Ellen Stein is 58 years old but says she doesn’t feel like it. Indeed, Stein is a woman who seems to defy age — a competitive powerlifter who still wins meets against women born in decades when she was already well into adulthood. She is, to put it simply, a competitor, and neither age nor the improbable path that led her down the road to her sport have stopped her from proving that it’s never too late to start lifting heavy.
“I’ve always been an athlete,” said Stein, on the phone from her New York apartment. “I had a very successful running career prior to ever picking up a weight.” She competed in every event from the mile to the marathon, running the famed New York City Marathon an impressive four times. “When I applied to do my fifth New York City Marathon, I got rejected and I went into this lottery pool. That’s how they worked the marathon back then,” she said. Stein wasn’t happy that she was rejected, but she took things in stride. “I was a little bit annoyed and I didn’t want to put in the training for 16 weeks and find out that I wasn’t going to get selected. So I said, well maybe it’s a sign from God I shouldn’t run the marathon this year.”
Stein came across an advertisement offering a discount gym membership for people looking to fulfill their New Year’s resolutions and get fit. “So that’s what I did. On Jan. 1, 1993, I joined my local Gold’s Gym.” Stein, already 41, had never lifted weights before. Mostly clueless, she followed the advice of a gym-rat friend and started working out.
After a few weeks at the gym, she noticed a group of big guys in the back who were doing powerlifting. Powerlifting arose as a sport in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the popularity of Olympic weighlifting began to wane. It consists of three lifts — the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. Competitors have three chances to put up the most weight they can handle in each lift, and then their best squat, bench and deadlift are added together for a total weight lifted. The competitor who lifts the highest total in his weight class wins.
Stein knew little about the sport on the day one of the powerlifters approached her and told her she ought to learn how to deadlift. “I said, ‘Oh, I can’t, I have a bad back.’ “ He laughed and told her it would either kill her or cure her. She took up the challenge and, within a month, Stein, at all of 5 feet, was deadlifting 225 pounds. Sensing that Stein was something of a prodigy, the guys suggested she enter a competition, and they put her in touch with another female powerlifter from Brooklyn (and a fellow Jew), Beth Grater, who gave Stein advice about how and where to compete. She gathered her courage and signed up for a meet. “There were two girls in the whole meet, me and this other girl.” Stein lost, but she was encouraged, after all; she was over 40 and had just done her first powerlifting competition.
Stein started training harder, and soon she was racking up wins and records for her age class. “There weren’t too many 41-year-old, 122-pound women who were lifting what I was lifting,” Stein said. Her success led her to the World Championships in England, and a victory. “I was hooked from then on, because I said this is great ... I can be somebody.”
Stein’s been competing at a high level ever since.
“Over the last 17 years, I’ve won seven world titles,” she said, noting that she’s gone up a weight class in the process. “The more you lift, the heavier you get.”
She just competed in September at the Olympia Powerlifting Invitational in Las Vegas, where she won her weight class, beating out a competitor who was less than half her age.
According to Stein, there are more records still to come. “I have no intentions of slowing down anytime soon. I can’t wait to hit 60, because then it’s all new age group records.”
Currently, Stein boasts a 385-pound squat, a 187.5-pound bench press, and a 418-pound deadlift among her personal records — high totals for any woman, let alone one in her late 50s, when most people see their strength declining.
“I’m a big advocate of lifting heavy weights,” Stein said. “I go crazy when I see girls in the gym with their little 5- or 10-pound dumbbells.” Weight lifting is more than just a sport to Stein; it’s a lifestyle. “I think it keeps you youthful. It keeps you engaged.” But she admits powerlifting is a “tough sell” to many women, who fear getting too big or injuring themselves.
She even faced skepticism from her own mother. “ When I would bring her pictures from my various meets and show them to her, she’d say ‘Oh I saw that one already.’ And I’d say, ‘Ma, I just did that this weekend.’ And she’d say, ‘But I have that one already,’ because to her, how many different pictures of a squat are there?” Although Stein admitted, “She used to be proud of me. She’d show my pictures to anyone who’d listen to her.”
Her friends and personal training clients have a much different opinion of Stein. “They all think I’m the bomb,” she said with a laugh. “If anybody ever told me I was going to weigh 130 pounds one day and be solid and not be fat, I would have thought they were crazy. For the 15 years that I ran, I was really tiny, I was probably never more than 110 pounds. Prior to that, I did ballet, so I was always exceptionally thin.”
Stein loves the opportunities that sport has given to her. “I’ve been to South Africa, Argentina, the Czech Republic, England, Canada.” She recalls fondly her trip to Iceland, where she swam in the Blue Lagoon. She knows that without powerlifting, she may never have ventured to such exotic locales.
“I’ve always been a little bit of a loner; that’s why I liked running, because I could just run out of my house and take off. I didn’t have to depend on anybody to show up to play.”
In powerlifting, Stein has found another sport that allows her to challenge herself daily, and keep focused and youthful. “I’m very hard on myself, I’m my worst critic, and if I don’t lift something, I’m always comparing myself to other lifters in my weight class, and then I say, ‘Oh, but they’re 30 years younger than me.’ “
The age gap doesn’t mean much to Stein, though, in practice, or in principle.
“In my mind, I’m still young,” she said. Her deadlift would agree.
For more about Ellen Stein, visit kettlebellen.com.