Karyn Marshall - USAW's First Overall Women's World Champion

April 05, 2011, 2:21 p.m. (ET)
Karyn Marshall – The USA’s First Overall Women’s World Champion 
© Arthur Drechsler 2010

For many people throughout the world, the United States and its people have become inextricably linked with the concept of the “pioneer.”  In addition to the renowned pioneers who settled the western US, our country is recognized for its pioneers in a wide variety of fields, such as political theory, science and business. And there have been many American pioneers in sport, particularly in the sports of the Iron Game (e.g., bodybuilding, powerlifting and Olympic-style weightlifting).

In the sport of women's weightlifting, names like Mabel Rader and Judy Glenney immediately come to mind as early and persistent supporters of the movement - as pioneers.  Another person with an equal claim to the title of “pioneer” is Karyn Marshall (also known as Bastiansen and Tarter), as she was the first and the best on many fronts of women's weightlifting, and, as a result, she made a lasting contribution to our sport.

Karyn Bastiansen, was born in Coral Gables, FL, in 1956. Her family moved to Yonkers, NY, when she was two years of age, and later to Bronxville, NY. She was active in many areas of women’s sport throughout her childhood. At Bronxville, HS, she focused on basketball and field hockey, participating in tennis and track as well.

After high school, she attended Columbia University, where she ultimately earned her BS in nursing and became a registered nurse. The rigors of her academic pursuits at Columbia University, and the fact that she commuted to the school every day, provided her with insufficient time to engage in formal collegiate athletics, but she loved to exercise and stay in shape, so she turned to swimming and cycling to maintain her fitness.

Karyn began dating Tom Tarter after high school and they would eventually marry. Tom had been involved in weight training for a number of years when he made the acquaintance of Marc Chasnov. Mark introduced Tom to Olympic-style weightlifting and they soon became training partners. Tom advanced rapidly in weightlifting, and the sport soon became a major part of his life. Tom also reached a high level of performance in powerlifting after a wrist injury derailed his weightlifting career. Tom and Marc encouraged Karyn to take up the sport, at least as means to maintain her fitness. At first she resisted, but Karyn began to train in the fall of 1978 and she soon grew to love the way the training affected her strength, her figure and her skills. She found she loved the process of perfecting her technique and seeing her strength grow.

By the Spring of 1979, Karyn was ready for what would be her first competition, the Empire States Games (ESG) Tryouts (the State Games of NY). There were no other women’s competitors in the event at that time, since women were not permitted to compete in weightlifting at the ESG. Karyn lifted in the 75 kg. bodyweight category (she weighed 72 kg.). She posted lifts of 57.5 kg. in the snatch, and 75 kg. in the C&J. 

Had she been a male, as the winner of her bodyweight category at the trials, she would have instantly been named to the team from her region of the state. But because she was a woman, there was a problem. The Empire State Games made no provision for a women’s competition, and they were not willing to have men and women compete against each other. Therefore, Karyn was told she could not compete. But her example and that of other women who attended trials over ensuing years led to the acceptance of women’s weightlifting at the ESG in the 1980’s.

Happy with her initial performance in competition, Karyn wanted to continue to compete. There were no local, national or international women’s competitions at that time and, she wondered whether competing was a futile effort, in view of the fact that for the foreseeable future women would seemingly have to compete against men. At the same time, the non-acceptance of women made the sport even more of a challenge for Karyn. It offered an opportunity to be a “pioneer” in a sport that did not even officially exist for women. When she asked her coach, Marc Chasnov, whether he thought she could lift as much as the men, he replied “Yes” without hesitation and that boosted Karyn’s confidence and resolve. She decided to continue to compete, 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.

In the meantime, Mabel Rader, the first female national referee in the history of US weightlifting, pushed for the acceptance of women on a national level. She was asked to form a committee to explore the feasibility of adopting women’s weightlifting as a separate event. As the number of women competing grew, and their performances improved, the officials of weightlifting began to take notice. In the fall of 1980, the Board of Directors of the US Weightlifting Federation voted to sanction the first women’s Nationals. The vote was actually tied (I’m happy to say I was on the winning side) and the tie was broken by then President of the USWF (the precursor to USA Weightlifting), Murray Levin, who voted to sanction the first Women’s Nationals.

Of course as soon as the first Women’s Nationals was announced, Karyn was eager to compete and she prepared herself with a deeper resolve than ever before in her training, despite her pursuit a as a financial analyst on Wall St. (she had graduated from nursing school but decided to switch careers). She would work full time in that field throughout her competitive career (until 1991). 

On May 23rd the, in Waterloo, Iowa, the Women’s Nationals became a reality. Karyn won the 75 kg. bodyweight category, with lifts of 65 kg. in the snatch and 80 kg. in the C&J. She was proud to have competed and won, but after watching Lorna Griffin do 72.5 kg. and 95 kg. in the unlimited (82.5+ kg.) bodyweight category, she was inspired to do still more.

In 1982, Karyn married Tom and began training exclusively under his guidance. She repeated her victory at the Nationals, making 62.5 kg. in the snatch and 85 kg. in the C&J, for an American Record (AR) 147.5 kg. total. She was once again impressed with Lorna Griffin’s 77.5 kg. snatch (4th attempt) and 100 kg. C&J at the Nationals. And she resolved to move up in bodyweight and become competitive with Lorna.

In 1983, Karyn competed in the 82.5 kg bodyweight category at the Nationals. She won the competition easily, with a 77.5 kg snatch and a 92.5 kg C&J. She also made a fourth attempt American Record snatch of 82.5 kg, and a 4th attempt AR C&J with 95 kg. In the meantime, Lorna Griffin was not standing still. She had moved her lifts up to 82.5 in the snatch and 105 kg. in the C&J, but Karyn’s resolve to compete with Lorna was only strengthened.

At that same Nationals, Mark LeMenager, one of the top men’s coaches of the day, mentor of the then hottest lifter on the American weightlifting scene, Jeff Michaels, was announcing. During the competition, he commented that, while the women were lifting well, they had a distance to go before surpassing the lifting of the greatest strongwomen of the distant past – most particularly Katie (Brumbach) Sandwina. He mentioned that Sandwina had lifted 130 kg. overhead approximately 75 years earlier. So Mark essentially said, “Until you beat at least that lift, you have little to fuss about.”

While this revelation was a shock to Karyn, she took it as a challenge, and so was planted the seed that would help to assure Karyn’s place in weightlifting history. All the way home, she thought about lifting more weight overhead than any other woman ever had. She wanted to break Sandwina’s record. While her best C&J of 95 kg., done that day, was a long way from 130 kg., she began to plan for the record, believing with all her heart that some day it would be hers.

She and Tom knew that in order to break Sandwina’s record, Karyn would have to increase her bodyweight. So they carefully planned Karyn’s training to include more squatting, pressing and other strength building exercises that would also help her to add strength and muscle to her body.

The following year, Karyn moved up to the 82.5 plus bodyweight category, intending to have a direct competition with Laura Griffin at the Women’s Nationals of 1984. The competition took place as Karyn had planned, and it ended up being a terrific battle, 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. This was the first time American women had totaled 200 kg. or more, very likely the first time in the world any women had.

1986 World ChampionshipsKaryn was now only 15 kg. off Sandwina’s overhead lifting record and that prospect set her on fire. She was determined to have the record and she put in motion a number of things to make this happen. First, she focused her training even more on building her strength for her record assault. She made commitments to the Metrofit Athletic Club, where she trained, that she would break the record at their facility. Since no women’s world records were recognized by the IWF at that time, Karyn contacted the Guinness Book of World Records staff to ascertain

          Dayonta Beach, 1987

 World Championships

how she could go about establishing a record that would meet their standards, so that some form of official recognition of her feat would be obtained (she also made sure her lift would count as an American Record). She arranged for officials, official equipment and the like, to assure that everything would be in order for her record attempt. By December of 1984, Karyn was ready for her assault on the all-time record. At a USWF sanctioned competition, with international referees in attendance, Karyn made a token snatch. Then she set about fulfilling the dream that she had first visualized years earlier. She opened in the C&J with 125.5 kg., which assured at least an AR. On her second attempt, she called for 131 kg.. After careful preparation, she mounted the platform for her history making attempt. She made a relatively easy clean and then a hard fought jerk, to establish herself as the woman who officially lifted the heaviest weight ever overhead. The lift would be recognized by Guinness, who listed her as having lifted the most overhead of any woman in history, and later as the first woman to lift 300 lb. overhead. 

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 136.5 kg. She made an all out 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!

The powerful New Yorker now turned her attention to breaking the 300 lb. barrier at a very appropriate spot, the 1985 Women’s Nationals, on April 13, 1985, in New Rochelle, NY (minutes from Karyn’s home). She was helping to organize the event and could not think of a better place to break the 300 lb barrier. Unfortunately, the stress of helping to organize the competition and the pressure of the barrier itself caused Karyn to “over psyche”. She was so excited on her opening attempt at 100 kg. in the snatch that she caught the bar on nearly straight legs and then proceeded to lose the lift behind. Her second attempt was also a miss and, suddenly, she needed to pull out a third attempt to stay in the competition. She managed to do that, setting and American Record in the process. In the C&J, she made her opening attempt at 120 kg., which established an AR total with 220 kg, but she was to get no more in the C&J that day. She was disappointed, but Karyn would not be deterred from her goal.

Lifting exactly one week later, at the NYS Weightlifting Championships, Karyn finally exceeded 300 lb. with a lift of 137.5 kg.. She had truly become the first women ever to officially C&J more than 300 lb. The very next day, she completed an unusual “double”, by lifting at the NYS Powerlifting Championships in Elmira, NY. She squatted 210 kg. (462 lb.), bench pressed 102.5 kg. (225 lb.) and deadlifted 215 kg. (473 lb.). The latter lift was an unofficial American Record.

After her record making spree, Karyn thought carefully about her next step in weightlifting, and at the same time experienced some major changes in her personal life. Her marriage with Tom came to an end. As she got on with her new life, Karyn decided to set a bold new goal – reducing her bodyweight 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 82.5 kg. bodyweight category was promising. She snatched 95 kg and made a 120 kg in the C&J, while weighing within the 82.5 kg. bodyweight limit.

Karyn and I began to work together early in 1986, and she married Peter Marshall in the summer of 1987. 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 that 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, it inspired her toward new goals.  We began working on improving her poise and concentration and using relaxation imaging techniques (something she neglected for the Women's Nationals). We 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.  In August of that year, 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 competitive life thus far, competing at the inaugural Women's World Championships that 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 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 strength of the Chinese team was something of a surprise. Significant weightlifting activity had been reported in China, but no one was quite sure about the level of development that the women of China had reached. But as the competition unfolded, it was obvious that the Chinese team was terrific overall. In fact, by the time the 75 kg. bodyweight category had drawn to a close, the Chinese women won every bodyweight category in the total and 16 out of 18 available gold medals (Arlys Kovach won a gold medal in the snatch for the US in the 67.5 kg. bodyweight category and a Bulgarian athlete won a gold medal in the snatch in the 75 kg. category).


Induction into the USAW Hall of Fame, 2010

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. In fact, just before the final session, then USWF Executive Director came up to Karyn to ask how she felt. Karyn confidently said “Don’t worry Harvey, I will win for the USA.”

There was no Chinese lifter entered in her bodyweight category, but there were very strong lifters from Hungary, Bulgaria and Great Britain. We were not sure what they could do, but I reminded Karyn, as I do any lifter, that the first goal of the competition is to make as much in the snatch as possible and leave it to the last C&J’s to determine the final outcome.

Despite all the pressure on her shoulders, Karyn made a solid first attempt in the snatch with 90 kg. She then forgot about her focusing techniques on her second snatch and made a poor attempt. She agreed to prepare mentally as she had been doing in practice for her third attempt, and made an extremely easy lift with 95 kg. That put her in first place in the snatch by a 5 kg. margin, so Tommy Kono (the head coach) and I were feeling reasonably comfortable at this point, as we knew she was very strong in the C&J (but we were far from sure about what Karyn’s competitors could do in that lift). But at this point an unexpected potential 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 admonished her to focus 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 12.5 kg, but she out lifted the athletes in the unlimited bodyweight (over 82.5 kg. at the time) category, including the Chinese athlete who won that category. In short, Marshall made the highest total in the competition, and richly earned the title of World’s Strongest Woman. It was a glorious moment for her, and for US Weightlifting. To host a historic competition and have a US athlete lift the heaviest weights in a bodyweight category under the unlimited one, was a real thrill for the American audience. And they 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 a big smile on her face. It was a magical moment to say the least!

Perhaps most thrilled of all were the IWF officials. The 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. The IWF, whKaryn winning the C&J at the 1987 Worlds! ich had been in doubt about whether women’s World Championship competitions would be organized on a regular basis going forward were doubters no more.

There would be a Women’s World Championship the following year, and every year since. And women’s weightlifting has become an integral part of the sport and the Olympic Games (women’s weightlifting was first included in the Olympics in 2000). The 1987 Women’s World Championships were a glorious development for the sport of weightlifting and Karyn was thrilled to have played such an important role in the sport’s evolution, as one of its true pioneers.

                     

                                            Karyn’s winning C&J at the 1987 Worlds!