If one thing is for certain, it’s that getting rusty will never be something that the 70-year-old lifelong Cleveland resident will have to worry about.
Just last year, the self-proclaimed “geezer-jock” shocked many in the powerlifting world as he bench-pressed an astonishing 400 pounds.
“Nov. 10 last year I benched 400 pounds at 70 years old. That was a goal I had set for myself at 68 because at 68 years old I benched 430 pounds and broke a record that was set in 1984,” Wooten explained. “ When I did that, Powerlifting Watch picked it up and they’re the No. 1 power-lifting site on the internet. That put me at No. 1 in the world over age 60 in bench press. Two years ago I was beating guys in their 20s and 30s but I wasn’t actually lifting against them because they weren’t in my age group. When I lift they just don’t believe I’m lifting the weight I’m lifting at my age.”
Wooten started from humble beginnings, growing up in a poor family in South Cleveland.
“We were poor but we didn’t know it and we had a great time. We didn’t have computers, iPads, and all that junk so we played sports all the time,” Wooten remarked.
Wooten grew up with Bill Senters, another 2013 Old Timer Hall of Fame inductee. Wooten’s father was a non-entity for the majority of his life, and Bill’s father, Pete, filled that void.
“Pete Senters was the father figure in my life,” reflected Wooten. “He was the one that took us fishing, hunting, water-skiing, all that stuff.”
Even though his father, Chester Raymond Wooten, wasn’t around much, the junior Wooten can’t help but mention that during World War II his father was a member of General Patton’s Hell on Wheels division.
During his time at Bradley High School, Wooten was a member of the football team.
As it turns out, he found more success in the weight room then on Jimmy Lovell Field. Due to an unfortunate broken ankle during the fourth quarter of a game and a lesser known broken arm caused by a car wreck, Wooten never got to play as much as he would have liked.
In 1958, he got his first taste of weightlifting in an attempt to put on some bulk for football. Rusty Clayton came back to Bradley High School after college to coach and put the football team on a weight schedule.
“I was in high school and Rusty had come back to Bradley. I was training actually to put some size and strength on for football. When Rusty came back I think he saw a little something in me because he had been weight training. He called his brother James to come to Bradley High School to come meet me. He had learned the Olympic style of lifting so he started teaching me how to do it.”
Wooten’s training by the Clayton brothers soon had the opportunity to be put to the test when the YMCA brought Olympic Gold Medal winner and World’s Strongest Man Paul Anderson to Lee College for a show. Part of Anderson’s show was to find the strongest teenager in the town.
“The lift I made at Lee College was either 175 or 185 pounds, overhead lift. I think I weighed maybe 145 pounds at the time. I was coming into my own at that time, because I had actually learned how to do that from James and Rusty,” Wooten said. “Everybody who missed had to go sit back down in the audience. It came down to me and Joe Lemon. Joe was bigger than me and I think he might’ve been a little older than me, but anyway I won it.”
After getting his first win and trophy, Wooten was hooked.
Wooten graduated in 1962, married his wife, Mickey, and continued his weight training. His next advancement in the powerlifting world came in 1964 when he was invited by coach Rye Bell to come lift for the Frye Institute of Chattanooga.
“They were going to feed me, transport me, and I thought it was great to get paid for lifting weights. As soon as he walked off James (Clayton) said that I needed to take the offer and lift with the Frye. That’s when things took off.”
Now, Wooten can’t tell you off the top of his head how many times he’s won state, Southeastern, or other regions, but according to his biography his achievements are staggering.
From 1964-1973 he won four Tennessee State championships, two Southeastern championships, two titles in the Amateur Athletic Union region II while setting four new records, and also won the first official AAU powerlifiting state title and set two records there as well. In 1968 Wooten won Best Lifter in the state at the Chattanooga All Sports awards.
During Wooten’s state championship run he set six new records, including a standing press record of 270 pounds while weighing 165 pounds.
A couple of unfortunate injuries in 1973 would start Wooten’s 30-year “break” from powerlifting.
“I was in Nashville in 1973 and I dropped almost 300 pounds on my chest and broke two ribs. My wife was with me and she had never driven on a big trip and had to drive us home. I put her through stuff like that our whole married life. She seems to do quite well.”
Wooten also had to undergo surgery to repair a ruptured disc in his back. He soon came to the decision to take some time off, go back to school, and help his wife with the kids.
That time off gave Wooten the chance to graduate from Lee College with honors, where he was certified to teach secondary education in seven different subjects.
After retiring from Olin at the age of 57, he decided to start training again when he learned the lifting federation had age divisions to lift in. Much to his surprise, he found his strength had not diminished. While most people tend to lose their strength as they get older, Wooten actually was able to gain more.
“A word I picked up quite a while ago was ‘geezer-jock.’ So I said the geezer-jock could come out of retirement since we had age groups. After 30 years my strength came back and the first tournament I lifted in 2003 was exactly 30 years from my [previously] last tournament. I didn’t really understand that my strength was still what it was. I was one month from my 60th birthday when I entered that contest.”
At the state meet Wooten won the bench press title in his class, benching 325 pounds at a bodyweight of 195 pounds, and once again set a state record.
Since he has been back in action, Wooten has won four national titles and three world championships, all while setting records.
In a sport where steroids and other questionable methods are frequently used, Wooten can honestly say that none of his records and titles were ever accomplished thanks to the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
“I don’t do steroids, I went through that route when I was in my mid 20s. This gym owner from Chattanooga was paying my way to go lift in tournaments and he wanted me to start them. I never used amphetamines or anything, and I had already won a bunch of trophies and championships,” Wooten explained. “I had a 32-day prescription and I went back to him and I said that I wasn’t going to do that. I’ve never used them to set my records and I just didn’t feel right about using them. He told me that I’d never make it in the national level if I didn’t use them.”
If Wooten’s story weren’t interesting enough, an almost unbelievable twist would soon come to light during our interview.
“I had to go to Birmingham when I was 47 for open heart surgery. I was born with two holes in my heart and I did all these athletics all those years and they didn’t find it until I was 47 years old. They told me I was lucky to make it as long as I had. I’ve got mitral valve prolapse, an aortic valve that’s leaking a little bit and a heart arrhythmia. It gives me a fit sometimes but ‘quit’ is not in my vocabulary. That is just not a part of my character.”
While one would expect that weight lifting is the most important area in Wooten’s life, that simply is not the case.
“What is still most important to me, after 51 years, is my wife. Mickey, my two sons Vic and Ross, my nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. My favorite titles I hold are husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.”
Wooten takes a moment to brag on his wife’s golfing skills, a proud smile on his face as he mentions she took up golfing when she was 40 and eventually won the Tennessee Women’s senior state title.
He then tells the story of how he almost lost his wife when she was 42.
“Five years before my heart surgery I almost lost my wife. She had an aneurism. The doctor came to me the day before her surgery and said that they couldn’t do it,” Wooten said as he relived the trying tale. “At that time we’d been married 23 years and I said to the doctor I’m going to do something. Who’s the best? If it was your wife who would you go to? He pointed up north to Canada and said Dr. Charles Drake.”
Erlanger, M&M Mars, and Olin worked out the costs for Mickey’s emergency flight to Canada, where Drake had just returned from a lecture tour in England.
“They told me before we left that she might not make the trip, that’s how bad it was. She had about a 1 percent chance.”
Mickey proved to be that 1 percent and, thanks to the skilled hands of Drake, survived a dissecting aneurism.
Wooten’s sons Vic and Ross are another topic that brings a beaming smile to the 70-year-old’s face.
He’s quick to mention Ross was in the 82nd Airborne for 20 years while Robert Victor, or Vic as he’s referred to, has a master’s in Christian counseling and is an ordained minister.
While Vic has three boys and a girl, his brother Ross had four girls and a boy, comprising Wooten’s nine grandchildren.
The family had to cope with tragedy in 2006 when Ross’ son Casey was killed in an ATV accident.
“I still think about him to this day,” Wooten softly remarks as he looks over the remembrance card from Casey’s funeral service.
Wooten’s family is still expanding though, and he is enjoying being able to be called a great-grandfather.
Another passion evident in Wooten’s life is the training and passing on of his weightlifting knowledge to those who seek out his wisdom and guidance.
Throughout the years Wooten has helped many individuals with their training, be it bodybuilding, weightlifting, or powerlifting. If someone wanted a lifting schedule all they had to do was ask and Wooten would supply them with one, simple as that.
Some of his prized possessions are a couple of letters that have been written to Wooten thanking him for all he has done, from former trainees and their family.
Although it might not have been his initial goal, Wooten has had a great impact on not only the Cleveland community, but also those communities in which his former trainees now reside.
What is remarkable about Wooten is the fact that despite all his accolades and success, he willingly helps those who ask free of charge.
While some personal trainers are charging upwards of $30 to $40 an hour, Chester Wooten is handing out 50 years of experience for free.
“I’ve been so lucky through my lifting career to have Coach Clayton, his brother and Coach Bell and James Hall, guys that never asked me for a penny for their help, so I’ve never asked anybody to pay me,” Wooten explains. “My lifters know that whatever they learn and pick up I want them to pass along. My coaches never asked for anything in return for helping me, so I don’t ask anything in return and I still don’t to this day.”
Whenever someone comes to Wooten looking for advice and training tips he is quick to give them some very pointed advice.
“I’ve got three words that I tell them once I get them started; desire, dedication and discipline. Those three things, you’ve got to have them.”
Wooten’s advice continues on deeper, delving into the training regimens he suggests.
“If you’re going to powerlift and really get into lifting heavy weights you need to be on a three-day full body workout with compound movements for maybe eight months and then change over to a four-day workout. There’s a formula to it. And it’s not a matter of if you’re going to get hurt powerlifting, it’s when you’re going to get hurt. That’s just the way the sport is.”
While Wooten is honored on his induction into the Old Timer’s Sports Hall of Fame, initially he was a bit hesitant.
“I was hesitant about going into the Hall because I’m still competing and plan to keep on competing,” Wooten admitted.
Despite the aches and pains that have become a normal part of Wooten’s life, it seems nothing will slow up the determined powerlifter. Wooten is focused on his own training and on upcoming competitions in which he hopes to participate.
“You take some Aleve and keep training,” Wooten knowingly states. “I’m going to keep trying to compete. I may go to the nationals in June. There’s two different federations that are trying to get me lift for them.”
The not-so-retired retiree can be found sticking to his routine, working out three to four times a week at the Fitness Factory. Wooten hopes he will be able to lift in a competition two or three times a year.
Before the interview came to a close, Wooten had one final piece of advice to impart.
“I was solid muscle when I went in for heart surgery at 47 years old. The doctor told my wife that evidently I had conditioned the rest of my body to the point where it carried me through. That shows you something about fitness training; it just doesn’t help you overcome arthritis, being overweight, asthma, or heart defects. It can help save your life, actually.”