Still going strong at 93, Detroit area lifter won't let age weigh him down

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Farmington Hills — At first, when he was only 89 and didn't know any better, John Claassen was hefting barbells for the wrong reasons.

Now he's wiser and older — he turns 93 today — and he has come to realize it's the work and the example that matter, not the size of the discs at the end of the bar.

The weights are still how you keep score. When Mike Kell of Birmingham, a mere 77, calls him an animal and says "he lifts 100 pounds more than me," Claassen gently corrects him: "Only 90 pounds."

The weights are enough to make him the subject of a short film, tied to his birthday and debuting to a closed audience Monday evening at the Emagine Novi theater. They're enough to make him something of a celebrity at Greysteel Strength and Conditioning in Farmington Hills, which entitles him to get barked at as much as everyone else by a former emergency room doctor who thinks just maybe he's saving more lives now.

The weights are, well, weighty. In his first official competition a few weeks ago, Claassen racked up a 235-pound deadlift. Since then, he has improved to 250, hoisting the bar to hip height and then lowering it to whence it came.

But weight, he has come to realize, is like age: a number, not a definition.

At one point, he read about a nonagenarian with a deadlift of 286 pounds. That was a goal for awhile, but no longer.

The value is in maximizing his abilities and "keeping my nose to the grindstone." It's in keeping his Monday and Friday dates at Greysteel, even though the most fun he has is when he climbs into his daughter's car after another 90-minute session and rolls away.

John Claassen, 93, of Plymouth lifts 205 pounds three times Friday while doing deadlifts in front of trainer Frank Psujek.

Learning to lift was enjoyable, he says. Continuing is only satisfying. Satisfying is enough, and it'll be even better if other 90-year-olds see what he's doing and decide their potential needs to be tested as well.

Claassen is a contemplative sort, a reader of New Age author Deepak Chopra, but he had not given any thought to weightlifting for most of his first nine decades. Then, because he's also analytical, he began looking into ways to keep himself healthy.

Some things are beyond his control. His right hand trembles, courtesy of first-stage Parkinson's disease. He's stooped at the shoulder even when he's not doing 132-pound squats on what trainer Jonathon "Sully" Sullivan describes as his light day.

Weights seemed like a reasonable approach to self-preservation. Sullivan gave a presentation at Independence Village of Plymouth, where Claassen lives and where management sponsored the 30-minute promotional film, and Claassen was sold. He joined the free weight gym with the generally older clientele in a former comic book store on Nine Mile.

One of his regular spotters is Ann Buszard, 78, a retired nurse from Livonia. Among the relative newcomers, doing squats at the far end of the storefront, is 63-year-old physician and former UCLA geriatrics professor Mali Multani.

"I wanted to prevent muscle loss," she says. "There's no other cure for that."

In his first official competition, John Claassen made a 235-pound deadlift. He has since improved to 250.

Overseeing things, and seemingly seeing everything, is Sullivan, 59, a former Marine who spent 25 years in the coronary-and-bullet-wound department at Detroit Receiving Hospital.

He's 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, and he deadlifts 405. "This is another kind of medicine," he says. "That's the whole point."

Sullivan started training older people in his garage in the early 2010s, a few years before Claassen moved to Michigan from Oregon.

Claassen had spent most of his life in farm real estate in Nebraska. He retired at 65, veered to the northwest, and then reversed course after the death of his wife of 54 years.

Two of his six kids live in Metro Detroit, along with a fair representation of his 15 grandchildren and great-grands. The plan was to live with daughter Sue Craik of Novi, "but I don't think he felt that would make him independent enough," she says.

Instead, he went to Independence Village, where life enrichment director Cassie Restum calls him "the coolest guy ever. So wise."

After Claassen handed her a report on the benefits of weight training, she invited Sullivan to speak. Now she's in charge of the movie premiere, which will be populated by members of Claassen's gym family and real family and a busload of village residents.

It's more attention he'd normally welcome, Claassen says, but at 93, "it's kind of what-the-hell time."

John Claassen, 93, of Plymouth, does curls under the watchful eyes of Greysteel Strength & Conditioning owner Jonathon "Sully" Sullivan at the Farmington Hills  gym.

Whatever he can do to grow, he'll try. His arms, for an obvious example, are visibly muscled. Less apparent, he has taken up meditation.

Resting on a bench between sets, he starts to talk about spiritual connections, but Sullivan interrupts.

"John," he says, "why don't you put some spirituality on this bar?"

The assignment is a cool-down set, three curls at only 54 pounds.

Claassen rises, slowly. Getting upright is the tough part. 

At 54 pounds, the curls are child's play.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn