by M. Anthony Davis
Editor’s Note: The following includes ableist language and description of child abuse by a parent. This content might be disturbing, so we encourage everyone to prepare themselves emotionally before proceeding. If you believe that the reading will be traumatizing for you, we suggest you forego it.
Mark Bryant, a proud resident of Columbia City, is not only an eight-time powerlifting world champion and a two-time powerlifting hall of famer. He is also an extraordinarily humble man who has dedicated his life to inspiring and caring for people through his knowledge of and passion for physical fitness.
“Whatever your passion is, you make sure that you follow it,” Bryant explains. “And don’t let anyone turn you away from it … No one knows what’s in your heart but you. Follow it, and more than likely it’s going to put you on the path where you belong. You’ll be free.”
Bryant grew up in Jamaica, Queens, a tough New York City neighborhood that was riddled with gangs and violence. Bryant recalls a stable life through his early years, but went through 10 years of hell once he turned 12. His stepfather moved into his home and this sparked a violent cycle of alcohol-induced physical and mental abuse.
Life at school was not much better than life at home. Bryant was born two months premature which left him with learning difficulties and severely limited vision. In school, he was unknowingly assigned to special education. Once Bryant was old enough to realize he was in special education, he wanted to transition back into standard classes, but he was never given the opportunity and remained in special education throughout high school. Bryant recalls his stepfather calling him “dumb” and “retarded,” and his mother being too afraid to offer sufficient support.
When Bryant was 21, he had what he refers to as his “final battle” with his stepfather. “It was brutal,” Bryant recalls. “It was really bad. My mom was already in the hospital from being beat. He threatened to kill me, and he almost carried it out.” Bryant explains that his stepfather attacked him with a hammer. He remembers bleeding profusely and staying just conscious enough to fight for his life. In the end, both Bryant and his stepfather were admitted to the hospital and his stepfather was later committed to a mental-health institution.
After Bryant’s stepfather was out of the picture, he remained living with his mother for a few more years. Bryant remembers watching television one day and a voice in his head told him that the world was so much bigger than his life in New York. He was contemplating this thought and all at once he decided that he had to go. He began talking with his friends about his desire to move and someone mentioned Seattle. Bryant had never heard of Seattle and didn’t know anyone who lived in Seattle, but in that moment he decided he was moving.
Bryant started studying martial arts when he was 11 as a response to violence in the streets. When he got to Seattle, he took his passion for martial arts and physical fitness to the next level. He started teaching fitness classes at the YMCA on East Madison, and earned a Health and Fitness Technologist certificate from Renton College.
Bryant, who struggled through school in his youth, places a high value on education. “Get yourself educated,” he says to those who may have similar academic struggles. “And go at your own pace, because it’s not that you’re dumb and it’s not that you’re stupid. You just have a different way of learning. And [there are] people who don’t understand how to teach people who are different like you or I, so keep yourself educated.”
Soon after completing college, Bryant had a chance encounter that altered his life. While working out at a gym downtown, he noticed a group of guys lifting heavy weights. At the time, Bryant was not familiar with powerlifting, but the man leading the group caught his attention. That man, Todd Christensen, was using terminology that Bryant had just learned in college. Impressed by the language, Bryant approached Christensen and ended up hiring him to be his trainer. Twenty-five years, eight world championships, and two hall of fame inductions later, the two are still close friends.
Bryant, who will be 62 in October, is still actively training. When reflecting on the longevity of his career, Bryant says the secret is education and properly understanding how the body works. Bryant transfers this knowledge to the people he currently trains. “I always tell them, when I teach you’re going to get educated,” he says. “I teach them: why do we do it this way? What muscle is activated? I even teach some basic terms in anatomy. Because the more you know about your body in terms of anatomy, the longer you can last in this field and keep fit without getting hurt.”
In 2019, Bryant was inducted into the Washington State Strength and Power Hall of Fame, which marked his second time reaching this honor (in 2016, he was inducted into the Amateur Athletic Union Washington State Strength Sport Hall of Fame). Even with all the accolades he has accumulated over the years, he sees no end in sight to his training or his teaching.
I ask him what message he has for people out there struggling as he did when he was growing up. After a moment of contemplation, he answers. “I know other [people are] suffering and they’re in this world of hate and hurt and sadness. I just want to let them know: If you hear a voice, whatever it may be, question you about something, you might want to listen. Because if it hadn’t been for that [voice], I would have been dead by now or locked up in prison.”
Mark Bryant hosts “Fitness Corner” on Rainier Avenue Radio Friday’s at 11:30 a.m.
M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.
Featured image: Mark Bryant poses with his many weightlifting trophies and medals in his Columbia City home. (Photo: Preston Rickett)