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Worth the Weight : Newhall’s Lence Draws From Reservoir of Perseverance to Make His Mark as Powerlifter and Disney Animator

Times Staff Writer

There are many examples of what Newhall’s Robert Lence calls his “perseverance,” but he likes this one best: When he was a runty high school junior in Forest Hills, N. Y., he vowed to do push-ups every day of his life. That kind of commitment usually lasts about a week with the average procrastinator. Lence has not missed a day in 15 years.

“I once had to do push-ups at 3 a.m. in a Toledo bus station to keep the streak going,” says Lence, who averages 500 push-ups a day, including 150 with either arm. “It’s become like brushing my teeth.”

Lence, 29, attacks life like a toy pit bull--once he latches on to something he wants, he won’t let go. “Talk about consistency and dedication!” says his best friend, former Rams offensive lineman George Lilja. “I’ve always admired that in him.”

Lence, 5 feet, 2 inches, recently won the 114-pound weight class at the California State Powerlifting Championships in San Jose, but he has needed an abundance of perseverance to succeed in sports as well as in his career as an animator for Walt Disney Studios.

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When he was at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s, he decided to go out for varsity wrestling even though he had no experience. “It takes a lot of nerve to even try out,” Michigan wrestling Coach Dale Bahr said. “And it’s even more rare for a walk-on to stick with it.”

Although Lence was second string for most of his college career, he won some matches in the 118-pound weight class and was the only non-scholarship wrestler to letter in 1980, his senior year. “He worked super hard in practice,” Bahr said. “On the mat, he used his strength to his advantage. When he grabbed somebody, it was difficult to get away.”

Lence roomed with Lilja for 3 years at Michigan. They were the odd couple. Lilja, an All-American, was 6-5, 285.

Lence worked on the school paper, the Michigan Daily, as a cartoonist. He did sports illustrations and also had a strip called “Weasel,” patterning one of the characters after Lilja. Although he was an English major, cartooning was his passion--"I came out of the womb drawing,” he says--but his parents tried to discourage him from being an artist. “They said I’d starve,” he recalled.

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After graduating in 1981, he stayed in Ann Arbor for another 3 years, working as a cook. He took classes in art and was encouraged to apply to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. He was rejected, which made him even more determined to get in.

At the same time Lilja, a fourth-round draft choice of the Rams in 1981, was put on waivers and claimed by the New York Jets. Lence agreed to tend to Lilja’s home in Orange, but he first had to make the 2,300-mile trip from Ann Arbor, a task complicated by the fact that he didn’t know how to drive. Lence took driving lessons, bought a ’76 Chevy Chevette and made the journey with $1,000 to his name.

Arriving in the Los Angeles area in August, 1984, he immediately spent $500 to fix his car. He worked at a fast-food restaurant during the day and at his drawing board at night. Every 8 weeks he would reapply to Cal Arts, finally gaining admission in December of that year. Last summer, after his sophomore year, he was selected as an intern in the story department at Disney. The position became permanent in the fall.

Although his co-workers had no idea that the shy, quiet animator was a powerlifter until he brought in his trophy from the California meet, Lence has been training for most of this decade.

“It filled a void in my life after wrestling,” he says. It also fit his physique.

“Being short is an advantage in powerlifting,” he says. “The least amount of distance you have to move a weight, the better off you are.”

Lence was a natural in powerlifting, which requires more brute strength than technique. Early in his career, he was working out with a friend who computed his lifts in the sport’s 3 events--bench press, dead lift and squat--and said to him, “You’d be nationally ranked today.” Lence, who has personal bests of 310 pounds in the squat, 220 in the bench press and 375 in the dead lift, has been ranked as high as 22nd in the world in his weight class.

Although it is acknowledged that steroid use is widespread in weightlifting, Lence says he is drug free. “The thing I’m most proud of is that every lift I’ve ever done is me,” he says. “I’ve never taken anything. . . . Taking steroids would defeat the whole purpose of competing.”

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When he finishes his shift at Disney, Lence spends 4 or 5 hours a night and full weekends on his 4-minute student cartoon, “Simon,” which has been selected for showing by the prestigious Festival of Animation. He doesn’t have time for anything else, except push-ups, of course.

“The first time I walked into the training room at Michigan and saw Rob,” Bahr recalls, “he asked me if I knew the Guinness record for one-armed push-ups. He could do them all day. But that’s him. He’s quite a guy.”


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