The Lift That Launched A Legacy
By Candace Long
Around the world, the late Paul Anderson is often referred to as “the world’s strongest man.” Paul is remembered as “the “world’s strongest man…who also lifted weights.” That’s because Paul not only possessed a God-given, herculean physical strength but he also had an even more incredible inner strength that carried him through the last thirteen years of his life, battling physical ailments like Job about whom we read in the Old Testament.
It all started with a lift…a clean and jerk on November 25, 1956 at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. It was an athletic feat that astounded the world. For Paul, however, that lift was a divine appointment/a supernatural encounter with God that changed his life and emblazoned his heart with a vision to reach others for Christ. Paul’s legacy was more than weightlifting titles and a museum full of trophies. Rather, his true legacy is found in the lives of troubled young men sixteen to twenty-one years of age who have been court-ordered and, the majority of whom are miraculously transformed during their time at the Paul Anderson Youth Home (PAYH). Glenda, Paul’s wife and co-founder of the PAYH (1961) continues to lead this ministry which they established together on McIntosh Street, one of Vidalia’s most beautiful and historic landmarks.
The PAYH is often called “a miracle home” by such notables as Chick-fil- A Founder and Chairman S. Truett Cathy as well as Orlando Magic President Pat Williams. President Ronald Reagan said this about Paul Anderson: “You opened a door not for yourself but for young people who were homeless and misguided. Thousands of young people have, thanks to you, been provided with a Christian homelike environment.” Its unique rehabilitation program is based on Biblical principles, combined with the kind of work ethic that built a weakling into an Olympic champion. Over 90% of the young men who graduated from the program have gone on to live productive lives and have not returned to incarceration. The Paul Anderson Youth Home is a “miracle home” because it was birthed from a “miracle.”
Paul Anderson was born in 1932 in Toccoa, Georgia. From childhood, nothing came easily for him. Because Paul was crippled at age five with Bright’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the kidneys that ultimately claimed his life in 1994, he learned the true secret of running the race of life. He refused to be hindered by physical obstacles and challenges. Told by doctors that he could not play outside, with his parents’ encouragement, he did so anyway. By pushing his body to the limit, undergirded by his mother’s high protein diet, he eventually earned a football scholarship to Furman University.
While there, Paul began to experiment with weightlifting and discovered to his and everyone’s amazement that he was able to lift more weight than anyone else. Paul decided to leave college and pursue weightlifting; however, because of his size and sheer strength, proper training equipment was difficult to find. Nonetheless, Paul’s creativity and ingenuity went into high gear, and he built his own training gym out of automobile axles, drive shafts, buckets, barrels, and two-by-fours that he had salvaged from junkyards.
Soon, this 5’ 9” young man was transformed into a 350-pound hulk, who on a light training day, could out-lift world record holders. The only problem was: no one had ever heard of him. His attempts to enter national competitions so that he would become known were met with one disaster after another. For example, during a competition leading up to the 1954 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) National Championships, his foot slipped as he was doing a press which resulted in his left wrist being broken. Defying traditional wisdom, Paul cut off the cast just above the break and continued training. His amazing tales of overcoming adversity are chronicled in his autobiography, A Greater Strength.
By 1955, Paul had astounded sports enthusiasts throughout the world with his strength. As part of the U.S. weightlifting team for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, everyone, including himself, thought the gold medal was “in the bag”: no other weightlifter was within one hundred pounds of his total lifts.
When the team arrived in Melbourne before the competition, Paul became unusually feverish and unsteady. In fact, his temperature reached 104 degrees; both doctors and officials reported that he would not be able to lift. Paul said: “I tried praying, but my heart had grown cold from years of ignoring God.” With steel-like determinism, he doctored himself with aspirin to lower his temperature and tried to mask the seriousness of his condition. Twelve days before the event, he had lost thirty pounds, and it was visibly obvious to everyone that he was very sick. Paul had not come to the Olympics to lose…or to even come in second.
After two failed lifts, he rested before his final one and was awakened by the announcement: “Paul, in order to win, you will have to lift an Olympic record of 414 ? pounds to make up for your first two lifts.” Paul Anderson showed his desire to win by asking for 414 ? pounds to be placed on the bar. His first two tries completely failed as the bar never got past his chin. Before facing his final attempt, he had all of three minutes to get himself together. Walking that long, dark corridor, he recalled: “I felt as if God was reminding me of everything He had ever done for me. He had made me who and what I was. My successes were because He extended my life when, as a child, Bright’s disease threatened my existence. In spite of His innumerable blessings, my response, up until that time, was to ignore Him.
Chalking up for the final lift, the arena was silent. Pulling the weight to his chest in the cleaning motion, he knew immediately that he could not put it overhead. Now desperate, Paul admitted to God: “You have given me everything, but up until now I have given You nothing in return.” He prayed: “I’m not trying to make a deal, God, but from here on out, I’m making a real commitment. I must have Your help to get this weight overhead.” Bending his knees to push the weight, the bar stayed on his chest for what seemed an eternity. He gave the final push and drove the bar overhead. It stayed. The crowd went wild, and an Olympic champion was born.
Paul sums up his win this way: “I had lifted far more in the past and would lift much more in the future. The poundage was not important. Even the gold medal was not the real prize. A far greater miracle had occurred. What I really won was not an Olympic championship measured by the poundages of man but the strength of God’s Holy Spirit. I had finally learned that His strength would not be diluted by the diseases of my vulnerable flesh.”
Toombs County salutes the fiftieth anniversary of Paul’s Olympic lift which paved the way for the Paul Anderson Youth Home, the greatest legacy of “the world’s strongest man…who also lifted weights.” His was a difficult, challenging calling…and yet God prepared him for it as a young child. True legacies are not built on media hype. They are built on tenacious faith, unshakable commitment, and impeccable character that befit Paul Anderson’s Lord and Savior: Jesus Christ: The One he served.
To learn more about Paul Anderson and his legacy, please visit www.payh.org or telephone: 912-537-7237 to make an appointment to tour the Paul Anderson Youth Home.