After studying at Highline Community College for three quarters, and working with special needs students for three years, Zack McCarley narrowed his college choices to two.
He would either attend Western Washington University or Central Washington University. McCarley was going to major in chemistry whether he was in Bellingham or Ellensburg, but something about Central stood out.
“This is going to sound really silly, but the gym facility here is better. That was literally a factor,” McCarley said. “That’s how much lifting means to me. I would change my life direction for it. But I also liked the chemistry program here more.”
McCarley plans to graduate this spring, with a specialization in biochemistry, before moving on to graduate school. He hopes to earn a doctorate from Colorado State University because of the school’s emphasis on green energy.
It’s not just lifting that means the world to him. McCarley, a Maple Valley native, is a lightweight (under 231.4 pounds) strongman, and one of the most successful in U.S. history.
McCarley first entered a strongman competition at the beginning of Highline’s wrestling season in 2006.
“I would see it on TV, and I wanted to try it,” he said. “How hard can it be?”
The event he joined was a pro-am, and he was the lightest person by at least 70 pounds. All didn’t go accordingly to plan, but McCarley fell in love with the sport.
“It was my first one, and I picked one of the hardest competitions in the country,” he said. “I had no idea.”
He waited about half a year before entering his next event, which was in Fresno, Calif. He impressed people enough to be invited to the teen nationals in Kansas.
He weighed in at 202 pounds, only because he wore jeans to make the 200-pound cutoff. The jeans paid off. McCarley finished in first place out of 23 strongmen.
Between 2008 and 2012, he competed in 20 shows, finishing in first or second place in 15 of them.
He finished fifth in the Bacheng Hercules Cup in China in 2012, a trip he said changed his life.
“What an experience for the sport I love, to take me halfway across the world to pick things up and put them down. I was not happy with my placing but it left room for improvement,” he said. “I was willing to accept the culture and any lessons over there. I changed my whole outlook.”
In his second visit to China, he finished first in the Zhoushan Hercules Cup.
Training for strongman is the hardest part of the sport, McCarley said. He trains at Ellensburg Crossfit, but it’s difficult to find a place in Ellensburg to practice throwing kegs, flipping tires and working on other strongman events. McCarley sometimes drives two hours either to Kent or Kennewick to train.
His greatest strongman accomplishment was being awarded Pro Strongman National Champion under 231 pounds for three consecutive years from 2011 to 2013.
Though he will finish the year having competed in two events, 2013 has been a roller coaster ride for McCarley. In a world competition earlier in the year, McCarley was unable to finish due to injury for the first time in his career.
He wasn’t able to compete or train for six months, but eventually made his return at nationals in Texas, where he finished first. It was his most dominant performance in nationals, and he won four of the six events.
“It was my own Cinderella story,” he said. “It meant a lot to come back from such a major injury. The competition was a gamble that paid off.”
The injury occurred during a heavyweight amateur championship in Ohio. As he was attempting to deadlift 650 pounds, he lifted incorrectly and strained some of the tissue in his lower back.
McCarley, who is the oldest of five brothers, is a national qualifier in wrestling, powerlifting and strongman. That competition may have been the last of McCarley’s career.
In the later stages of his seven-year career, McCarley decided to loosen up a bit, especially at the kitchen table.
“From the time I was a sophomore in high school until two years ago, I never had a piece of cake, I never had a soda, I never had a candy bar, I never had ice cream. Not even on my birthday, on my girlfriend’s birthday, on my family’s birthday, on Thanksgiving. You think about that and it does affect your life,” McCarley said. “My grandma would ask why I’m not eating her food. ‘I can’t eat your food, grandma, I’m eating chicken breasts right now.”
The 25-year-old still practices a high-protein, high-everything, diet, but it isn’t as strict. After a workout, he is fine eating ice cream or other sweets he would never have indulged in a few years ago.
His final nationals win was the loosest his diet has been, but also the most focused he’s been, he said.
“I was able to cut loose when I was able to eat whatever I wanted,” he said. “I still have a couple guidelines that I always go by, but I’m flexible.”
His mind-set has changed outside of his diet, as well, which is the main reason he is taking a break from strongman. For a period of time, McCarley wasn’t enjoying the sport he fell in love with. It felt more like a chore.
He only focused on winning events, and decided to enjoy the entire process. This break will give him a chance to focus on other things, and heal some of the injuries.
“It’s like an active vacation away from strongman, and if I don’t return, I don’t return. I really don’t feel that I have that much left to prove,” McCarley said. “It’s not that I’m out of love with the sport. I want to enjoy myself, and in order to enjoy myself I want to hit the wrestling mats.”
McCarley joined Central’s wrestling team this year after winning the university’s intramural championship last week. He began working at the Recreation Center in the SURC this quarter.
The 5-foot-8, 233-pound McCarley said he might cut down to 197 pounds for wrestling this year.
After finishing graduate school, McCarley wants to get involved in renewable energy or alternative medicine. He hasn’t ruled out a return to strongman, but he is giving his body time to recover.
“I don’t know where I’ll be. I very well may go out of the country,” he said. “It’ll be pretty open and free spirited, I bet.”