“I had always been interested in testing my strength, but growing up that’s just something girls didn’t do,” remembers Judy Glenney, four-time Women’s National Champion.
The American was one of the first women to pick up a barbell and swing it above her head, a movement that would see her start a long, rewarding relationship with weightlifting.
Judy was introduced to weightlifting by Gary Glenney, a member of the Athletes in Action weightlifting team and her future husband. “I was actually responsible for cleaning their weight room” laughs Judy, “I knew nothing about weight training, but I wanted to learn.” Under Gary’s guidance, Judy began to learn basic compound movements like the bench press and squat. But it still wasn’t enough to satisfy Judy’s burning curiosity.
“I was interested in attempting what the guys around me were doing,” she says, “the snatch and the clean and jerk. The thing that intrigued me about the Olympic lifts was that they combined so many different things – strength, power, flexibility. Moving the body into those positions absolutely amazed me.”
As soon as Judy started to practice the two lifts, she fell in love with them. And like any other great strength athlete, she became obsessed with trying to move as much weight as possible over her head, an obsession that would eventually lead to testing herself in male-dominated competition.
“Let’s be clear, I lifted weights because I loved to lift weights,” Judy says unapologetically. “I wasn’t trying to breakthrough the glass ceiling or embark on a crusade for women everywhere, I just wanted to test myself.”
It was in competition where Judy would start to encounter more pushback. Initially, she would compete against men in their competitions, as this was all that was on offer. She even agreed to not be officially recognised for her efforts – no medals, no trophies. “I wanted to show I could do it on their terms,” says Judy. “If I could show them I could lift with correct technique, that’s how I would win respect. I let my lifting do the talking.”
Judy got the impression early on that this was something girls weren’t supposed to do. Fortunately, she had Gary in her corner giving simple advice – ‘if you enjoy it, do it.’ “I put all the funny looks aside”, says Judy, “I enjoyed the lifts, I enjoyed training, I enjoyed challenging myself. So, I just did it.”
It was in the early 70s that Judy began to compete in weightlifting, when the American feminist movement was in full flow. “I wanted to compete to test myself,” explains Judy, “but in the process I found myself breaking down the barriers that existed to women and becoming part of the wider narrative.” Soon Judy would find herself at the forefront of the women’s weightlifting movement.
WOMEN TAKE THE SPOTLIGHT
Judy’s efforts on and off the platform were starting to make waves in the weightlifting community. Bill Clark, a pioneer in strength sports, held the first female competition in 1976 in Columbia, Missouri. “There were only a handful of us,” Judy recalls. It was the starting point for accelerated growth in women’s weightlifting.
Five years later, the first official National Women’s Championship was held by USA Weightlifting in Waterloo, Iowa. It was Judy, along with magazine owner Mabel Rader and former USA Weightlifting President Murray Levin, who spearheaded the campaign for women to compete. “Murray was instrumental in the movement,” Judy says. “His was the deciding vote that allowed women into the fold.”
Judy bested 28 other women to win the first Women’s National Championships, a title she would hold for four consecutive years. Judy recorded her best lifts in this era – 97.5kg clean and jerk, 82.5kg snatch and a 172.5kg total at a bodyweight of 67kg. How would she compete against today’s women? “Oh, I don’t think I could match them!” she laughs.
From 1981 onwards, women’s weightlifting experienced unprecedented growth. The historic decision to open the sport to women internationally was made by the IWF in 1983. It was realised three years later with the Pannonia Cup held in Budapest, which attracted competitors from Hungary, China, Canada, Britain and the United States. “Budapest was the catalyst,” Judy remembers. “We drew big audiences. That made the guys at the top sit up and pay attention.”
FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
As soon as the hunger for women’s weightlifting became apparent, international competition flourished. The success of the first Women’s World Championships in 1987, held in Daytona Beach, Florida, would assure recognition and support for women around the world. Interestingly, a prepared China won seven of the eight weight categories at these Championships, establishing their dominance in the sport that lasts to this day.
This fresh impetus for women would lead them to the Olympic Games for the first time in 2000. Her competing days over, Judy would have to settle for a position on the jury at the Sydney Games. “My dream was to see women compete at the Olympics,” Judy smiles. “It was incredibly rewarding and humbling to see it happen.”
Weightlifting put women on the Olympic programme before wrestling and boxing, and at Tokyo 2020 there will, for the first time, be an equal split of the medals. Judy had been working towards that goal long before now. As the sport moves from strength to strength, bringing in female weightlifters from all over the world, it’s important to remember that that every one of them owes a debt to Judy Glenney.
Judy Glenney lives and works in Vancouver, Washington in the United States. In 1989 she wrote a book with her husband Gary titled ‘So you want to be a female weightlifter’ and still works with aspiring female weightlifters.
A note from Judy:
‘I want to thank all the folks that have contacted me regarding the history of women’s weightlifting. It has been such an honor and a humbling experience to find so many are interested. I never in my wildest dreams thought it would bring about this much attention. I am so thankful that God allowed and enabled me to do what I did. He brought about the fulfilment of a dream that I never thought possible in a most unexpected way. If it’s one message I would like to convey, it would be to never give up on your dream. You never know how or when it will come true. Thanks again for allowing me to share my passion – my hope is that others will find that passion as well!’