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Ken Leistner dies; well-known strength coach and powerlifter was 71

Ken Leistner in 2003 lifting weights, a sport

Ken Leistner in 2003 lifting weights, a sport he began as a teen. He went on to become a champion powerlifter. Credit: Newsday/Dan Goodrich

Compassion and generosity, integrity and determination — by exemplifying and teaching these qualities, Ken Leistner showed countless students and clients the stars were not out of reach.

The internationally known, pioneering strength coach, champion powerlifter, chiropractor, consultant to half a dozen NFL teams and author from East Rockaway taught that success springs from truly working hard. And that was far from the sole lesson he instilled. 

“So many people came back to me and said, ‘I remember what he said, and it changed my life,’ ” said his widow, Kathy Leistner. “He was always a coach, he was always teaching life skills.”

Ken Leistner, whose many clients included Long Island Marathon wheelchair champion Peter Hawkins, died unexpectedly on April 6. He was 71.

His generosity turned students, clients and athletes from strangers into friends for life.

“He always knew when someone was down and needed that help,” Kathy Leistner said. “He would go to the grocery stores and buy food, give them money for a coat or give them a pair of shoes.” 

A Lawrence High School graduate who began lifting weights as a teen, Leistner played football for the University of Cincinnati before earning a bachelor’s degree from Hofstra University in 1970 and a master's of science in education in 1972. The special education teacher and longtime football coach at Malverne High School became a chiropractor in 1980 to better aid his trainees, Kathy Leistner said.

At his Manhattan office, his clients included Frank Zappa, movie stars, models and athletes. With his wife, also a powerlifter, Leistner founded the Iron Island Gym in Oceanside in 1992; selling it six years later, Leistner worked out of their home.

It was through writing hundreds of articles on powerlifting that he met his future wife. She read his columns; he knew of her as a weightlifter. Introduced by an editor, “He told me he was going to marry me,” Kathy Leistner recalled. “I said I had a boyfriend, and he said, ‘Get rid of him’ — and I did.” The couple were married just under four decades.

A few of Leistner's career highlights include working for Arthur Jones, who created Nautilus strength training machines, researching historic helmets and leading the advisory board for the nonprofit Lakeview Youth Federation. 

At Malverne, Ken Leistner was one of the coaches who led the team to an undefeated record in 1990, winning the Nassau County Conference IV championship, and the Rutgers Cup as Nassau's most outstanding team. 

“He was a very fair coach, he worked to make sure everyone got an equal chance to play — and nobody sat on the bench," his wife said.

Foster son Kevin Tolbert, a 1981 football-playing Naval Academy graduate, recalled Leistner telling him: “Kevin, if you work hard, your dreams could be realized.”

“For him, to go out of his way to help a nobody kid turn his life around — it's something,”  Tolbert said. “And I mean, he was like a father to me.”

“I’m a strength coach and have a career and put food on the table largely because of him,” Tolbert said.

Derrick Adkins from Malverne, 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the hurdles, also embraced Leistner's tough, vital lessons. “I knew that as an athlete, I had to push myself to higher limits. That's not very comfortable, pushing through major fatigue,” Adkins said. “When you felt like giving up, he would push you to keep going and that did a lot for my mind.”

He added: “The work ethic that he instilled in me has been carried with me until today.”

In addition to his wife and Tolbert, Leistner is survived by his sons Gregory Roman of Woodbine, Maryland, and Sol E. Leistner of Atlantic Beach; daughter Bari Ann Leistner of East Rockaway; brother Barry Leistner of Manhattan; and six grandchildren.

A funeral Mass was offered on April 13 at Our Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in Freeport. He was buried at Pinelawn Memorial Park.

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