It was early September 1998 when I got a message from my editor that an old fella wanted to talk about the arm-wrestling machine he invented in his storefront welding shop at 40 East Fourth Ave.
The old fella was Doug Hepburn.
My grandfather and father once told me about the local strongman who crushed oilcans in his bare hands. He overcame crossed eyes and a club foot to become 1953’s world weightlifting champion with a record 168.396 kg press in Stockholm, Sweden. A year later he won gold in Vancouver’s British Empire and Commonwealth Games.
Hepburn taught himself the way to be a champion. He was his own boss. As time passed, the world’s strongest man became Canada’s least-known sports great because of failed business ventures and battles with the bottle.
Hepburn wore thick glasses and a beret over his grey hair the day I met him. He walked with a limp, but his barrel-shaped chest looked like it had more than a few heavy lifts remaining.
I expected to be at his shop for a half-hour but ended up leaving three hours later. Not a minute was wasted. Hepburn dazzled me with his philosophies on weightlifting and life. He freely quoted from scripture and literature. He showed me the movie script he was writing-under the pseudonym Sax Rand-and played recordings from his lounge-singing days.
We hardly talked about the Powermaster 3 arm wrestling machine. Hepburn was more interested in discussing how illegal steroids and grey market nutritional supplements had sullied his sport. He called himself the “strongest natural athlete in history” and challenged anyone to beat him in a five-lift show of strength for a $10,000 prize. To claim the money, you had to beat the champ and pass a test for performance-enhancing drugs.
Hepburn fulfilled a long time dream and moved to an apartment near Stanley Park two years later. He didn’t get to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets near Lost Lagoon for long, because he died of a perforated ulcer. He was 74. Nobody ever took his $10,000 challenge.
“He spent his whole life attempting to show just how much the human body and spirit could accomplish,” remembers Tom Thurston, a friend of Hepburn’s who wrote Strongman: The Doug Hepburn Story (Ronsdale). “He decided that if you’re going to be a strong man, you have to be a strong man in all facets. He was very adamant of the power of positive thinking.”
Thurston, a former national taekwon-do athlete, was fascinated with Hepburn’s outlook on life after meeting him more than 20 years ago at Hepburn’s gym equipment shop. During Hepburn’s later years, Thurston began compiling the biography, which includes the strongman’s complete, drug-free strength and conditioning regimen. The book was published this month to coincide with the World Weightlifting Championships in Vancouver.
“He wanted people, especially young lifters, to understand that it was possible to become super strong and stay super strong long into your later years without drugs.”
Hepburn was Canada’s top athlete of 1953 and was inducted into sports halls of fame nationally and provincially. His charismatic personality should’ve made him a celebrity on the public speaking circuit. Instead, he lived and died in obscurity.
(Pic: 1954 - Mayor Fred Hume with Doug Hepburn)
“He performed his feats at a time when Canada didn’t care about weightlifting,” Thurston said. “I don’t think Canada or Canadians realized who they had living here until it was too late.”
There are no statues of Canada’s only world weightlifting champion or gyms named in his honour, but there are the World Weightlifting Championships. The event was awarded to Vancouver to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hepburn’s Stockholm victory. It ends Nov. 22 - exactly three years after Hepburn’s death.
“I wish that Doug had been around to see it,” Thurston said.
So do I.
RIP Doug Hepburn:
Born - Sept. 16. 1926
Died - Nov. 22. 2000