Women's weightlifting has long suffered from a freak-show image. In fact, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, for 73 years the women's record was held by a circus performer. Katie Sandwina, a dark-haired Austrian who worked for Barnum & Bailey, once hoisted 286 pounds overhead and could also juggle cannonballs, twist iron bars into spirals, shoulder a 1,200-pound cannon and recline on a bed of nails while local yokels pounded at an anvil on her chest with sledgehammers. But Karyn Marshall is one of the current weight-lifters who is helping to change that image.
"People think women weightlifters are squat and muscle-bound, with all the intelligence of amoebas," says Marshall, who, with her easy smile and smashing triceps and deltoids, defies that description. She is 5'9" and 180 pounds, down from the 215 she weighed in December 1984, when she muscled her way into the Guinness Sports Record Book with a Sandwina-beating 289-pound clean and jerk. In April 1985 her clean and jerk of 303 pounds at the New York State championships topped her old record.
In women's weightlifting, which is not an Olympic sport, Marshall is America's team. For the seven years that there have been U.S. championships for women, she has won her weight class six times and set 45 national records. At last year's inaugural women's world championships, in Daytona Beach, Fla., she won three gold medals and became the first American to win a world weightlifting title since Joe Dube held the men's plus-242½-pound weight class in 1969.
"Karyn's no musclehead," says her coach, Naum Kelmansky. Marshall, 31, has a nursing degree from Columbia University and works as a financial analyst at a Wall Street brokerage firm. Born in Miami, she was a toddler when her family moved to Yonkers, NY. She excelled in field hockey and basketball in high school, but in college she didn't have time for team sports. When she started weightlifting, her parents weren't keen on the sport. They suggested that she take up tennis or golf instead.
Nonetheless, within six months Marshall sought to enter her first competition, the qualifying meet for the 1979 Empire State Games in White Plains, N. Y. When she asked for an application she was told: "Weightlifting is for men only. Why don't you try synchronized swimming?" But she was allowed to enter the meet and won the 165¼-pound class. She was not permitted, however, to compete at the Games. "Karyn is independent," says her husband, Peter, also a financial analyst and a weekend powerlifter who oversees Karyn's training. "She ventured into a sport in which women were not generally accepted."
Marshall has achieved every goal she has set for herself. At the first women's nationals in 1981, she won the 165¼-pound division. For the nationals in 1984, she bulked up to 190 and took on super heavy weight Lorna Griffin, an Olympic discus thrower and shot-putter. Marshall won the snatch and the clean and jerk as well as the total.
She was getting stronger and stronger and bigger and bigger, until, alas, she had bulked up to the 215 pounds she weighed when she broke the record. "The toughest part was eating all the time," she says. "From the time I got up until I went to bed, I didn't stop." Her family was always after her to take off some weight.
"Can't you see I'm trying to set records?" Marshall protested. "I'm breaking through barriers."
"Women lifters are more sensitive than men," says Kelmansky, who emigrated from the U.S.S.R. "If you shout at them, they quit."
Men have bigger upper bodies, which enable them to lift more weight. But women have better flexibility and, says Kelmansky, are easier to coach.
Once, in a powerlifting tournament, Karyn beat Peter in the back squat. Also, she says jokingly, it was she who picked him up. "I asked him out," she says. "He was afraid to refuse." Being the world's strongest woman has its compensations. "I take the subway to work every day," says Marshall, "and I always get a seat."