By Tom Momberg

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, audiences from around the country were wowed by the feats of strength exhibited by men who were part of an old-time tradition. Called strongmen, they were a major attraction at places such as Coney Island less than 100 years ago.

Today, the traditional exhibition of men bending steel or ripping decks of cards in half is a rare pageant, but Queens is home to one of the men trying to revive the vaudeville era sport: Chris “Wonder” Schoeck, 47, of Astoria.

A conversation with the Douglaston native and personal trainer can easily expose his social anxiety, which brings to question how he has been able to exhibit his strength in front of a crowd.

TimesLedger’s Q-Guide featured Schoeck in 2013 when “Bending Steel,” a feature-length documentary on him and his new-found sport was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The film, directed by Dave Carroll, illustrated how Schoeck’s training and taking his exhibitory strength to audiences helped him overcome not only his fear of public performances, but also enabled him to master challenges in every corner of his life.

Besides Schoeck’s fear of crowds, “of course, there is also the fear of possible failure,” he said.

“And then finally, after I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to fail at what I was doing, I was wondering if someone in the audience was going to try (and show me up),” he said in an interview. “So, really, there was always an underlying confidence problem for me.”

But still, Schoeck, at 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, goes out to perform, confronting his weaknesses with his strength—literally. His entry into the national community for strongmen, as well as working with his mentor Chris Ryder, helped build his confidence starting in 2010.

Chris Ryder was brought into the strongman tradition by Dennis Rodgers, who was trained by “Slim the Hammer Man,” who in turn was taught disciplines by Coney Island’s renowned Mighty Atom.

Reflecting on the personal transition that was captured in the film, Schoeck said the art of bending steel and coming into the lineage of strongmen gave him the opportunity to develop a tremendous sense of self.

“Going out into the world with that mentality will help you be able to do anything. This (training) teaches you patience and gives you a powerful sense of humility… What I realized is that there will always be someone who is trying to beat you, but you have to embrace it as a challenge.”

Unlike most other sports, which are competitive by nature, Schoeck noted it is not the mission of the very small community of men who bend steel and perform other triumphs of superhuman strength to try to beat the guy next to them.

“There really is an overwhelming feeling of support from these guys: Nobody is trying prove they are stronger than one another,” Schoeck said. “And what you will find, is that everyone has their own talents and individual strengths.”

In every way, Schoeck’s story is about mind overcoming matter.

Schoeck said the strongman sport is not for most people because like performing in public, bending steel is less about how physically strong someone is and more about the ability to overcome the mind’s limitation on what it thinks the body cannot do.

For more information, or to learn where you can watch “Bending Steel,” visit www.bendingsteelmovie.com/thefilm.html. To find upcoming shows featuring Schoeck, visit www.chriswonderschoeck.com/.

Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomberg@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

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