Knowing Craig, I was like, no way, that can’t be it. The next thing I know, he’s telling me how these nice paramedics are giving him a ride to the hospital.”
Ten stitches later and Bongelli’s strongman season had come to a screeching halt. That meant no provincials in front of a home crowd in Kitchener, too.
But this weekend Bongelli will finally have his chance when the fifth annual Oktoberfest Bavarian Strongman Challenge hits King Street in front of City Hall starting at noon.
Bongelli is one of two local favourites entered, the other being Brantford’s Lance Lavallee, who works at the Toyota plant in Cambridge and placed fifth at the Ontario’s Strongest Man competition in Kitchener in July.
Some of the top competitors from around the province and Quebec are also expected to challenge for the title, which will be decided after five events — an Atlas stone pentagon, 40,000-pound fire truck pull, 800-pound car deadlift, 850-pound super yoke race and a 300-pound-per-hand farmers walk.
It is the third time the event, which also features Oktoberfest dancers, a kids’ tire flip competition and food vendors, has been held outside on King Street.
The first two were hosted at Moses Springer Arena.
For Bongelli, this weekend will be one last chance to put his body through the rigours of a high-level strongman event since the season-opening Nordic Thunder Strongman event in Belleville.
In his first pro event, Bongelli finished eighth out of 10 competitors, posting top-five results in the deadlift hold, Viking press, car squat and Atlas stones.
It gave him confidence heading into what would have been his first Ontario championship.
Then the accident happened.
“I remember sitting under the tent after the first round was over and hearing the announcer say, ‘Here are your 12 strongest men in Ontario.’ I was bitter,” he said.
“Before I felt big and strong, and then I was crippled. But everything turned out OK.”
That is because Bongelli’s business is finally open after six months of hard work. True North Barbell — which he describes as an old-school gym with an unpretentious atmosphere — opened its doors two months ago with Bongelli serving as a co-owner, operator and trainer.
It has taken a lot of work and support to get to this point. He said he couldn’t have done it with John and Lisa Torkos, his financial backers who had confidence in his dream. John Torkos also helped with construction when Bongelli was dealing with nerve damage from his accident.
Bongelli said he also couldn’t have done it without Coppolino, “who’s my confidant, my masseuse, my trainer, my everything. I may be the face of (his gym), but they’re my heart.”
It has also given Bongelli a purpose in life. A small business owner, a budding professional strongman career, it’s something he never envisioned by the age of 22.
“Before, when I was boxing, all I cared about was fighting in the ring,” he said. “I had no direction.
“But becoming a strongman changed everything. It gave me a life I never expected.”
For information on True North Barbell, visit www.truenorthbarbell.com.