Dana Geneseo remembers the early days of the Central Maine Strongman event, when he was looking for competitors to fill out the entry list and it was hard to generate interest even in the event’s backyard.

“Eleven years ago, doing the first Central Maine contest, we had about 22 competitors and I think five or six were from Maine,” he said. “The rest were from out of state.”

Things have changed.

“I’ve upped my limit. It used to be 40, then we moved it to 45, now it’s at 50,” said Geneseo, the event’s organizer. “We typically hit that limit.”

Once a sport buried in the niches of Maine’s sports scene, strongman competitions have started to make their presence known in the mainstream. The Central Maine Strongman has been a driving force in that popularity surge, and those tasked with putting it on said the rise in awareness and attention hasn’t slowed down.

“If you actually look at the event here, you can see this constant uprising throughout the years,” said Gina LoMonaco, who along with husband Richard Mansir owns GEvolution Fitness in Augusta, which will host the 11th edition of the event Saturday. “We had 50 competitors (last year), whereas years before there may have been half of that. We’ve had to turn competitors away because we have a 50-competitor cap.

“There’s no doubt the strongman community has grown a great deal.”

Geneseo said the event, which draws mostly Maine athletes but has also brought in competitors from New York and Quebec, has helped strength athletics — long a player on the national stage due to ESPN’s coverage of the World’s Strongest Man competition — bloom in the area.

“It has established a great stronghold of strongman in Maine,” he said. “It has brought a bigger variety of people into strength athletics. Not just strongman, (but) Highland Games, powerlifting, cross training. It’s introduced people to strength athletics, and there are a lot more people doing it now, a lot more people knowing what it is, than there ever has been.”

The event, true to the nature of the sport, is rugged and rough. To win the competition, athletes must compete in five events, which are like amped-up versions of the presses and squats typically associated with weightlifting. The athletes making their way to Augusta will compete in an overhead press medley, in which lifters go head-to-head while cleaning an object with two hands and pressing it with one, a “last man standing” deadlift, during which they’ll lift progressively heavier weights in an alotted period of time, an ascending yoke squat and an Atlas Stones event.

The signature event, however, will be the Husafell Stone, which typically consists of picking up a steel weight resembling a boulder and carrying it a fixed distance. Competitors will have to handle a tweak on Saturday, however, as 15-pound chains will be added to the stone after each carry until a winner is decided.

“It’s a pretty brutal event,” LoMonaco said. “Even on practice days you’ll see people come out with their legs bruised up. … It requires so much technical proficiency and guts.”

Geneseo said it has been a theme for the Central Maine Strongman to make alterations to familiar challenges.

“The … show is known for having unique events and interesting events both to do and to watch,” he said. “The Husafell Stone just goes along with that same idea, just trying to do a staple event but trying to do it in a slightly different way.”

So far, that approach has worked. Last year, LoMonaco estimated that 500 people made their way into GEvolution Fitness to catch the event, boosting the atmosphere of an already intense competition.

“Last year, the energy in here, the fans, the screaming, the yelling, it was off the hook,” she said.

Part of the reason for the crowd enthusiasm, Geneseo said, is the fans’ proximity to the performing athletes.

“It’s a spectator event. You’re right there, right next to the lifters, you don’t have to stand off a ways,” he said. “It’s an amazing energy.”

And the more attention the event gets, the more it gives back. Proceeds from the event, be they from ticket sales, entry fees, fan donations or merchandise purchases, go evenly to the Augusta Rams football and lacrosse programs, and the Peace Ridge Animal Sanctuary in Brooks.

That’s for down the road, however. On Saturday, it’s about a sport that doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

“I don’t feel like words justify the energy and excitement of this show, to watch 50 athletes put their bodies on the line for the past few months in training and then come in here, some facing fears, some brand new, some looking to qualify for nationals,” LoMonaco said. “It’s a sight to be seen.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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