Lifting weights Special Olympian’s specialty

by CARMEN IRISH

Buzz Toliver’s exertions in the gym carry over to his personal life. Lifting weights reflect his competitive nature, can do attitude and willingness to work hard.

Buzz Toliver didn’t know how much weight he was lifting until he had already won the gold medal. The pressure was mounting. It was his third and final attempt, and just minutes after attempting his first two lifts.

“I just had them load the bar without Buzz knowing the weight,” Buzz’s trainer Nicole Knight said. “I looked at him and told him he could do it. And, I knew he could. But I think if I would’ve told him how much weight he was about to lift, it would have psyched him out.”

He chalks his hands, adjusts the support belt around his waist and grips the bar tightly. Both feet stand squarely under the bar, shoulder width-apart. His concentration mutes the arena’s cheer. He tells himself, ‘this is it, no messing around.’ He exhales a few short “huts,” and then strains against more than double his body weight.

As the bar begins to rise off the platform, Buzz’s knees lock and the bar arrives to his mid-thigh. The referee signals the lift is complete. Buzz looks up, and he sees three white lights appear on the scoreboard, designating that all three judges have ruled the lift legal.

‘It was an explosion’

“It was an explosion,” Vicki Dunham, chief operating officer for Special Olympics Montana said. “It’s been described as the most electric atmosphere ever demonstrated at the State Summer Games. Buzz’s demonstration of exuberance and joy was felt in the hearts of everyone there. He couldn’t stay on the ground.”

“When I saw three white lights, I was in shock,” Buzz said. “I couldn’t believe it. I turned to Nicole and just picked her up off the ground in a bear hug. It was one of my proudest moments.”

Merle Allen “Buzz” Toliver Jr., one of four members of Special Olympics trainer Knight’s powerlifting team, deadlifted 419 pounds—his personal best—to win the powerlifting competition at the 2010 statewide Special Olympics games in Bozeman, Mont.

More than 1,000 athletes with disabilities participate in the summer games, requiring more than 1,500 volunteers and several hundred sponsors to hold the events.

Buzz began competing with Special Olympics in grade school when he was about 7 years old, his mother Mary Emmons said. He started with swimming and soon after joined the track and bowling teams.

“He’s always been one that pushes himself really hard,” Emmons said. “He loves to learn new things and be challenged.”

Strong willed and determined

Buzz was named after his father, who died from cancer when Buzz was 9 years old. Like his dad, Emmons said Buzz has always been strong willed, determined and a hard worker.

“He was always the ‘I’m going to do it my way,’ type since he was very little,” Emmons said.

Buzz was born in Washington in 1976. Even as an infant, Buzz refused to be isolated from the rest of the world.

“He hated being in confined areas,” Emmons said. “At 6 weeks old, we moved him from a bassinette to crib, and then from a crib to the floor. And that is where he slept until he was big enough to sleep in a bed. He would just push himself right up to the edge of the crib nearly smashing his little head, no matter how many times we would move him away from the edges, and then cry until we took him out. He preferred sleeping on the floor with a blanket even as a young boy.”

Buzz was diagnosed with a learning disability when he was 6 years old. He and his family moved to Billings the next year.

“They wanted to put him in an institution,” Emmons said. “I fought it all the way. I wanted him in public school where he belonged.”

The school system, after a long struggle, hired the appropriate special needs faculty for Buzz, Emmons said. While reading and writing continued to be a challenge, Buzz’s work ethic excelled, and he began working at the age of 15 doing yard work and odds and ends for neighbors.

And then, he discovered powerlifting.

Buzz began to thrive physically and started training a few times each week.

“I can’t always spit out what’s bothering me,” Buzz said. “But going to the gym has always relieved the stress or upset I have in my life.”

Buzz graduated from high school in 1995 and became increasingly self-sufficient. He worked at Krispy Kreme for several years until they went out of business. He learned to drive and got his driver’s license and moved into his own apartment.

“It was really hard to let Buzz go out on his own,” Emmons said. “And at times I tried to hold him back — I was scared. But, I knew if there was anyone that could do it, that would be Buzz. I had to let him grow up and be on his own.”

“I love my mom dearly,” Buzz said. “But I was ready to get my feet under myself, and to be where I wanted to be. And that is where I am at.”

He has carved out a life for himself and has met and lives with his “life-partner” Brandy Peterson, who also competes in Special Olympics.

She has been competing since she was 5 years old. Peterson was Special Olympic Montana Athlete of the Year in 2009.

Emmons said she has never met “two more compatible kids,” in her life. “They enjoy and encourage each other.”

Buzz works fulltime at NAPA Auto Parts in Billings and owns a lawn care business that keeps him busy in the spring and summer months. In between work, Buzz works out at the gym five days a week.

“I’ve always want to work hard,” Buzz said. “I get it from my Dad. You have to work hard first and then have fun. Besides, keeping busy keeps me happy.

“Mom always says I never have time to just relax. I tell her, ‘I’ll relax when I’m six feet under.

“My dad taught me hard work, and my mom taught me to be a better person and a role model.”

Chip Stonerock, NAPA’s stockroom manager, hired Buzz almost four years ago as a truck loader and has since moved him into the stockroom as an associate. Stonerock said Buzz has the best work ethic he has seen come through the stockroom.

“He is really motivated,” Stonerock said. “And, he is always going! Each day, he challenges himself to do better, be faster than the day before. His motives are exemplary in that he really just wants to better himself.”

After an eight-hour shift at NAPA, Buzz jumps in his Ford pickup truck and drives to Plaza Fitness to work out with his trainer and teammates a few times a week and also once a week on his own.

“When I get off work, I’m straight to the gym,” Buzz said. “The gym is pretty much home to me.”

Building strength, as a powerlifter, requires repetitious workouts, Knight said. Toliver trains year-round rotating between repetitions of heavy and light weights.

“You just have to push through the pain,” Knight said. “Powerlifting isn’t for everyone—it can be very painful and competitive. If you’re not sore the next day, then you say to yourself, ‘I didn’t work hard enough.’”

The bottom line, Knight said, is that it takes a lot of determination and commitment.

“You have to go through the pain to get to the reward,” she said. “And the reward is being better than you were before. Nothing is a gimme. Everything in powerlifting is earned. You have to go through the process of perseverance, determination and practice.

“It is total mind-over-matter. If you think a weight will beat you, well then, it will. But, if you think you can beat it, well then, you will.”

Buzz and his teammates are training for the statewide Special Olympics games in May. Although it is only required that competitors train for eight weeks prior, Buzz takes it upon himself to train
year-round.

“My goal is to get to where the big guys are at,” he said. “You know, the best of the best.”

Special Olympics Montana named Buzz the 2011 Athlete of the Year. He was nominated statewide by volunteers, coaches, sponsors and supporters and selected by a committee representing the organization’s constituents of athletes, coaches, board of directors, families, directors and staff.

Along with competing in several Special Olympic sports, he volunteers for the organization, helping out at events and joining fundraisers.

“Buzz is a tremendous athlete and person,” Dunham said. “He is the epitome of the spirit and missions of Special Olympics. He is a team player and leader and is always encouraging others to do their best. And within that encouragement, he is genuine, sincere and caring. He truly is someone we all can learn from.”

Buzz hopes to coach for Special Olympics someday.

“I listen very closely to Nicole and learn from her,” he said. “If I don’t understand something, she always shows me a different way. She has showed me that if I put my mind to it, then I can do it. And, I want to show others that if I can do it, then they can do it.”

But first, Buzz hopes to accomplish his goal to compete in the 2015 Special Olympics World Games held in California.

“I’ve got a ways to go, but I have the determination to get there,” Buzz said.

Carmen Irish is a freelance writer and photographer in Billings, Mont.

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