Age holds no barriers to barbells

At an age when most people are window-shopping for wheelchairs, looking at sheltered accommodation or thinking that Malta may be a bit lively for their holidays, John Gallacher is planning to lift a legendary boulder weighing considerably more than three old ladies and the lavatory.

He intends to do this for the same reason as a dog licks its bottom: because he can. Heaving almost 500lb off the ground is remarkable enough for a 64-year-old grandfather anyway. It's all the more extraordinary when you meet the man once described as "probably the strongest Scot who ever lived". Far from being an ageing colossus, Gallacher looks, frankly, a bit of a squirt. He is just 5ft 8in, scales a mere 12 stone 8lb and whispers rather than bellows - scarcely the stuff of legends.

Yet Gallacher, who is still among the country's top powerlifters despite his advanced years, is living proof that the weak can not only inherit the earth, but can even lift it a few inches. As a child, he was so sickly that he spent months off school with pneumonia, pleurisy and asthma. Health handicaps like that would have been bad enough in Hampstead, but Gallacher lived in the Gorbals area of Glasgow. Doctors predicted he would not live to become a teenager. If disease didn't get him, then the wee hard men would.

However, his handicap became his salvation. He sought refuge in libraries, reading books on strongmen, psychology and hypnosis. He started to believe he could get better - and it worked. At 15, he joined a weightlifting club. At first, he could hardly lift the bar. Four years later, he was stronger than the Scottish weightlifting champion. He could juggle with 56lb weights, bend iron bars and break chains around his chest. For afters, he lifted a 16 stone policeman above his head and held him there with one hand, blow up hot-water bottles and invited people to hit him in the chest with a sledgehammer. He even convinced his 11-year-old sister, a sub-five stone waif, that it is all in the mind. Soon she was breaking six-inch nails in half. "This power is within everyone," he says.

His most famous feats were even more spectacular. Outside an Aberdeen hotel are the Dinnie Stones, named after Donald Dinnie, a 19th century Scottish showman who was the only man to have lifted them. Gallacher, weighing just 11 stone 7lb, picked up the larger granite boulder weighing 448lb, with such ease and carried it across a stage that the 6ft 7in Highland Games champion, who was there as the main attraction, refused to compete against him. He followed this by picking up the Inch Bell. The 182lb dumb- bell, named after Thomas Inch, an Edwardian strongman who toured the world offering pounds 200 to anyone who could lift the weight, had such a thick bar that it was impossible to grip properly. But Gallacher lined it up to his waist three times, and he still regrets that he did not think of lifting it above his head.

Then Gallacher lost interest in feats of strength. He went into business, got married, had a family, toured the world. Back in the UK, he moved to Poole, Dorset, and set up a hypnotherapy business, giving others the benefit of his lessons for success.

"I call myself an inspirational psychologist. When people come to see me, they have often lost hope," he says. "It can take a while but the power to change is within everyone."

That might be the end of the story. But a few years ago Geoff Capes took his strongman show to Bournemouth and invited all-corners to have a go. Gallacher was 55 and had been seriously ill. "I hadn't done it for years, but I thought I might be able to tear a telephone directory. To my surprise, I tore up four, three more than anyone else, and bent iron bars, too."

Soon he was back in the gym.

In 1991, he won the British, European and World Championships in his class, breaking the world record with a 240kg deadlift. Injury prevented him from defending the title, but in 1993 he returned to Aberdeen to lift the larger Dinnie Stone again several times so TV cameras could get a shot from the right angle. His wife, Christine, says: "What shakes everyone is that he is not a big person. It gives people a sense of: 'Maybe I could do something like that too.'"

Gallacher, who trains three times a week, believes he is getting stronger. Illness (he has had bouts of yuppie flu for years) may slow him down, but he foresees himself lifting weights well into his seventies, and says: "I would like to keep improving. My best squat is 4301b and I'm sure I can beat that."

He even wants to bring the World's Strongest Man contest to Poole and turn Sandbanks beach into a British version of Muscle Beach. It may sound daft, but would you argue with a little old man who can still lift a 56lb weight with his little finger?

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