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Gallery of Ironmen: Canadian Might

In memoriam: Long live Doug Hepburn.

On November 22, 2000, Douglas Ivan Hepburn, one of the strongest men who ever lived, passed away in his apartment. When the Vancouver, British Columbia, native was born on September 16, 1926, it was not at all clear that he would achieve greatness. He had several things going against him: He was born cross-eyed and with a club foot.

Despite all his problems, Doug had one great advantage: He had a stubborn tenacity to succeed. That helped when he began weight training at the age of 15. Doug made rapid progress, and by the time he was 24 years old, he could clean and press 341 pounds, bench-press 400 pounds and do a full squat with 550. In October 1950 Doug sent a letter to Weider editor Charles Smith asking for help in getting the recognition he deserved.

Hepburn enclosed two photos, one of him holding a sofa above his head and the other of him holding a rowboat in a similar way. He was invited to New York, and under Smith’s expert training, Hepburn rose from the ranks of amateur to world-class weightlifter. Using the high-sets, low-reps system, Doug raised his total by more than 100 pounds in one year.

By 1953 Hepburn was ready for his greatest triumph, the World Weightlifting Championships in Stockholm. Much to everyone’s surprise (except Doug’s), he was the overall winner at the meet. His great strength bowled everyone over; even the great American lifter John Davis fell before him.

Hepburn’s victory was so unsuspected that officials didn’t even have a recording of ‘Oh Canada’ to play in recognition of the triumph of the ‘one-man Canadian team,’ and he had to settle for ‘God Save the Queen.’

Another stunning victory at the British Empire Games in 1954 cemented Hepburn’s place in the pantheon of great lifters. Unfortunately, victories did not necessarily mean financial security. By any account Doug was a superb athlete but a terrible businessman. His life was a constant attempt to keep the wolf from the door and the inner demons out of his head. Some bad personal choices and some even worse financial errors brought him to a low point in the 1960s and ’70s, but he dragged himself back and became as economically secure as he’d ever been. Unfortunately, a misdiagnosed peptic ulcer caused his demise when it perforated his stomach lining.

Until the very end Doug kept training and trying new techniques. He wanted to do a 100-pound one-arm press and a strict curl of 160 when he was 80. ‘When you’re old,’ he was quoted recently as saying, ‘your mind calls the shots. It’s the pain and fatigue that will stop you, so use your willpower and ignore it.’ It’s both tragic and ironic that ignoring pain contributed to Doug’s untimely death.

For many years Doug Hepburn was almost certainly the world’s strongest man, but his place at the top of the weightlifting heap brought him neither fortune nor lasting happiness. Still, we can look back and marvel at his accomplishments and marvel that such a pillar of human strength could exist in our time. IM

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