A standard bench-press barbell weighs 45 pounds, and when John Sheets decided after his heart surgery that he was going to become a power lifter, he found he couldn't make that bar budge.

So Sheets, who lives in Lower Township, Cape May County, started from scratch, with the help of his son-in-law, and got the barbell moving, his arms trembling while he locked out his elbows.

Week by week, Sheets added pounds to that bar. First, he slipped on tiny plates the size of tea saucers, but eventually he was loading on weights that looked like manhole covers.

His surgery was in 2002. He has a simple goal for the day next May when he turns 80.

The Army and Coast Guard Reserve veteran wants to bench press over 200 pounds, retain his title as New Jersey state champ, and break a national record. He's got the youthful biceps to do it.

"I got another gold medal," Sheets told a Coast Guard member Thursday at the service's national training center in Cape May. "It just goes to show you, you can never be too old."

Sheets grew up in an era when work was working out. He spent six years in the Army, mostly in Europe, and left as a sergeant first class. He met his wife, Erika, in Germany, and in February they'll celebrate their 60th anniversary. In 1991 he retired from New Jersey Bell and spent 21 years in the Coast Guard Reserve in Cape May as a first-class boatswain's mate.

When he's in competition, Sheets bench presses five days a week in the training center's cavernous gym. Everyone there recognizes him and spots him on the bench when he needs it.

In 2002, Sheets was flat on his back in an operating room at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, getting his aortic valve replaced. A scars runs down his chest, between the muscles. "They put a cow valve in my heart," he said.

Sheets credits his son-in-law, Tim Shoffler, for getting him started and encouraging him to keep going. Shoffler, 58, said he'd known Sheets since he was 12 and knew that first day on the bench would turn him into a gym rat.

"The first time we took him was tough, but he's a very determined individual," Shoffler said. "He put his time in, and now he spends more time in there than any of us."

Eventually, Sheets began to wonder how he stacked up against other men his age, and found USA Powerlifting. At the Heavy Metal Classic in September, Sheets competed in the bench press.

"I've always been pretty competitive," he said. "I've been in three meets, and won a gold medal every time and set the meet record every time. I can do 200 now."

Sheets said his doctors continue to give him the green light for heavy lifting and he feels better than he has in decades. He's not trying to get every octogenarian into the gym, but wants them to know how good it might make them feel.

"Just because you have a serious operation, it doesn't mean you go back home and live on the couch," he said. "Muscles will deteriorate and go to nothing if you don't use them."

Eliot Feldman, state chair of the Pennsylvania chapter of USA Powerlifting, said the organization has had to add more age groups in recent years as more competitors like Sheets join.

"If you go to a contest of ours and see the older athletes, you see their physiques don't look anywhere near their age," Feldman, 54, said. "They're healthier. They sleep better. They live longer."

Sheets, who competes at 183 pounds, said some of his family members still worry about him pushing himself to bench press more than his body weight

"I'm a little bullheaded," he said. "This is the best shape I've been since the early '70s, though."

narkj@phillynews.com

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