A few times a week, like probably millions of other Americans, Dave Sturzen cracks open a beer, pours it into his favorite glass and marches from the kitchen to the living room to flip on the TV.
Before he sits, his hand grips the handle of the weighty German-style stein brimming with more than 32 ounces of his chosen brew and he raises his bulging right arm confidently in front of his chest. Then he holds it there.
And holds it.
And holds it.
And holds it.
It’s at about the four-minute mark that the pain sets in. When it does, his mind begins what will be a grueling battle with each of his sizzling pain receptors, one side begging his arm to quiver and tilt a drop of precious drink onto the floor and the other grasping to reach his “happy place.” It will only get tougher from here, but there’s a long way to go. So he holds the position.
And holds it.
And holds it.
And holds it.
Three young kids are milling about the house, oblivious or at least conditioned to their burly father’s odd habit of standing nearly frozen for longer than you would think as the minutes keep ticking by. Occasionally they will pop in like tiny judges, warning him to keep his arm up and correcting his form.
One year at an Oktoberfest in Whitefish, one of them stood in front of their dad with a cup filled with water, matching him minute-for-minute and protesting, earnestly, when the youngster wasn’t declared the winner even as his arm stayed up when dad’s stein was lowered.
In the present, Sturzen’s stein is still up as four minutes rolls over to five minutes, and 10 minutes, and 15 minutes, and 20 minutes.
Larger, stronger and meaner men than Sturzen have tried — heck, some have even cheated — but they’ve never outlasted him. Not even Kevin Collom, the once undisputed king of steinholding in Northwest Montana who’s beat back rivals from coast to coast and represented the Flathead Valley in Central Park, the biggest stage of them all. They can’t beat Dave Sturzen, in part, because he puts in all the days like this. He’s still here, holding his position.
The U.S. steinholding record is 21 minutes and 17 seconds, set at the 2018 Lenny Coyne Memorial Hofbräu National Masskrugstemmen Championships in New York’s Central Park. It’s the ultimate competition for steinholders like Sturzen, men and women who aspire to emerge victorious and earn an all-expenses-paid trip to Germany’s legendary Oktoberfest courtesy of Hofbräu, the Munich-based brewery that traces its lineage back to the 16th century.
Sturzen says he has bested the record several times. Not in official competition, most of which was wiped out in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, but during these home training sessions and in a video he submitted to the U.S. Steinholding Association late last year that earned him the organization’s national championship. He got there by targeting 22 minutes and arriving there in chunks at first, holding for maybe 10 minutes, dropping his arm briefly, re-raising for another four or five, and so on, until the whole series totaled 22. Eventually the segments got longer until he hit 22, and then he kept going. Holding it longer and longer and longer.
Inevitably, Sturzen’s body bests his brain. He locks his knees while he’s holding his stein, and when he finally does relent, every fiber of his being releases like the air whooshing from a punctured balloon. He nearly passed out once when he hit 28 minutes in training, beyond exhausted from head to toe. His shoulder, of course, but his abs, his legs, his back, everything is sore. It’s an arduous workout, 20-plus intense minutes of disciplined concentration and poise. The glass now lowered, his mind returns to the room, his wife and kids, the TV and, in his hand, the beer, still there, not a single dropped spilled, just begging him to take a sip.
Steinholding as a sport is silly, sure, but aren’t they all? Who decided kicking a ball around a field, or smacking one over a net, or crashing into each other wearing full-body armor was more worthy of adulation than what guys like Sturzen and Collom do? And besides, how many other sports do you get to play with beer?
(Yes, there is a World Series of Beer Pong, but that’s a story for another day).
Collom, a 57-year-old Whitefish plasterer who trains with a stein full of loose nuts and bolts topped with a few glugs of motor oil, is as close to a celebrity as can possibly exist in Northwest Montana steinholding. He and his wife, Jamee Cole, were at Whitefish’s Oktoberfest years ago when Cole convinced her partner to get up on stage and give steinholding a shot. Heck, she thought, he was built for this. His work, after all, consists mainly of holding his arm in a position much like you would to hold a stein.
“We were just at the festival and we see they’re going to have this contest, and are you kidding me? You can totally win this,” she told him. “And he was like, ‘OK, I’ll try.”
“Then once he won, that was it. There was no stopping him.”
The first Great Northwest Oktoberfest was in 2010, and one constant through the years had been Collom. Every year he went, and every year he won. For the first several years that was it, but a few years ago the event organizers at the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce inked a deal with Hofbräu to supply authentic German beer and a promise that the winner of the annual steinholding competition would earn a qualifying spot in the Las Vegas Hofbräuhaus Regionals.
In 2016, Collom won in Whitefish, of course, and he and Jamee earned a free trip to Vegas for a long weekend. There, he won again, earning a spot in the national championships in New York City, a spectacle held in Central Park in front of thousands of spectators and featuring the country’s foremost steinholders, including former champions and members of what Collom called the Texas dynasty. Pardon, the Texas “stein-asty.”
Still, Collom held his own in the Big Apple. He won four straight regional titles in Las Vegas and finished fifth or better every year in New York, including third-place finishes in 2017 and 2018. In September 2019, Collom was fifth in New York. One month later, at the Great Northwest Oktoberfest, he arrived to defend his title yet again, then sweep through Vegas the following August and give New York City another go.
But little did he know what was waiting in Whitefish this time around.
Sturzen, who wears his German heritage proudly, had been attending Oktoberfest for years. He and his brother won the log-sawing competition three years in a row before he decided to give steinholding a try and quickly discovered a knack for it, winning competitions during the first week of the festival and earning spots in the finals. But he never went back. He knew of Kevin Collom and knew certain defeat awaited him there.
Finally, in 2019, he threw caution to the wind.
“I was like, you know what, I’m going to go to finals and I’m going to shoot for second place,” Sturzen recalled. “I told my kids, ‘Dad’s shooting for second place. I can’t beat Kevin, but I want to just get up there and see how long I can go.’”
That’s when the unthinkable happened. A drop of beer from Collom’s stein hit the ground, and that was it. The reign of King Collum had come to a sudden end.
“I was very shocked,” Kevin Gartland, the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce’s executive director and Oktoberfest’s enthusiastic master of ceremonies, said. “When you’ve never seen someone lose, you can’t imagine what it’s like.”
“Oh, heck yeah, I was terribly disappointed in myself,” Collom said when asked about that night. “I was disappointed but I had to keep telling myself, and I’ve told this to (U.S. Steinholding Association Commissioner) Jim Banko and the boys down in Texas, that somebody from Montana’s taking New York City. I want it to be me but I don’t really care anymore — somebody from Montana’s going to take New York City. If it’s David, dammit, it’s David.”
Immediately after his stunning loss, two things happened. Collom thanked Sturzen for letting him finally get the years’ overdue operation to repair the torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder — Collom pledged not to do it until his streak was broken — and Sturzen began picking Collom’s brain. The 36-year-old X-ray technician still had much to learn.
“Kevin cheered me on and took me under his wing,” Sturzen said. “He was like my Master Yoda (and) taught me the ways of the steinholder.”
Collom worked on Sturzen’s form — feet parallel and pointed forward, back straight, arm directly out in front — to ensure he wouldn’t be disqualified in Las Vegas or New York, and offered a window into his own training. The young Jedi honed his mind as well, learning to focus to block out the pain and find a happy place.
When he’s training or competing, Collom is meditating, focusing on a single point in the distance at eye level. At home, he’s cycling through a couple favorites from the catalog of erstwhile Canadian rockers The Tragically Hip to measure time.
“I know if I get through ‘New Orleans is Sinking’ three times, it’s 12 minutes and some odd seconds,” Collom said, adding that sometimes “Blow at High Dough” gets the nod. And for the record, three spins through “New Orleans is Sinking” is 12 minutes and 51 seconds, a time that would have been good enough to win the 2019 New York City title.
There was, unsurprisingly, no 2020 event in New York. COVID-19 first canceled the regionals in Las Vegas, then the nationals as well. So newly crowned Whitefish champ Dave Sturzen won no free trip, had no chance on the big stage in Central Park, and no shot to win that trip to Germany that eluded Collom. Sturzen trained anyway, every two to three days with his stein in front of his television, and found virtual contests to enter. He won them all, and when the U.S. Steinholding Association announced it was seeking video submissions to crown a national champion remotely, Sturzen sprang into action.
In an 18-minute video posted on Nov. 14 on its Facebook page, the association broadcast the contest, and when Sturzen’s submission is announced he’s introduced as “the protégé of the great Kevin Collom.” As the video plays, the commentators call Sturzen “something special to watch,” “a force of nature” and “a machine.” He stands stoic for several minutes, even as his cat circles his feet in a futile effort to get his attention. Banko, the association’s commissioner and the 2015 national champion, said a “couple dozen” people entered the virtual contest.
“If we were able to be there to certify his time, he probably would have set a new national record,” Banko said in an interview with the Beacon. “David stood out for sure.”
As the clock keeps ticking, Sturzen is clearly in distress. His 280-pound frame leans and shakes, and he exhales sharply and twists his head as if to hide his eyes from the cruel reality weighing on his arm. But he holds. And holds. And holds.
And then, all at once, he pulls the stein to his belly, takes one more deep breath, and walks to the camera. A commentator applauds and Sturzen is announced as a national champion.
Sturzen’s victory in Whitefish in 2019 has earned him a spot in the 2021 regional and national competitions, provided they are safe to hold this fall, and he and his wife Jessica are going in with lofty hopes and expectations.
“He would like to win New York and he would like to break the record and then, of course, go to Germany,” she said. “The Germany trip’s going to be a fun trip.”
And the fun, should it happen, has been hard earned. A reward won through hours upon hours of practice and, Jessica said, at one particularly significant cost.
“We’ve gone through a lot of beer.”
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