The agonies & ecstasies of Doug Hepburn
September 16th, 2012
Tom Thurston, nurse a former business manager of Doug Hepburn, made several unsuccessful attempts at record his friend’s remarkable life story for Strongman, The Doug Hepburn Story (Ronsdale). He discovered that formal interviews conducted across a table, or using a tape-recorder, inhibited his subject.
Finally Hepburn found a unique method that suited him. He dictated his story in middle-of- the night telephone calls to Thurston who scribbled down notes until writer’s cramp forced him to stop.
When Thurston read the first three chapters back to his subject, Hepburn asked, “Think anyone will care?”
Thurston assured him that his story would appeal to “anyone interested in the heights that human beings can attain through character and good athletic training.” But to suggest the book’s appeal is limited to weightlifting aficionados and sports enthusiasts is to underrate it.
Strongman is the story of a largely unsung hero and “prophet without honour in his own country.” Born in Vancouver in 1927, Doug Hepburn was a self-taught body-builder and weightlifter who won the U.S. weightlifting championship in Los Angeles in 1949. He proceeded to win the 1953 world weightlifting championship in Stockholm and the gold medal in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. For that latter competition, the mayor of Vancouver hired him as a bodyguard so that he would have time to train.
Tom Thurston attempts to restore Hepburn to his rightful place in the annals of B.C. history. To this end he provides, besides the account of Hepburn’s life, ten appendices containing his weight-lifting results, his awards, his training programs, and drug-free training secrets.
Ernest Hemingway long ago conditioned us to seeing the metaphorical connection between the athlete and the artist. We often read the stories of human and non-human athletes (like Seabiscuit) as if they are kunstlerromans. Accordingly, Hepburn’s story has the wider appeal of any artist’s struggle against apparently insurmountable obstacles and personal demons.
Among Hepburn’s early liabilities were a club-foot, a cross-eyed condition, an alcoholic father, and an inherited tendency to alcohol abuse. The physical disabilities were corrected surgically, but too late to spare him a childhood made miserable by schoolyard bullies. These humiliations he endured as a child propelled him into the compensatory activity of weight-lifting— a la Charles Atlas.
As a teenager, having dropped out of school, he began to train and build up his weight with a single-mindedness that amounted to an obsession. His 10,000 calorie- a-day menu is one of the marvels of this book. Hepburn’s determination resulted in his breaking all existing records in competitions in the Vancouver area. Having done so, he encountered a huge obstacle—the Canadian Amateur Athletics Union, based in Montreal. It steadily rejected his results.
This national organization refused to allow him to represent Canada in the 1952 Olympic Games. Then when their nominee failed to win a medal, they blamed Hepburn, alleging that his difficult personality had kept him from the competition. Their rejection of Hepburn meant, among other things, that Hepburn mostly had to raise his own funds when he traveled to compete abroad.
The pain of rejection at home was eased somewhat because Hepburn had done what many a struggling artist does—he found a mentor. In February of 1950, he wrote a letter describing his plight to Charles A. Smith, a magazine editor, based in White Plains, New York, and a world authority on strength. After an agonizing wait of months, the reply came back:
My Dear Mr. Hepburn,
…you have a tremendous future as a world-class weightlifter and strongman. If your fellow Canadians are reluctant to get fully behind you in this regard, rest assured that the fault lies with them and not with you. True and noble desire fortified by God-inspired faith and determination can have no fault. It can only be pure.
The mentoring relationship was cemented after Hepburn visited Smith, and it lasted until Smith’s death in 1991. The enthusiastic welcome that Hepburn received in New York, the ultimate meritocracy, tempted him to stay. However, he resolved to remain Canadian, and returned to Vancouver.
It was not long before various obstacles presented themselves, among them the temptation to surrender the integrity of his art for easy commercial profit, or to take the performance-enhancing drugs that were being used increasingly by his competitors. Hepburn steadfastly resisted the latter temptation, and it was a source of pride that his achievements were reached without drugs. Unfortunately, his resistance to alcohol as a solace for declining strength, public indifference, and the lack of financial rewards was less successful. Hepburn conducted a courageous battle to overcome that addiction and he succeeded.
Ultimately the athlete/aesthete analogy breaks down, for athletes must come to terms with their declining powers much earlier than writers or other performers, many of whom can continue indefinitely. When Hepburn cast about for other outlets for his talents, he was tempted into wrestling but, disliking violence, he quickly abandoned that course. He became moderately successful as a night-club singer, and even more successful inventing various training devices, such as the Hepburn Exerciser, the Dynatron, and the Powermaster 3.
Although Hepburn was granted a U.S. patent, his machines brought little financial reward. An advocate of vitamins, he once claimed to be the first of the hippies. He tried his hand at writing, but he seemed happiest in the gym, advising others, mentoring young athletes, and training so that he continued to establish records for weight-lifting in his own age group. If he could no longer lay claim to the title of “strongest man in the world,” he could at least boast he was “the strongest 68-year-old man in the world.”
The 2003 World Weightlifting Championships were awarded to Vancouver to honour the 50th anniversary of Hepburn’s Stockholm triumph. This honor was somewhat hollow, for Hepburn had died three years earlier, in 2000, without being accorded the recognition he deserved in Canada. Doug Hepburn—the West Coast’s answer to central Canada’s most famous strongman, Louis Cyr—spent his final years in obscurity. Like the troubled North Vancouver-raised sprinter Harry Jerome, Hepburn was a homegrown world-class athlete who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fit the mediable mold.
Hepburn’s 10,000 Calorie A Day Diet
BREAKFAST: Quart of whole milk, large steak, 6 boiled eggs, 5 thick pieces of buttered toast, 4 more glasses of milk, bowl of soup, 2 bowls of pudding.
MID-MORNING SNACK: 4 quarts of milk, 6 bananas. 6 oranges or peaches, 6 tins tomato juice.
LUNCH: fish and chips (or another steak) with all the trimmings.
MID-AFTER-NOON SNACK: More milk and fruit.
DINNER: Another steak or 2 large tins of spaghetti.
BED-TIME SNACK: 2 large hamburgers and more milk.
Essay Date: 2004