Karyn Marshall – A True Pioneer of Women's Weightlifting
© 2022 by Arthur Drechsler
The extraordinary history of the Iron Game has generally been a proud one in terms of its fidelity to pure meritocracy. When it comes to weightlifting and strength feats, at least, there has long been a recognition that super athletes exist regardless of race, religion or nationality. But in the case of gender, widely held cultural biases against women in sport served to limit the opportunity for women to display their strength and muscular development throughout most of recorded history. It took women with courage and vision to change the prevailing views.
When it comes to the sport of Weightlifting, Karyn Marshall truly “raised the bar” of women’s weightlifting by helping become the worldwide phenomenon it is today. A very athletic young woman, Karyn nee Bastiansen excelled at field hockey and basketball. While in nursing school and Columbia University in 1978, Karyn was introduced to weightlifting by her then boyfriend and his coach, and she soon fell in love with the sport. Her first competition was an Empire (NY) State Games Trials in the spring of 1979, where she competed in the 75kg. category and snatched 57.5 kg. and cleaned and jerked just in excess of her bodyweight – 75 kg. (the ESG did not include a women’s division in those days, so she was not permitted to compete in the Games themselves at all, even though she had won the male dominated trials).
Despite that disappointment, Karyn decided to continue to compete in weightlifting, not only because of a growing love for the sport, and a growing confidence in herself, but also because she believed that women deserved to have a place in the sport. For the next several years, she competed against men whenever she lifted, as did a slowly growing number of other women throughout the US.
Toward the end of the 1970’s, as the number of women competing in weightlifting grew, and their performances improved, Mabel Rader, the first female to become a National Level official for weightlifting in the US, advocated for the acceptance of women’s weightlifting on a national level. Given her knowledge and reputation, she was asked by the USA Weightlifting Board of Directors to explore the feasibility of organizing a women’s nationals in weightlifting - an event, it was believed, would constitute the first true women’s weightlifting nationals in the entire world.
Finally, in the fall of 1980, the Board of Directors of the US Weightlifting Federation took up the issue of conducting a women’s nationals the following year. There were some Board members who did not support the idea of a 1981 Nationals. They were about not being opposed to women’s weightlifting per se, but rather felt that such a championship would have low participation and poor lifting performances. They wanted to table the idea until a future time, presumably when women’s lifting would have become more popular.
I was one of the board members who argued in favor of the 1981 women’s nationals, on the premise that it was simply the right thing to do, but also that only by having a championship would women everywhere begin to think that there was a place for them in our sport.
After much discussion, there was a call for the vote and the result was a tie. The tie was broken by the then President of USA Weightlifting, Murray Levin, who spoke strongly on behalf of, and voted in favor of, conducting the championships. History had been made.
Multi-time national weightlifting champion, Joel Widdel, agreed to host the event, which took place on May 23rd , 1981, in Waterloo, Iowa. There were a total of 29 competitors spread across nine bodyweight categories. Karyn won the 75 kg. bodyweight category, with lifts of 65 kg. in the snatch and 80 kg. in the C&J. In so doing, she had become forever a part of a great moment in women’s weightlifting history, as the first Women’s National Champion ever, in her bodyweight category.
At the 1982 Nationals, Karyn was victorious once again, with an American Record breaking 147.5 kg. total. But she was particularly impressed (as she had been the prior year) with the winner of the unlimited bodyweight category, Lorna Griffin. Griffin snatched 77.5 kg. and made 100 kg. in the C&J that year, inspiring Karyn to promise herself that she would move up in bodyweight and become competitive with Lorna.
In 1983, Karyn moved up a bodyweight category to compete at 181 lb., and her performance improved dramatically. She won the competition easily, snatching 82.5 kg. and making 95 kg. in the C&J, both American Records. In the meantime, Lorna Griffin was not standing still in the plus 82.5 kg. category. She snatched the same 82.5 kg. as Karyn, but made 105 kg. in the C&J. Nevertheless, the gap between these athletes was narrowing, and this strengthened Karyn’s resolve to compete with Lorna the following year head to head, in the same bodyweight category.
At that same Nationals, Mark LeMenager, one of the top men’s coaches of the day, commented that, while the women were lifting well, they had a long way to go before surpassing the lifting of the greatest strongwomen of the distant past – most particularly Katie Sandwina, who had reportedly lifted 286 lb. overhead approximately 75 years earlier. While LeMenager’s mention of Sandwina’s lift was a shock to Karyn, she took it as another challenge, and so was planted the seed that would help to assure her place in weightlifting history. For all the way home from the competition, all Karyn thought about was lifting more weight overhead than any other woman ever had, which began to create in her a burning desire to break Sandwina’s record. Although Karyn’s 95 kg. (209 lb.) C&J was a long way from Sandwina’s 286 lb. lift, Karyn began to plan for the record, believing with all her heart that some day it would be hers, something that only the mind of a future great would conceive.
She realized she’d have to continue to increase her strength and muscular bodyweight if she wanted to achieve her dream, so she planned her training and diet accordingly. By the 1984 Nationals, Karyn had finally moved up to the +82.5 kg. bodyweight category, where she engaged in a colossal battle Lorna Griffin, perhaps the closest in the history of women’s weightlifting up to that the time. Griffin made lifts of the 85 kg. in the snatch and 115 kg in the C&J, which was an American record. But Karyn had out snatched Lorna with 87.5 kg. and she matched her in the C&J, to total an American record total of 202.5 kg., this was the first time American women had exceeded a 200 kg. (440 lb.) total officially, very likely the first time any woman in the world had done it.
Perhaps more importantly, now Marshall was only 15 kg. away from Sandwina’s overhead lifting record and that prospect set her on fire. She was determined to have the record and now she single mindedly focused on that goal in her training.
At the same, time Karyn realized that when her goal was reached, she wanted some kind of official record of her feat. Since no women’s world records were recognized by the International Weightlifting Federation at that time, Karyn contacted the Guiness Book of World Records staff to ascertain how she could go about establishing a record that would meet their standards, and she also made sure her lift would be counted by US officials as an American Record.
By December of 1984, Karyn was ready for her assault on Sandwina’s record. At a USWF sanctioned competition, with international referees in attendance, Karyn made a token snatch lift. She then opened in the C&J with 125.5 kg., which assured her at least an American Record, and she made that lift smoothly. On her second attempt, she called for 131 kg., to clearly exceed Sandwina’s record. Once the weight was loaded, she came out and made a relatively easy clean, followed by a hard fought jerk, a lift that established her as unquestionably the woman who had officially lifted the heaviest weight overhead ever recorded. Despite her jubilation at her record making feat, Karyn wanted to reach still another milestone – to become the first woman ever to C&J in excess of 300 lb. So, for her third attempt, she called for just over 300 lb. and made a heroic effort with this weight, but it was not to be that day. She’d have to be “satisfied” with simply breaking a 75 year old record that had heretofore never been seriously threatened!
Marshall now set her sights on breaking the 300 lb. barrier at the 1985 Women’s Nationals, on April 13, 1985, in New Rochelle, NY (minutes from Karyn’s home), a competition she was helping to organize. Unfortunately, the stress of helping to organize the competition, and perhaps some overpsyching on her part, led to a bit of an off day (if you want to consider breaking two American Records and winning the Nationals an off day)! But in truth Karyn was disappointed, that the magic 300 lb. had eluded her one again. However,she was far from deterred from pursuing her goal.
Lifting exactly one week later, at the NYS Weightlifting Championships, Karyn finally exceeded 300 lb., with a lift of 137.5 kg. (303.25 lb.) She had become the first women ever to officially C&J more than 300 lb. Demonstrating her competitive spirit, the very next day she completed an unusual “double”, by lifting at the NYS Powerlifting Championships in Elmira, NY. Although she had never specialized in the powerlifts, she squatted 210 kg., bench pressed 102.5 kg. and deadlifted 215 kg. The latter lift was an unofficial American Record.
After her record making spree, Karyn decided to set a bold new goal – lowering her bodyweight back to 82.5 kg. and then trying to repeat the lifts she had made at a significantly heavier bodyweight. She carefully reduced her bodyweight and her first competition in this lower bodyweight category was promising. She snatched 95 kg. and made a 120 kg. C&J.
Karyn and I began to work together early in 1986, and by the 1986 Nationals, she was in fine condition. We hoped she would be able to break all the American Records in the 82.5 kg. category and at the same time qualify to lift in the first international women’s competition, which was scheduled to be held in Budapest, Hungary later in the year. Unfortunately, a bar that Karyn felt handled in an unusual way, and the overall pressure of making our first women's international team, got the best of her and she failed three times to make an 87.5 kg snatch, a weight that was normally very easy for her. She salvaged something from the day by making a 120.5 kg US record exceeding C&J, which was not recognized because the weights had not been properly certified.
While her performance at the National’s was a disappointment, as had so often been the case for Karyn in the past, a setback inspired her toward new goals. We began working on improving her poise and concentration and using relaxation imaging techniques and continued to work on improving her technique and strength. A significant improvement in the latter was registered when she officially squatted 227.5 kg.(501 lb.) at the Metrofit Open powerlifting competition, in May of 1986.
At the 1987 Nationals, Karyn was very conservative, making lifts of 90 kg. in the snatch and 110 kg. in the C&J, for a 200 kg. total. A couple of months later, she competed in the trials for the first Women’s World Championship team, and made the team easily. She then set about preparing herself for the greatest challenge in her weightlifting life thus far, competing at the inaugural Women's World Championships, which were to be held in Daytona Beach Florida, in November of 1987.
The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) intended this first Women’s World Championship as something of an experiment. Some IWF officials wondered whether such a women’s competition was truly viable over the long term. And the world was quite splintered with regard to women’s weightlifting competition. For instance, women’s weightlifting was accepted in the weightlifting communities of the US and China, but it was abhorred in some eastern European countries, such as the then USSR.
No one quite knew what to expect at the competition, but the American team had high hopes. The US had been a real pioneer in adopting women’s weightlifting on a national level and the feeling was that we had developed some pretty competitive athletes. This turned out to be true, as US athletes won a total of 15 medals and the team placed second overall, to China.
The degree of strength of the Chinese team was something of a surprise. Significant weightlifting activity had been reported in China for some time, but no one was quite sure about the level of development that the women of China had reached. However, as the first women’s world championships unfolded, it was obvious that the Chinese team was terrific overall. In fact, by the time the 165 lb. bodyweight category had drawn to a close, the Chinese women had won every bodyweight category.
As the competition advanced to its last session, in which the 82.5 kg. and 82.5 + kg. bodyweight categories would be lifting at the same time, all of the hopes of the US for an overall victory rested on Karyn. There was no Chinese lifter entered in her bodyweight category, but there were very strong lifters from Hungary, Bulgaria and Great Britain. Despite all the pressure on her shoulders, Karyn made a solid first attempt in the snatch with 90 kg. She missed her second attempt at 95 kg. but that miss renewed her focus and she made a very easy 3rd attempt with the same weight. Tommy Kono (the head coach of the overall US team) and I were feeling reasonably comfortable at this point, as we knew Karyn was very strong in the C&J, but at the same time we were uncertain about what Karyn’s competitors could do in that lift.
Then a completely unexpected threat emerged. The media, sensing a potential US victory, descended on the warm-up room, announcing their intention to interview Karyn. No doubt such an interview would have suited their journalistic needs, and Karyn, always mindful of conveying a positive image of women’s weightlifting, was tempted to comply. I reminded her to focus exclusively on the C&J, and assured her the press would be back after she won. I then got into a somewhat heated discussion with the media representatives, reminding them that they were not invited into the locker room during the half time of a football game, or into the corner between rounds of a boxing match. So I was uninviting them from being backstage (this being the first women’s worlds, security was not very sophisticated). They finally left.
Now refocused and resolved to lift up to her best in the C&J, Karyn performed like a master. She made all three C&J’s, not only winning her bodyweight category by more a 12.5 kg. margin, but out lifting the athletes in the unlimited (over 82.5 kg.) bodyweight category, including the Chinese athlete who won that heavier category.
In short, Karyn made the highest total of any athlete in the competition of any bodyweight, and richly earned the title of World’s Strongest Woman. It was a glorious moment for her, and for US Weightlifting. The American audience showed their glee with a thunderous ovation as Karyn triumphantly held her last C&J (the last lift of the entire competition) above her head, with that spellbinding Karyn smile on her face. It was a magical moment to say the least!
The IWF officials were thrilled as well. This “test” competition had been incredibly exciting overall. The women demonstrated excellent preparation, both in terms of strength and technique. And their sportsmanship had been outstanding, with women from all around the world cheering each other on.
Doubters no more, the IWF officials immediately declared there would be a Women’s World Championship the following year, and there has been one every year since, with women’s weightlifting ultimately becoming a permanent part of the Olympic Games beginning in 2000, in Sydney.
The 1987 Women’s World Championships, and the ones that came after it, played a major role in this helping women to achieve Olympic acceptance, and Karyn was thrilled to have played an iconic role in the sport’s evolution, as one of its true pioneers and the star of its first World Championship.
After celebrating her great victory, Karyn and I agreed that our lives were going in different directions, so our coach/athlete relationship ended at this point, and the following year, Karyn began to train with Naum Kelmansky, a highly ranked coach from the former USSR. He was to guide Karyn from 1988 through 1991.
In 1988, Karyn decided to increase her bodyweight again, so that she could continue to pursue her “World’s Strongest Woman” title. She felt that her competition would improve every year and that expecting to out lift lifters in the unlimited bodyweight category at a lighter bodyweight was unrealistic. Under Naum’s guidance, Karyn increased her bodyweight and her lifts.
She went to the 1988 Nationals still in the 82.5 kg. category and made lifts of 102.5 kg. in the snatch and 120 kg. in the C&J, for 222.5 kg. American Record in the total. By that year’s World Championships, she was ready to compete in the 82.5+ kg. category, where she made lifts of 97.5 kg. in the snatch and 127.5 kg. in the C&J, for a 225 kg. total. However, the Chinese lifter, Han Changmei, who had totaled 210 kg. the prior year, improved to 232.5 kg. at this competition, and won.
Training hard throughout the following year, Karyn appeared at a bodyweight of approximately 97 kg. at the Nationals. She snatched 107.5 kg. and lifted 130 kg.in the C&J, for 237.5 kg. total (barely missing in an attempt to break her AR in the C&J). She appeared at the 1989 World’s in Manchester in perhaps her best shape ever and got off to a great start, snatching 110 kg. for a World Record, to Han Changmei’s 105 kg. Karyn made her opening weight of 130 kg. in the C&J, but was slightly injured while cleaning 137.5 kg., which contributed to her “pressing out” the jerk and having it turned down by the referees. Han made the same 137.5 kg. to win the C&J and overall competitions.
Marshall missed the 1990 Nationals, but earned a spot on that year’s World team with her performance at the Women’s World Team Trials. She was in fine shape for the World’s, winning the gold in the snatch with another WR of 112.5 kg. and taking a 10 kg. lead over a new Chinese rival, Li Yajuan. But Karyn was able to negotiate only her opening weight in the C&J of 130 kg. and Li came through with a 142.5 kg. C&J to win the C&J and overall competitions.
In 1991, Karyn decided to reduce her bodyweight back to 82.5 kg. and won still another National championship. But by this point she had begun working full time toward becoming a chiropractic physician. Because of her arduous study schedule, Karyn had very limited time to train, so, after serious deliberation, she ultimately decided to retire from weightlifting competition and to focus on her studies. She graduated Summa Cum Laude and Valedictorian of her class in 1993, to become a Doctor of Chiropractic. She and her partner then established Champion Chiropractic that same year, and she has been practicing that healing art, in Shrewsbury, NJ, ever since.
After she had fully established her chiropractic practice, the weights beckoned Karyn once again. Although she was 44 years old, she managed to reduce her bodyweight to 75 kg. and qualified for the 2000 USA Nationals and Olympic qualifying event, where she competed in open competition for one last time.
It was a historic year for women’s weightlifting, as it marked the inaugural inclusion of the women’s weightlifting event at the Olympic Games. Karyn wanted to be part of the Nationals in that historic year, whether or not she was to be part of make the Olympic team that competed in Sydney.
After the competition, she shed a brief tear at the thought of not being able to compete at the Olympic Games. But the tear was soon replaced by that very special Karyn smile. It was a smile at the thought that, in her own way, she had contributed to make women’s weightlifting competition at the Olympic Games a reality for current and future generations of women. It is a smile that she will always carry in her heart.
After a respite of several years, Marshall returned to the lifting platform briefly in 2006, this time as a Master (35+ age athlete) and she broke the American records in her age and bodyweight category and considered taking part in Masters lifting for many years to come.
But in 2011, she faced perhaps her greatest battle yet, one that did not take place on the lifting platform. For it was that year that she was diagnosed with a very serious form of breast cancer. Like the champion she is, she fought back against this dread disease, and has remained cancer free.
All told, by the end of her truly extraordinary weightlifting career, Karyn had won nine National Championships, set more than 50 American Records and 9 world records, won 12 World Championship medals (5 gold), including her overall victory in 1987. In addition to all of these accomplishments, she will of course be forever be remembered as the first woman who dared to cross the 300 lb. barrier. In weightlifting, as in life, records are made to be broken and they will be. But there is only one first at any endeavor. Karyn will always be the first to have broken the 300 lb. barrier. As a result, she is, and will always be, a true weightlifting legend.