This 72-Year-Old Weightlifter Is Lifting Expectations

Linda Leightley is breaking preconceptions about the limitations of age and gender

(Editor’s Note: This video and story were produced by PBS NewsHour.)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Finally, to our NewsHour Shares, something that caught our eye that might be of interest to you as well.

Staying in shape is difficult for many people, no matter their age. But one Virginia grandmother is raising the bar, literally.

The NewsHour’s Julia Griffin has this profile.

LINDA LEIGHTLEY, powerlifter: Commissioner of revenue’s office.

JULIA GRIFFIN: Between the phone calls and family photos, you would be forgiven for thinking Linda Leightley is your average government employee easing toward retirement.

But as her co-worker Becky McNaughton at City Hall in Fairfax, Virginia, knows, Leightley isn’t the type to take anything easy.

BECKY MCNAUGHTON, co-worker: The first or second day I worked here, Linda came into my office, and she asked me to check out her butt.


BECKY MCNAUGHTON: Because it was very, very solid. And that is how I met her and found out she was a powerlifter.

JULIA GRIFFIN: At age 72, not only is Leightley a competitive powerlifter; she’s a record-setting one at that.

LINDA LEIGHTLEY: I have set several world records, which I’m really proud of.

JULIA GRIFFIN: Leightley competes in 100% RAW, a worldwide powerlifting organization that emphasizes clean, steroid-free competitions.

Since 2014, she’s garnered 12 world records in her age and weight categories; 132-pound Leightley can dead-lift 273 pounds.

But she wasn’t always so in shape. In 2006, after years of shuttling three children and six grandchildren to their athletic activities, she finally got her own itch to work out.

LINDA LEIGHTLEY: I was 60, and I was very sluggish. And I said, you know, I really need to do something for me.

JULIA GRIFFIN: Blaine Dulin is Leightley’s personal trainer and coach.

BLAINE DULIN, personal trainer: She was a disaster when I got her. The first time we exercised, she almost fell over doing a lunge.

JULIA GRIFFIN: But Leightley stuck with it, and within a year, she lost 40 pounds and found a love for weightlifting along the way.

LINDA LEIGHTLEY: Every once in awhile, he’d say, well, do you want to stay here or do you want to lift higher? And I would say, I want to lift higher, because it felt so good.

JULIA GRIFFIN: Soon, her strength was getting noticed.

BLAINE DULIN: One day, she — I think she was picking up 220 pounds when she was 68. Somebody mentioned, does she compete or whatever? And I looked it up. And the world record was, I believe, 232. And I thought, well, why not? If you want to, why not give it a go?

JULIA GRIFFIN: Expectations and preconceptions were broken at that first competition.

LINDA LEIGHTLEY: There was another gal from the gym there. And she said: “Don’t worry about it. Whatever you do, it’s a success because you are here for the first time. Don’t worry about it if you fail.”

And I looked at her and I said, “I don’t have any intention of failing.”

BLAINE DULIN: She set a world record then, and has set at least one every other meet since.

JULIA GRIFFIN: The key to Leightley’s sustained success, Dulin says, is making sure each lift is done correctly and safely.

BLAINE DULIN: I hate to yell at somebody’s grandmother, but I have yelled at somebody’s grandmother for picking up weight improperly, because, if she gets hurt, we’re done for months, maybe indefinitely. So I go out of my way to try to make sure she does everything right.

JULIA GRIFFIN: At most events, Leightley is often the only person her age, or even close to it. That, says her daughters Colleen and Mary Beth, is what crowds find so inspiring.

COLLEEN WOOD, daughter: To see how all these young 20- and 30-something-year-olds were cheering for my mom, who is in her 70s, that was really neat.

MARY BETH HAZELGROVE, daughter: We always say she’s the strongest woman that we know, and it’s literally and figuratively.

JULIA GRIFFIN: For her part, Leightley is just glad to show that age is no restriction when it comes to physical fitness.

LINDA LEIGHTLEY: Some of the younger lifters, female lifters come over, and they say, you are role model to us. This is the goal we’d like to have as we get a little bit older.

That’s really an amazing compliment.

JULIA GRIFFIN: A compliment that might just top her long list of accomplishments.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Julia Griffin in Fairfax, Virginia.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I love that her name is Leightley. What an amazing woman.

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