She wants to be the World’s Strongest Woman, But...
she keeps hoping it won’t show. Shy Jackie MacDonald can lift her weight in bar bells, but she dresses in pearls and sequins. Her fifth graders just won’t believe she’s the best woman shot putter this side of the Iron Curtain
LOYD PERCIVAL, a coach of amateur and professional athletes, recently announced with pride that one of his protégés, a twenty-two-year-old Toronto schoolteacher named Jacqueline Donalda MacDonald, was about to become the strongest woman in the world.
Newspaper photographers were entranced by the opportunity to focus on Miss MacDonald, who is constructed spectacularly like Marilyn Monroe, but Jackie herself was aghast.
“The strongest woman in the world !” she moaned when she read her press clippings. “People will think I’m some sort of freak!”
Jackie MacDonald currently is trapped in a dilemma. She has an aching ambition, on the one hand, to become the world’s champion discus thrower and shot putter at the 1956 Olympics in Australia and to this end she must be excessively strong; on the other hand, she would like to be regarded as fragile and feminine, incapable of opening a car door for herself let alone of wrenching if off its hinges.
She has worked out a fragile and feminine compromise. Jackie has decided to become the world’s
strongest woman, temporarily. As soon as the Olympics are over she intends to spend her days on a chaise longue until her muscles dissolve.
In the meantime, by dressing with delicacy, she vigorously combats the effects of being able to lift a hundred-and-fifty-pound bar bell. She lightens her hair to honey blond, wears sooty mascara and flowerlike perfumes, favors slender-heeled pumps, pastel sweaters, pearls and dangling earrings. As her muscles grow stronger, she fights back with an angora beret, sewn with sequins. Though she is tall—five foot ten and weighing a hundred and sixty pounds—Jackie is determined never to be picked out of a crowd as the girl most likely to move a piano.
“She’s easily the strongest girl in Canada right now,” comments trainer Jimmy Cooke, who operates a gymnasium in Toronto where Jackie trains under Percival’s direction. “She doesn’t look it but then most people don’t realize that it would
take an extreme amount of work for women to get those bulging muscles that men have.”
Jackie’s measurements are those of a slightly larger-than-life beauty queen: chest, 41inches; waist, 28 inches; and hips, 40 inches. Her arms and legs similarly are a few inches larger than those of the average woman, but they are well proportioned and tapering. As Cooke points out, she has no bulging muscles.
Jackie has buried more of herself than just her muscles. She is a sensitive, withdrawn girl, reluctant to discuss herself. As a child she played alone, operating on her dolls and daydreaming of becoming a doctor. When she began to grow taller than other girls of her age, she turned to sports. She is carefully courteous but never gregarious, and has a placid manner, not easily shaken.
She spends her days teaching a Grade Five class at Hillcre8t Public School in Toronto, leaving only the after-school hours and week ends for training. As a teacher, she is calm and friendly and much admired by the ten-year-olds she is shepherding through long division and spelling. When her picture appeared in Toronto newspapers under the banner “The World’s Strongest Woman,” she was approached by an incredulous pupil.
She’d rather he thought of as fragile and feminine, incapable of opening a car door —
She wants to be the World’s Strongest Woman But . . .
CONTINUED FROM PREVIOUS PAGE
“You, the strongest woman!” said the little girl, examining her teacher in sweater and skirt and pearls. “You! No, no no!”
Jackie, in fact, was dubbed the glamour girl of the 1954 British Empire Games in Vancouver by reporters and cameramen who were grateful for the figure she cut in a thin cotton jersey and taut cotton shorts. It was estimated after the games that she was photographed and interviewed more often than any other single athlete, excluding only Roger Bannister and John Landy who broke the four-minute mile. Her picture appeared in newspapers all over the world. One writer referred to her as “the world’s most beautiful shot putter” and Eric Nicol, of the Vancouver Province, wrote:
“Did you see that picture of Miss Jackie MacDonald in the paper, the lovely blond teacher from Ontario who is five foot ten, weighs a hundred and fifty, is perfectly proportioned and hurls the discus more than a hundred and twenty feet ?
“So did I. I vibrated like an old Model T at the sight of a new Buick. I also sighed with regret that I wasn’t about six foot four, weighing about two hundred and twenty, proportioned someplace and able to throw a horse over a barn.”
Jackie holds the Canadian record for throwing the shot, an eight-pound ball of brass, a distance of forty-three feet, ten and a half inches. She also holds an unofficial United States record for the shot put and is rated by her coach as the fifteenth best shot putter in the world. She has attempted more ethereal pastimes, such as high-board diving, swimming and ballet, but her size led her inevitably to flinging heavy objects.
In order to try to put the shot and throw the discus to new world’s records in the summer of 1956, Jackie has spent the winter of 1954-55 developing her muscles. She goes twice a week to the basement gymnasium in downtown Toronto which is Cooke’s Physical Culture Studio. The walls and low-hanging ceiling are painted pale green and decorated with framed color photographs of young men with alarmingly distended muscles convulsively gripping their wrists. Floor-length mirrors, framed in red, are set around the pillars in the centre of the room and between the racks of dumbbells and bar bells that line the walls.
Jackie wears shorts, a cotton jersey, thick wool socks and tennis shoes while working out. While she warms up by touching her toes with the heel of her hand, sitting cross-legged and touching her head to the floor and whipping her body in deep sidebends, a dozen more women arrive at the gym, giggling and exchanging greetings with Jimmy Cooke.
These women are housewives, secretaries, nurses, physiotherapists, dancers, tennis players and
convalescents. Some are overweight and some underweight; most are worried by the middle-aged sogginess of their muscles. They subscribe, at a dollar and a half a session, to Cooke’s theory that calisthenics with a ten-pound weight in each hand is approximately twenty times as beneficial to muscle tone as calisthenics with handfuls of air. Most of Cooke’s female clients are also captivated by the series of exercises he has evolved to tighten the hips and waistline and increase the bust. The weight-training course consequently is popular and Jackie works out, purposefully and somewhat apart, in a girlish babble.
“I couldn’t get a baby sitter yesterday,” explains a chatty brunette, extending dumbbells one at a time over her head. “So I did all my shopping today and I’ll tell you!”
“How is your daughter now?” asks another, gasping in deep knee-bends.
“Better today,” sighs the first, climbing on a stationary bicycle.
Jackie picks up a hundred-and-sixty-pound bar bell across the back of her shoulders, taking its weight on a sponge pad. Bracing it on each side with her hands, she squats and rises, squats and rises, squats and rises, five times. Two gum-chewing teen-agers, frail and round-shouldered, watch her without expression.
“That’s enough,” Jimmy calls to the woman doing the knee-bends. “If I let you get too stiff it’s the end of a beautiful chumship.”
Jackie moves to the cocoa matting of a weightlifter’s platform, casually checks the weights on a bar bell, and lifts it swiftly to her chin and over her head with two deft movements and a clanging of pig iron. She adds ten-pound weights to each end of the bar bell, bringing it to a total of a hundred pounds, and repeats the lift, known as a clean and jerk. The other women continue to exchange small talk, watching her without turning their heads.
Cooke is reassuring a newcomer, plump under a bulky track suit, that the exercises are harmless. “The increases in weight are so tiny you can’t injure yourself,” he says earnestly. “The first time you push a seven-and-a-half-pound weight over your head ten times, the next session twelve times and the next week fifteen times. Then you’re ready for a nine-and-a-half-pound weight and you push it over your head ten times and then twelve times and work up slowly all over again.”
let alone pulling it right off
The new customer looks doubtful, staring at Jackie who is lying on her back pressing a hundred -and-thirty-pound bar bell until her arms are extended, letting it sink slowly to her chest and extending it again. She wheezes and her forehead under tousled blond curls is wet with perspiration.
“Calisthenics will tone you up to a point,” Cooke continues determinedly. “Weight training saves you time, gives your muscles something to work against so you don’t have to repeat the exercises so often.”
The pudgy woman nods slowly, accepting the dumbbells Cooke hands her. Jackie is back on the weight-lifter’s platform, fastening more weights to the bar bell. The back of her jersey is damply . sticking to her spine.
“Did you see Jackie Gleason last week?” a slender girl in a turtle-neck sweater calls over Jackie’s bent figure.
“Yeah,” replies a woman at the parallel bars who is stiffly kicking her leg waist-high. Jackie wipes her hands on the back of her shorts without looking around and suddenly lifts the bar bell above her head. The conversation pauses a moment.
“Well,” begins the girl in the turtle-neck, after Jackie has set down the bar bell. “I was watching Gleason ...”
Can She Beat the Russians?
Jackie’s weight-lifting program literally will become heavier each month in order to prepare her for the 1956 Olympics, to be held in Australia, where her competition will be formidable. In practice sessions, where she is a shade better than in competition, she has put the shot better than forty-six feet; the world’s record for women is fifty-three feet, five and a half inches.
“Gelina Zybina, a twenty-four-year-old Russian university student, holds the world’s record and the next six or seven best women shot putters in the world are also Russians,” Jackie explains. “I’ve got a long way to go before I’ll be ready to try to beat them. Sometimes, when I realize I’ve only got a little more than a year left to train, I get panicky.”
It all depends on whether she can sustain her weight-training program,” adds her coach, Lloyd Percival. “She’s got to Continued on page 50 become exceedingly strong but it’s within her potential to be among the world’s top six shot putters and she’s even better with the discus.”
Continued on page 50
She Wants To Be The World’s Strongest Woman
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 25
The shot put and discus throw date back to man’s earliest endeavors to
prove the superiority of his strength over that of his fellow man. Homer wrote of the discus throw, which has been immobilized in the finest Greek statuary, and the sport was part of the first Olympic games in 646 BC. The shot put originated with the Irish and is recorded as a major event of the Tailteann games in 632 BC. Both sports have always been linked together, since the final one quarter of the movement in each is identical, and both have always been associated almost entirely with strength and size. One world’s champion male shot putter
weighed three hundred and thirty pounds, and several of Russia’s best women shot putters weigh more than two hundred pounds.
The shot put and the discus throw involve the ability to throw a weighted object the utmost distance. No sport, except diving, involves such a brief, explosive effort. Races and games require a sustained series of movements during which the athlete can pace himself. The entire motion of the shot put, however, is over in from 1.8 to 4 seconds, depending on the individual’s technique. A man may train two years
for the shot put ami be eliminated in twelve seconds.
“It’s the only sport I know,” broods Percival, “where you can be a bum at two o’clock and a world’s champion at 2.02.”
The conditions of the shot-put competitions require the contestant to stand within a seven-foot circle and throw the shot, which weighs sixteen pounds for men and eight pounds, thirteen and four-fifths ounces for women, within a marked angle of ninety degrees. Each competitor gets three throws in succession and the distance of the farthest shot is marked. The leading six contestants then advance into the finals and each gets three more throws. The discus, a wooden disk with a metal centre and a metal edge, weighs two pounds, two ounces, and is thrown from within a circle measuring eight feet, two and a half inches. The shot is poised above the shoulder and heaved with a hop and a twist of the body; the discus is held behind the back and the athlete spins one and a half times before releasing it.
The technique of throwing the shot varies as much as the technique of hitting a baseball. Jackie, for instance, uses what is called the O’Brien technique for shot put, beginning her movement with her back to the line of flight instead of beginning with her body sideways to the line of flight as many other shot putters do. The shot put gives the appearance of being no more contrived than the art of hurling broken bricks from the hack garden into the unsold lot next door, but it is vastly more complicated than it looks.
“It involves eleven co-ordinated actions,” Percival has explained to Jackie. “The faster you can perform those eleven movements, the farther the shot will go. The secret is to make all of them flow smoothly, without a block.”
She’ll Need a Longer Yard
Perfecting the movement, which Percival claims usually takes a shot putter eight to ten years, means constant repetition. Russia’s women shot putters practice three hours a day and the world’s champion male shot putter, Parry O’Brien of the University of Southern California, threw the shot three hundred to four hundred times a day during his training periods. O’Brien, who weighs two hundred and twenty and is considered to be only mediumsized, also ran a mile each day crouched over like Groucho Marx in order to strengthen his legs.
Jackie’s program, while less severe, is equally determined. In addition to the six hours a week she spends lifting weights, she practices the shot put and discus even in winter. Her father laid out a seven-foot ring of snow in their back yard, pouring water over it until it hardened to a ring of ice. Jackie, in ski pants, two sweaters and fleecelined gloves, sprinkled the circle with rock salt three nights a week through January and February and gravely threw the shot in the direction of her back fence for an hour.
“If I ever establish a world’s record in the shot put,” she muttered to herself one night, “the yard won’t be long enough.”
Some nights last winter Toronto had below-zero weather but Jackie continued to work out while her neighbors watched television. The garden is deeply pitted. Surveying the ruin, her father once asked peevishly, “Can’t you throw it in the same hole?”
In order to practice the discus, which Jackie can throw in practice farther than the hundred-and-thirty-one-foot Canadian record, she went during the “I hate to be stared at,” says Jackie So only the birds watch her practice
winter to a school yard a few blocks away. One foggy night in February she lost sight of the discus after she had thrown it and a half-hour search failed to find it. The next morning she phoned the school.
“Have you found a discus?” she enquired politely. “I lost mine last night in your yard.”
“You lost what!” exclaimed a woman’s voice.
“A discus,” said Jackie with embarrassment. “Not a good one, mind you. It only cost me nine dollars but I . . . ”
“A discus!” gulped the woman. “A discus? Well.” It was found by a baffled child and returned later that day.
As the weather warmed, Jackie began working out more regularly in a nearby park. She sets her alarm for six and slips out of the silent house wearing a track suit and carrying her spiked shoes and discus. For an hour, while most of the city is between sleeping and waking, she throws the discus forty, fifty, sixty times. The stillness in the park is broken only by the dawn chirping of birds, Jackie’s hoarse breathing and the slap of the discus in the wet grass.
“I hate to be stared at,” explains Jackie. “It’s distracting.”
It’s more than that. Jackie’s dread that public opinion will label her as unacceptably unwomanly is the chief force in her desire to avoid an audience when she is displaying her strength. As time for a competition draws nearer, in the weeks of her summer vacation from school, and she needs longer workouts, she hopes for rain.
“When it rains the parks are empty and I can work all afternoon undisturbed,” she says. Sopping wet, she goes through the eleven co-ordinated movements she has been taught, seeking swiftness and smoothness enough to defeat a Russian girl named Zybina on a grassy field in Australia.
In spite of her qualms about the muscles she is developing, shot putting and the discus are the two endeavors to which she has been most faithful in an athletic career remarkable equally for achievement and restlessness.
Jackie, born in October 1932, is the only child of Donald N. MacDonald, a salesman for a drug company. Her mother died when Jackie was fifteen and an aunt has taken care of the
household ever since. Always a solidly built child, Jackie had begun to grow tall when she was twelve but since she was already in high school she felt only mildly conspicuous.
To develop grace, Jackie had studied, ballet and acrobatic dancing for two years. As a teen-ager, she was strong and lithe; she turned to sport to give her the vital sense of accomplishment. She made the school swimming team her first month in high school and in 1948 was Ontario Junior Diving Champion. At University of Toronto, where she also swam on the school team, she started an honor science course and switched a few months later to physical education. A year later she changed again, to Normal School where she earned a teacher’s certificate. Meanwhile she played on a championship basketball team and was a powerful tennis player.
Let’s Shoot at the Record
The rapidity with which Jackie in the past switched from one thing to another is illustrated by an incident which began with her enrolling for ballet lessons a few years ago. The dance studio was on the third floor of a building and Jackie was rounding the staircase on the second floor when she happened to look into a long room carpeted with tumbling mats.
“A man named Bill Underwood was conducting classes in defendo,” she said afterward. “It’s something like judo. I went in and enrolled. I never did get to the ballet school upstairs.”
In the spring of 1952 Jackie phoned Lloyd Percival, who operates a Sports College on CBC radio, supervises the efforts of about two dozen outstanding Canadian athletes and has been a consultant coach for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. Percival is of the scientific school of coaching, clinically dissecting muscle, motion and motive. Jackie explained to him that she wanted to try some form of track and field and considered herself best suited to discus and shot put.
“How big are you?” Percival asked immediately.
“Five foot ten, a hundred and sixty pounds,” Jackie replied. “I’m twenty.
I hope I’m not too old.”
Percival was interested in coaching her because of her size. Jackie was equally impressed with him. “He didn’t start by suggesting that if I worked I could beat the girl in the next town,” Jackie comments. “He’s got a broad outlook. From the beginning he said to me, ‘There’s the world’s record —let’s work toward it.’ ”
Jackie worked for a year with Percival and in the summer of 1953 won the Canadian women’s shot-put championship. Percival discovered she could throw five or six feet farther in practice than she could in competition and he prodded her to relax.
“If you’re tense you restrict the flow,” he insisted. “Your muscles interfere with one another. The biceps get in the way of the triceps.”
“It certainly wasn’t the crowd that made me nervous,” Jackie observed. “At most track-and-field events the competitors easily outnumber the audience.”
Jackie was a victim of a bitter misunderstanding during a track-and-field event that attracted an audience of thousands—The British Empire Games last summer in Vancouver. One hour before the discus competition began, officials visited her in the locker room and informed her that she would be withdrawn from the event while her amateur status was investigated. Her photograph had appeared in a newspaper soft-drink advertisement.
Jackie had already placed second in a field of nine women in the shot put and she was expected to take secondhand possibly even first—in the discus. This would have made her Canada’s only two-medal winner. Huddled over and miserable, she watched the discus throw from the stands.
“They took my picture with a pop bottle in my hand,” Jackie wailed. “I didn’t know how they were going to use it; I thought it was the usual newspaper picture. I certainly didn’t receive any money for it.”
“One of the most highhanded operations we’ve come across in years on the sport beat ...” fumed Jim Vipond, sports editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail in a hitter column.
Can She Show the Russians?
Three days after the games ended, the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada announced that Jackie hadn’t violated the amateur code after all. She was cleared completely, though it came too late. Jackie had spent some of the time in between crying, some more of it staring at the mountains and playing a recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony.
Last October, two days before her twenty-second birthday, she took part in an exhibition in Cleveland and put the shot 44 feet, 9% inches, almost two feet farther than the existing U. S. record. This summer Jackie hopes to throw even farther in an official event.
“Jackie has got to become the strongest woman in the world if she is going to beat those Russian girls,” Percival says. “She doesn’t like the idea very much, but that’s how it is. Strength affects more of the needs of the athlete than any other factor. Power, speed, mobility, flexibilitynone of them have a priority over strength. You can even flip cards in a hat better if you are strong.”
The weight-training program, begun two years ago when Percival first started coaching Jackie, has already had impressive results. Using a weightlifting technique known as the pressa slow deliberate lift that uses purely shoulder and arm muscles—Jackie can lift a hundred and thirty-two pounds; using the clean-and-jerk lift, which benefits from an agile shifting of the legs, she can lift a hundred and fifty pounds; lying on her back and bracing her feet against the weight, she can press three hundred pounds with her legs. Jimmy Cooke, one-hundred-andeighty-pound trainer of weight-lifters, can’t lift as much.
Wich her weight training, Jackie carefully does other exercises learned in ballet classes that are designed to stretch her muscles and prevent bulging. She does such manoeuvres as high kicks and back-bends and calls them “compensating” exercises.
“One of the advantages of the weight-training course,” explains Percival enthusiastically, “is that Jackie will gain ttwenty pounds, all muscle. You have to be heavy to put the shot and none of it can be fat. About fifteen percent of Jackie right now is loose tissue We’ll have to strip her—of surplus flesh, that is—before the Olympics.”
The prospect plunges Jackie into gloom. “Lloyd tells me that my measurements actually will be smaller with ¡twenty pounds of muscle added,” she tells her friends. “You know, muscle is heavier than soft tissue and takes less space.”
Mein while, her time is feverishly crowded. In addition to teaching school and conducting an after-school tumbling class for the children, she is studying journalism and French at night schooll. Along with these courses and her training schedule, she also has no shortage of dates with other athletes and men she knew in university. For dances and parties Jackie dresses in simple, torso-clinging clothes, most of which she makes herself. With sparkling earrings and a subtle perfume, she presents an alluring picture of demure womanhood. Rut the effect is sometimes ruined.
Last January Jackie appeared on a television show and was asked to bring j a bar bell with her to demonstrate her strength. A young man was meeting her after the program to take her to a | party. Jackie appeared at the studio i door, followed by two sheepish stage| hands lurching under the dead weight of the bar bell. They loaded it with a clank into the back seat of the young j man’s car and disappeared just as he j found that the bar bell had heen so placed that he couldn’t close his car door.
He pushed sturdily at the bar bell while Jackie studied her manicure, pushed it fiercely and then pushed it furiously. Finally he stopped.
“Ah . . . Jackie ...” he began.
She looked at him silently, moved the bar bell a few inches and gently closed the car door.
“Heh heh,” said the young man. “Thanks.”
The world's strongest woman looked depressed. “You’re welcome,” she said, weakly. if