“I wanted to show the world that a woman could be strong.” (1)
In November 2021, 66-year-old Bev Francis returned to powerlifting after a 36-year hiatus. Totaling 274.8 kilograms (606 pounds) and setting several world records for her class, Francis’ comeback was celebrated as a testament to her iron will. For historians of strength, it served as a wonderful opportunity to discuss Francis’ importance in the iron game.
Aside from being a now 66-year-old record-breaker, Francis is arguably one of the most important individuals to ever compete in women’s bodybuilding. This is all the more remarkable, given that Francis is, first and foremost, an amazing powerlifter. She was the first woman to bench press over 300 pounds, pulled 501 pounds in the deadlift, and has squatted 500 pounds on the platform. She was — and as recent events proved, still is — strong.
Francis was also one of the most controversial bodybuilders of the 1980s and early 1990s. She pushed the sport to new levels of muscledom and was unafraid of ruffling feathers along the way. Competing at a time when muscular women were subject to a great deal of societal scrutiny, Francis was the poster child for strong women around the world.
BarBend has previously discussed the contentious history of the Ms. Olympia contest, the most prestigious contest in women’s bodybuilding. While Francis is a big part of that event’s history and trajectory, her story is so much more than bodybuilding.
The Early Years
The youngest of five children, Beverley ‘Bev’ Francis was born in Geelong, Victoria in Australia in 1955. Francis was, in her own words, a “tomboy” growing up. She loved sports and all that they entailed. (2) However, the problem was that the sporting opportunities available to women at that time were rather limited.
The sports Francis wanted to compete in, like Australian football, did not allow women to compete. She was likewise excluded from wrestling, boxing, pole vaulting and a host of other activities. Francis instead found outlets in things like ballet and general athletics.
Francis found a home in shot put, which she truly began to excel in while attending the University of Melbourne. It was there that Francis crossed paths with the Austrian-born athletics coach Franz Stampfl, who helped pioneer a popular form of interval trainer for runners and, more importantly, coached Roger Bannister during his record-breaking four-minute mile. (3)
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Stampfl helped transform Francis’ outlook mentally while also improving her physically. Francis began to excel in shot put, representing Australia at several international tournaments. She even finished fourth at the 1982 Commonwealth Games. (4)
But for all of this success, there was an even more important development at play — Stampfl introduced Francis to the weight room. She took to it almost immediately:
“I just loved the feeling of being able to move these heavy objects and beat them, overcome gravity … it just was an amazing feeling.” (5)
When the Victorian Powerlifting Association prompted Stampfl to offer any of his athletes up in their competition, he nominated Francis. She agreed and, in 1977, stepped on her first competition platform.
Becoming the Best
Shot put success aside, it was clear that Francis’ own interests lay in the sport of powerlifting. For several years, Francis and her training partner Olympian Gael Mulhall-Martin trained together. (6) As Francis trained, she became stronger. As she became stronger, the allure of powerlifting increased.
In 1980, Francis competed in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) World Championships in the United States. She came first in her class with a 460-kilogram (1,014.1 pounds) total. This was the beginning of her outright powerlifting career. (7)
From 1980 to 1985, Francis won 6 consecutive IPF World Championships. Not only did she win, she broke records along the way. In 1981, Francis became the first woman to bench press over 300 pounds when she pressed 330 on the platform. The next year in 1982 she set a world record in the squat with 215.9 kilograms (476 pounds).
It was the 330-pound bench press that really pushed Francis’ reputation outside of powerlifting. She was routinely classed as the strongest woman on the planet and began appearing in bodybuilding magazines. (8) In bodybuilding magazines, much was made of Francis’ incredible muscularity, as well as her strength.
Women’s bodybuilding had only begun in earnest in the late 1970s and, when Francis began to appear in magazines, few competitors, if any, could match her level of muscularity.
It was for this reason that George Butler invited Francis to compete at the Cesar’s World Cup in 1983. This was a once-off tournament created specifically for the filming of Pumping Iron II: The Women, a film that would center largely around Francis and competitor Rachel McLish.
McLish was a two time Ms. Olympia champion whose body, although muscular, was slimmer and deemed more ‘feminine’ than Francis’ body by many in Pumping Iron II. Francis was presented as the overly muscular powerlifter with no bodybuilding experience.
Francis eventually finished eighth in the World Cup but many believed she deserved to place higher. Coached by Steve Michalik, Francis had a confidence far exceeding her experience. It bode well for the future. Incidentally, this contest was also the site where Francis first met her future husband — and still judge for the Mr. Olympia show — Steve Weinberger.
Bev the Bodybuilder
Francis did not immediately pivot to bodybuilding. She continued to compete in powerlifting for another two years but did so in a mixed capacity. In 1984 Francis finished eighth at a bodybuilding show in Las Vegas. (9) Something had piqued her interest about bodybuilding, especially given how dominant she was in strength sports.
In 1985, Francis guest-posed at the Ms. Olympia show to an excited audience. This was the same year that Pumping Iron II was released, and many were following Francis’ bodybuilding forays in fitness magazines. (10) The next year, Francis fully replaced her powerlifting career with bodybuilding.
Given the reputation she had in Pumping Iron II and her reception at the 1985 Ms. Olympia, one would be forgiven for thinking that Francis went on to dominate women’s bodybuilding. But the late 1980s was a period when Cory Everson was the undisputed Ms. Olympia. From 1984 to 1989, Everson won six straight Ms. Olympia titles.
Although Francis matched if not surpassed Everson’s muscularity, her look was still proving troublesome for judges. She finished tenth in her first official Olympia in 1986. Undeterred, Francis continued, and actually won the World Pro Championships in 1987. The Olympia continued to evade her.
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Francis later revealed how troublesome her muscularity was for those outside of bodybuilding as well. Given the relative novelty of a muscular body, Francis was routinely met with a host of impolite and inaccurate claims from the public. (11) Still, she continued.
From 1987 to 1989, Francis finished third at the Ms. Olympia three consecutive times. By 1989, she was competing with a much more slender physique. Francis was still one of the most muscular athletes on stage, but she was visibly smaller than she had been in 1983, perhaps in an attempt to appease judges who penalized her for her muscularity.
Francis never did win a Ms. Olympia title, despite being the most muscular, and at times most defined, bodybuilder of the 1980s. She did come close twice, however, in 1990 and 1991. In 1990, the path to the Ms. Olympia had been blown wide open with the retirement of Cory Everson.
With Everson out of the picture, Francis and other competitors like future legend Lenda Murray became viable contenders for the Olympia title in 1991.
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The 1991 Ms. Olympia was Francis’ final, and most controversial, Olympia. That year the contest was being broadcast by ESPN and was aired over two nights. On night one, the symmetry and muscularity rounds were held and, 24 hours later, the posing and posedown sections took place. (12)
Francis learned from her mistake the previous year and showed up with a much more muscular physique, which surprised fans. Reigning champion Lenda Murray was herself 11 pounds heavier than the previous year but it was clear that Francis rivaled, if not outright surpassed her. Francis later claimed that “all the women were huge … but I was massive.” (13)
At the end of night one, Francis was four points ahead of Lenda Murray, with few believing she wouldn’t win the following night. Before the second night began, screens within the arena displayed a scoreboard that showed Francis ahead of Murray. Rarely did a posing round decide a winner in bodybuilding. Francis was the favorite.
Fast forward to that evening. All the rounds had finished. Francis and Murray stood on stage waiting to hear the winner. To the shock of many, Murray was crowned champion. She finished one point ahead of Francis. Although Murray was a worthy winner, with a champion’s physique, many felt something was amiss. It was claimed that ESPN did not want an overly muscular woman like Francis to win the crown. (12)
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Something that lends some credence to this claim is the fact that early in 1992, the International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB) encouraged athletes to compete with a more ‘feminine look.’ For Francis, 1991 was the last straw. Sixteen months after the result, Francis spoke to reporters, saying:
“After being in the lead … I still can’t believe I lost that contest. In my heart and in my mind I can’t motivate myself to compete in another bodybuilding contest. The fire for competition is no longer there. I have no bitterness. Bodybuilding gave me a great life and I’m thankful for that.” (12)
Francis in Retrospect
After retiring, Francis continued to remain a mainstay in the fitness industry. She opened a well-known gym with her husband in Syosset, New York, has written for several muscle magazines, and remains an inspiration for many. A remarkable life for a remarkable woman.
Francis was, in many ways, an early maverick in women’s bodybuilding. She helped open the door for more muscular women and, despite multiple setbacks, endured throughout. That she doesn’t have a Ms. Olympia title is one of the sport’s biggest travesties.
Francis’ career should not, however, be remembered for what she didn’t win. That does a disservice to one of the iron game’s most fascinating women. Francis was an all-around athlete who broke world records, set new standards, and proved that strong women not only exist in elite sports — they thrive.
1. Rhiannon Stevens, ‘The Strongest Woman in the World,’ Earshot, 22 July 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-07-23/bev-francis-the-strongest-woman-in-the-world/100215946
4. ‘Bev Francis,’ Commonwealth Games, https://commonwealthgames.com.au/athletes/bev-francis/.
5. Stevens, ‘The Strongest Woman in the World.’
7. ‘Bev Francis,’ Open Powerlifting. https://www.openpowerlifting.org/u/bevfrancis
8. Phillip Chipman, ‘Bev Francis’, Engraved in Iron, August 9, 2018 https://engravediniron.com/2018/08/09/beverley-francis/.
10. Peter McGough, ‘The Making of Pumping Iron II: The Women,’ Muscular Development, 19 December, 2014, https://www.musculardevelopment.com/news/the-mcgough-report/13832-the-making-of-pumping-iron-ii-rachel-mclish-vs-bev-francis.html.
11. Stevens, ‘The Strongest Woman in the World.’
12. Peter McGough, ‘Bev’s Last Stand,’ Muscular Development, 07 August, 2013. https://www.musculardevelopment.com/news/bodybuilding-news/11926-bev-s-last-stand.html
13. Steinem, Gloria. Moving beyond words: Age, rage, sex, power, money, muscles: Breaking boundaries of gender. Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Featured Image: @bevsgym on Instagram