three years ago, Bebe Burns fell in with a tough crowd. She was often seen in the company of men twice her size—the kind of guys you don’t want to mess with.
Bebe had become a powerlifter.
One look at the petite two-time cancer survivor in her late 60s, and deadlifting barbells in international competitions is the last thing you would expect.
But, for anyone who actually knows the former Ballard High School teacher—or been beaten by her in tennis—it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“My good friend from college, Faith Ireland, who’s a retired supreme court justice and champion powerlifter, invited me to go to her powerlifting gym one day,” Bebe said. “I didn’t think I was built like a powerlifter, but I was intrigued.”
Three years and hundreds of training sessions later, Bebe now holds several national powerlifting records and competes internationally as a member of the USA Powerlifting masters team. She’s 69.
While the popular perception of powerlifting is often one of unfathomable amounts of weight being hoisted by vein-bulging hulks, Bebe says the truth can be quite different.
“It’s actually a team sport. It’s also a very technical sport. That’s what I really like about powerlifting,” she said.
Bebe is close to lifting her body weight in the bench press, and doubling her body weight in the deadlift and squat events. She competed in the International Powerlifting World Masters Powerlifting Championships in Czech Republic this past year, and she’s currently training for the USAP Championships in Niagara Falls.
Her powerlifting accomplishments are even more impressive in light of her medical hurdles. She’s had a double mastectomy, wrist surgery and knee surgery in the past three years.
“They call me the bionic woman because I have so many metal parts,” she said.
However, if you think this could stop her from becoming a state-ranked tennis player or competing in at least one triathlon per year, think again. Bebe has never claimed to be a great athlete—just someone who isn’t afraid to fail.
“In tennis, I could always shuffle around. I’m a pusher because I couldn’t step into the ball with my right knee,” she said. “I haven’t been able to run my whole life, so I had to learn to play with my head.”
She credits her instructors at the Bellevue Club with keeping her engaged in fitness despite her injuries.
“Since I couldn’t run, it’s the Bellevue Club that really saved my life. I was able to do spinning, and Sally Reed is an incredible spinning instructor,” she said.
She also cites tennis pros Brian Nash, Geoff O’Conner and Gary Schaab; Fitness Director Sue Matyas; and Masters Swim Coach Karen Dugan for keeping her motivated.
“Those are the people that have really helped me over the years,” she said.
Although she didn’t let her knee problems hold her back from powerlifting, she decided it was time to readdress the issue this past year.
“I was not really fearful, but I felt insecure with my old knee because it was getting loose,” she said. “I first blew out my knee straddle vaulting at UW when I was 19. I’ve had a reconstructed knee that I’d been playing tennis on for 25 years with no meniscus.”
Dr. Greg Engel, Overlake orthopedic surgeon and Bellevue Club member, was in charge of Bebe’s total knee replacement.
While she’s continuing to train in powerlifting, Bebe has set her sights on some new challenges since the surgery.
“My goal with this new knee is to become as strong as I can,” she said, “so that I have the strength and ability to do whatever I want to do.”