HEPBURN, Doug (1927- )




Author Tags: Alcohol, Essentials 2010, Sports

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

Homegrown heroes such as swimmer Elaine Tanner, skater Karen Magnussen, sprinter Harry Jerome—the first Canadian to officially hold a world track record—and weightlifter Doug Hepburn all learned the hard way that society only loves a winner.

Harry Jerome’s story is especially compelling because he overcame racial hurdles as the only black athlete in his North Vancouver high school. Doctors predicted Jerome would never walk again after he suffered a severe injury at the Perth Commonwealth Games in 1962 but he set seven world records, running the 100 metres in 10.2, 10.1 and 10.0 seconds successively. Fil Fraser’s biography Running Uphill: The Short, Fast Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome (2006) merits consideration as an essential B.C. sports title.

Equally engaging, and better material for a movie, is Strongman: The Doug Hepburn Story (2003) by Tom Thurston. Born cross-eyed and with a club foot in Vancouver in 1927, the intensely shy and self-taught weightlifter Doug Hepburn miraculously became the world’s strongest man and the West Coast’s answer to eastern Canada’s Louis Cyr.

Bullied at school, he also had to contend with an alcoholic father at home. Like Charles Atlas, he became obsessed with the compensatory activity of lifting weights. He dropped out of high school and developed his own training regimen and a 10,000 calorie-a-day menu. Hepburn broke all existing records in competitions in B.C.—only to have the Canadian Amateur Athletics Union (CAAU) continuously reject his results. After Hepburn won the U.S. weight lifting championship in Los Angeles in 1949, the CAAU governing body continued to resent Hepburn’s independence. 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 several months, a letter came that began Smith’s mentoring relationship with Hepburn that endured until Smith’s death in 1991.

Based in Montreal, the CAAU refused to allow Hepburn to represent Canada in the 1952 Olympic Games. Their rejection had emotional and economic repercussions. Everywhere that Hepburn went to compete, he had to raise his own funds for travel. Hepburn, on his own nickel, proceeded to win the 1953 World Weightlifting championship in Stockholm. He also won the gold medal in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. For that latter competition, the mayor of Vancouver had hired him as a bodyguard so that he would have time to train. Hepburn refused to take any of the performance-enhancing drugs that were being used by his competitors. It was a source of pride to him that he was “clean.” Later on, however, his inherited predilection for alcohol proved a major hurdle. He courageously overcame that obstacle, too, and became an advocate of vitamins, writing a book on the subject.

Hepburn was offered opportunities to make his living in commercial wrestling, but he disliked violence—and once claimed he was one of the first hippies. Hepburn tried his luck as a nightclub singer, with moderate success, and eventually he became an inventor of 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. He was sometimes able to raise some money for himself by performing feats of strength in public, but he was happiest in the gym, advising others, mentoring young athletes, and training so that he continued to establish records for weightlifting 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.

In honour of the 50th anniversary of Doug Hepburn’s Stockholm triumph, the 2003 World Weightlifting Championships were held in Vancouver, but Hepburn had died three years earlier, in 2000. He had spent his final years in obscurity. Like the troubled North Vancouver–raised sprinter Harry Jerome, who had won a bronze medal in the Olympics, Hepburn was a homegrown world-class athlete who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fit into any media-friendly mould.


FULL ENTRY:

Intensely shy, the self-taught weight lifter Doug Hepburn became the world's strongest man and the West Coast's answer to eastern Canada's Louis Cyr.

Born with a club foot in Vancouver on September 16, 1927, Doug Hepburn grew up cross-eyed with a withered foot after a corrective operation. Bullied at school, he also had to contend with an alcoholic father at home. Like Charles Atlas, he became obsessed with the compensatory activity of lifting weights. He dropped out of high school and developed his own training regimen and a 10,000 calorie-a-day menu. Hepburn broke all existing records in competitions in British Columbia--only to have the Canadian Amateur Athletics Union continuously reject his results. After Hepburn won the U.S. weight lifting championship in Los Angeles in 1949, the CAAU governing body continued to resent Hepburn's independence. 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 several months, a letter came that began a mentoring relationship with Smith that endured until Smith's death in 1991. "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." Hepburn went to New York and was tempted to stay, but resolved to remain in competition as a Canadian. He returned to Vancouver.

Based in Montreal, the CAAU refused to allow Hepburn to represent Canada in the 1952 Olympic Games. When CAAU's representatives failed to win a medal, the organization disparaged Hepburn for having a difficult personality that had kept him from the competition. Their rejection had emotional and economic repercussions. Everywhere that Hepburn went to compete, he had to raise his own funds for travel. Hepburn, on his own nickel, proceeded to win the 1953 world weight lifting championship in Stockholm. He also won the gold medal in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. For that latter competition, the mayor of Vancouver had hired him as a bodyguard so that he would have time to train.

Hepburn refused to take any of the performance-enhancing drugs that were being used by his competitors. It was a source of pride to him that he was 'clean' but his inherited predilection for alcohol proved a major hurdle. He courageously overcame that obstacle, too. Hepburn became an intense advocate of vitamins and wrote a book on the subject. He was offered opportunities to make his living in commercial wrestling, but he disliked violence--and once claimed he was one of the first hippies. Hepburn tried his luck as a night-club singer, with some moderate success, and eventually he became an inventor of 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. He was sometimes able to raise some money for himself by performing feats of strength in public, but he was 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.

In honour of the 50th anniversary of Doug Hepburn's Stockholm triumph, the 2003 World Weightlifting Championships were held in Vancouver but Hepburn had died three years earlier, in 2000. He had spent his final years in obscurity. Like the troubled North Vancouver-raised sprinter Harry Jerome, who had won a bronze medal in the Olympics, Hepburn was a home-grown world-class athlete who couldn't, or wouldn't, fit into any mediable mold. Tom Thurston, a former business manager of Doug Hepburn, made several unsuccessful attempts to record his friend's remarkable life story for Strongman, The Doug Hepburn Story (Ronsdale 2003). 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. "Strongman," wrote reviewer Joan Givner, "is the story of a largely unsung hero and prophet without honour in his own country."

[BCBW 2010]