Mike Gillette breaks arrows against his throat, bends iron bars in two and lets people standing on ladders drop bowling balls on his stomach while he lies on broken glass.
Where most people would be asking, “Why?” he asks “Why not?” A professional strong man from Cedar Rapids, fifty-one-year-old Gillette says mastering feats of strength isn’t a matter of muscles as much as of will power.
“There’s the training side and the X-Factor side. I’m very good at the X-Factor side,” he says. “It has more to do with what I’m willing to do than what I’m physically capable of doing.”
Gillette recently demonstrated how much he is willing to do for truTV’s “Guinness World Records: Unleashed.” He will be featured on a Feb. 13 episode, attempting to break the world record for the most arrows broken against the throat in sixty seconds. Though the episode has already been filmed, he’s not allowed to tell anyone yet if his attempt was successful.
He demonstrates the stunt, first offering a thin wooden arrow for examination. The point is blunt, but it is still a point. An assistant braces the arrow against a board, point out, level with the soft flesh at the base of Gillette’s throat. After taking several deep, bracing breaths, Gillette walks forward deliberately, straight into the arrow. It strains against his neck, starts to bend and finally snaps into three pieces.
The process looks painful, but that’s Gillette’s point - he’s willing to withstand pain to accomplish things others cringe at. Things like letting other people break 2X4s against his back. Or rolling frying pans into tight spirals with his bare hands.
“It’s potentially terrifying enough you’ll sit quietly until we can establish some rapport,” he says.
A motivational speaker, he gives talks at schools, churches and youth groups, where he pairs his feats of strength with a message of positivity and overcoming the seemingly impossible.
He says he grew up in a broken, dysfunctional home. He wants to reach out to kids, especially those from backgrounds similar to his.
“I was them,” he says. “I felt small, weak, not in control. They can hear from someone who was them but was still able to break out of those confines.”
He also feels driven to keep training, to keep trying new and stranger feats.
“I have to. I can’t stop being me,” he says. “I have to keep finding new ways to challenge myself.”
He has a background with the army, police and private security - he’s been a bodyguard to the very rich and famous, though he won’t reveal to whom. He came to the strong man experience later in life. Something about watching people achieve unbelievable stunts appealed to him, and he decided he wanted to be part of that world.
“I had been aware of this universe of people who do extraordinary things,” he says. “To me it was exotic.”
Faith is also a motivator. Though he leaves God out of his presentations at schools, he said faith is what drives him to share his message of overcoming the odds. He said it's what helped him overcome his own obstacles - long before those obstacles included steel bars - to become the person he is today.
“Where you are is not where you have to be,” he said. “The objective lesson of these stunts is to blow apart people’s perceptions of what impossible is.”