From the moment he was born, life was a struggle for Doug Hepburn.
Forceps were needed to yank him from his mother when he was born in 1926, leaving permanent scars on his temple. He entered this world with a club foot and an ocular condition known as an “alternating squint.” Surgeries — and there were many of them — eventually corrected the latter, but his right leg remained slightly withered for the rest of his life.
But nothing could stop the bullying at school that came with being different.
His father was an alcoholic and abandoned his family; his ensuing stepfather showed little fondness for him or his prodigious appetite, and kicked Hepburn out of the house as a teenager.
It all left Hepburn shy-natured and plagued by self-esteem issues, ones that heavily contributed to his melancholic bouts with depression, alcoholism and drug use later in life.
“The only thing I know about life is it’s a series of lifting yourself from one year to the next,” he once said. “This is a natural process of life; it’s not a misfortune to have to lift yourself up.”
And Hepburn did lift himself. He lifted others. And he lifted, famously, more weight than any person had.
He held the crown of the world’s strongest man, the legendary tales of his strength backed up by displays that dumbfounded the onlookers who flocked to Trout Lake on the chance they might see one. The former lifeguard would carry a boat that normally took four men to move above his head; he’d absent-mindedly bend coins and bottle caps in his hands; he once lifted a platform with the Vancouver Canucks starting six standing on it, skates and all.
His strength was stupendous, his fame lending renown even as far-flung as Russia.
And today, he is all but forgotten by the city that he sacrificed so much for.
Hepburn’s name and story do occasionally pop up in a cyclical manner, but the pattern is ebbing away with fading regularity. His legacy, his fans argue, deserves some concrete — or in this case, brass — recognition.
Norm Williams was a youth who’d make the bike ride from North Burnaby to East Van to watch Hepburn casually rip licence plates or decks of cards in half, or have a gymnast balance at the end of his outstretched arm.
If you’re a hockey fan, you know his work. He’s the artist commissioned to create the statues of Pat Quinn and Roger Neilson that grace the steps outside Rogers Arena.
Even if you’re not a hockey fan, you probably know his work, with his Steveston wharf’s Legacy work one of the most photographed public art installations in the city.
Williams has been trying for years to get a statue of Hepburn commissioned, but time — he’s finishing up a piece commemorating the wartime efforts of the women shipyard builders in North Van — and money, an estimated $150,000 for the project, have put it on the back burner.
Along with B.C. Sports Hall of Fame curator Jason Beck and a few others, a GoFundMe has been launched to fund the project.
“You can argue whether Gretzky was the best hockey player of all time, or maybe it was Bobby Orr, maybe it was so and so, but there’s a couple things you can’t argue,” Williams said. “Say, the fastest human being on the planet; there’s times — you can’t argue it. It’s over and done with, ‘he was the fastest.’
“And it’s the same with the strongest. You can’t argue (Hepburn) was the strongest man on the planet in his day. I know when we saw him, there was no doubt in my mind if he was his strongest guy in the world. As kids, we’re sitting there on our bicycles with our mouths open, just kind of standing back a little bit and watching him to do his stuff. I mean he didn’t break records, he annihilated them. He was just phenomenal.”
Hepburn’s accomplishments include gold medals at the 1954 British Empire Games in Vancouver, the same meet Roger Bannister and Roger Landy battled it out in the famed Miracle Mile, and gold in the heavyweight division of the 1953 World Championships in Sweden. He was also the winner of the Lou Marsh Memorial Award and Lionel Conacher Award (Canada’s male athlete of the year) that same year.
Hepburn died in 2000 at the age of 74, in relative obscurity.
Williams’ studio at the base of Sumas Mountain is littered with tiny, six-inch maquettes — small, scaled-down prototype versions of larger pieces — of Hepburn and other works. The clay form of the Neilson statue is there, armless, and countless busts of Quinn sit on shelves, making it the kind of space where you can be by yourself, but never be alone.
But the room is dominated by an eight-foot tall version of Hepburn, sans hands, who Williams hopes one day will be standing atop a four-foot pedestal in a redesigned viaduct plaza at the southeast corner of Beatty Street and West Georgia, framing B.C. Place behind. The finished pose will have Hepburn triumphantly holding a weight high in the air, once he figures out the engineering needed to make it safe.
“A lot of it is common sense. But to get to get the City to accept it, you have to have engineering done on it. They don’t want it falling on anybody. They’re funny that way,” he said, smiling.
The statue’s pose is stylistically and technically faithful to the iconic photo of Hepburn. The moustache, the shoes, the unitard, the broad shoulders, all recreated identically. Williams’ works are exquisitely detailed.
“For the average person, it doesn’t matter a damn. But if you get it wrong for somebody who really knows, they’ll never forgive you. So you have to kind of appease the general market and then appease the people who were there and really know,” Williams said.
With the Quinn statue, he had the help of the former Canucks legends widow, Sandra. But for Neilson’s work, it was up to his research, poring over pictures and researching the former coach. Portraits were too sanitary to truly reflect Neilson’s soul, and candid newspaper shots were too grainy to offer much.
“Fortunately, I remembered him; I was quite a hockey fan and I could I could picture him,” Williams said. “I knew his little mannerisms, like he used to chew on the inside of his lip, and it made his mouth look crooked. That doesn’t show in his portraits because he doesn’t do that when he’s having a portrait taken of him, you know?
“Then it came down to the shoes. The only picture anywhere I found of his feet was where he was wearing sandals on the beach, which was no help at all. I’m thinking I can’t imagine him wearing Cuban heeled shoes or Gucci shoes … I said ‘I think you know he’s kind of be more of a hush puppy type’ except that he was a millionaire, so he wouldn’t be getting his shoes at Walmart.
“And at the unveiling, a woman came up to me — and I don’t know who she was — but she said ‘you know, Roger was a friend of mine for 30 years.’ I asked how did I do, and she said ‘You got him. You got him right down to the Hush Puppies.’”
Besides wanting to get it right for his childhood idol, Williams knows all the cautionary tales abounding of artists who have infamously fallen short in his medium. The misshapen and homely Cristiano Ronaldo bust, which just celebrated its five-year anniversary, has entrenched itself fully in eternal meme territory, and the tragic Carol Burnett statue in her hometown isn’t far behind.
“I saw the picture (of Burnett’s statue) first before I read anything in the paper. I said ‘Who is this black guy? I thought it was a male African-American. I didn’t know who it was,” he laughed.
Hepburn had the misfortune of competing at a time in Canada when only hockey and football really mattered. His sport was denigrated as a pastime for neanderthals, and in the days before social media, newspapermen took their liberty with him, calling the 5-foot-9, 285-pounder a tub of lard or a walking meatball.
When confronted by those who called him all brawn, no brain, he’d caustically reply “how does it feel to be neither?”
While he was an indifferent student as a youth, he was a well-read adult who wrote poetry, read the encyclopedia for fun, and was fond of reciting Shakespeare and the 10-minute rhetorical speech of Spartacus to the Gladiators at Capua.
But strength was what he was known for. He was the first person to bench press 500 pounds, and even at the age of 54, he was still squatting 600 pounds. At age 72, two years before he passed, he could still do a one-arm military press of a 160-pound dumbbell.
Hepburn broke the world record in Sweden despite going there with his ankle sore from a training accident two weeks before, an injury that left him unable to put any weight on it just 10 days before he was supposed to fly out.
At the Empire games, he won gold while barely breaking a sweat.
“To watch him lift was spectacular; I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Tom Thurston, who wrote Strongman: The Doug Hepburn story, which was published in 2003.
“If he can get it to his shoulders. He could press it and he didn’t strain. It just went ‘fffttt’ and it was up.”
Hepburn broke eight world records, and won the U.S. weightlifting championships in 1949, but the Canadian Amateur Athletics Union (CAAU) wouldn’t recognize them and strangely refused to support the B.C. man. Instead of sending him to the 1952 Olympic Games, the CAAU decided not to send anyone at all. The next year, Hepburn was forced to pay for his own flight to the worlds in Sweden, the CAAU stubbornly withholding their support.
Hepburn’s only income upon returning as world champ came as a $150 salary from Vancouver mayor Fred Hume, who paid him out of pocket to be his “bodyguard on call” in order to maintain Hepburn’s amateur status.
He had offers from Switzerland to be a coach — along with a car and salary for life — while the U.S. federation tried to woo him with American citizenship and a boatload of cash. He refused, feeling an allegiance and responsibility to Canada.
“The man was a Canadian hero. He really was,” said Thurston, who was also Hepburn’s business manager.
“He wasn’t just top of the class — he was way above everybody else. And the fact that he’s just been ignored is … a travesty. It’s too bad that people chose to put ego before the Canadian people. How many gold medals did Canada lose because of politics and egotism? That’s just not right.”
A gym that was promised to him after the Empire games never materialized, and he descended into alcoholism and depression. But he lifted himself out of it, becoming — among other things — a pro wrestler, nightclub singer, gym operator and inventor. He helped any aspiring lifter who matched the drive he had as a youth, and the Doug Hepburn Method is still a valid training technique today.
The World Weightlifting Championships were held in Vancouver on the 50th anniversary of his win in Sweden, but he wasn’t there to see it, having passed away three years before.
“I think people got the wrong impression. Doug was wasn’t a show off, he was just infatuated with the things that the human body in general could do,” said Thurston. “I can remember going down to see him to one time, and then the 50 pounds of weight hanging off his little finger by a rope … (and) he was doing finger curls with it. He says, ‘Look at this. Can you imagine that the human finger can do that? If your arm was that big in proportion, then think how much you did curl. That’s what was going through his head. That’s how his mind worked.
“At one time, every authority on the planet, every one of them vowed up and down, there’s no way that any man can ever bench-press more than 500 pounds because of the 500-pound barrier. Everybody was absolutely sure about that. And look at what the human body can actually lift now.
“Doug never ever stopped. He never quit no matter what happened to him. He just kept doing it and he kept doing it, and he if he was still alive, he would still be doing it. … I think if the public was made aware of how much we could have done for him and didn’t, and now we have a chance to do something for him (with a statue), I think perhaps that might make a difference.”
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