Jimmy Magahern | Dec 31, 2012, 9:59 a.m.
About nine years ago, Gayle Clawson began noticing more and more severe back pain, even while doing simple things, like getting up out of a chair. An admitted couch potato who says she “never did anything” in terms of exercise, the Mesa grandmother finally decided it was time to see a doctor.
“I found out I had degenerative disc disease,” says Clawson, now 68. “It was getting so bad that it was hard to even walk.”
For some people her age, that diagnosis might have signaled a life sentence of Celebrex and Hoverounds, not to mention an excuse to spend even more time vegging on that comfortable couch.
But Clawson, who had also recently lost around 40 pounds on the Jenny Craig diet and was needing to firm up sagging excess skin, chose a different approach. Faced with the possibility that she could end up cruising the grocery store lanes in a mobility scooter if she didn’t start getting involved in some sort of physical therapy, Gayle, together with her husband, Bill, began working out with weights at an East Valley gym.
Surprisingly, she enjoyed it, and Bill was impressed with her quick results. “He was amazed at how quickly he began seeing muscle in my arms,” Clawson says. “I started out with very light weights, because I didn’t know what I was doing. But it took less than three weeks to start seeing a difference.”
Proud of his wife’s newly buff physique, Bill began uploading videos of Gayle on YouTube and linking her up on social media, posting on Facebook and tweeting under the screen name BuiltOldLady. Eventually one of her admirers on the Internet suggested Gayle try out for the Senior Olympics, a biennial sports competition for adults aged 50 and older put on by the National Senior Games Association. (Arizona’s state qualifying competition takes place this year from Saturday, Feb. 16, through Sunday, March 10.)
The Clawsons first checked out the Tucson Senior Olympic Festival, a 10-day city event held in late January (not officially affiliated with the NSGA but similarly structured), and Gayle decided it was something she’d like to try. Her first competitive event was the National Athlete Strength Association’s powerlifting championship in November of 2006, where she took first place in the women’s 60-plus division. The following February, she also took first place in her age division in the Arizona Senior Olympics, and—except for a year she was recovering from breast cancer surgery and had to take off—Clawson has been winning medals in the Arizona games ever since.
In December, Clawson, still battling breast cancer, had to go back for a second round of reconstructive surgery. But she’s determined not to let that keep her from missing another competition.
“In probably two months, the doctor should give me the clearance to begin lifting again, and I hope I can do the Arizona Senior Olympics this February,” says the indefatigable champ, who hopes to beat her own record of 350 pounds in the squat, where the lifter stands with the weights on her shoulders, bends her knees into a squatting position and then raises back up under the excessive load.