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Uplifting example: Man's mission to match courage of service personnel

By TONY REID - H&R Staff Writer

DECATUR - The military made Daniel Conner an offer he couldn't refuse.

So the 33-year-old Decatur muscleman signed up for a six-year stint with the Illinois National Guard as an infantryman. The recruiters told him all that stuff about the GI Bill and then, icing on the cake, also mentioned he could find himself serving up front in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Conner's thick, flamboyantly tattooed forearm raced across the page as he signed on the dotted line.

"People say to me, 'Who's your hero?' And they expect me to name weightlifters or something," he says. "But my heroes are these kids who have the courage to join the military and go overseas to fight for their country. My next challenge is to prove that I can do that, too. I'm ready to go."

Calling his fellow soldiers "kids" isn't surprising. He'll be pushing 40 by the time his six years are up, and maybe he will serve alongside comrades half his age. But, physically, it's going to be the kids that have trouble keeping up with the stamina of this 5-foot-6-inch, 200-pound pocket Samson.

Looking like he was built by the same firm that did Stonehenge, he's been obsessed with sculpting muscle since he was 18. Conner hardened himself with martial arts and wrestling competition before towing cars around with his body as training for strongman-type competitions. In 2001, he won a strongman event in Southern Illinois, beating out 15 competitors.

Then he switched to weightlifting, doing most of his practice in a garage gym the trained welder fused together himself. He raised a storm of controversy laying claim to achieving some lifts other lifters found hard to believe, but says he nailed a more than 1,000-pound squat lift at an American Powerlifting Federation event earlier this year in front of witnesses.

"That shut up some naysayers," he said.

It shut Conner up for a moment, too, as he fainted dead away afterwards. He blamed a too-tight lifting suit (special clothes lifters wear to protect their bodies) and pulled out of the competition. Now, he says he has made-to-measure gear, supplied by sponsors such as Titan Supports and APT Pro Wriststraps. A firm called Trionix feeds him the vitamins, amino acids and protein he gulps down to rebuild the muscles lifting rips up.

"I don't touch steroids," he says. "But I love to lift. I was born to do it."

And now he is going to lift a gun for Uncle Sam, a prospect that worries his three children, 12, 10 and 7, from a previous marriage, and his new wife, Katrina, who took a year of convincing before she let him sign with the National Guard. "I know that he needs to do this," adds Katrina, 23. "And I decided I didn't want him to resent me later in life for not letting him live out his dreams."

Her husband is to report to Fort Benning, Ga., in November for basic training but won't be taking it easy in the meantime. For one last hurrah, he plans to take part in a "mixed martial arts" tournament in either Indiana or Missouri - probably Missouri in October - where opponents use kicks, strikes and wrestling techniques in fast and furious full-contact competition.

Conner used to do this stuff back in the 1990s but feels he got out of it before reaching his full, bloody potential. So, before the National Guard enfolds him in its camouflaged embrace, it's back to the caged ring to settle a few old scores.

"It's a chapter in my life I left open," he says. "I still got some things to prove."

Tony Reid can be reached at treid@herald-review.com or 421-7977.

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