Elite #20 Dan Varela
Updated: Apr 21
Dan Varela I remember receiving an email from this 53 year old telling me about how he used to lift and compete and wanted to get back into it. At the time he was having extreme difficulty understanding the use of the bench press shirt. He couldn't touch any weights to the chest, not even weights above his current max. His email was pretty exhaustive giving a detailed history of his past lifting experience. He wasn't interested in learning the squat or deadlift (due to a back injury), he wanted to be a bench specialist. My first thought was "great, some old guy who wants to learn how to use a bench shirt." My response was pretty short. Something to the effect of, "Come here Monday at 5pm and I will teach you to touch weights as light as 315 in a shirt." Dan said he didn't believe me but he did come down and he left with a better understanding of the bench shirt (after touching 315). More importantly he left as a new member of Diablo Barbell. Life has an interesting way of challenging you sometimes and one of the things I continue to learn is to be less judgmental. The "old man" who wanted to be a bench only guy went on to become the All-Time greatest masters lifter in the history of the sport of powerlifting as well as one of our most beloved members.
Although the bench was Dan's real love he became a tremendous squatter and a good deadlifter. His previous all time best squat (in his 20's) had been 600. He went on to squat 815 at age 60. He also managed a 655 deadlift and 600 bench. This was all accomplished in the 242 class. He totaled over 2000 in 3 consecutive meets. Legendary lifts performed by a legendary lifter.
Dan's battles in the gym with his training partner Ken Kim were remarkable. You'd think those two guys wanted to kill each other. I'm not going to try to explain or give examples. The lengths these guys would go to are not "publishable" material nor are they fit for public consumption. To be clear, those guys relied on each other to get better. Newcomers watching those two go at it, and the resulting energy in the whole gym often feared a fight was going to break out. Many great moments were had as those guys pushed themselves and everyone around them to new levels. Kenny always had a slight edge in the squat and deadlift, Dan owned the bench. Their totals were almost identical.
After Dan had made his 2015 total official, he went on a tear in the gym. He looked like he was going to push his already then world record masters total out of reach, maybe forever. Dan crushed an 855 squat in training with more in the tank. Leading into the meet I had him pegged for nearly a 900 squat, 650 bench and 685 pull.
He looked every bit good for 2200. Who was ever going to beat 2200 at 60 years old?!? At the height of the training cycle Dan delivered the news to the group that he had cancer. It didn't seem possible. This was a guy who's body and spirit seemed immune to the failings of ordinary people. Dan forged ahead, enduring chemo, testosterone suppression "therapy" and a host of other medications and procedures. He still did the meet and totaled over 1900. Watching Dan struggle through this was difficult to say the least. He lost a ton of muscle mass and uncharacteristically gained bodyfat. But he showed up, trained, and fought on nonetheless.
I'm not going to go into the whole story of his fight. Suffice to say there were ups and downs and for a timeit looked like he was going to make it all the way back. Then the cancer came back. This is how it went with the back and forth nature of his disease. There is an old saying, "Father time will always be undefeated." That may be true but if there is anyone who walked right up and punched that old bastard square in the face it was Dan Varela. I hear Dan in my head everyday when I open the gym. He would always walk in and say, "Ted! What's on the menu today?" I'd love to hear that one more time as we lost Dan to the cancer in October 2017. He was a true Icon of the sport and a testament of what it means to be a man.