Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 22, 1997

Only The Strong

Tough: Sports teams
turn to Bill Starr
for their strength
and conditioning

Stacey Patton
Editorial Intern

Nestled in a far corner on the ground floor of the Newton H. White Jr. Athletic Center on the Homewood campus, there is a newly buffed-up room where only brutes of all shapes and sizes dare to enter. It's a room for the mentally tough. A room in which only the strongest survive. In this room the mind must master matter.

The master of this place stands 6 feet tall, weighs in at a rock-solid 190 pounds with quadriceps that pull at his spandex shorts and a T-shirt that offers the Hopkins name full expanse. And from under his cap tumbles wavy gray-flecked hair that gives him the overall appearance of a modern-day Samson.

This is Bill Starr, coach and strength trainer for Hopkins' varsity athletes since 1989. And the newly renovated weight room downstairs in the athletic center is his domain, his classroom.

But here, students don't raise hands unless their fingers are curled around a steel bar. They speak out mostly in grunts. In Bill Starr's classroom, students compete with themselves, pushing against their own limitations to achieve something they might have thought beyond them. Their exams measure sheer will and determination.

"In this room if you work hard there is a payoff," Starr says while resting a 265-pound metal bar on his shoulders. "This is where you prove your strength."

As a young man, Starr saw himself as the quintessential "90-pound weakling." He weighed only 130 pounds when he graduated from high school with a desire to play college sports. With that desire, however, came the realization that he had to alter his appearance in order to perform with the big men on campus.

"I wanted to play sports in college, and I knew I couldn't play football at 130 pounds," he says.

So he didn't, forgoing college for the United States Air Force. During his nine-year hitch, he was stationed in New York, Florida, Texas and Iceland, serving as a medical corpsman. And he began weightlifting.

In 1964, at age 27, the soldier who became known as Starr Man enrolled at the Southern Methodist University and tried out for the football team. Although he only played for one year, at right guard, he had succeeded in overcoming his relatively small size to become a physical factor on the athletic field. He went on to set a national power lifting record in 1968.

"If you know you're stronger, then you have a psychological edge over your opponent whether it's across the line from them, underneath a basket, opposite a net, in the next lane or over the top of them on a wrestling mat," he says, adding, "Strength gives athletes great confidence."

After completing his undergraduate degree at SMU, Starr attended George Williams College, in Chicago, where he earned a master's degree in social work in 1963. He later worked for the Y.M.C.A in Marion, Ind., where he was a youth director who focused much of his attention on teaching young people swimming, basketball and the art of weightlifting.

In 1966 Starr applied his insights into weightlifting and conditioning to writing, becoming the assistant editor of the magazine Strength and Health and writing about nutrition, competitions and body building tips.

In 1970, Starr went back to the gridiron, this time as a conditioning coach for the Baltimore Colts.

"It was a fun experience," he says. "This was the same year they won the Super Bowl [Super Bowl V]."

In 1973, Starr became the strength coach at the University of Hawaii and, in 1976, wrote his first book, Only the Strong Shall Survive.

"I bet I still get a handful of phone calls a month from people wanting to order the book," says football coach Jim McGrath.

Survive--designed to be an instructional manual to help players lift on their own and coaches develop workout programs for their athletes--is more than a mere textbook. Rather, it's a detailed and in-depth 205-page guide to all the aspects of effective training, nutrition and rehabilitating injuries. In it, Starr professes one of his most enduring themes: that there is more to weightlifting than simply pumping iron.

"Weightlifting serves a purpose greater than a person looking strong," he says. "It works in conjunction with their particular sport. It improves their skills. A stronger athlete is a better athlete. Athletes decreases their chances of injuries and builds endurance."

On that same note Starr says that weightlifting can be misused.

"Steroids are often used and athletes lift for the sake of looking bigger. That is abuse. This is also bad because lifting serves no functional purpose. Weightlifting must serve a purpose, bringing out the character in an athlete and applying themselves."

Starr's own character-building regimen includes lifting three times a week for an hour at a time. He constantly reminds his students that everything done in the weight room has a purpose, and the two most important elements an athlete must have to be successful are determination and consistency.

"The discipline and doing things you don't enjoy make you a great athlete and give you the ability to stand with the fittest and the strongest," he says.

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