On a drizzly Sunday in Los Angeles about 200 spectators and 75 weight lifters showed up at the Los Angeles Police Academy auditorium near Chavez Ravine for a men's junior AAU power lifting contest. The meet attracted competitors of various ages, sizes and configurations. There were skinny youths in the 114-pound class who seemed to have bought their tight-fitting T shirts at a children's store. There were men, gray-haired and balding, who were clad in candy-striped trunks resembling Gay Nineties bathing suits. There were 300-pound superheavyweights, standing like redwoods, who wore wide leather belts around their ponderous stomachs. There were bodybuilders, less beefy and more defined, who were chiefly concerned with their abdominal muscles, which they examined by lifting the hems of their T shirts when passing a window. There were also two women. They were appearing only in an exhibition, although both Natalie Kahn and Cyndy Groffman had previously competed in power lifting contests against men as well as women.
Natalie Kahn, a 25-year-old student from Fresno, Calif. who stands 5'3" and weighs 122 pounds, wore a lifting suit, mascara and frosted lipstick. Cyndy Groffman, 5'6" and 140 pounds, wore a red-white-and-blue diagonally striped leotard and dangling earrings. Both lifted in a parody of men's styles. Natalie worried the weights, approaching the barbell for her dead lift as if it were a sleeping animal. She circled it, backed off, rubbed chalk on her hands, faced it squarely from about 10 feet away, then hurried forward, bent over and grabbed the bar, dead-lifting 245 pounds to her knees. Cyndy was more exuberant and undisciplined. She sat on the sidelines until her name was announced and then she walked over to the barbell, grabbed it and, with a toss of her long wavy hair, yanked up 270 pounds while letting out a scream: "Aaaggghhh!"
Kahn and Groffman are registered with the AAU as power lifters. There is nothing new in women lifting heavy weights. For years women bodybuilders, like Shirley Patterson, a health club manager in North Hollywood, have used weights to mold their bodies. And, contrary to popular opinion, these women have learned that even when they have been lifting weights for some time, they do not increase bulk and muscle size the way men do. Weight lifting pares away a woman's fat and strengthens and hardens her muscles, but the result is simply a tighter, leaner look.
During the course of her bodybuilding, Shirley Patterson, who may be one of the strongest women in the U.S., found herself lifting extremely heavy weights for her size (5'2" and 112 pounds). Out of curiosity she entered a men's AAU power lifting contest not, as she explains, "to be competitive against men, because we can't be. Women don't have the musculature. It was rather to challenge myself and see if I could improve on what I had been doing in workouts." Patterson found that in competition she was able to lift weights heavier than those she had lifted in practice.
August 1, 1976
Most of the 30-odd women registered as power lifters have gravitated to the sport either because of male influence—a boyfriend or husband—or as an outgrowth of competition in another sport, usually track and field. Yet, of the hundreds of track women lifting weights in this country, only a few compete in lifting contests.
One who does is Cindy Reinhoudt, 30, who is 5'6" tall and 165 pounds. She took up power lifting to improve her performance as a shotputter and discus thrower and managed to become world class in these events, appearing in the 1963 Pan-American Games. But of late Reinhoudt has been concentrating solely on power lifting at the urging of her husband Don, who is the world superheavyweight power lift champion. In a men's meet in Erie, Pa. last February Cindy became the first woman to move into Class 3 (an intermediate category) of AAU power lifting.
Kathy Schmidt, the Olympic javelin thrower, came to lifting weights in much the same way, but unlike Reinhoudt she disdains competition. She has spent the better part of her life rationalizing her size, which is now 6'1" and 175 pounds. And yet, until she mentions her size—usually her first comment to a stranger—one is not really aware of it. She began lifting weights about five years ago to improve her throwing and now regularly lifts in the women's gym at UCLA, rather than in the men's gym. She says, "I do that out of courtesy to the men. I would hold them up if I lifted in their weight room. I'm kind of a freak in the women's gym. The only women who use weights are the dancers, and they don't use the heavy ones that are on the squat rack. They don't even know what the rack is. When I load up and prepare to squat maybe 260 pounds, they all stop and whisper, 'What's she gonna do?' When I put the bar up on my shoulders, everything goes quiet. It must blow all their minds. Afterward they say, 'Hey, that's neat. But why do you do it?' "
Schmidt refuses to compete in power lifting contests, despite the fact that she is exceptionally strong for a woman (she can dead-lift 400 pounds). "I love to lift," she says. "I'm addicted to weights. It makes me feel good—healthier and stronger and I can see my body taking a different shape. And it's a great release from aggressions. But mostly, I do it for the javelin. I can never see myself doing one without the other. Also, I don't think the public's ready for women power lifting. They treat it like a freak show, as if it weren't serious. It must be frustrating for those women who take it seriously."
At the L.A. meet the spectators were knowledgeable enough to view the women as athletes and root for them as they strained to lift weights lighter than most of the men were lifting. There was none of the "freak show" atmosphere one might have expected, although John Askem, the coordinator of the event, did admit he had invited the women to draw fans to pay for the men's events. "It was a gimmick," he said.
The women competing did not see it that way. "I've always considered myself an artist, not a sportswoman," said Natalie Kahn as she waited with her mother and grandmother for her moment to lift. The three women sat identically, hands in their laps, backs straight. "I had no interest even in girls' recreation in school," Kahn said. "I never went through the athletic thing until I started going out with Bob Packer, who's the AAU coach for the U.S. power lifting team. I'd go to the gym with him and watch him work out, and one day I saw a woman pick up a 135-pound barbell. 'I can do that,' I said. But I found that I couldn't even roll it. I got curious as to how it would feel to strain like that, and so I started lifting with Bob. I lost weight. I felt good, mentally and physically. At work—I was a decorator—I wasn't at all tired at the end of the day. I began to set goals for myself. Now I'm second in the 123-pound class, but I want to drop my weight to the 114-pound class and still be able to lift the same amount [200 pounds in the squat, 135 in the bench press, 300 in the dead lift]. I'm very serious about lifting. I don't want to go out there and be laughed at. I want to see how strong I can get. I have finally found a thing I can be good at. It's given me self-confidence. In everything. The stronger I get, the more things I feel I can do outside of weight lifting. I'm more outspoken, too. Bob says I'm getting more arrogant every day. It's true. The stronger I get, the meaner I get."
Cyndy Groffman, a 23-year-old from Chicago, has been on her own since she was 14. "I've lied about my age so often, I'm not really sure how old I am," she said. Currently living in Redondo Beach, Calif., Groffman is one of those persons who always seem to have just come from, or to be going to, another part of the country. Cyndy appears prepared for this constant uprooting, carrying a leather satchel tossed over one shoulder. She opened it and rummaged about for a stick of gum while waiting for her name to be called at the L.A. meet. Pictures of her dogs and boyfriends, past and present, spilled out. She looked at one of the latter, shrugged, and said, "You win a few, you lose a few. I was married at 15. Oh, he was a real con man! But I loved him." She shrugged again and stuffed everything back into her purse.
"I came out to the West Coast to start over," she said. "My life was upside down when I got here, and then I had my car stolen and my other car repossessed. I lost my job two weeks before Christmas. My apartment was broken into. I guess that's the way to start something new, from scratch. I had been a tomboy when I was a kid, although I hadn't done anything in sports since I was 15. That's one reason I came out here, to get back into the physical life. I love sports. I've been lifting for less than a year and I'm nowhere near my best yet. I don't do any lifts according to style. I just sort of psych myself up, grab it and lift.
"I love to compete. I love to do things most women won't do. That's why I'd rather compete against men. They're more of a challenge than most women. Right now I'm ranked No. 2 among women in the country in the 148-pound class. I can squat 175 pounds, bench-press 105 pounds and dead-lift 270. That would never beat a man, but I'm not really in this to beat men. A woman can't. I'm not trying to lift as much as a man to show them up. I don't hate men. When I go out on a date I don't carry my barbells with me. And I dress Frederick's of Hollywood all the way."
Groffman is an extra lifter on a men's team operating out of Redondo Beach. She says that just being with that team has given her an identity she has never known. "All my life I've been on my own, and this is the first time I've ever had a common interest with a group," she said. "My mother was shocked, not by my weight lifting, but by the fact that I had finally stuck to something for any length of time. More than anything in the world I want to break every woman's weight lifting mark. I want weight lifting to be the main thing in my life. It's the only thing I ever started and carried through."
Groffman was introduced to weight lifting almost by accident. She was the only woman to show up at an exhibition of weight lifting by Shirley Patterson. Patterson had lifted in a number of men's power lifting meets and had tried to get other women interested in the sport so that she could organize women's meets. She says, "At first I thought I was the only woman lifting heavy weights in a gym, but then I realized there were others, but we didn't know about one another. So I approached the Southern Pacific Association, the major power lifting group here, and asked them to start a woman's program. John Askem appointed me the women's coordinator."
The first all-women's AAU power lifting championships in the United States were held last September in Glendale, Calif. About a dozen women competed in various weight classes, with Natalie Kahn winning the 123-pound class, Cyndy Groffman the 148-pound class, and Shirley Patterson the 114-pound class, in addition to being picked the best lifter in the meet. She was 39 years old.
When Shirley Patterson talks, she looks directly into a person's eyes. And she listens equally attentively, though there may be a flutter of eyelashes, a quiver of lips and involuntary shakes of her head. She seems to hold her ground only by an act of will. She has large, three-dimensional eyes, delicate bones and a nature that suggests a high-strung animal, one twitch from flight. As a child she was lonely and withdrawn. She amused herself with dolls and dancing in empty rooms and with a host of other "feminine things." At 20, she bore some resemblance to a beauty queen, and at 30 the resemblance was more pronounced. Today, at 40, after two marriages, two divorces and three children, she has the fresh face and well-developed body of a 19-year-old baton twirler at Ole Miss. Only her body is not so soft. It is devoid of the layer of fat on most women that softens them. Patterson acquired this look by a routine of weight lifting that would have wilted ordinary men. As a power lifter she can dead-lift 225 pounds from the floor, squat down and up again with 180 pounds on her shoulders, and bench-press 125 pounds over her head. She is one of the few women in the country who can bench-press a weight greater than her own body weight. Another, Rebecca Joubert, who attends the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, gained attention by winning a men's 132-pound power lift at the Chattanooga Open with a bench press of 135 pounds. Since then Joubert has gone on to set four American power lifting records. (Generally, a proficient male lifter can bench-press between two and three times his own body weight.)
Shirley Patterson's life divides cleanly into two parts: the period before she began to lift weights and the period after. She says of the former, "My teen-age years are a blank. I was very sheltered. My parents treated me like a possession. They would never let me try any real sports. I've always felt that, given the opportunity, I might have become an excellent gymnast." As an act of independence, she eloped at 18, but that marriage failed and her second as well, because, she says, she continued to feel like a possession: "Both of my husbands wanted a woman who was just a wife and mother. I wanted to be more than that. I have always believed there was something missing from my life, that I had no personality of my own. I never did anything special in my youth and I had this terrible fear of getting old. I don't ever want to get old. I felt I had to do something soon or else I would be beat down. Just existing."
Patterson had exercised at home during her first marriage, and during her second she began frequenting health clubs in the L.A. area where she was introduced to weight lifting as a form of bodybuilding. Weight lifting appealed to her for several reasons—health, strength, looks—but mostly because it was something she could do by herself, and it released the pent-up aggressions a timid woman could never release in public.
She entered her first physique contest, an AAU event, at 36, and finished third to a 19-year-old and a 26-year-old. Shortly afterward, she was divorced a second time. "My second husband wasn't into weight lifting," she says, "and by then I was spending a lot of time away from home. I worked as a secretary during the day, ran a few miles at the beach late in the afternoon, and then went to a health club at night to lift weights. Oh, I used to have these fantastic workouts! I'd get lost in them! It may sound strange, but I made a vow not to date for a whole year, to just devote my time to my body. Your body's the only thing you have that's your own. It gave me self-worth, a personality. It wasn't until then that I started to know myself, to really grow."
Today Patterson manages the North Hollywood Health Club on Lankershim Boulevard from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and after that she changes into her tights and leotards and goes into the men's gym to work out. "I love the men's gym," she says. "It has all those heavy-looking black weights like a gym should. The women's gym has chrome weights."
The men's gym is small and square. There are mirrors everywhere. Above the mirrors are photographs of bodybuilders in different poses. The room is crowded with mats, incline boards, bench presses, squat racks, pull-up bars and, in the center, an intricate-looking Universal machine. Propped against one wall are rows and rows of barbells and dumbbells and flat, circular barbell plates. The plates vary in size and poundage and look like the embossed coins of Brobdingnag. The gym is filled with massive men, lifters and bodybuilders, all grunting and sweating and heaving under enormous weights, which, when finished with, they let drop to the floor with a clank.
Shirley, smelling of perfume, steps between these massive men. They acknowledge her with a word or two. She moves with prim, yet purposeful steps, like a child in an enchanted forest. She goes to the bench press, slips plates on the ends of a bar, lies down on the bench, grips the bar overhead, and prepares to lift it. The bar and plates total 125 pounds. Patterson claims that if she concentrated on nothing but her power lifts for a year she could bench-press 150 pounds. But since she is primarily a bodybuilder, her routine includes many lifts requiring repetitions that are just exhausting enough to keep her from reaching her maximum in the three power lifts. Male power lifters are interested only in lifting their maximum weight one time, while bodybuilders lift less than their maximum many times to pare away fat and tone muscle. Women, it seems, combine both types of lifting. The heavier the weights, the stronger they grow and the more sharply defined their bodies become.
Patterson lifts the 125-pound barbell off its rack, holding it over her head. For the first time, the muscles in her arms flare. She puckers her lips as if to blow smoke rings and takes a series of quick breaths—"Cho-cho-cho-cho"—before lowering the weight to her chest. Then, in one fluid motion, she raises it back over her head and slips it onto the rack. She gets up and straightens the bench press, as if it were household furniture she is tidying up. "I try to lift using proper form," she says. "I always want to look feminine. I don't want to go up there and grab it like an animal." She walks over to a table where she has laid out a pink notebook in which she records each day's workout. She fills in the box under bench press, and then goes to the squat rack. Unable to resist, some of the men glance over at her. She is wearing a wine-colored leotard cut low in front, a scarf tied like Isadora Duncan's around her neck, and large, circular earrings that jingle when she moves. As she slips weights onto the barbell on the squat rack, she says, "A lot of what I do is for recognition. I used to sky-dive and I made a television commercial for Jack LaLanne Health Clubs. I was 36 when I started sky diving. I started everything late in life. One reason I began power lifting was to get recognition for all those years in the gym by myself. I had this urge to be recognized and, of course, to compete. It's funny though, when I tried to recruit other women to power lift, none of the married gals were interested. They didn't feel the need to compete anymore for anything. Anyway, I've gotten that competitive phase out of my system. I don't power lift in contest anymore. I feel now that to compete to gain recognition was the wrong reason. Besides, I had begun to feel the AAU was exploiting us, using women to make money for the men. No money was going into women's programs. I confine my lifting to private workouts now. But I won't ever not lift. It's part of my life. I feel guilty when I miss a day."
Patterson positions herself underneath the squat rack, lifts the 170-pound barbell onto her shoulders, and stands there a moment. She stares straight ahead, then says, under extreme duress, "I feel at home in a gym. In a lot of life's situations I feel uncomfortable. I'm not at ease in large groups. I go into a shell. Most of my friends are men bodybuilders. They treat me like one of the guys and I can communicate with them in the gym in a way I can't always do outside with other people."
She moves a step back now and takes those quick breaths again—"Cho-cho-cho-cho"—and then she squats slowly until her rear end is almost touching the floor. She starts to rise, falters, seems unable to make it, her face contorted in pain until she lets out an anguished scream—"Aaaggghhh!"—and rises to her feet.