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Focus: True North social worker breaks world record

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Gary Hilton
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs

Viborg, Denmark, Nov. 2022.

When Ian Bell, 18th Logistics Readiness Squadron True North social worker arrived in town for the International Powerlifting Federation World Equipped Championships, he focused on spending time with old friends and fellow weightlifting patrons, instead of focusing on the task at hand. 

During the competition, he realized that he wasn’t 100 percent locked in, and knew the lift wasn’t going to go well.

Feeling the pressure of 800 pounds of steel compress your every disk and vertebrae is not the time to be unfocused.

Regardless of his thoughts, he undocked just shy of 900 pounds from a stand-alone rack as a roaring crowd cheered him on.

But with his mind unfocused from the second he touched the bar, the possibility of injury changed from expected to certain. 

As he descended into a squat, the full weight of the bar followed him towards the platform floor. When he stopped at the bottom, it punished his distracted mind and, subsequently, his body.

He felt his vertebra move as the bar dug into muscle and fiber.

He managed to complete the lift through the strain of his body becoming more and more unstable. But after coming out from under the bar and painfully stepping towards the stage’s exit…he collapsed.


San Antonio, Texas, 2002.

Ian’s physical introduction to heavy lifting began at age 12 as he strove to pack on brawny muscle to play middle and high school football and basketball. However, the calling to powerlifting has always been in his DNA.

His father is Gene Bell, retired U.S. Air Force servicemember and powerlifting extraordinaire. During and after his time in service, Gene Bell won the International Powerlifting Federation Open World Championship six times. He has also set more than 20 world records and was inducted into the Air Force Heritage Hall of Fame.

So when Ian Bell decided to play sports…

 “…my father was like ‘all right, let’s go!’,” Ian said. “My dad’s only rule was: whatever I was going to do, I wasn’t allowed to quit.”

When football and basketball began to exit Ian’s life, the Bell family powerlifting heritage remained, igniting his blood-borne drive to success.

“My first big meet was at nationals when I was about 14. There weren’t a lot of other kids that started as early as I did,” Ian said. “I realized that I was good at powerlifting, and my dad agreed that I had the potential to do it.”

As he matured, he became the Sub-Junior (under 18) world champion once, and later, Junior (under 23) world champion three times.

His transformation into a well-trained resiliency expert found its origin during his college years.

Becoming a social worker requires years of dedication to an extensive medical curriculum.


University of Texas, Austin, TX, 2012.

At first, Ian’s ambitions led him to study biology.

“I started in the pre-med route,” Ian said. “Half of the Medical College Admissions test (MCAT) deals with chemistry, so I started studying organic chemistry.”

The MCAT acts as an entrance examination into various medical, engineering and agricultural fields. Despite his enthusiasm, Ian’s pre-medical journey ended during his sophomore year.

“My first semester, I failed my organic chemistry class… miserably; it was the first time I’ve ever failed a class,” Ian said. “It disrupted my vision of being a good student, which then started an identity crisis.

“Then, during my second semester, I failed the class even harder, and my crisis grew.”

Being no stranger to adversity, however, the crushing gravity of failing the MCAT twice couldn’t keep Ian down for long.

That same semester, he started his first psychology class, and from there he fell in love. After that semester, he switched his major from biology to psychology, finishing his degree and beginning his career in social work.

“I settled on social work because of its emphasis on social justice and on seeing people within their social constructs, cultures and family dynamics…not just in a vacuum,” Ian said.

Ian also said he wanted to increase mental health services to black-identified people.

“There’s such a big stigma around mental health and engaging in mental health services in our culture,” Ian said. “I think understanding where people come from is necessary in understanding your and other people’s identity.”

The long road from psych graduate to True North social worker armed Ian with an arsenal of mental health practices.

One year after his catastrophic 2022 meet, he stepped onto a platform again. And this time, he had a lifetime’s worth of physical and psychological rehabilitation backing his warranted deadlift record.


Vilnius, Lithuania, Nov. 2023.

Ian accompanied the sound of fans, friends and family cheering his name with focus, countering fact-based sentences.

Along with physical therapy, he tapped into the practice of cognitive behavioral therapy, which utilizes the practice of thought reconstruction. This includes the practice of replacing one thought with three specific, fact-based counter-thoughts.

“After the injury, I needed to get back to a point where I could walk around, tie my shoes and eventually get back into the gym,” Ian said. “That’s all physical. Mentally…you have to confront fear in doing the exact same thing that nearly took you out.

“The repetition that goes on in training for the competition really helped out with that.”

Ian’s training built an undeniable database of facts that he could use against his fear. When the anxiety of experiencing another injury presented itself, Ian just simply reminded himself the following:

  1. “Okay, I can do this”
  2. “I’ve done it 15-20 times before and haven’t gotten hurt.”
  3. “I won’t get hurt again.”

Ian's iron grip on physical resilience in one hand and mental resilience in the other elevated him further than during the previous meet. He smashed his back squat, with his second lift crushing the scales at 865.3 pounds.

From there, he completed the bench press portion of the competition, with his third lift coming out at a whopping 584.2 pounds (a personal record). All that was left was the true challenge for his body and mind; the deadlift.

Ian knew that the deadlift generally causes more lower and middle back injuries than the back squat, but pressed on. 

Ian completed the first two deadlift attempts with extreme attentiveness, the first lift with 788.2 pounds, and the second with 815.7 pounds.

At this point in the competition, Ian’s only other opponent was Ukrainian powerlifter Sergii Bilyi, a multi-time world champion seeking the first-place spot in the 105-kilogram weight class.

Both Ian and Bilyi performed at the top of their game throughout. Now at the height of the competition, Ian knew it would take the application of his entire rehabilitation tool kit.

“I was being as present as possible, and just locking and keying in with myself,” Ian said. “It’s what you need to max out. There’s a balance between being excited and knowing exactly how I want to execute this lift.”

856.5 pounds of metal laid before Ian’s feet for his final deadlift attempt.

With chalk-caked hands primed for a mixed-gripped position, and a sumo-style stance, he looked for the judge’s command.  

Ian gripped the bar driven by a body-expanding inhale. With one stiff pull, he dragged 856.5 pounds of bar-bending weight up his shins and to the top of the lift, then guided it back down, the weight crashing to the floor.

The officials labeled his lift as “good”.

The IPF Equipped Deadlift World Record for the 105-kilogram weight class now belonged to Ian Bell, beating Bilyi by just over two pounds.

“A lot of competitors celebrate after their lift. For me it was all business; lift, then get off the stage,” Ian said. “But this time, seeing my father celebrating off stage, and coming back after so much adversity, everything flooded over.”

In addition to breaking the record, Ian’s deadlift rewarded him with his first open title – an achievement he’s dreamt of since he was a child.

“It was a sense of fulfillment that I’ve never felt before,” Ian said.

Now at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Ian has spent the past few months lifting heavy at the local fitness facilities, while also performing his duties as a social worker by holding regular counseling sessions and resiliency seminars for base-wide personnel.

Ian’s duties as a True North social worker include counseling uniformed unit members, promoting positive help-seeking cultures, teaching resilience skills and acting as a guide to helping members get the elevated care they need.

“The tough things aren’t tough forever, and they get easier because you get stronger,” Ian said. “You don’t have to acquiesce when you’re going through tough times. You can strive through adversity. Even when it’s hard.”