An interview with world record powerlifter, Lepeka “Pekx” Nanai, on lifting, losing his sight and studying at Sage Institute of Massage…
Hearing an ad for Sage Institute of Massage on the radio one morning, Lepeka Nanai finishes his shower, towels himself dry and picks up the phone. The idea of studying massage at Sage sounds good. He’s up for a new experience and besides – there’s not a lot that’s too hard for a blind, powerlifting world champion with five kids and a life story that reads like a Hollywood movie script.
Lepeka Nanai, or “Pekx”, as he is known, is a world powerlifting champion. He can squat lift 242.5 kg, which in case you’re wondering, is pretty heavy. Perhaps think of lifting a family of four. Or a large gorilla. Next time you’re at the supermarket, pick up 2 x 5 kg bags of potatoes, then imagine adding another 43 bags. That’s how much you need to lift to be a world powerlifting champion.
It’s awe-inspiring stuff, but the story certainly doesn’t stop there. Talking to the gently-spoken Diploma Graduate from Sage Institute of Massage, it’s hard not to be inspired by his incredible life journey.
Pekx came to Australia at the age of 20. When he was just 23 years old, he became victim to a freak work accident. It was the beginning of a series of devastating events that would shape, but not determine his life. Working in an engine room, coring blocks for turbo cars, an explosion of gas and acid resulted in almost entirely blinding his left eye and reducing his vision to just 70% in his right eye.
Fast forward a year: it’s late at night at a suburban train station – and Pekx finds himself in the midst of an attack by seven drunken men; one brutally smashing an alcohol bottle over his head, completely blinding his remaining, partially-sighted eye.
An horrific turn of events and proof that lightning does strike twice.
Into the void
Such devastation takes its toll, and as his world caved in, with all sense of reality and direction literally falling away into a large, dark hole, Lepeka closed down. Retreating into a spare bedroom at his brother’s house, Pekx did all that he could do to cope. He drank. He drank all morning, and all day; the rare sober moments greeting him only with horrible, overwhelming panic attacks. If two such awful things could happen, he reasoned, what could possibly happen next?
Not coping with such sudden loss of vision, he was terrified of every step he took. What if there is a hole in the ground? What if I fall? What if the tiny 3% of my remaining vision is taken away? What then? What now? What am I going to do? He kept drinking.
I ask Pekx if his blindness still causes him grief today.
“I’m fine now,” he states candidly. “As weird as it is to say, I just can’t see myself seeing ever again! This is me now. I’m used to it. Of course, it would be amazing to see again, but mainly for the sake of my family, to make it easier on them… I could drive my kids to school. Things like that… ”
Things like that indeed. Things like looking after the five kids he has now fathered – his eldest, at 19, drives him in his car as we chat over the phone. Then there are four children under the age of seven from his new wife, Vanessa. His voice noticeably peaks whenever he mentions her name.
“Oh, and Vanessa is also blind. She has Retinitis Pigmentosa – just like Stevie Wonder!” He adds with almost a touch of pride.
A new life
Pekx met Vanessa when he took the positive move to take up a course with Vision Australia. Despite immediately falling in love, it was a rocky time, as it was to take Pekx another two years before he could shake his alcohol addiction.
“I’m so blessed to have her… so grateful. I’m a lucky man. I don’t know why she stood by me, but she says she could see that my problems were separate to me.”
A powerful talent
Over this time, Pekx would sometimes go to the gym and lift weights. “But you can’t do much when you’re constantly hung-over,” he states dryly. In 2009, a powerlifting couple spotted him at the gym, and recognising his talent, asked them to join him in their training. He agreed, and now sober, began to enjoy the training.
In 2010 he started competing, and in the space of only just over two years, by July 2012, Pekx had won three world records for the blind, surprising more than a few people, especially some of the renowned international rivals from Russia, Turkey and the US.
Today, Lepeka Nanai now holds a staggering six world record titles, including a 251kg bench press and a 293kg dead lift heavyweight world class title. 2012 also saw him qualifying for the able bodied Australian Powerlifting Team for the 2012 world championship in Russia.
Such success has given Pekx an even deeper drive to succeed. He takes his training extremely seriously, often continuing his work-out at home if he feels he hasn’t done quite enough at the gym. Pekx is emphatic that discipline and determination play a large part of success in the sport – not just DNA.
Studying at Sage
When Nanai found out about Sage Institute of Massage, he soon realise that his disability was not going to stop him getting a qualification. Not only is the campus fully equipped for people with disabilities, but the team at Sage is extremely enthusiastic about their unique, adaptive teaching methodologies, including “accelerated learning” techniques.
Academic Director, Vicki Tuchtan, says “Accelerated learning is based on the theory of whole brain learning. Rather than conventional learning methods that rely on simply listening to the teacher or lecturer, accelerated learning uses all the senses that the brain registers for learning, ensuring that every part of our being is stimulated to learn. This makes learning much more fun and frankly, easy to grasp. Consequently, it takes people less time to learn new things, as the rate of learning is improved. Accelerated learning doesn’t mean that courses take less time to complete than other courses. With accelerated learning, we employ teaching techniques in the classroom and within our student materials that are specifically designed to cater for all learning styles – those who like to hear it, those who like to see it and those who like to do it!” This approach significantly enhances the learning experience for all students, and for those with a disability, there is plenty of flexibility in regards to methods of learning.
Testimony to the success that accelerated learning can give, and in typical Pekx fashion – after completing his Certificate IV in Massage, he went on immediately to complete his Massage Diploma – both massage courses were at Sage.
So what is it like studying at Sage when you are visually impaired?
“I couldn’t see what bones looked like in an anatomy book, but instead I got to feel the bones in my own hands,” he said. There was a lot of talking, discussions – and hands-on experience. Recording all the lectures on his iPhone was also useful so he could listen to the lectures again that evening.
“My teacher, Mikael, was really great – and asked me if there would be anything I needed to help me learn the material. It was just the little things, like teachers pointing to marks on the blackboard and not saying, ‘look here’ or ‘see that’. Mikael made sure that all the teachers described what they were talking about, which helped immensely.”
Pekx is not the only visually impaired student that has enrolled at Sage. Just recently, another visually impaired student has enrolled and (along with her guide dog) is ready to get started.
Now officially graduated from Sage Institute of Massage, I ask Pekx what’s next for him.
“My own massage studio would be really great,” he enthuses. “In fact, I’d really like to employ other visually impaired people to work on my studio.”
And as for powerlifting, Pekx’s enthusiasm hasn’t dampened. “My ideal goal would be to break an open world record through ‘open body’”.
Sage Massage Sponsorship
Sage Institute of Massage is proud to be a contributing sponsor for Pekx as he the heads over to the world powerlifting championship in Beijing this month to defend his world titles. From all of us at Sage we wish him the very best – and medal or no medal, we’re sure that he will continue to inspire people with his enthusiasm, drive and humour!
Since writing this post, we’ve received news that Pekx set another world record in Beijing and won another 2 gold medals!! He said that he couldn’t have done it without Sage’s help. Huge congratulations to Pekx from us all here at Sage! Well done and we’re delighted to have helped along the way.
Lepeka Nanai currently holds 6 world record titles!
Equipped (where competitors where tight supportive clothing/belts)
holds WORLD RECORD titles for:
- 251kg bench,
- 293kg dead lift,
- with a world record total
Raw competition (loose clothing, no support)
holds WORLD RECORD titles for:
- Bench Press 191 kg,
- Dead Lift 285kg
- Plus he carries a total raw world record.
Sage Institute of Massage – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.
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