Freak accident, kinesiology course keep history professor pushing himself to excel in competitions and classroom.
By Matthew Cuevas
One second is all it took. Taking his eyes off of the massive bull for a split second was the last thing history Professor Mike Settles remembered.
When he woke up, his brother who helps Settles out at his ranch in Jourdanton, was crouched over him.
“I had this bull in (the pen), and where two gates come together, there’s a pin that goes and connects the two so (the bull) can’t get out,” Settles said. “And I just took my eye off him for an instant to look down at that pin, and I mean just at that instant, he hit that (gate) and just slammed me up against the back wall of the pen.”
The bull hit the gate with such force it struck Settles on the left side of his chest and knocked him unconscious, breaking his scapula. Outside of a major automobile accident, a broken scapula is uncommon, but Settles knows things could have been much worse.
“If that gate had hit me right in the head like that, I’d be dead,” Settles said.
The accident in 2008 left Settles with a new perspective on life and a realization that things can be taken away in a hurry.
The injury did not keep him from continuing to teach history at this college, which he began doing in 1970 after discovering a love of learning as a student here. He later earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, a master’s from Trinity University and a doctorate from Texas Christian University.
But the accident did back-burner one of his major passions — powerlifting.
Settles had won his first state powerlifting competition in bench press in Corpus Christi only nine days earlier.
He was unable to lift for an entire year, and even then, he was unsure if he’d ever be able to compete at the same level.
He eventually was able to heft his way back to his competitive level through hard work and determination and competing at smaller local meets. Settles always had been active, playing in a city softball league or working on his ranch. But he found something that sent his competitive juices flowing in about 1995.
That is when he met retired kinesiology Professor Ron Culpepper, who taught a class that would change Settles’ life.
The class in advanced weight training was so addictive for Settles he took it three times a year for 17 years — 51 times in all.
Along the way, he and Culpepper struck up a friendship that continued through Culpepper’s retirement and move to South Carolina. The more success Settles had in Culpepper’s class, the more he began to enjoy powerlifting and decided to look up records.
“I was curious what the (bench press) records were for my age and weight, and when I looked them up, I said, ‘Well, hell, I can do that,’” Settles said.
The enthusiasm Settles has for powerlifting also stems from a comment his daughter made to him a few years back.
“My daughter is an occupational therapist, and she told me, ‘Dad, as you get older you’re going to get weaker. Every decade after you turn 30, you’re going to lose 15 percent of your strength,’” Settles said.
“Well, I knew that I would not be as fast or as quick, but I was determined that I could stay as strong,” he said. “I felt like that was something I could control.”
The first competitive powerlifting meet Settles entered was in 2007 at Brooks City Base. He said he didn’t even know the rules.
The rules for a successful bench press at a sanctioned powerlifting meet are: Your head must stay on the bench during your attempt, your feet cannot move, your butt cannot come off of the bench, the bar must touch your chest, and once you begin your press the bar can only move upward.
He cleared his goal of 264 pounds but was disqualified for lifting his head. Settles learned quickly. He hasn’t lost a meet since.
Things changed last year when the USA Powerlifting National meet was held in San Antonio. Settles won, automatically qualifying him to compete in the world powerlifting meet for his age group (70-74) and weight (183 pounds), which came with a spot on the U.S. National Powerlifting Team.
It was an accomplishment he wasn’t sure he wanted.
“I never took it all that seriously,” he said. “But after I won the state championship, I wasn’t going to travel anywhere to do a national championship, or anything bigger than that. You know, it was no big deal. I just won the national because it was here in San Antonio and I didn’t have to travel for it,” Settles said.
“But by winning (nationals), and I didn’t know this, but by winning, it qualified me to be on the United States team for the worlds,” he said referring to the world meet.
It was an offer Settles was ready to turn down until it turned out he wouldn’t have to travel far.
“By pure chance, the world championships were in Denver so I didn’t have to travel to Europe, or Eastern Europe, or South Africa or any place like that. So I said, ‘Yeah I can do that,’” Settles said. So at the 2014 World Powerlifting Championship in Denver, Settles competed in his first international competition and won easily with a lift of 300 pounds.
He wasn’t happy with his showing.
Unable to break the world record because of pressure from his coaches to just clear weight that would win his age group for the betterment of the team, Settles left Denver unsatisfied.
So now Settles has April 2016 circled on his calendar. That’s when the next world championship will take place, this time in Rodby, Denmark. There he hopes to break the world record for his age group, 344 pounds.
Settles had to again qualify for the world meet by winning the national meet in Scranton, Pa., in August. He broke his own record at national competition with a lift of 298 pounds.
With goals he still wants to achieve in a sport he loves, Settles isn’t sure if he will slow down any time soon.
“I really don’t know the answer to that. I mean, assuming that I’ll break the world record, I’ve got no more targets to shoot at,” he said.
He continues to work out at Olympic Gym, 8611 N. New Braunfels Ave., three times a week. His coach, Gene Bell, a former world champion in powerlifting, has Settles go through a routine of bench pressing while increasing the weight with every set.
Whether he continues powerlifting competitions, he will continue to approach teaching with the same intensity that sets him apart in the weight room — the intensity heightened by the swing of a gate seven years ago.
“That’s how I am with my teaching,” Settles said. “My class is really, really hard, and I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the kids who just show up and don’t give a damn. But if I’ve got a kid that wants to learn and wants to work hard, man, I’m going to help them out all I can.”