Sunday, February 10, 2013

Paul Anderson

The following article will conclude the countdown of my 10 favorite strongmen. Paul Anderson is not only my #1, but his individual achievments in the powerlifts, olympic weightlifting, and feats of strength, all accomplished in the pre-steroid era, make him hands down the strongest man who ever lived.

I remember...

I remember it from when I was just a little boy. My dad would puff out his chest and hold his arms slightly out to the side and try and look as big as he possibly could. In as deep a voice as he could make he would walk around a say "I'm Paul Anderson, The World's Strongest Man..." as matter of factly as I'm sure Mr. Anderson himself once did. Then he would tell me about the time Paul Anderson came to Oxford, Alabama to the High School and performed feats of strength... He would hold 50lb. weights on his pinkies as he talked to the students, how he could pick up the end of a car, and how, on the day my father saw him, he had the starting Oxford High varsity football team sit around a tall table, and Paul wedged his behemoth frame underneath and picked them all up off the ground in his trademark back lift. Then he would tell me about the Youth Home and how Paul took in troubled boys and gave them another chance. I've never forgot those stories, I don't guess I ever will. It's where it all began for me...

The Beginning
Paul, Age 5
Paul Edward Anderson was born in Toccoa, Georgia on October 17th, 1932.  At the young age of 5 he came down with Bright's Disease, an inflammation of the kidneys that in those days was commonly fatal. Paul lay nearly dead at a hospital in Murphy, North Carolina. Family and friends gathered and prayed through the night... Paul survived.  After his miraculous recovery his doctor prescribed him a strict diet of virtually no meat or protein. After a few weeks showing less than desirable improvement, Paul's mother began feeding him milk, eggs, and meat... The stuff future strongmen are made of. And a mother's wisdom enabled Paul to recover fully, but the damage the disease had done to his kidney's would plague him later in life.

After finishing high school in Toccoa he attended Furman University in 1950 on a football scholarship. While there one of his friends showed him the secret gym they had set up in an upstairs empty room of the Furman gymnasium. Weightlifting was forbidden for scholarship athletes, as Paul put it "it had earned a bad reputation from comic book ads and muscle magazines", and at that time it was believed to also make a man "muscle bound" and inflexible. There he began lifting in secret and discovered his natural ability to move with ease heavier weights than anyone else. That is the place that Paul's love for weightlifting began.

Except for that gym, Paul hated school and after one year he quit and devoted himself to the pursuit of strength full-time. After moving to Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1951 with his parents he trained at home. With wagon wheels, oil drums filled with cement, an old broken safe, and some weights he was given by his brother-in-law, Julius. In what to most would appear a junk yard, Paul Anderson moved mountains in a makeshift gym and cleverly devised many new approaches to strength training that are still in use today.

In the summer of 1952, some weightlifting friends took Paul to north Georgia to introduce him to legendary lifter, Bob Peoples. Bob was a humble farmer, strength patriarch, master of the deadlift and, though retired, still a well known strength figure. So, one evening, after introductions Paul, Mr. Peoples and some other local strength figures gathered in Bob's dungeon-like gym. Bob asked Paul what he would like to warm up with in the deep knee bend (barbell squat)... Paul said "600lbs." The current official world record in the squat stood around 575lbs. and with much skepticism and hesitation they loaded the bar. Paul stepped under it and the men gathered around to spot him, prepared to save his life if necessary. Paul took the weight on his shoulders, stepped back and squatted down and back up never wavering. He stood there a moment and went down again for another easy repetition and then stepped forward and re-racked the weight...

...Bob Peoples and his friends stood there in stunned silence, two easy repetitions far above the recognized world record... they were amazed...

Given the reaction of the company, Paul elected not to go back to school that fall and began competing. With the help and guidance of Mr. Peoples. Paul's training took off and he entered several local meets and breaking state and local records in the process.

Early Career

A win over weightlifting world record holder , Norbert Schemansky, at The North American Weightlifting Championships in Montreal in 1953 gained Paul some notoriety in the strength world. However, a leg injury prevented him from making the tryouts for the United States Amateur Athletic Union team that would go to the World Weightlifting Championships that year. Then in 1954 he broke his left wrist when his foot slipped while bringing a world record attempt press to his shoulders at a YMCA meet in Philadelphia shortly before nationals. Then a car accident later in 1954 would ruin any hope of making the AAU team and leave him with broken ribs and a hip injury that would stay with him forever...  Again his hopes were dashed.

Paul was discouraged, but he refused to quit. He began rehabilitating his injuries and devoted himself to the study of anatomy, nutrition, and training. And he knew his time would come, and indeed it would...

In 1955 the United States Weightlifting team would have to be assembled by June so they could travel and compete in Communist Russia. No American athlete had been behind the Iron Curtain in years.  So Paul called Bob Hoffman, of the famed York Barbell Club and coach of the USA weightlifting team made his pitch to be on the team. The coach told him very plainly that while his reported lifts were impressive, he had failed to produce when it counted and that the heavyweight spot on the team belonged to then World Champion, Norbert Schemansky.

Paul's last shot would be to win the National Championships in Cleveland, and then somehow get Bob Hoffman to give him the spot on the team over the legendary Schemansky.  Paul got his passport and inoculations, just in case he got the nod. Several trucker friends of Paul's even began sending telegrams from all over the USA to York Barbell Club to make it appear as though Paul had national support. Paul appreciated the creativity, but humorously thought it did little to help his efforts...

Paul arrived in Cleveland prepared to compete against Schemansky. To Paul's surprise, Norbert had a back injury and wouldn't compete. Paul took one heavy lift each in the Press, Clean and Jerk, and the Snatch, just enough to prove himself and impress Hoffman. At the end of the meet, when Hoffman discovered Paul had his passport and was ready to travel. He was on the team and on his way to Russia.

Miracle in Moscow

June 1955, 16,000 spectators gathered in the rain in Moscow's Gorki Park. The US weightlifting team stood on the stage was introduced. When Paul's name was announced he stepped forward, all  5'9" 370 pounds of him. There were a few claps, but mostly snickering due to his size, but regardless, he was primed and ready to show the world what he could do.

Alexei Medveyev was Paul's  Russian heavyweight counterpart, that night he planned to tie the Olympic press record, a mark just over 330lbs. The way the meet worked, 5lbs. was added to the bar every few minutes until a lifter stopped them to make his attempt. When the bar reached the 300lb. mark, all the other lifters had finished, it was just Paul and Medveyev. The Russian took his first attempt, then his second, and then his third successful lift to match the Olympic record of 330lbs.When he made it the crowd went wild... but Paul had yet to make an attempt.  They kept adding to the bar, 5lbs. at a time. Paul waited... The bar weight eventually exceeded 350lbs. There was some confusion at first as to whether or not Paul was going to make an attempt. Finally the officials just asked him how much weight he would like on the bar. "402 1/2 pounds" was his reply... Forty pounds over the existing world record held by Doug Hepburn of Canada, the Russians laughed at the thought of this preposterous weight, but honored the request and loaded the bar to 402 1/2 pounds.

Paul stood on the platform and chalked his hands. On his first attempt at the weight his hand slipped due to the bar being wet from rain. He dropped the bar to the platform, the audience sighed as if to say "we knew it was impossible". But calmly and carefully Paul dried the bar with a towel and chalked his hands again... He was not unnerved by adversity... Gripping the bar with authority, he cleaned the weight to his shoulders. The head judge clapped his hands to signal for him to press, and press he did...

Steadily and perfectly he drove the new world record of 402 1/2 lbs. over his head and held it there in victory, and then returned it carefully to the platform...

The unknown man from Toccoa, the Dixie Derrick. had done what no one believed could be done, and for a solid ten seconds the crowd sat in shock and silence, and then...  erupted in cheers.  The Russians named him Чудо природы, "The Wonder of Nature".

Paul would go on to break two more world records that night in the Clean and Jerk and the total weight lifted. The next day he was front page news. Instantly and internationally he was known for his achievement.  Offers to speak came pouring in and an article was written about him in the Saturday Evening Post. After years of hard work, Paul Anderson had made a name for himself. 

At the 1955 World Weightlifting Championships he won handily, broke a few of his own records, and began looking to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne Australia.

Melbourne 1956

Paul Anderson's victory was such a forgone conclusion that the Russians didn't even enter a heavyweight lifter in for the '56 games. But two weeks before the Melbourne Olympics an inner ear infection would begin taking it's toll on Paul. For the days following he ran a fever as high as 104 degrees.  He had planned on weighing in at the Olympics a svelte 340lbs. However, the day came to lift for his country, and by the time he made it to the platform, he weighed a depleted and weakened 304. To make matters worse the lifting was running behind schedule.  As a fever raged it was 1 A.M. before the heavyweights took their turn on the platform. Paul sat alone as the fever, fatigue and dizziness drained his strength further. He took virtual warm up weights in the press and the snatch, and for the first time in competitive career, he was behind going into the clean and jerk. Humberto Selvetti of Argentina was in the lead and having the best competition of his career...

 Paul went and laid down at the aide station on a cot.  He simply told them his Australian friend,  wake him when it was his turn to lift. At 3am his friend woke him up to tell him that he must clean and jerk 414 1/2lbs. to tie Selvetti's total, then he would win by being the lighter man in body weight.

Paul rose from the cot and walked to the platform. 

On attempt number one he cleaned the weight to his shoulders, but couldn't even begin to drive it overhead.
On attempt number two after cleaning the weight he pushed and drove the best he could...  only halfway up.

He had 3 minutes before his next attempt. Here is how Paul described that time.

"I used my officially allotted rest period to walk up a long, dark corridor; I felt as if God were reminding me of everything He had ever done for me. He had made me what I was. Everything I had accomplished had been because He had let me survive Bright's disease as a child. He had given me loving Christian parents. In spite of His countless blessings, I had Ignored Him." -A Greater Strength pg. 72

Paul Anderson, the strongest man since the Biblical Samson, returned to the stage for his final attempt. The arena was silent. He chalked up his hands, placed them on the bar and said a quick prayer.  "I want to be a part of your Kingdom, and from here on out I'm making a real commitment... I must have your help to get this weight overhead. - Paul Anderson, A Greater Strength pg.73"

Then with everything he had left in him he cleaned the bar to his shoulders... It felt impossible... 

 Then with every last bit of strength had remaining, he dipped and pushed as though his whole life had come down this moment... 

The bar went up... It stayed.

The country boy from Georgia, Paul Edward Anderson, had just won the Olympic Gold Medal. And to this very day he was the last American to win weightlifting gold in the heavyweight division.

A relieved Paul smiles and waves.
 Selvetti (left) still wondering how he lost it.

Professional Life and The Paul Anderson Youth Home

Paul became a professional strongman to escape the auspices of the AAU that put tight restrictions on the amateur Olympic athletes earning money by their trade. He began speaking, sharing his faith and doing strength demonstrations in schools and prisons.

During this time Paul developed a deep conviction for the welfare of young people. He spent the next few years earning what money he could from appearances, demonstrations and even boxing for a short time, to start a Youth Home.

In 1959 Paul became reacquainted with the lovely blue-eyed brunette, Ms. Glenda Garland, the daughter of a family friend. Paul and Glenda fell head over heals and got married that following Fall. Glenda, shared Paul's deep conviction to begin a youth home and became his greatest helper and friend. In the early days of their marriage, they lived in a motel in Vidalia, Georgia and saved every dime they could to begin their life and ministry together.

In 1961 Paul got a call from the local sheriff, a mother had tried to sell her two daughters as prostitutes, the mother was arrested and the girls needed a place to stay... What better place to stay the under the watchful care of the World's Strongest Man... So those two little girls shared the motel room with Paul and Glenda,  and The Paul Anderson Youth Home was born.

They eventually rented a big house in Vidalia and Paul began travelling the country to raise support for his home. After a few years of fundraising they were able to purchase the house and land they were renting. And Paul felt called and most burdened to focus their ministry efforts on young men. And for the many years following Paul Anderson was a father to the fatherless and a bold Christian Witness. 
Paul and Glenda outside the Youth Home in 1963

Today, The Paul Anderson Youth Home receives young men from broken, traumatic, criminal and dysfunctional situations and provides them with a home, education, love, discipline and stability. 

Failing Health and Going Home

In 1983, the kidneys which had been damaged by his early childhood disease, finally began to fail him permanently. Paul lay nearly dead again from an infection related to the dialysis treatment he was receiving to sustain his life. His sister, Dot, in an act of great love and sacrifice, gave him a kidney... That kidney extended Paul's life for many years, and he continued his work at The Youth Home in whatever capacity he was able. 

On August 15th, 1994, Paul Edward Anderson threw off the shackles of this earthly flesh that had served him so mightily and went Home to be greeted by The Savior he so sacrificially served. 


One evening in 1983, about 500 people from The Georgia Baptist Assembly gathered at a banquet to honor Paul Anderson. After being introduced by friend, Tom Landry, Paul, sick, weak and pale from the infection, struggled to the podium and leaned against it. He said a few words, many of them thank you's, and then, in closing he said "If someday you hear that Paul Anderson is dead, he's not dead. He's gone to live with God. He can't live anymore in this tired old vehicle. Don't weep for Paul Anderson." As Paul left the podium people stood to their feet in applause and tears. Paul, with the aid of his wife Glenda and a walker, made a slow exit to a waiting car outside, exhausted from the evening.

It is true, the body ultimately failed him, but he lives on in eternity with The God who saves. 

Paul's race has been run, and he ran it so well. There are hundreds of young men who lives would be drastically different had the strongman not heard the call to action and intervened.

Some may measure Paul's success by gold medals and world records, but even Paul would point not to his weightlifting achievements, but would point instead to the big white house down in Vidalia, Georgia where the outcast youth of society are given a second chance...

"Some people have looked at my travelling schedule and my daily routine at the Paul Anderson Youth Home and admonished 'Paul, you are doing too much, you are burning the candle at both ends.' My answer to these dear, caring individuals has been, 'But Oh, what a beautiful light!'" - Paul Anderson

Oh, what a beautiful light indeed...

The Paul Anderson Memorial Park

On a cool winter afternoon my wife, daughter and I exited I85 and took a rolling two lane road through some North Georgia farmland. After a few minutes we arrive in Toccoa and made our way down East Tuggalo Street looking for the man himself. We had nearly rolled right by it when my wife exclaimed "there it is!" After parking the car, I couldn't help but feel reverent and nervous as I walked up to the memorial, almost like walking into a quiet church building.

The park was beautiful and quiet, paved with brick and a fountain in the center. And there he stood with the winning lift over his head.

There we stood, with our adopted immigrant daughter, my own family, built by sacrifice.

We didn't stay too long, the road home was calling, but we stayed long enough for me to have plenty of thoughts about life, family, Jesus, and real strength. We read all the plaques and and took a hundred pictures. My daughter ran, rolled in the grass, climbed everything that could be climbed, and was eventually brought to tears by the scratch of a holly bush... All the while, completely oblivious to the fact that we were standing in the shadow of the man who inspired her daddy to consider the orphan and defend the fatherless.

On the brick encircling the fountain and statue it asks one simple question, a famous quote from Paul's many messages:

"If I, Paul Anderson, The World's Strongest Man, cannot live a
single day without Jesus Christ, then how can you?"

Pondering that question for a moment, I already knew the answer...  I can't.

Back through the rolling hills we went on the road to my Alabama home and the words of Jesus Himself came to my mind to summarize what I could not. 

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." 
Luke 9:23-24

Thank you God for Paul Anderson, and thank you God for the work You continue to do through his life. 

Paul's Achievements

Backlift - 6270lbs. - The largest weight ever raise by a human. This lift was, until the 1990's, recognized by The Guinness Book of World Records. Some doubt the veracity of this lift, however, Paul himself described the ordeal of assembling the table and all the weights and weighing each one to accurately get a total weight. This lift alone qualifies him as the strongest man who ever lived. 

Squat - 1000+lbs. without any supportive gear. 

Barbell Press (official) - 408lbs. 

1955 World Weightlifting Champion

1956 Olympic Gold Medalist

Father and Mentor to hundreds of young men over the last 34 years of his life through The Paul Anderson Youth Home. 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A truly amazing man who permanently changed the world. Hundreds of young men are alive today thanks to Paul.