Jan. 30, 2004, 4:28AM

Powerlifter Kline sets bar higher despite medical setbacks

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

He set four world powerlifting records and has his cardiologist on speed dial.

He can bench-press 290 pounds and squat-lift 560, but 20 percent of his heart is damaged.

But even after two heart attacks that had him in and out of intensive care for five years, Brian Kline, 54, does not plan on slowing down. Instead, he wants to send a message to the world.

"People have to know that they can't give up," the Missouri City resident said. "When you have something that you've put your entire life into, you have to hold on to that.

"So I go out and set world records. And that's my goal, but my joy comes from lifting -- from doing what I love every day."

But the world records came after his heart attacks.

Kline's national reputation as one of the elite powerlifters came after his breastbone was sawed in half and a quadruple bypass was performed. And more importantly, the success came despite lingering thoughts that he might not have what it takes to continue in the sport he loves.

Still, every day he's out there. Kline, a personal trainer by profession, does not hesitate to share his near-death experience with his clients -- if for no other reason than to insert a little perspective into their lives.

Stressful environment

It was early October 1993. Kline, a native of Allentown, Pa., was working as a computer contractor in the Houston area. He had been having chest pains on and off for two years, but he figured those come with a stressful job.

Kline always had enjoyed weightlifting and had made a name for himself as a top powerlifter, winning regional meets in Pennsylvania and in Texas after moving here in 1984.

But other areas of his life had priority, and he was beginning to feel their effects.

Kline's parents and his grandmother had suffered heart attacks, so he was careful to make frequent visits to the cardiologist. But because of the stress of his job, the chest pains became frequent and intense.

Kline knew something was wrong. He went to the emergency room at Memorial Hermann Hospital Southwest, where he was being treated for a hernia by doctors when he got the shock of his life: tests revealed Kline had had a heart attack.

Doctors found one artery with 90 percent blockage and another blocked.Brian Kline

"I would have died that day,"Kline said. "But they got it just in time."

Dr. John Rea, a vascular surgeon who had performed heart surgery on Kline's parents and grandmother, operated on Kline on Oct. 26, 1993, to remove the blockage.

"I told him after the surgery, `I'm going to set world records now,' " Kline said.

Instead, two weeks later Kline suffered another heart attack while walking at Sharpstown Mall. Scar tissue from the surgery caused a blood clot to clog one of his arteries. More tests revealed 20 percent of Kline's heart was damaged.

"It was a blow, " he said. "I mean, here I had gone from lifting 525 pounds to barely being able to move a finger. I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but I knew I didn't want to give up what I loved."

Slow climb back

Kline spent the next five years lifting and exercising, trying to get back to the ability level he had reached before his heart attacks. At times, the workouts seemed useless. Once, while doing light reps in the gym, Kline felt his unhealed breastbone, wired together to expedite healing, snap.

The pain resembled that of his first heart attack.

He knew he had to slow down and concentrate on getting well.

"When he first started back, Brian was really self-defeating," said Tom McCullough, Kline's workout partner for two years. "He was trying really hard to get back into it, but he wasn't where he used to be weight-wise, so that was hard for him."

Weightlifting has been a lifelong love for Kline, who started working with weights as a 12-year-old at the YMCA. His slight, 100-pound frame was just what school bullies loved to target, so a teacher encouraged him to start working out.

After a four-year weightlifting hiatus during his service in the Air Force in 1968, Kline fell in love with powerlifting and its techniques and began entering every competition he could.

"It was a release for me," he said. "What started as a way for me to get bigger and stronger quickly moved into something I could compete in and was great at."

World record in 2003

On Dec. 6, Kline stepped out onto the platform at the American Powerlifting Association Patriot Open in Houston and made his world-record squat lift of 540 pounds in the men's 198-pound category. Minutes later, he broke his record, squat-lifting 560 pounds. Kline's total weight of 1,445 pounds in the three competitive lifts -- squat, bench press and deadlift -- also was a world record.

"It's always this thrill, stepping out there and knowing you got it," Kline said. "I'm setting world records. It took me 10 years to get here, but I'm here."

Kline was not a stranger to the national or world powerlifting scene. In 1981 and '82, he coached the Division II Kutztown State powerlifting team to consecutive national titles. Watching his athletes succeed was almost as thrilling as doing it himself, especially considering what his young weightlifters had to go through to get there.

Kutztown State had $200 budgeted for its powerlifting team. So Kline and company set out to raise money to compete for national championships. Bake sales and fund-raisers earned just enough to pay the team's way, and for those two years the tiny state school was on top -- beating teams such as Penn State, Texas A&M and Auburn.

Still, Kline admits he wouldn't be a success if not for the encouragement he receives every day. His two children -- Bonnie, 8, and David, 4 -- are an inspiration. And McCullough offers the support Kline says he can't win without.

"As we got him back to setting records and really pumping it, he became the person everyone knew he could be," said McCullough, the football and powerlifting coach at Paul Revere Middle School. "I have this coach's spirit in me, and I knew I could open his eyes to what he was capable of if I just pushed."

Paul Revere's ride

Kline and McCullough work out at Paul Revere every day. Sometimes they quietly train, just enjoying each other's company. Other days, the weight room becomes rowdy as they push each other to work harder.

"It's a pleasure to work with him," McCullough said. "Now I see him as such a success. Now he comes in and helps with the kids, and he's such an inspiration to them. We all feed off each other. It's great."

On April 3, Kline will get another chance to show his friend and the world how inspiring he can be. At the APA Tri-State Open, Kline plans on reaching his goal of holding world records in all three lift categories.

"I get philosophical here," Kline said. "I like to equate lifting to life. You have these goals, short term and long term. And there are ups and downs. Sometimes you reach your goals -- setting world titles. Sometimes bad things happen that throw you off course.

"But the key is, you have to get back on track. Otherwise, you won't win. And that's what is important."

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