Jesse Marunde was hard in preparation to become the "World's Strongest Man" when he died after a workout, and now the Sequim Crew, as well as his family and friends, try to honor his memory.

Share story

SEQUIM — Inside the gym on Hendrickson Road, amid stones that look like boulders and tires the size of couches, heavy men with heavy hearts pay tribute the only way they know how. With heavy lifting.

Heavy metal wails in the background. Bars bend under massive loads. Weights clank and men grunt and shout and try to replace the pain of loss with the physical pain they are so accustomed to.

“Jesse is looking down on us,” says John “Sarge” Allen. “He wouldn’t expect anything less.”

This is the strongman gym that Jesse Marunde built. This is where strongman Jesse Marunde died.

One week later, at his funeral Wednesday here in his adopted hometown, they were still trying to make sense of it. A man so young, only 27, so powerful, so happy, and now gone.

His last workout, July 25, is scribbled on a dry-erase board on the gym wall. Wednesday was always squat day. His friends turned on the video camera. They wanted footage for when Marunde became the World’s Strongest Man.

The plan: eight repetitions, starting at nearly 600 pounds, decreasing in about 90-pound increments, with no rest in between. Followed by flipping a 600-pound tire. Followed by lifting a 265-pound stone and loading it on a bench.

On his first attempt at loading, Marunde missed. “I got this,” he told his friends, the guys he lifted with, strong men dubbed “The Sequim Crew.” Marunde loaded the rock on his second try, and the crew exploded, hooting and hollering and bumping fists. He lay down, like normal, to catch his breath. Sarge grabbed the water bottle, like normal, and when he went to hand it to over, he noticed Marunde was having trouble breathing.

The crew performed CPR, called 911, tried for more than an hour with defibrillators and epinephrine shots to try to bring him back. “And then,” Sarge says, “they called it.” He drove to Marunde’s mother’s house to say her son, his best friend, was dead at 27.

How? That’s what everybody wondered. Family members guessed a heart attack, although autopsy reports won’t be released for about a month.

In the interim, speculation swirls. Marunde pleaded guilty in Montana in 2000 to criminal possession of anabolic steroids Sustanon and Nandrolone decanoate. In a 2003 Pacific Northwest magazine story, Marunde said he purchased the steroids for a friend, but had told detectives they were for personal use so they would charge him with a misdemeanor. He claimed to have never used steroids.

Friends and family didn’t talk about that Wednesday. They gathered at Sequim Community Church to celebrate a life, filling the gym, spilling into the aisles and outside, where speakers were set up.

“What I tell myself,” Sarge says, “is God needed a Strongman.”

That was Jesse Marunde, big and strong and tough. Gigi Marunde describes her son as a young man, like a top, spinning wildly. He could be a handful, like the time when on a school field trip he collected crabs near the ferry and released them on the bus. Or the time he detonated stink bombs on the chamber orchestra in junior high.

Lifting weights became the outlet where he channeled all that energy. Becoming the World’s Strongest Man — not just strong or really strong, but strongest — became his goal.

When Marunde met his lab partner in a physics class, he introduced himself that way. When his father-in-law asked Marunde what he was going to do with his life, he focused those piercing blue eyes and announced, “I’m going to be the World’s Strongest Man.”

The trophies from that pursuit lined a memorial at the service, statues of men holding globes above their heads or carrying them on their backs. Next to the equipment Marunde was using when he died, and the Chuck Taylor sneakers, black with red and yellow flames, he wore for squatting, and the Barbie doll they passed around the gym to those who had less-than-masculine moments while inside.

At the back of the memorial hung a giant picture of the man. Leaning back, mouth open in celebration, hair spiked like a beefy Backstreet Boy, muscles jutting and strutting, abs like slabs of rock, veins bulging.

This is the Jesse Marunde they will remember.

The entertainer who often took the mic at Strongman competitions, flexing and ripping off his shirt and tossing it to the crowd. The host called him the “Ever Effervescent Jesse Marunde.” Crowds sometimes swelled to thousands asking for his autograph.

The son who Chuck Marunde watched grow from a skinny boy into a giant man. Father took thousands of pictures of his son, and each one told the story of his life — “Just go, go, go. One gear, full throttle. He never quit.”

“Jesse was bigger than life,” his father says. “When he walked into a room, people noticed him.”

There was a softer side to Marunde, too, a big heart behind the bulk. He met Nicolette Leigon at the 2005 Mr. Olympia contest. Injured while serving in Iraq, Leigon had spent the year and a half prior in a wheelchair, the six months before that she couldn’t move.

They talked for two hours — “He felt like family,” she says — and Leigon later became a moderator on his Web site, and there she was on Wednesday, squatting in the gym where Jesse died.

Marunde possessed an intuitive ability to relate to people. He trained Kristyn Vytlacil since 2006. The evidence is on her arms, bruises and scrapes from lifting stones she calls “stone rash.” It was Marunde who convinced her to lose 30 pounds and compete as a lightweight, and, “when I win nationals,” she says, “it will be for him.”

So many stories. Only 27 years. The summers spent fishing in Alaska with his grandfather. The friends he could manipulate into anything, even cleaning up the house. The drive for strength that meant he often slept in a borrowed pickup during competitions, that meant he worked out every day anyone can remember save two — the births of his two children. The youngest world qualifier in Strongman history at 22. Making an international name, when he finished second in worlds in China two years ago.

He leaves behind his wife, Callie, a 9-year-old son Dawson and an infant daughter, J.J., born June 10. Shortly after J.J.’s birth, the whole family took a trip to Venice Beach, Calif., where Marunde qualified for the World Strongman Competition. He relaxed on the beach, family all around him, his future all laid out.

Callie clutches the newborn in her arms and says, “This wasn’t in the plans.”

The outpouring of support has been overwhelming. Local restaurants are catering meals to the family. The Web site crashed with so many people logging on, then overflowed with posts. Hundreds attended a vigil the night after Marunde passed last week.

What’s left is a legacy even larger than the man himself. Marunde taught his mother personal training shortly before he died, and Gigi and Callie plan to keep training in the family’s gym. The Sequim Crew? They haven’t missed a workout.

And so they continue in the strongman gym on Hendrickson Road, men with no necks and thick arms, bobbing heads to heavy metal, grunting and shouting the way Marunde would have wanted it.

This is heavy lifting.

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or