Friday, December 21, 2018

The Private Life of the World's Strongest Man

The Private Life of The World's Strongest Man: Doug Hepburn
by Clyde Gilmour

In public, Doug Hepburn is a squat mountain of muscle renowned for his astounding feats with the barbells. In private, he is a shy fellow who sings tenor, doesn't like girls, plays golf and composes wistful poetry. 

Young Doug Hepburn

A little later in life.

Doug Hepburn, Vancouver's rotund and moody Hercules who sings tenor and writes wistful poems for recreation, is the official international weight-lifting champion and thus the leading claimant to the awesome status of Strongest Man in the World. He has raised 700 pounds from the floor to his knees. On several occasions he has hoisted more than 400 pounds to arms' length overhead from the shoulders. 

His incredible chest measures just three inches short of six feet in circumference. His biceps, 21 inches around, are larger than the ordinary man's thighs. Hepburn sometimes consumes a dozen eggs in a quart of milk before breakfast, so there is a lot of fat in this total weight, which is about 285 pounds. He is of average height (five feet, nine inches), but there is nothing average in the phenomenal power he generates.

This formidable Canadian, who will be 28 on September 16 (article originally published in Macleans, June 1st, 1954), won his world title in Stockholm in August, 1953. He triumphed despite the handicap of a withered right leg, inherited from childhood surgery which straightened a congenitally deformed foot, and despite the pain of a sore ankle which almost forced him to withdraw from the contest at the last moment. Hepburn's victory made him the idol of the muscle-worshiping Swedes and other enthusiasts attending the meet. Even the Russians, tossing aside their masks of taciturnity, made the arena rebound with shouts of "xopowee woy!" - Russian for something like Good Show!

Doug in Sweden

Hepburn is in training for his next big test, the British Empire Games, to be held this summer from July 30 to August 7 in Vancouver at a new stadium costing $1,500,000 and seating 25,000. He'll try to beat Dave Baillie of Montreal, holder of the Canadian weight-lifting title, which world champion Hepburn has never won. Barring accident or injury, or the onset of one of his sieges of melancholia, he is an overwhelming favorite and already his ardent boosters are visualizing him as an Olympic champion at Melbourne, Australia, in 1956.

   The British Empire Games Weightlifting Team: 
Kneeling, left to right: David Baillie, Douglas Hepburn.
Standing: Lionel St. Jean (coach), Gerald Gratton, Jules Sylvain, Charlie Walker (manager),
Stan Gibson, Guy Dubé, Keevil Daly.
According to the strength-school advertisements which offer to transform skinny weaklings into Samsons, any male as significantly endowed as Hepburn should be striding through life with leonine self-confidence, envied by men and constantly pursued by panting feminine admirers. The facts, he admits, with rueful candor, are quite to the contrary.

Although he is gratified by the universal acclaim and numerous honors that have come to his since Stockholm, Hepburn is still shy, sensitive and a worrier.  He frets about his health. He often has difficulty in getting to sleep. He owns only one suit of clothes, the same outsize powder blue single-breasted he bought with funds donated by the Vancouver public before he flew to Sweden.

His only income, while preparing for the Empire Games, is the $150 a month he has been getting since last call as a so-called "bodyguard on call" to Vancouver's mayor, Fred Hume. This money comes from the sports-minded mayor personally, not from civic revenues, and allows Hepburn to keep his amateur standing instead of turning professional or selling his name and fame by endorsing bar bells and other athletic equipment.

One bar-bell company offered him $400 a month to plug its products but if he'd taken it a shadow would have been cast on his amateur standing. He's also had tempting offers to turn pro wrestler but has refused because "I don't want to become a complete phony" even for "all that dough." So that his salary from the mayor would go further, early this year big Doug gratefully accepted an offer of free lodgings and improvised gym facilities in the home and business premises of an old friend named W.H. Gunn, proprietor of Farm Boys' Poultry Service Ltd. He practices his lifts in a small warehouse at the rear of the store. Until he moved in with widower Gunn and the latter's sons, John and Bill, he had been bunking rent-free with three other strong men in the same tiny room at the back of the Grandview Barbell Club. 

Sonorous official recognitions, Doug Hepburn has discovered, are one thing, and petty personal indignities are another, and he has had plenty of both. Weight lifters, it seems, are regarded as moronic apelike buffoons by many people and are fair game for ridicule at any season. It is a familiar experience for Hepburn to be asked, "Well, Doug, how does it feel to be all brawn and no brains?" He invariably replies to such badinage, "I wouldn't know. How does it feel to be neither?"

Because his moon face and balloon contours make him look deceivingly like an ordinary "fat boy," Hepburn is still sometimes treated with more derision than deference by leaner men whom he could rip apart with his bare hands. The epithet "tub of lard" has been flung at him in a public place, and in Oakland a sports columnist referred to him as "an oversized meatball" while the Canadian was visiting in California a few months ago. 

As for women, Hepburn shuns them completely, branding them as "dissipation" and dangerous to his training. His enjoyment of golf, a game that he likes, is marred for the strongest man in the world when he sees scrawny teen-aged girls driving the bar farther than he can. "It's humiliating," he sighs. 

His Aunt Verna, Mrs. J.D. Fraser of West Vancouver, says she has a hunch Doug "will settle down in time, get married and lead a normal home life," but there is no sign of it in his present attitude. Unlike the swooning cuties in the muscle ads, the girls seldom pay him any attention, although he has a friendly grin.   

Says the strong man bleakly, "Women aren't interested in strength - not my kind of strength, anyway. Oh, maybe some of the older women are different but most of the young ones don't seem to have much to them. All they think about is good times and good looks - good looks, meaning the body-beautiful boys on the beaches, with the wavy hair and the narrow waists and the tricky oils and lotions that make their muscles real pretty in the sunlight." 

An indication that Hepburn may be exaggerating his own lack of appeal for the ladies came not long ago when columnist Jack Scott of the Vancouver Sun wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece which mildly posh-poohed the "iron game" (weight lifting) and remarked that most women seemed to prefer puny little men in need of mothering. Scott soon reported a storm of protests from his readers. One subscriber, male in gender, challenged the columnist to "a half hour on the mat." Another, female, praised the massive Hepburn and told Scott witheringly, "When you're up against a woman, you'll find she prefers a man!"

When Hepburn went to Hollywood last winter to appear on a TV show, Art Linkletter's House Party, the audience, mostly women, gave him a big hand. He lifted the 200-pound Linkletter above his head.

It is characteristic of Hepburn, a man who is accustomed to doing things the hard way, that even when grappling with insomnia he gets nowhere with methods suitable to ordinary mortals. He has his own bizarre system of inducing shuteye. He lies sprawled in bed like a beached whale and imagines himself in some dreadful emergency, then tries to figure out a solution.

"Like for instance," the brawny bachelor says with a serious air, "I'm trapped upstairs in a burning house, too high to jump and with every exit cut off by tremendous flames. Or else maybe I'm tied hand-and-foot on the floor of some gangster's apartment, and I know from having overheard a conversation that a couple of ruthless gunmen are arriving in exactly five minutes to kill me. By the time I've decided how to deal with that fictitious situation, my real worries are temporarily forgotten and I go to sleep like a baby."

A dabble in amateur psychiatry, evidently founded in part on the plots of psychological movies he has attended, Hepburn has evolved a theory to explain his own nocturnal ventures into make-believe woes and crises. He thinks they are merely an escape hatch from his awareness of the far-from-imaginary troubles and obstacles that have afflicted him all his life.

A factor which contributes to his insomnia is his inability to scratch his own back when it's itchy. He can't reach it because of his massive muscles. He's peevish about this and snaps that "a bear can't scratch his own back either, except against a tree, but bears get along okay."

 Doug, at six months, with his Father Ivan.

Douglass Ivan Hepburn was born cross-eyed and with a badly turned in right foot, in Vancouver General Hospital. It was a difficult birth; the makes left by the obstetrician's forceps are still visible on his face. Both his parents had moved west from Ontario - big rugged Ivan Hepburn from Hope Bay, and slim petite Gladys Rundle from Port Perry. Doug was their only child. Muscularity and athletic skill were in his paternal legacy. Ivan Hepburn had boxed and sprinted and played hockey, rugby and semi-pro baseball in Alberta before going to the Pacific coast. Doug's great-grandfather, Simpson Hepburn, a Bruce County farmer who died around the turn of the century, was renowned for his strength and was said to have once knocked down, with a single blow of his fist, an ox which had suddenly turned on him in the field.

Causes of Despondency

Andy Hepburn, Doug's grandfather, was still in robust health this spring at the age of 85 (1954), dwelling alone in a three-room shack at Horseshoe Bay, B.C. The future strong man's ancestral strains were Scottish and Irish on his father's side and English and Irish on his mother's.

The marriage of Ivan and Gladys Hepburn ended in divorce in 1931 when Doug was five.

 Doug the Sailor, age four. 

Within a year his mother was married again, to William Foster - a salesman, like her first husband. Things were tough in those depression years, and Gladys Foster worked as an adding machine operator to help pay the household bills. At school, Doug's bad eyes and his twisted foot were often ridiculed by his classmates. He stayed away from the school parties and used to hurry home well ahead of his parents, sitting alone in the kitchen nursing his loneliness, telling himself stories, flexing the imagination which today concocts his go-to-sleep midnight thrillers.

People who know Hepburn well are convinced that his occasional sloughs of despondency are caused by emotional wounds suffered in his rather unhappy childhood - the broken home, his eyes, his crooked foot. Also, he worries about his future. Even under prolonged questioning he cannot seem to decide what to hope for. At various times he foresees himself as a circus strong man, physical culture trainer, strength lecturer to youth, a beer parlor bouncer or "maybe a bum on skid row when I'm fifty." 

Hepburn says his despondency in 1952, which made him drop training and miss Olympic Games, was due mainly to discouragement over scant recognition for lifting exploits.

Childhood operations straightened his eyes and his foot but left him with his right ankle "frozen," the calf muscle atrophied. Today his normal calf measures 17 inches, the other about 13.  

Snatch, Hastings Street Gym, circa 1950.

He tries to hide the shrunken leg behind the other when his photo is taken in gym attire. "I honestly believe I'd have been a world champion several years ago if I'd only been blessed with two normal legs," Hepburn says.

This spring he bought corrective shoes for the first time to offset the fact that his right leg is an inch and a half shorter than his left. But his body has grown used to being lopsided and when he tried lifting weight with these shoes on he wrenched his back.

At Kitsilano High School, a deep-chested classmate named Mike Poppel awakened Doug's interest in tumbling, hand-balancing and weight lifting. 

 Michael Adrian Poppel
January 24, 1929 - December 29, 2014. 
First Mr. British Columbia at age 17. 

[Also worth noting here is Phys. Ed. instructor Gordon Gillespie, who encouraged both Poppel and Hepburn in their early years.]

Doug was slow at first but soon began to "grow like a cake in the oven," according to Poppel. An obsession with super-strength had filled his mind long before he finally left school at the mature age of 20, still only halfway through Grade Eleven. He had often quit before that, sometimes for months at a stretch, and says now that he always felt "sort of trapped" in a classroom. "But I'm proud of one thing," Doug added recently. "I never actually failed an exam." 

With the money from odd jobs - an a logging camp, in a sheet-metal works, as assistant to a veterinary surgeon, as a lifeguard and as a beer-parlor bouncer - he bought tremendous amounts of food. His muscles expanded, as so did his jowls and middle. 

One one typical day at the height of this dedicated gluttony, Hepburn drank a quart of milk in his basement and then ambled to a restaurant for the following leisurely breakfast: a large steak, six boiled eggs, five thick slices of toast with plenty of butter, three or four more glasses of milk, a bowl of soup and two bowls of pudding. As mid-morning snacks to tide him over until lunch he carried to the beach four quarts of milk, six bananas, several oranges and peaches and half a dozen tins of tomato juice. Lunch consisted of fish-and-chips or another steak, with all the usual trimmings. Hungry again in a couple of hours the tireless gourmand consumed more milk and fruit to console his empty spots until it was time for dinner - another steak usually, or perhaps two large tins of spaghetti, each tin containing normal portions for six persons. A couple of big hamburgers and more milk before bedtime finished the busy day. 

A stunned dietician, informed of this daily regimen, recently computed that Doug's daily intake during his beefing-up years must have been around 10,000 calories. Average for a normally active man not on a reducing diet is 2,500. The Canadian Dietary Standards, published by the Dept. of National Health and Welfare, recommend 5,200 calories for a man weighing 200 pounds and doing extremely arduous physical work all day long.

Hepburn eats less now, and has never been overly fond of sweet desserts. Besides, he has almost reached the body weight he deems most desirable for his super-strength - 290 pounds (at 5' 8.5"). He is still a vast consumer of proteins. 

 Original Ray Beck photo, courtesy of Jan Dellinger.

Fortified by this sort of nourishment and constantly toughening the hard muscles underneath his lard, young Hepburn soon began ringing up impressive total in his lifts. By the fall of 1948, when he was 22, he was lifting [pressing?] well over his own weight, which by that time was about 215 pounds. A year later he'd hit 300. He began toppling local, British Columbia and Canadian records, but for a long time few Vancouverites paid much attention to him. The sports pages mentioned him occasionally.        

Later photo of Doug back-lifting six Vancouver Canucks players.
December 30th, 1958, Kerrisdale Arena. 
Yvon Chouinard's 236-page document on The Origins of Canadian Olympic Weightlifting
(June 30, 2011) is Here:

Venturing afield, he did well in U.S tournaments but still got scant recognition. When Canada started holding preliminary trials for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, Hepburn was despondent and didn't compete. Spurred back to training, he lifted at Portland Ore., in November of that year, and became the third man in the world to ring up an official total of 1,000 pounds in the three Olympic lifts.  

British Columbia Amateur Weightlifting Trophy presented to Doug Hepburn. 
The trophy is engraved with the words "3rd official 1000-lb. total in the world - 3 Olympic lifts. 
1st Steve Stanko | 2nd John Davis | 3rd Doug Hepburn. Date 1952. 
BC Sports Hall of Fame Collection. 

Spike Jones Was Competition

These three Olympic lifts are the Clean & Press, the Snatch, and the Clean & Jerk, all done with two hands. Each starts with the barbell resting at the lifter's feet and ends with it held at arms' length above the head. Each has a special group of techniques relating to its title. Hepburn, a big man with a fondness for little jokes, has been known to reply politely, "I'm in the cleaning and pressing business," when people wonder how the world's champion developed his physique. 

It's probable that he'd never have become a champion had it not been for Harry Brown, a quiet Vancouver postal employee who is national chairman of the weight-lifting community of the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada. Brown spark-plugged a dogged, bedeviled but finally successful campaign to raise funds to cover Doug's trip to the 1953 championships in Stockholm. As appeal to the public through the press for mailed donations brought in not a single cent. A jazz concert for the cause was attended by fifteen persons - Spike Jones and his musical madcaps were performing in town the same evening. But the fans dug deep to "help our strong man" at a baseball game after Doug had displayed his strength between innings, and a Canadian Legion weight-lifting show fetched enough revenue - bolstered by a few generous private gifts - to put the drive over the top. 

with $1,300, a sprained ankle and no coach or trainer to exhort him to victory, Doug flew to Sweden.

Residing austerely in a Stockholm sports institute, the mighty Canadian gave no heed to the inviting glances of pretty Swedish girls, who admire weight lifters the way Canadian girls admire Hollywood movie stars. Wincing and gritting his teeth every time he applied pressure on his sore ankle, he threw his titanic energy into the task of dethroning the veteran champion, a grim Brooklyn Negro named John Davis. And he did it, with a three-lift aggregate of just over 1,030 pounds. Davis was second with 1,008; Argentina's Humberto Selvetti third with 991. No one else had ever totaled as high as Hepburn at the world championships, although he and others have done even better in lesser contest or in the comforting privacy of their own gyms.

"My victory," Hepburn said later in the somewhat pedantic words he often employs, "undoubtedly means a certain amount of fulfillment. But I won't be satisfied until I have reached my ultimate potential, and perhaps set a mark that will withstand all future competition." 

Mayor Hume and other notables gave the champ a rousing home-town welcome at Vancouver's airport. Doug's photographed face, with or without the mustache he keeps growing and removing, soon became familiar to newspaper readers. In separate polls, subscribers of both of Vancouver's afternoon dailies, the Sun and the Province, overwhelmingly voted for the strong man as British Columbia's athlete of the year. Each paper gave Doug a big congratulatory banquet. He also won the Toronto Star's Lou Marsh Memorial Trophy as Canada's outstanding athlete, selected by a board of Toronto sports officials.

Hepburn Awarded Lou Marsh Memorial Trophy (1953):

Doug topped the annual Canadian Press poll of the country's press and radio sports writers and broadcasters as the athlete of the year. This spring the Newsmen's Club of B.C. acclaimed him as the British Columbian of the Year, a distinction previously held by such eminent non-weight lifters as Premier W.A.C. Bennett and Dr. Norman MacKenzie, president of the University of B.C.

Working out now in his poultry-shop gym for the approaching British Empire Games, Doug Hepburn is ever conscious of his No. 1 rival for the unchallenged title of Strongest Man in the World. It is Paul Anderson, a roly-poly behemoth in the Tennessee town of Elizabethton, only 21 years old but already the claimant of a three-lift total surpassing Hepburn's Stockholm aggregate by 35 pounds.

Doug Hepburn, John Grimek

When riding high on one of his buoyant moods Hepburn has told friends he thinks it's possible that he is the strongest man who ever lived. In that rarefied department another Canadian, the late Louis Cyr, is probably his prime opponent. Cyr, with a physique like Hepburn's, lifted 545 pounds "with one finger," according to the 1953 edition of the Encyclopedia of Sports, "but the details are not established." Around 1890-92, if the old stories can be believed, Cyr used to crouch under a platform on which twenty persons with a total weight of about 3,000 pounds were standing, and slowly lift the platform from the floor. Harry Brown says thoughtfully, "It sounds super-human, but actually the platform would be raised only an inch or two, just enough to clear - and I think Doug Hepburn, if he set his mind to it, could do exactly the same thing." 
Note the Grip in this One Arm DB Lift.

Biblical and mythological strong men bring out a plodding skepticism in Hepburn's philosophy, sometimes enlivened by traces of Irish humor. His enjoyment of Cecil B. DeMille's movie of Samson and Delilah was marred by his feeling that Samson, played by Victor Mature, used faulty technique in uprooting the pillars of the pagan temple of Dagon. Hepburn, who owns an 18-volume encyclopedia and browses through it occasionally, is equally unimpressed by Hercules' storied feat of cleaning, in a single day, the appalling stables of Augeas, befouled for thirty years by 3,000 oxen.

"Okay, so he could clean some stables," Doug said recently, with a perfectly straight face. "But could he clean - and press, of course - 400 pounds under proper Olympic conditions?" 

In addition to his withered leg, which continues to be a serious handicap in his lifting, Vancouver's strong man has been oddly bothered for about a year and a half by something he cannot explain; a perpetual ringing in his ears. Sometimes it's in the right ear only, sometimes in both. Says Doug darkly, "I can forget about it for an hour or two but it's always there when I stop and listen - that high, high symphony inside my head." He hasn't been to a doctor about it, and says he won't unless it gets worse.

For the fun of it, he sings impromptu harmony with a few of his muscular pals. His tenor voice is clear and light, with a pleasant quality, and he can belt out a good ringing top A when he feels like it. Hepburn also plays the mouth organ with better than average ability, plays chess and checkers, shoots a bit of pool or snooker, reads light fiction and his encyclopedia, goes to the movies, and recites Spartacus to the Gladiators to anybody who'll listen. 

"Spartacus to the Gladiators" is included in this Hepburn post: 

Doug was a choirboy but now seldom goes to church. He believes in God, whom he calls "a Mighty Power," almost as though the Deity were a super weight lifter.

He's a Gentle Giant

A man of letters himself, Hepburn is a fairly frequent contributor to such esoteric journals as Muscle Power magazine. The Psychology of Handling Heavy Poundages was one of his most successful treatises in those pages, and another was How I Developed My Press. 

Hepburn is an advocate of "clean living" but he's not stuffy about it. He drinks no hard liquor and smokes no cigarettes. A glass of beer or a bottle of stout are among his occasional enjoyments, and he likes the fragrance of a mild cigar.

Like most men possessed of super-strength, he hasn't been in any fights since school days. As a tavern bouncer, he gently ejected a few drunks but none ever waited in ambush later to attack him on his way home. Hepburn is not a bellicose man but he has a prideful knowledge of his own extraordinary powers. "If I ever turned pro," he said not long ago, "I wouldn't be afraid to step into the same ring with Rocky Marciano - provided I could fight him my own way." 

As an amateur poet, Douglas Ivan Hepburn says he has no literary pretensions but doesn't mind stating that he can "turn the stuff out fast, any time I think about it." This year, for Mother's Day, he sent a brand new poetic tribute to his mother, who now lives in San Diego, Calif.

If he ever does find a girl whom he can adore and settle down with after his status as the Strongest man in the World has been solidified beyond all dispute, he already has a title in mind - but no verses yet - for a Hepburn poem in her honor: 

"I Get a Lift Out of You." 

Note: For more information on Doug's training methods and recommendations, search this blog.
The full series of his training booklets, as well as other articles, are here:

Strength and Bulk
The Hepburn Method
The Olympic Press
also includes article on The Importance of Mental Attitude

The Squat: 

The Deadlift: 

The Curl: 

There's more if you look around a little. 








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