In a time and culture where we cannot log on to Facebook without seeing a play by play of someone’s workout, PR, or eating habits, we often lose sight of the real pioneers of lifting. Remember a time when the word “strong” or “athlete” was earned through actual displays rather than simply wearing clothes that identify us as such? Of course you don’t because it was so long ago. It’s tough to imagine, but there is a whole history of men and women who legitimately drove the strength scene into popularity before it was possible to take half-nude selfies or bizarre pics of torn callouses.
Let me tell you a little story about Katie Sandwina. Katie was a bonafide badass and gentlelady to boot. Not only that, she was strong as fuck. She was born where most of the strongest action movie stars in the world are born; Vienna, Austria. Both of her parents were lifelong circus performers weighing in at over 200lbs, 6’0 and 6’6” respectively. This was 1884 so remember, there was no CrossFit Games and American Football was a baby. The circus was the premier platform to showcase strength and size making it’s performers the original strongmen and strongwomen.
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Katie had between 12 and 14 siblings (the history is a bit fuzzy here) but one thing is for certain – her strength and size well surpassed that of her siblings. On top of those charming physical qualities, she was actually a complete babe. She became quite the head turner in her teens not only because of her stature but because of her natural beauty. You might be thinking “If that were my daughter I’d carry a shotgun at all times and forbid her from showing any clavicle.” But Phillippe, her father, saw no reason to shelter his daughter and decided to cash in on her talents in the one city that wouldn’t bat an eye at child exploitation. New York City, NY.
At just 16, Katie had already been performing for money for several years. How you ask? By way of old-timey WWE Raw matches, only these were unscripted …and real. Any person, man or woman, could challenge her to a wrestling match for the chance to win what would be today’s equivalent of about one hundred dollars. As you might imagine, the idea of rolling around with an attractive teenage female drew quite the crowd. Many played, none won. It’s said that Katie never lost a single match. Ever. In fact, a fairly serendipitous event occurred as a result of her incomparable smack-down capabilities.
One day, a 160lb challenger named Max Heymann was allured by both her beauty and strength and took his best shot at submitting Katie in a match. Max was handily beaten and in fact had to be carted off by assistants because he was knocked out during the scuffle. Katie took to consoling and caring for Max after the show and soon the two fell in love. I can only imagine that being cradled in her arms was exactly what Max had in mind the entire time. Two years later, the unlikely couple were married.
Katie wasn’t always known as “Sandwina”. It was after her usual wrestling spectacle that she announced an open challenge to outlift her. This chick had balls. She did this knowing that in the crowd was the world famous bodybuilder, Eugene Sandow. The rules were simple and to put it into terms we can all relate to, it was essentially a ground-to-overhead ladder. She would lift, he would lift, she would lift, he would lift. This went on and on until the weight reached 300lbs. The crowd gasped as Katie used what was referred to at the time as “the German method” to roll the bar up her quads and chest then jerk overhead.
Eugene, however, was unsuccessful. As the story goes, he was only able to get the weight to his hips, leaving him defeated by a then 16 year old Katie Brumbach. The win went viral, if viral was a thing back then. Reporters and journalists had a field day with the event and soon Katie was being referred to as the feminised version of the “Sandow” name. “Sandwina” became her stage name.
Other feats of strength that Katie became known for were juggling 30lb cannonballs, lifting horses and pianos, breaking chains with her bare hands, balancing a cannon on her chest, and routinely picking up her husband and holding him overhead.
Here’s the thing. Katie was a big girl. And not like shopping for ‘Goddess Sizes’ big. In her teens she was about 6’0 and weighed 185lbs. That sounds like pretty stout body proportions to me. As her body matured and finished growing, she measured right at 6’6 with a 44-29-43 figure and 16” calves.
But what made Katie unique is how she carried herself. The media was so captivated by her femininity and grace that there are literally no articles, no reports, not one, accusing her of being the slightest bit masculine. This strikes me as very progressive for the times of the early 20th century seeing as how I can’t post one double bicep shot without someone telling me to “get off steroids” and “that’s just gross”. (My mom has an opinion about everything.)
In fact, people could not get over her ladylike demeanor and found her all the more endearing as a result. On all accounts, she was an attractive woman and was referred to by many as being a “Venus” with “commanding beauty”. She never doubted her own body image and would purposely accentuate it by wearing tall boots and clothes that put her physique on display.
Are you in love with this woman yet? She was smart too. Biographers say that she adjusted to the fame and public relations with great ease. Not only that, she excelled at it. She was so adept at playing to her public appeal that she gradually, and quite calculatedly, became an outspoken proponent for women’s suffrage.
Katie Sandwina performed in private shows and the Ringling Brothers Circus until the 1940’s. If you haven’t done the math, that’s well into her golden years putting her at 64 when she finally decided to open a restaurant with her husband of 52 years in New York City. But Katie was so much more than just a spectacle and inspiration, she was the mother of two sons. She performed up until the day of both of their births no doubt because of her work ethic and pure love of strength exhibition. She trained her boys in strength and sport and encouraged them to hone their own talents throughout the years. Here is rare footage of Katie coaching her youngest son in boxing.
We can’t all be Katie Sandwina, but we can certainly aspire to exhibit some of the same character traits. She was more than brawn. She was a mutifaceted renaissance woman complete with ambition, strength of body, and mind. I think we can all tip our hat to her and agree without hesitation: Katie Sandwina is and was a Power Athlete through and through.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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