On the eve of her 73rd birthday, senior powerlifter Gayle Clawson sits across the booth at the local Village Inn and chatters excitedly about her second love. Her first love, husband Bill who is five years her junior, is cozied up next to her.
He listens intently as she describes the determination and grit that drives her to excel as a world champion senior power lifter and how she finds strength through adversity. Gayle and Bill Clawson are a team. And it’s clear they are madly, deeply in love.
The couple shares a passion for working out together and is pretty much inseparable as they strive to maintain their health and fitness well into their 80s. “We’re connected at the hip,” she says with a gentle smile. “We do everything together.”
Their foray into the world of competitive powerlifting came quite by accident. Ten years ago, both were overweight, out of shape, self-described couch potatoes. They were both working at the time at federal agencies, and the daily grind left them with little energy for anything more than evening television.
Neither of them felt good, so in characteristic team fashion, they committed to losing weight together.
What followed was sagging skin that became Gayle’s nemesis. “I didn’t like the flabby arms under here,” she says and points to her triceps. So the couple hired a personal trainer. “And he told me I have a choice of either filling that skin with muscle or fat.” She chose muscle.
The gym became their sanctuary as the couple worked side-by-side to get into shape. It wasn’t long before Gayle was lifting heavier weights than her husband, and the rest is history.
With the guidance of their trainer, Gayle entered her first Senior Olympics event in powerlifting. Wouldn’t you know, she brought home the gold, along with a renewed confidence in her physical ability.
Finding Strength Through Adversity
You see, Gayle has suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for more than 50 years, since she was 21. The characteristically debilitating disease damages the nerves of the brain and spinal cord, and becomes progressively worse over time. She feels fortunate the disease MS is localized to the nerves in her brain and has not taken her ability to walk.
Gayle is also a breast cancer survivor, having undergone a double mastectomy five years ago. Throw in a knee replacement, rotator cuff surgery, and kidney problems in the mix, and you get the picture.
Despite these physical challenges, none have stolen her determination to live healthy and strong well into her senior years.
“If it wasn’t’ for powerlifting, she would be in a wheelchair,” Bill Clawson says matter-of-factly. She nods in agreement and interjects, “I’m normally a very bashful person; but with Bill’s encouragement, I stay focused.”
Bill laughs, “She’s my trophy wife. Every time I tell somebody how old she is, they never believe it.”
A Senior Powerlifter is Born
By the time Gayle was in her mid-60s, powerlifting competitions were a way of life. She earned 54 first-place trophies before her breast cancer diagnosis. Her ability to lift heavy is a gift that she fine-tuned with hard work and dedication.
Even so, no one is more surprised by her strength than Gayle herself. “I don’t really feel like I’m different from anyone else,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do it, and I owe that to Bill’s encouragement.”
Clawson’s favorite powerlifting event is the deadlift, where she has won numerous awards. Her heaviest deadlift was 350 pounds, besting many men in the competition as well as women. She also holds awards for bench press and squat events.
She has scored three world championships at World Association of Benchers and Deadlifters competitions in Las Vegas.
Up until a couple of months ago, the couple could be found at the local gym working out three times a week, doing everything from balance and agility work to strength training. An injury to Gayle’s cornea and subsequent eye surgery, however, has sidelined their training the past several weeks.
Because of the eye injury, Gayle’s heavy powerlifting days are in the rear-view mirror. Yet the competitor in her has her eyeing a potential entrée into the world of competitive bodybuilding once she can resume weight training.
Enjoying Life to the Fullest
In the meantime, they focus on the blessings in their life. Between the two, there are five children and stepchildren, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. The couple has an easy rhythm between them, completing one another’s sentences with regularity.
They enjoy traveling the country in a refurbished 1977 Greyhound bus-turned-RV, and weekly date nights are sacred. Bill grins and adds, “Every Friday, we dress up and go to dinner. She dresses inappropriately for her age, but I’ll take it.”
Indeed, the couple has a special chemistry. Married 21 years, they have seen one another through trials and tribulations and stand firm in their commitment to aging with their health and mobility intact.
“We live in a senior community, and we see these people our age, and they’re in terrible shape. We don’t want to be like that,” Bill says, adding, “Nothing is going to stop us.”