The setting was January 11, and the occasion was a weightlifting competition at The Miller Gym where I work out. The man sitting next to me was Mike Mansur.
I had arrived a little late for the event, which had begun with the women’s competition. One chair was left next to Mike on the back row. As the event progressed, so did a little small talk and his explanation of judging technicalities. I had by chance sat down in a plum spot.
Over the next couple of hours, I learned that Mike had been competing for decades and would be continuing that day at age 65, 5’5″ and 130 pounds, a hip replacement pending. Then came the discovery that he was also involved in cave restoration projects throughout New Mexico. It wasn’t long before he consented to be interviewed for a blog.
When he got up to change for the men’s competition, he suggested that I take a look at his photograph on the “history” wall of the gym–of him winning a bronze medal at the 2003 World Masters Championship in Savannah, Georgia. (The master’s competitions are for people age 35 and older.) On that occasion, Mike “snatched” (straight overhead from the floor) 65 kg. or 143 pounds. In the “clean and jerk” (pause at collarbone then overhead), he had lifted 97.5 kg. or 214 pounds.
I couldn’t stay for all of the men’s competition, but Mike’s category was first up. Even with surgery pending, the power and form of a champion were immediately visible. Mike successfully lifted a total of 71 kg or 156 pounds at the meet.
On learning more about Mike’s history during a subsequent meeting at Starbucks, I realized that the values informing it might be inspirational in this challenging era. And the story began in his youth, first with a walk in nature and then a TV show a few years later.
THE FIRST EVENT
Mike grew up in Vermont, and one day in 1967 when he was 13, his father took him and his sister to see a cave. Mike was immediately fascinated by the darkness and the bats within, and soon he bought a helmet with a light that would symbolically illuminate a new path. He began to seek opportunities to explore caves. He also took up cycling, rock-climbing, and rope work that provided skills and conditioning for cave exploration. As he explored, he connected with communities of cavers who would become long-term friends.
In 1985, Mike became a life member of the National Speleological Society. It has more than 250 local chapters nationwide called “grottos,” whose members are dedicated to supporting the Society’s research and conservation efforts. Wherever he has lived, Mike has enjoyed the camaraderie among grotto members and has taken courses that have qualified him to pioneer procedures in securing broken formations.
In 1993, Mike moved to New Mexico. Here he found numerous opportunities to pursue this interest and also to train in cave conservation and restoration to become a team leader in repairs. He really likes “improving” caves, as he puts it. Contacted through the Speleological Society by the entities with jurisdiction over caves, Mike and his team members serve in a totally volunteer capacity.
The need for conservation derives from weather events as well as vandalism, and a project last year in Carlsbad Caverns illustrates the complexity of the challenges. In this case, a boy touring with his parents had broken a stalactite by throwing a rock at it from the trail. When it fell almost 20 feet, the stalactite broke in two. It was 30 inches long and weighed 32 pounds.
The repair was scheduled to begin March 12, 2019, after visitor hours because the epoxy glue to be used had to cure for at least 24 hours under ideal conditions. To support the stalactite while the epoxy between the two pieces was curing, Mike and cave physical science technician Ellen Trautner set it up in Mike’s invention, a Speleoclamp that kept it upright.
The next morning, they found that the cave conditions–95% relative humidity and 56 degrees Fahrenheit–were preventing the epoxy from curing, so they left it in place for more days. In the meantime, Mike worked on engineering a rigid metal conduit and coupling to enable the Stalactijack, another Mansur invention, to lift the repaired stalactite up to the break.
Finally, 11 days after assessing the challenge, Mike was able to navigate a 22-foot ladder to access the break. He drilled holes in the ceiling base and in the corresponding formation break. Then the Stalactijack was lifted, and he secured the stalactite to its base with a complicated installation of stainless steel thread, bolts, nuts, epoxy, and finally a clamp.
The next morning the Stalactijack was removed, and the installation held. The bolts and clamps were camouflaged with mortar and dirt. Success! No evidence of damage remained.
THE SECOND EVENT
The second life-changing event in Mike’s life had occurred when he watched on TV the 1976 weightlifting competition at the Summer Olympics in Montreal. He immediately began to search for a trainer whom he eventually found in Carl Wallin at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Wallin trained him for a year and also found a job for him in facilities management and custodial supervision.
Mike continued to train in other places as his career advanced. It had begun in high school working as a fork lift operator, moved through modular home construction and then on into management positions in a variety of facilities until he arrived in New Mexico in 1993.
Here he went into the management of maintenance service systems in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque. He also acquired certified expertise in air conditioning, heating, and refrigeration (ACHR) and then an associate degree in mechanical technology–all with honors. Intel in Rio Rancho hired him in 1998 a month before he received his degree, and he worked there until he retired in 2016. In retirement, he not only trains and competes in weightlifting and engages in cave repair and conservation but also does custom woodworking.
Much to my surprise, I discovered that Mike and his wife, Kathi, live about 80 miles away in the country outside of the tiny community of Tajique–just a couple of miles from sister Kate’s country home. Their original home, which they had framed themselves, was destroyed by a wildfire in 2008. They rebuilt it, including gym space where Mike keeps a collection of trophies won over about 40 years of weightlifting. Asked what he found so fascinating about the sport, he responded that, in comparison to body building and power lifting, it requires real athletic ability, which he clearly has.
When recently interviewed for a podcast by the Albuquerque Strength Academy, Mike was asked about his philosophy of life. He made several important points. One was: “Be honest. Always tell the truth.” That includes times when it is a bit awkward. He also thinks it’s very important to keep trying to better yourself at what you like to do. And although he believes in goal-setting, he thinks the baby-steps are more important than a huge aspiration. He didn’t say it, but this is like advancing in lifting one more kg. at a time, not planning to win a medal at a world competition on such-and-such a date, like 2003.
In interviewing Mike, it became clear to me that he has had a very full and rewarding life. He was fortunate in being inspired early on by the cave visit and then the TV show. After that, he proceeded to cultivate his physical gifts both as an athlete and in working with his hands in very creative ways. His many achievements along the way are also important to his daughter, five grandchildren (a sixth on the way), and five great grandchildren. The rewards of such a life path are comforting to think about in this challenging time.