Joe Pablo is a world-record setting weightlifter who has only weeks to live. He shared his story with Missoulian reporter Vince Devlin this week.
Pablo’s hope is that other tribal members will follow his lead and inspiration to become competitive in the sport.
By Vince Devlin, of the Missoulian:
ARLEE – Joe Pablo’s life has been a series of ups and downs the past few years, often with 300-plus pounds of weights attached to the barbells he was hoisting off his chest.
The ups? Well, for one, on July 30, 2011, Pablo twice broke the world bench press record for his age and weight class at the World Association of Benchers and Dead-Lifters Meet in Las Vegas.
Aiming to better the mark of 331.5 pounds, he did so on his opening lift of 333, then broke the world record again with a second lift of 341.5.
The downs? Four days later he checked into a Missoula hospital, where a scheduled biopsy determined he had lung cancer.
Further tests went on to reveal that – no matter how strong his arms were – his heart wasn’t healthy enough for him to undergo the necessary cancer surgery.
Pablo also had four blocked arteries in his heart.
This, mind you, was on top of the diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis Pablo had already been battling for years.
Surgeons inserted stents in arteries that were 75 and 85 percent blocked, skipped another that was 100 percent closed but where his heart had “reworked” the flows on its own, and used medications to deal with the fourth artery, which was 50 percent blocked.
They sent him home and told him they’d recall him, open his chest and deal with the cancer in a month.
“We’d just got to the top of Evaro Hill after getting out of the cath lab, and Joe just started laughing out loud,” his wife of 23 years, Melinda, says. “I thought, ‘Well, whatever medication they put him on is going to be fun.’ But he kept laughing, and I so I asked him what was so funny.”
“You know what,” her husband told her. “I just set two world records in one day with pulmonary fibrosis, lung cancer and four blocked arteries. Imagine what I’ll do when I’m well!”
Joe Pablo, a licensed clinical social worker and 62-year-old great-grandfather, got into weightlifting after an ankle injury curtailed his long-distance running.
“I started gaining weight, and was wondering what I could do to stay in shape,” he says.
Three of his sons – Barney, Ike and Matt – encouraged him to join them in lifting weights.
“My response was, ‘I can’t do that,’ ” Pablo says. “They told me, ‘Nobody can when they first start.’ Within the first three months, they had me benching 200 pounds.”
This was back in 1998. Three nights a week, for seven years, the Pablo family and friends gathered to work out, often in their basement laundry room.
In 2003, Pablo was diagnosed with diabetes.
“I was benching 325 pounds and all of a sudden I couldn’t get 245 off my chest,” he says, “so I went to the doctor and found out I was diabetic.”
In 2005, the boys saw an article in the Missoulian about an upcoming WABDL meet in Missoula. It was there they met Gus Rethwisch, a sometimes actor – he played Eddie “Buzzsaw” Vatowski in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger flick “The Running Man” – and president of the WABDL.
Pablo set a state record (248 pounds) at his first meet, and with Rethwisch’s encouragement headed to Las Vegas and his first world championships in 2006.
He placed sixth.
The next year Pablo couldn’t attend, but in 2008, at the world championships in Reno, Nev., he improved to third place.
In 2009, he won his first world championship.
“I had a lot of trouble that day,” Pablo recalls of the latter meet. “I only had one good lift. I couldn’t do it at 315 pounds, and I tried twice. I figured if I can’t do that I’m going to jump to 325, and for some reason that worked, and I won at the 181-pound weight class.“
Already using oxygen occasionally because of the pulmonary fibrosis – “The lungs get ‘honeycomby,’ ” Pablo explains – he underwent what he calls “a quick nose dive.”
“I bombed a meet in Missoula,” he says. “Nothing but goose eggs. Never got a lift in. I knew something was going on with me.”
All three of his tries in Missoula would have been world records, but Pablo was right about something going on. For one thing, his doctors already were working on lining him up for a lung transplant because of the pulmonary fibrosis.
But he had a feeling this was something else.
“I told Melinda to find another competition for me,” he says, “and told my doctors, ‘There’s something I’ve been trying to do, set a world record …’ ”
They told him to go ahead. As luck would have it, the next meet was in Dallas, where Melinda’s family lives.
And so Joe Pablo went to Texas, put his name in the record books at 333 pounds, then rewrote it a short time later at 341.5 pounds.
“My third one I tried 351.7, but I missed that,” Pablo says. “I thought it was because I was tired, but Barney told me I had lost my concentration, and touched the bar on my stomach instead of higher.”
But he had the world record, at the age of 61. Could things get any better?
In the big-picture way, no.
Five days later Pablo was back in Montana, and in the hospital. As the doctors performed tests they hoped would lead to a lung transplant, they found a suspicious spot in the upper left lobe of a lung.
The biopsy surgery went well except for the cancer diagnosis, but then came the tests that revealed all the heart problems.
That put the cancer surgery on hold. When the tumor was removed, Pablo was still cancer-free four months later.
But at his next checkup, two months after that, they found a shadow around the site where the tumor had originally been removed.
Not only that, the cancer had spread.
“That automatically put him out for a lung transplant,” Melinda says. “As soon as we found out the cancer had spread, we knew he couldn’t be a candidate for a transplant.”
Doctors have told Pablo his years breathing in smoke as a wildlands firefighter, a job he started in his youth and continued until he was 30, may have contributed to the pulmonary fibrosis.
“The cancer was my own stupidity,” he says. “I smoked – I smoked all those years I was a long-distance runner. I’d run 18 miles three times a week while I was smoking a pack a day. My cool-down routine after a race – after thinking I was going to die – I’d light a cigarette and walk backward and watch the people who finished behind me cross the finish line.”
He quit countless times with the pulmonary fibrosis, Pablo says, before finally succeeding a few months before being diagnosed with cancer.
“I’d quit for three or four months at a time, but then I’d start again for a little while,” he says. “The last five years I smoked, in total days, there were three years’ worth I never had a cigarette. I was trying, but man, I was addicted.”
He was more successful on another addiction front.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without being sober,” Pablo says. “I’ve been drug- and alcohol-free for the last 32 years.”
Pablo continued working his two mental health-related jobs – at Kicking Horse Job Corps and for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes – until last month.
And the world record-holder and defending champion returned to the WABDL championships again this year with some of his family.
“Kind of a sad story,” he says. “Six weeks before, I was doing reps with 315 pounds, but the next time I was down to 305, and the time after that 250.”
Perhaps because of the economy, the meet didn’t draw as many competitors this year. Pablo opened at 215 pounds, and – sucking in oxygen from his tank in between tries – couldn’t get ’er done on his three attempts.
“I owe Gus a lot of gratitude, because once you set a weight, you can’t go down,” Pablo says. “But Gus got on the P.A. and called Ike up. He said, ‘Go back and tell your Dad he can open again, anyplace he wants.’”
Pablo elected to try 205.
On his first try, two of the three judges disqualified him when he came off the bench too fast.
On the second try, same thing.
“On the last lift I touched, got it in the air, and smiled at the judges who had red-lighted me,” Pablo says.
It earned him second place in his age and weight class.
“When he did his last lift, all the other weightlifters came out to watch,” Melinda says, “and he was like a mini-Rocky, holding his hands above his head. The audience game him a standing ovation.”
“Granted, it was only 205 pounds, but I’m very proud of it,” Pablo says.
So are his seven children – Vince, Barney (who is actually Joe Jr., “But you can only have so many Joes in one house,” he explains), Ike, Matt, Michelle, Gail and Margaret – and his 20 grandchildren and his four great-grandchildren.
“If ever I had a bucket list, that was it,” Pablo says. “To complete a lift at the last meet of my life.”
If his doctors are correct, it was. Joe Pablo says they’ve just recently given him four to six weeks to live.