To those standing in his corner, Grant Higa is larger than life.
The Maple Valley native and professional strongman is only 5-foot-8 in a field of towering competitors. But Higa isn’t fazed by the opposition — as long as his family joins him on the sidelines.
“The best feeling in the world is hearing my wife and daughter cheering me on. It’s the greatest,” said Higa, who competes in the heavyweight division.
The 37-year-old Higa, a native of Hawaii who moved to Oregon in 1995 before settling in Washington three years later, is one of just two professional strongmen in the state. After his first Strongman competition in 1998, he has competed in a number of events around the world in a sport that demands a high level of athleticism and strength.
“I’m going to go out there and do the best I can do to my ability. Even if I’m one of the shortest guys in the U.S., I’m going to go over there and bring it,” Higa said.
Higa concedes that he couldn’t flip a 900-pound tire or pull a semi-truck without support from wife Michelle and 4-year-old daughter Kaiea.
But much of his preparation is done while wife and daughter are sound asleep.
Higa, who works as a personal trainer for Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., is up at 5 a.m. daily. Then, he gets right to it in the family garage, which he has transformed into a workout center.
“The discipline of getting in the workout without interfering with my family’s time is important to me,” says the 298-pound Higa, who still holds the state squat record of 810 pounds. “I can come downstairs while they’re still sleeping, get my workout in, and still be able to be a father (and) a husband. And if I travel, I try to take them with me.”
In a sport that definitely doesn’t pay at the levels of other professional sports, that opportunity to travel is something that Higa considers a blessing. He has competed in Russia and Japan, where he took Kaiea when she was just eight months old for an exhibition.
“We enjoy (traveling) as a family, having them see the same things I see,” Higa said. “How often can you say you took your little one to Japan?
“Most of us in America, we’re just average guys,” noted Higa, who’ll compete in the Quebec Cup in Victoriaville, Quebec, today and tomorrow. “We have jobs and we have families, and we try to fit (Strongman) into our lives.”
Suffice to say that Higa is fully aware that his passion, which he considers a hobby, doesn’t exactly pay the bills.
Wife Michelle put that much in perspective.
“She set me straight one day,” Higa said. “She told me, ‘Nobody is going to get rich off of Strongman.’ ”
That being the case, there are plenty of benefits to having someone around with the strength of Grant Higa.
“I love watching Strongman, whether Grant is competing or not,” Michelle Higa said. “It’s pretty crazy to see him lift something that should have a hazard or warning label on it.”
Higa’s clients aren’t training to become strongmen anytime soon. But they look to him for a healthy workout during a break from the daily grind, and, says Higa, are very supportive of his pursuits in the sport, some of them having even attended a few of his contests.
But it is Grant’s family who have provided Maple Valley’s fireplug of a man with inspiration to compete.
Kaiea Higa is now 4 years old and has embraced her father as a Strongman for as long as she can remember, having been surrounded by the culture of Grant working out at home and training with his fellow competitors.
Kaiea has displayed hints of inheriting her father’s strength as well, even at the age of 3. Although Grant was enthralled, he would like Kaiea to stick to school and SpongeBob for now.
“My daughter’s grown up with me in the gym, so she’s pretty athletic herself and strong,” Higa said. “I remember one time she was just under 3 years old and picked up one of my 25-pound plates and said, ‘Hey Poppa, look at this.’”
Grant and Michelle have been married since 2000 and will celebrate their wedding anniversary next month. Michelle gave birth to Kalani, the couple’s second daughter, earlier this month.
“It takes a lot of discipline to train for contests, and was easier for (Grant) when we didn’t have kids,” admitted Michelle. “But he continues to amaze me that he can balance it all.”
Michelle sees to it that Grant simply enjoys the sport and doesn’t get caught up in prize money, wins or losses.
“She’ll make sure that I’m having fun doing what I do,” Higa said. “My wife doesn’t pull any slack on me, and I love that because she sets me straight.”
There’s no doubt Higa’s family has been the support system for his pursuits in work and Strongman competitions. But there was a time Grant thought he never would be participating in this style of weightlifting.
When Higa lived in Oregon, a friend from Hawaii invited him to compete in a Strongman contest in Honolulu. Higa originally thought the event would only draw local prospects until he saw professionals Magnús Ver Magnússon and Mark Philippe.
At that point, Higa thought he could be in over his head.
He competed anyway, and was hooked.
Higa returned to Honolulu in 2006 to take secnd place in “Hawaii’s Strongest Man” competition, the best performance of his career.
Higa continues to broaden his influence in the sport by organizing competitions in the Northwest. He and Michelle have spearheaded four events, three of which took place at Oregon State University, Michelle’s alma mater. They prepared the “Oregon’s Strongest Beaver” contest for the school’s “Dad’s Weekend” festivities in 2002, 2003 and 2005.
The most recent event they organized was on June 7 at the Des Moines Marina parking lot. It featured 40 competitors battling in the “Washington’s Strongest Apple” competition. It was a success for Higa, and it will return to the marina next summer.
But when the day is done, the weights are idle and the lights are turned off, Higa doesn’t forget what really counts.
“I know at the end, no matter what I place, I’ve still got my family to come home to. I still have my job. And that’s all that matters.”