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Five Really, Very Strong Icelanders (Men’s Edition)

Ari Gunnarsson
Ari Gunnarsson at the 2019 West Fjords Viking competition

Last summer, Icelandic strongman and sometime television thespian Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson finished third at the annual World Strongest Man competition, which was held in Florida this year. Björnsson’s bronze medal was also Iceland’s 21st. Only the United States has won more medals. A total of three Icelanders have won the title, two of whom, Jón Páll Sigmarsson and Magnús Ver Magnússon, are in the WSM Hall of Fame. On the occasion of Björnsson’s medal, What’s On took a closer look at some “really, very” strong Icelanders (yes, that’s a subtle reference to Seinfeld).

Jón Páll Sigmarsson

Growing up, Jón Páll Sigmarsson spent his summers as a farmhand in Skáleyjar. He worked from dawn till dusk, carrying pails of water and hunting seals with his father. At the age of five, he took up glíma – a traditional form of Icelandic wrestling – and at 16 he began lifting weights. Strenuous farmwork prepared Sigmarsson for an illustrious career in strength athletics and he would go on to set numerous Icelandic records in powerlifting, along with several European records in the deadlift, which became his forte. “What’s the point of being alive,” he bellowed – upon lifting 523 kg to win the deadlift event at the World Strongest Man competition in 1987 – “if you can’t deadlift?” Sigmarsson won the World Strongest Man competition four times, Europe’s Strongest Man competition twice, and the World Muscle Power Championships five times. Sigmarsson died in 1993, at the age of 33, doing what he loved most. Deadlifting. (His premature death was most likely the result of a congenital heart defect, which may have been exacerbated by his use of anabolic steroids.) Sigmarsson’s memory lives on in Iceland’s collective conscious, especially through the phrase, “Þetta er ekkert mál fyrir Jón Pál,” (“This is no haul, for Jon Paul”). Sigmarsson once lifted 250 kg (551 lbs). With one hand. Raw. Without wrist straps.

Magnús Ver Magnússon

Magnús Ver Magnússon was born in Egilsstaðir in 1963. During his early years, he lived on his grandparents’ farmstead in Jökuldalur. He was a normal kid, in his own words – but always preferred his milk straight from the cow’s teat. Magnússon moved to Reykjavík a few years later, but, just like Jón Páll, spent his summers as a farmhand. During his teenage years, Magnússon lived in Seyðisfjörður and his life changed when powerlifter and cop Óskar Sigurpálsson (sometimes considered “the father of weightlifting” in Iceland) moved into town. In his early twenties, Magnússon moved back to Reykjavík where he continued to focus on weight training. Upon seeing Jón Páll atop of the podium at the World Strongest Man, Magnússon remarked to his friends: “One day, that’ll be me.” In 1991, Jón Páll was forced to withdraw from the World Strongest Man competition because of an injury and Magnússon was asked to compete in his place. He won the competition with considerable ease. Magnússon would go on to win four WSM titles (in 1991, 1994, 1995, and 1996). Magnús owns and operates the gym Jakaból in Reykjavík, a reference to an old gym where Jón Páll and other famous strongmen once trained. Magnússon squatted 437 kg (964.5 lbs) in 1995.

Here is Magnússon at 56, going head-to-head with Strongman legend Bill Kazmaier, at the Giants Live in Wembley last summer. Still a verifiable beast.

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson was born in Reykjavík in 1988. Like Jón Páll and Magnússon, Hafþór spent a lot of time on a country farmstead moving “huge stones and rocks.” By the age of 16, Björnsson had already reached his full height (2.06 cm) and at 19, he realized he had a gift for strength. Björnsson played basketball professionally until shifting focus to weightlifting at the age of 20, owing mostly to a “troublesome” ankle. He met Magnús Ver Magnússon at the Jakaból gym in 2008, who remarked that he looked like a good prospect for strongman. Two years later, he would enter his first Iceland’s Strongest Man competition. He placed third. Since then, Björnsson has won the competition for nine consecutive years. He won his first World’s Strongest Man competition in 2018 and is the only strongman to have won the Arnold Strongman Classic, Europe’s Strongest Man, and World’s Strongest Man in the same calendar year. Björnsson portrayed Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane on the HBO-series Game of Thrones. He also broke a 1,000 year-old Viking record by shouldering the 640-kg (1,410-lbs) mast of a famed longship, Ormurinn Langi (The Long Worm), before proceeding to take five whole steps. The original record holder, the legendary Ormur Stórólfsson, only managed three steps, and – if the eponymous saga from the 13th century is to be believed – was “never quite the same again.” Hafþór was fine (see below).

Benedikt Magnússon

Benedikt Magnússon was born in 1983. Like Jón Páll, he hails from the town of Hafnarfjörður, Iceland’s third most populous town (Jón Páll actually moved to Stykkishólmur when he was two). When he was 16, Magnússon broke his back skiing and, seeking ways to recover from his injury, he wandered into Steve Gym (that’s not a grammatical error) in Reykjavík. Learning of his injury, the gym’s proprietor, who’s name is Steve, recommended the deadlift. Five years later, Magnússon, having recovered from his injuries, deadlifted 426 kg, breaking a record held by Andy Bolton. Today, Magnússon holds the raw deadlift world record (with only a weightlifting belt): 460.4 kg (1,015 lbs). Somewhat surprisingly, Magnússon doesn’t plan his nutrition all that carefully (“I just make sure to includes lots of potatoes”) and, in a world of extremes, argues for a holistic approach to life: “Make weightlifting a part of your life, not the entirety of your life. You should try to grow in all aspects of life, not just one” (Brotherhood of Iron).

In the below video, Magnússon deadlifts 1,100 lbs worth of tires (he also has a very impressive vertical leap).

Ari Gunnarsson

Ari Gunnarsson – in addition to having won the West Fjords Viking competition five years running – may just be Iceland’s most famous lifeguard; patrons of the Sundhöllin swimming pool in downtown Reykjavík can catch him* provoking fate by leaning, poolside, in a precarious white plastic chair (he weighs almost 350 lbs). He trained as a swimmer when he was younger (and was, in his own words, “thin and weak”) and didn’t begin competing in strongman until 2010 (he was born in 1983); that year, during a gym session, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson pointed at a 160 kg Atlas Stone, turned to Gunnarsson, and said: “If you can lift this stone, I’ll enter you Magnússon’s (yes, that Magnússon) strongman competition this weekend.” Long story short: Gunnarsson lifted the stone and went ont to compete. He won Iceland’s Strongest Man in 2013 and competed in the World Strongest Man competition in 2016 in 2017.

Below, Ari Gunnarsson speaks to Vice at the Sundhöllin swimming pool (ca. 06:45).

*What’s On was unable to confirm whether Gunnarsson is still employed at Sundhöllin

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