Lifting Himself Up, The Doug Hepburn Story
“We can’t compete with a derrick!”1 remarked Bob Hoffman, the American coach, at the 1953 World Weightlifting Championship in Stockholm, Sweden. He was referring to Doug Hepburn, the heavyset Canadian lifter, who would become the champion and cost the United States the team victory. Doug was competing as an independent lifter because the Canadian Amateur Athletic Union (CAAU) refused to support him. He won and set a world record in the clean-and-press despite a limp caused by a sprained ankle. It was the least of the challenges Doug had to overcome. As a disabled man, he claimed the title “world’s strongest man.”
The First Lift: An Inauspicious Start and a Latent Talent
On September 16, 1926, an obstetrician in Vancouver General Hospital needed forceps to pull Douglas Ivan Hepburn into the world. The forceps left scars on his head that Doug liked to claim were proof he didn’t want to be born in the first place. However, the crossed eyes and club foot he was born with were more serious than a couple of small marks above his temple. Early in life, Doug endured many surgeries to attempt to correct his club foot. He remembered crying because of the pain caused by the cast on his foot, and his father cursing the doctors and cutting the cast off his leg. Gangrene had set in. This was the first of many surgeries and infections that resulted in Doug having a fused ankle, an atrophied calf, and a right leg an inch shorter than his left.
Doug had a difficult childhood. His parents divorced when he was young. His mother Gladys had had enough of his father Ivan’s drinking and his abusive behavior. If coming from a broken home wasn’t bad enough, Doug was routinely picked on. He was an easy target for schoolyard bullies because of his physical disabilities. The torment continued until one day Doug wrestled and pinned the school bully to the ground in front of the entire school.
Despite his disabilities, Doug excelled in sports (e.g., track and field and gymnastics). A classmate, Mike Poppel, introduced Doug to weightlifting and bodybuilding. Doug soon discovered he had an aptitude for pushing heavy weights overhead. However, at fourteen, he was self-conscious. Doug trained hard to impress a girl he had met at a dance. One night, the couple strolled on the beach when he had an epiphany—he saw massive bodybuilders for the first time. He had found his direction: he needed to be big and strong.
Doug explained years later: “At first, I started lifting to get a physique so people would notice me. But now there was a change. Now something inside of me was compelling me to be strong.”2 He purchased a set of weights and converted his garage into a gym. All Doug wanted to do was eat and lift weights. His newfound obsession would cost him the girl, and, to the chagrin of his mother, Doug stopped applying himself in school. He was never studious, but he was smart. Despite a C- average, the school had Doug skip a grade after an I.Q. test.
When he was fifteen, his mother bribed him to concentrate more in school and at home by correcting his vision. The eye surgery succeeded but not the bribe. Doug quit school and took successive jobs at a logging camp and a sheet metal shop, but he quit both because the work was too strenuous for training. Doug then moved into his parent’s basement where he could live rent-free, provided he went back to school. It didn’t take him long to be back to his old ways. He quit school for good and made no effort to find a job. Doug came home one day to find his suitcase packed and twenty dollars waiting for him by the backdoor. For the first of many times, Doug found himself in a flophouse, sleeping on a lumpy cot.
Doug found part-time work on a poultry farm where he could eat all the eggs he wanted. He would eat until he felt like throwing up, consuming 10,000 calories when the average active man consumed 2,500 calories. Mike Poppel said Doug began to “grow like a cake in an oven.”3 Soon Doug at 5 feet 8 inches tall weighed 255 pounds. His shoulders had gotten so broad that he had to turn sideways to get off buses.
One day at the YMCA, Doug grabbed a barbell off two raised platforms. With the weight at his shoulders, he pushed the barbell overhead. The act stunned everyone. Doug, with no experience and a withered leg, had unwittingly matched the world press record of 320 pounds. When the other lifters explained what he had done, Doug realized he could break records. He committed himself to learn the Olympic lifts: the snatch, the clean-and-press, and the clean-and-jerk. He began entering local weightlifting meets and winning them all. The Vancouver press paid little attention.
The Second Lift: Records and No Recognition
The British Columbia Weightlifting Association (BCWA) recorded his wins and sent his numbers to the CAAU in Montreal, which ignored them. The CAAU refused to accept any of Doug records, rejecting them time and time again. In 1949, Doug set a Canadian clean-and-press record of 300 pounds at a BCWA event. The officials sent the record to Montreal. The CAAU rejected the record and sent a note saying the following: “Impossible. This man could not possibly have lifted 300 pounds. Why, the best in the east does only 220. You have made a mistake.”4
Repeated rejections frustrated Doug. He wrote to Charles A. Smith, the weightlifting editor for Joe Weider’s Muscle Power magazine. In his reply, Smith told Doug that he had a future as a world-class weightlifter. He suggested that Doug add feats of strength to his repertoire to help him build name recognition. Doug started bending 12-inch spikes, tearing license plates, and crushing cans of oil with his bare hands. Doug moved into his first gym, sleeping on a cot in the back. He trained clients in his unique method. All the while, Doug entered and won weightlifting contests, but his records were ignored by the CAAU—including a world record 341 pounds clean-and-press.
Doug traveled to New York at the invitation of Joe Weider. He gave several well-received performances for the American weightlifting community. He extended his visit and competed in and won the U.S. Open Weightlifting Championship. The American AAU accepted his 330-pound clean-and-press world record, which overjoyed Doug.
Upon his return to Vancouver, Doug set about becoming the strongest man in the world. He entered another local tournament and set a record that was, again, rejected by the CAAU because it was performed on a Sunday. Not surprised, Doug looked to America for recognition. He entered the Senior Nationals Open Weightlifting Competition in Los Angeles. Doug placed second behind the Olympic Champion, John Davis, but set a world record in the clean-and-press of 3451/2 pounds.
The 1952 Olympic Games were to be in Helsinki, Finland, and Doug committed to competing. To get the CAAU in Montreal to take notice, Doug traveled back toNew York and set three additional world records. As the holder of four world records, he was sure Canada would be behind him. It wasn’t the case. Doug informed the CAAU of his intention to compete in the Olympics and began training. The CAAU ignored him, and after six months of training, a despondent Doug quit. He didn’t compete in the Canadian preliminary trials. Canada’s representative failed to medal in the 1952 Games. Doug felt like he had been slapped in the face and was stunned when the Canadian press blamed him—it claimed he had turned his back on the Olympics.
Doug decided to compete in the 1953 World Weightlifting Championship in Stockholm, Sweden. The CAAU informed him that it was not sending any lifters to Stockholm.If he were going, Doug would have to raise the money himself. After more records received little attention in Canada, Doug went back to the United States where he set more records and won the Junior National Weightlifting Championship. His hometown finally took notice and tried to help. Organizations like the Canadian Legion held lifting exhibitions and the money was eventually raised for Doug to go to Sweden.
Even though he didn’t have a coach and was nursing a sprained ankle, Doug defeated John Davis and won in Stockholm. The Swedes embraced him—his likeness was tacked to telephone poles across the city. While out celebrating, Doug inadvertently defeated the arm-wrestling champion of Sweden who had challenged him to a contest.
Vancouver Mayor Hume greeted Doug when he stepped off the plane from Sweden. A limo ride through the city with a police escort awaited him. For a short time, Doug basked in the glory and adulation of his country. Then it was over, and he was back where he started. “Here I was the strongest man in the world, sleeping in a flophouse,” Doug recounted5.
Vancouver was the site of the 1954 British Empire Games. Doug’s training for the games progressed well until he tore his right thigh muscle. He was forced to qualify for the games on a right knee that would not bend. His thigh had not healed by the time of the games, but Doug won a gold medal and set a record for total poundage.
The Third Lift: Wrestling, Drinking, and a New Purpose.
Doug had won a gold medal for Canada. When it came time for the 1954 World Weightlifting Championship, he received no sponsorship again and didn’t have the money to defend his title in Germany. As his dreams of glory evaporated, his drinking increased— he drank as many as 40 glasses of beer in a sitting. His family and friends told him that he needed to wrestle to make a living. Doug balked. He deplored all forms of violence. Even when he was occasionally employed as a bouncer, he was gentle and used his imposing bulk to deal with unruly patrons. But Doug agreed to perform his strongman routine as an attraction at wrestling matches.
A promoter, Frank Tunney, later convinced Doug to take up wrestling. Doug knew it was a bad idea but accepted the lucrative offer. “It’s funny, but something told me it was wrong from the very beginning. I was mad. Mad at Canada for making me do this. I knew I could lift much more. I could have broken every world record there was,” Doug recalled6.
After eight months of wrestling, Doug was wealthy and famous but not happy. He thought he was a phony. His drinking picked up, and he became increasingly depressed. He would sit in his hotel room for hours and refuse to go to his matches. After eleven months, Doug quit. He later explained: “I would be overcome by remorse. I felt like I was fleeing. The other fellows were down there doing their jobs, and I was running away. Yet I had to run away.”7 Wrestling promoters estimated that he flushed a million-dollar career down the drain.
Back in Vancouver, he operated three successful gyms and lived well for a couple of years. Doug felt he wasn’t fulfilling his purpose. He stopped putting the effort in, which resulted in bankruptcy. He lost his gyms and sold his car to cover his debt. Next Doug rented a house and bred huskies. He wrote and printed strength building courses to supplement his income.
It started with a couple of drinks in the Clover Inn. “That’s where I lost my soul,” Doug later said8. Facing a second bankruptcy, Doug was soon drinking up to 50 beers a day. He felt he had no future. Before long, Doug lost his house, sold most of his dogs, and moved into his familiar haunt, a flophouse. He spent all his time at the Clover Inn where patrons bought him drinks, and he performed occasional strength feats for food or more beer.
It got to the point where blackouts lasted for days, and he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror. Then it got worse. Drinking at the Clover Inn, he met an ornery hermit named Peden, who lived in a shack and hated people. Doug decided to give up on society and moved in with Peden. He found Peden to be a bitter drunk, prone to violent outbursts. Reflecting on his time in that shack, Doug said it gave him “an ability to understand a man who is drunk and sick, a man other people would condemn.”9 He realized that he was sick too and needed to get better.
In February 1962, a 36-year old, Doug checked into Hollywood Hospital, a clinic in Vancouver for alcoholics. The hospital used LSD treatments. The doctors told him it was going to be the hardest thing he ever did. Under LSD, he was going to have to symbolically die if he were to be cured.
Doug described the demons he faced while undergoing an LSD treatment. “They had pitchforks, and it was all in technicolor. They were staring at me, brandishing their weapons, you knew they were going to cut you to a million pieces. And you’re fighting them. You’re fighting, and you’re fighting. And then, if you have the courage—and I understand only thirty percent of people do—you let them do what they came to do.”10 Doug was cured and stayed at the hospital working for a year as a paid orderly. He started lifting weights again and was fond of reading poetry to patients.
Living in a flophouse and sleeping on a cot, Doug started rebuilding his life. He read philosophy, wrote poetry, and sang at local bars and coffee shops. Around this time, Doug discovered that lifting weights was his answer to combating depression. It gave him a sense of relief. He started another gym, and it became the gym of choice for serious, local lifters.
This was the time steroid use picked up, and Doug was often asked about it. He told his patrons they didn’t need them. Steroids caused more damage than good. The real question, Doug told them, was not how much more he could lift on steroids but how much less steroid users could lift without them. As if to drive his point home, at 37 years old Doug set an unofficial military press record of 420 pounds.
Doug had a strong tenor voice and was asked to sing on the undercard for JaneMansfield when she was performing in Vancouver. Encouraged, he paid all his attention to crooning, and his gym suffered. It lost money and clients, and soon his business partners—including his father—quit. Doug was once again facing bankruptcy when his friend Mike Poppel reappeared. Mike made a deal with a manufacturer to produce protein powder for Doug to sell. For a time, it was a success—people liked buying protein powder from him over the phone. When Doug outsourced the selling to a gym employee, sales plummeted. He went bankrupt for the third time.
Afterwards, Doug found inspiration from inventing exercise devices that used cables and tension to create weight-free resistance. The Dynatron, his second product, had commercial value. Doug sold its exclusive distribution rights. With royalties pouring in, Doug was again wealthy. He bought a black Lincoln Continental and moved into a new house with a spacious backyard. All was well for a few months until a disagreement over manufacturing rights—which Doug retained—cropped up with his distributor. Both sides dug in, and Doug lost his house and his Lincoln.
Doug returned to the flophouse and was unsure of what to do next. He settled on breaking another world record. In 1973, Doug officially broke the one-hand military press record. At 47, he pressed 170 pounds overhead. Inspired, Doug joined a gym and started training regularly, but his enthusiasm didn’t last long. Steroid use was rampant. He was wasting his time trying to be a clean role model. Doug quit the gym but made it clear that he would privately instruct any athlete willing to train without drugs. No one accepted his offer.
Doug moved to a small commercial space, where he lived in the back and built gym equipment in the front. He started producing cassettes of his own singing, which he sold along with strength courses, protein powder, and gym equipment. Doug was content. He set up a private gym in his space and continued to lift heavyweights. Doug wrote articles for muscle magazines and composed poetry. He took up meditation and became a vegetarian—a big deal for a man who loved to eat meat.
Doug found a new calling: promoting natural, sustaining strength. He needed to show younger generations that steroids weren’t needed to become super strong. In 1980, at age 54, Doug broke four world records for his age group to demonstrate the power of natural—steroid-free—strength. He broke six more records in 1994 and again in 1997. Doug spent the last years of his life giving away his strength courses to anyone who might benefit from them. Doug passed away from a perforated stomach ulcer at 74 on November 22, 2000.
Despite his physical disabilities, a persistent lack of recognition, an alcohol addiction, and business failures, Doug Hepburn persisted and kept lifting himself up. He proved what a person can achieve through hard work and dedication. He avoided the easy route even at the expense of material gain. To the end, Doug Hepburn—on a withered leg—possessed the strength of a derrick competing against men.
1This quote is Doug Hepburn’s recollection and comes from Tom Thurston biography, Strongman: the Doug Hepburn story (p. 120).
2This quote from Doug Hepburn appeared in1967 article by Paul Rimstead, So strong-so what? and was later republished in Rimstead book, Cocktails and jockstraps (p.93).
3This quote from Mike Poppel appeared in the June 1954 issue of Maclean's Magazine.
4The note from the CAAU appeared in Cocktails and jockstraps (Rimstead, 1980 p. 94). It is also referenced in Strongman: the Doug Hepburn story (Thurston, 2003, p. 34-5).
5Cocktails and jockstraps (Rimstead, 1980 p. 95).
6Cocktails and jockstraps (Rimstead, 1980 p. 98).
7Cocktails and jockstraps (Rimstead, 1980 p. 98).
8Cocktails and jockstraps (Rimstead, 1980 p. 100).
9Cocktails and jockstraps (Rimstead, 1980 p. 100).
10Cocktails and jockstraps (Rimstead, 1980 p. 102).
Gilmour, C. (1954). The privatelife of the world's strongest man. Maclean's Magazine, (June 1), 26-41.
Rimstead, P. (1980). So strong-sowhat? the doug hepburn story. Cocktails and jockstraps (pp. 91-105). Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall of Canada, LTD.
Thurston, T. (2003). Strongman:The doug hepburn story. Vancouver, B.C. Canada: Ronsdale Press.