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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.
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."