Forty years ago, the world was not ready for a woman who looked like Bev Francis. She challenged society’s notions of what it means to be female and an athlete.
Bev Francis was 10 years old when she decided to jump from the roof of her family house while blindfolded.
The blindfold was to stop her bracing for the impact of hitting the ground.
It was one of many tests Francis set herself. She was out to prove that she was strong.
These were the times she went a whole day without water, or walked kilometres barefoot on sizzling bitumen roads during the summer holidays, or climbed the tallest trees she could find.
“Being brave was very important to me. I don’t know why.
“I was a tomboy; I didn’t want to be a boy, I just wanted to test myself physically.”
Born in Geelong in 1955, it wasn’t easy for Ms Francis to test her physical prowess – growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, sporting options for young women were limited.
She was excluded from rowing, wrestling, boxing, long-distance running, triple jump, pole vault and hammer throw.
The jarring sensation Ms Francis felt when she hit the ground after jumping off the roof was the kind of pain she could manage. Other kinds were harder to cope with.
Ms Francis says she once took a football to primary school and arranged with another girl to play kick to kick at lunchtime.
“We kicked it in the yard but we got tortured, I got so ridiculed, so ridiculed by everyone.
“I must say I buckled. I never brought the football to school again.”
Later, when the cheerful, funny, somewhat shy Ms Francis grew into her naturally muscular body – too short to become a ballet dancer despite years of training – she would cause trouble simply because of the way she looked.
Her elite sporting career spanned several disciplines and multiple world championships.
But despite her talent and effort, her body became the show. She was labelled a freak, a gorilla girl, a man.
She felt at home in the gym and on the track, “but outside in society it’s always been hard”.
“Because I’ve always been looked upon as some sort of freak.”
Ms Francis’s sporting career began at the University of Melbourne in the mid-1970s.
She was studying to be a physical education teacher, something she thought would give her the freedom she was looking for.
“I loved sport and I couldn’t imagine having to dress in women’s clothes, stockings and high heels and have to go to an office; just couldn’t imagine it.”
At university she met Austrian-born athletics coach Franz Stampfl, the pioneer of interval training and the man who helped runner Roger Bannister break the four-minute mile.
Mr Stampfl had the ability to extract the potential in all his athletes and make them better than they could ever imagine, Ms Francis says.
Years before sports science was conceived, Mr Stampfl understood the power of the mind.
His own story was one of hardship and survival – during World War II he was rescued after floating for several hours in the Atlantic Ocean.
At the time he was an enemy alien being moved from Britain to Canada when a U-boat attacked his ship.
For Mr Stampfl, nothing was solely a feat of the body or the mind – the two always worked together.
Ms Francis began training with the renowned coach in track and field. She competed internationally in shot-put, finishing fourth at the 1982 Commonwealth Games.
But when Mr Stampfl introduced Ms Francis to weight training, it changed her life.
“I just loved the feeling of being able to move these heavy objects and beat them, overcome gravity,” she says.
“It just was an amazing feeling.”
Before a powerlift, Ms Francis had a routine to quietly summon the confidence she needed to overcome the weight.
She says a lifter must believe they can force the weight into the air before they even touch it.
“I used to imagine that my feet sent out an energy into the earth to make me more powerful like roots of a tree.
“I would get into position, lock my lower back, and then I would just yell ‘strong’ as loud as I could, and that was all I was, I was strong.”
In the late 1970s, female powerlifting was in its infancy, run out of small musty gyms, with questionable officialdom and a lack of international record keeping.
Ms Francis’s first taste of competitive powerlifting came when the Victorian Powerlifting Association phoned Mr Stampfl to invite some of his female athletes to try the fledgling sport.
Powerlifting involves competitors totalling their heaviest lifts across three techniques – squat, bench press and deadlift.
Olympian Gael Mulhall-Martin, Ms Francis’s friend and training partner, says a selector on the Australian athletics team was unimpressed to learn they were entering the competition.
“She told us that it wasn’t very ladylike,” Mr Mulhall-Martin told the ABC in a 1982 interview.
“Now if it wasn’t for us pushing weights, Australian records wouldn’t be where they are.”
Bev’s best lifts:
- Squat – 226.8kg
- Bench press – 151.9kg
- Deadlift – 227.2kg
As soon as Ms Francis and Mr Mulhall-Martin had begun lifting weights, their presence forced a reckoning among the men in the gym.
Mr Mulhall-Martin says the men found it hard to adjust to having women in the workout room and that Ms Francis’s strength tended to make them overly ambitious.
“Guys would walk in and see Bev bench pressing 250 pounds (113kg) and they would automatically think, ‘Well, if she can do it, I can do it’,” she says.
“So many times, we’ve seen these guys stuck under the bars.”
Ms Francis first tested herself against the best women in the world in 1980, when the first female world powerlifting championships were held in the United States.
She won her weight division.
Her success was briefly celebrated in lists of Australian world champions, but a niche sport such as powerlifting was relegated to the footnotes of history.
Yet it was the start of a six-year reign as world champion and earning the title of strongest woman in the world.
Ms Francis overcame several injuries to become the first woman to bench press 150 kilograms, while also working as a school teacher for much of the time.
But with success came muscle, broad shoulders, a thick neck and legs like the trunk of a boab tree.
Ms Francis was a picture of athletic perfection, but her ability was overshadowed by the public’s obsessive fascination with her body.
She says “the big discussion” dogged her for decades.
“It’s lots of kudos for lifting this much weight, but [also]: ‘Oh my God, what does this person look like?'”
Ms Francis was frequently asked if her body was attractive to men, or why she was turning herself into a man.
“I’m not all of a sudden growing a penis.
“It’s just so weird how people perceived what makes a woman.”
Women athletes being held to a rigid conception of femininity is so common that academia has given it a name: the female/athlete paradox.
Women with bodies primed for athletic success, especially those who participate in traditionally masculine sports, are often forced to uphold the gendered expectations of sporting institutions, the media and fans who want them to fulfil a traditionally feminine look and demeanour.
Ms Francis says she always tried to answer reporters’ questions about her body nicely.
“I always figured that aggression is such a masculine thing, so I tried not to be aggressive.”
Her coach, Mr Stampfl, was more direct. “Who wants, at the present time, strong women?” he said in a 1981 interview with the ABC.
Instead, he said, society wanted skinny, weak women who could fit into tight pants.
“There must be a social change, that women are desirable also, and sexy also when they’re strong, or that they don’t have to be sexy to be desirable.”
But the questions worried Ms Francis. They reinforced the feeling of difference that had haunted her since childhood, when she did not want to dress up and wear makeup like other girls.
At the time, female Olympic athletes were subject to a controversial sex test to confirm they were eligible to compete in women’s events.
Long criticised as a form of gender policing, the testing did not apply to people competing in men’s events.
Introduced in the 1930s to “weed out abnormal female athletes”, what had started as nude parades, where women had to walk naked past officials, transformed into chromosomal analysis.
The test involved checking for the presence of a Y chromosome to confirm if any of the female athletes were actually male.
The International Olympic Committee abolished the test in 1999.
Despite worrying that she would fail the test, Ms Francis passed and received a little certificate she could carry around.
“I was so relieved to find out I was normal, and it was just because I didn’t like the things that girls did.”
But in 1983, the scrutiny on Ms Francis’s body intensified after she travelled to the US to participate in a docudrama about a women’s bodybuilding competition.
In her suitcase was a home-made yellow bikini crafted by her mother for the event.
Ms Francis was invited to star in the film Pumping Iron 2: The Women, a sequel to the documentary that helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger a star and popularise the sport of bodybuilding.
When she stepped off the plane wearing her green and gold tracksuit, the cameras were rolling. She was met by a tall, burly man with a moustache.
The man, Steve Weinberger, was cast as her companion in the film, because, according to Ms Francis, the producers wanted to make sure audiences knew she was straight.
“He asked, ‘What do I have to do?’ [The producers] said, ‘You just have to hang out with this gorilla girl’,” Ms Francis says.
She says that because she presented “very butch-looking”, people thought she was a lesbian, and that the producers wanted to move away from the idea that being a female athlete somehow correlated to a particular sexual identity.
But perhaps they did not succeed. A recent queer film festival in the UK described Pumping Iron 2 as having “a magnetic (coded) lezzy force field around Bev Francis, the beautiful butch Australian powerlifter who sets out to cause maximum gender trouble”.
Filled with big hair, leotards and disco beats, the film is a time capsule of the ’80s, but it has endured and continues to be screened in gender studies classes at universities.
Ms Francis says she knows this because she has received letters and emails from students who have studied, what Ms Francis politely calls, its “interesting discussion on femininity”.
Often they tell her how important it was for them to have seen a proud muscle woman like her.
At the heart of Pumping Iron 2 is the rejection of Ms Francis’s body by the hierarchy that controlled the bodybuilding competition featured.
In one astonishing scene, a room of suit-clad men belonging to the International Federation of Bodybuilders discuss the meaning of femininity.
“We hope that this evening we can clear up the definite meaning, the analysis of the word femininity and what you have to look for,” one of the judges says.
“We don’t want to turn people off, we want to turn them on.”
They arrive at an answer that is “something that’s right down the middle – a woman who has a certain amount of aesthetic femininity, but yet has that muscle tone to show that she’s an athlete”.
When Ms Francis struts out on stage at the end of the competition she is cheered on by the crowd.
She pulls the ferocious pose known as “most muscular” and her huge neck and shoulder muscles bulge and pulsate. The crowd goes wild.
Yet despite being by far the most muscular woman to enter an official bodybuilding competition, Ms Francis does not win because she scored low in the femininity category.
When it is announced that the Australian has finished eighth, a heckler in the crowd yells: “It’s a beauty contest.”
The ever-graceful Ms Francis smiles and congratulates the winner.
Injury and love would conspire to keep Francis involved in bodybuilding.
During the filming of Pumping Iron 2, Ms Francis and Mr Weinberger fell in love and she decided to stay in the US and marry him.
By 1985, her domination in powerlifting meant she was looking for a new challenge.
At first, Ms Francis made fun of the pageant world of bodybuilding, but she discovered the gruelling training regime to prepare her body for competition was something she enjoyed.
So she set about turning herself into what the bodybuilding judges wanted – a tanned, blonde-haired glamazon, complete with a new nose.
“I thought my nose was too big which masculinised my face,” she says.
So Mr Weinberger suggested a nose job, something Ms Francis, with her antipodean upbringing, had never considered.
“Geelong girls don’t just go and have nose jobs, but New York girls do,” she laughs.
While a new nose gave her belief in herself and her femininity, Ms Francis says she refused one pressure that is placed on female bodybuilders – breast implants.
“To me, it also says my body, as a muscular woman, doesn’t make me feel enough of a woman and I’ve got to have fake boobs to prove I’m a woman, and that’s not right.”
Ms Francis competed from 1985 to 1991, introducing extreme muscle to female bodybuilding, however she never won the sport’s highest honour, Ms Olympia.
The Australian always placed second or third, and the bodybuilding world continues to speculate about her controversial loss in 1991.
Many online groups ponder if the judges were still overcome with anxiety deciding how much muscle a woman could possess.
Away from the stage, as Ms Francis moved through the world with broad shoulders and short hair – “this was way before non-binary was a thing” – she was often mistaken for a man.
“Sometimes it annoyed me or upset me, like when I had to go to a toilet and people would question whether I was allowed to go into the ladies’ toilet.
“But other times it was entertaining, because people would talk to me as if I was a guy, and I would hear them speak in a completely different way.”
For Ms Francis, who has thought deeply about her body and its place in the world, whether voluntarily or by the force of society’s rules, gender norms are perplexing.
She says she did not set out to be a pioneer, but in retrospect she is proud of what she has achieved.
“I’m very happy to have helped the advancement of women in sports … and the advancement of women in society.
“I wanted to show the world that a woman could be strong.”
In retirement, with two children running around her feet, Ms Francis opened a gym with her husband outside New York City.
They still run it together despite being divorced.
At the gym, Ms Francis trained a generation of bodybuilders and muscle fanatics, many of them women.
But these days the 66-year-old trains at home in the house she shares with her partner, Lee Johnson.
She has returned to live in Geelong, close to her family who she credits with providing boundless love and support during her sporting career.
Ms Francis met Mr Johnson at a local gym, and what started as a friendship grew into love.
“It just happened,” Mr Johnson says. “She’s really quite funny, and I like people that entertain me, and she’s very entertaining.”
For Ms Francis, the relationship required a realignment of part of herself that she rejected decades ago.
“During my early life, because of what I looked like and what I did, I was always labelled a lesbian, and I hate labels.
“So I definitely pushed that away and I certainly may have never even explored or allowed that to enter my life, because I was so determined not to be put in a box.”
Now, it is the stereotypes associated with ageing that she is determined to bust apart.
With the same determination in which she approached sport, Ms Francis is going to fight ageing to the end.
The end she has in mind is 108 years.
“I know I’m never going to be as strong as I was, but I do think that I can be better when I’m 70 than I am today.”
She says weight training for older people is the key to staying young.
But when asked that if she could have her time over, would she dedicate herself to gym sports, Ms Francis says no.
If she were young today, she would choose the sport she loved so desperately as a child – football – and she would be aiming for admission into the women’s football league.
“I definitely wanted to be a footballer, then and now.”
This story was produced for Earshot. Listen for free wherever you get your podcasts.
Watch a video about Bev Francis at ABC Australia on YouTube.
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