IMAGE IS HEAVY BURDEN : Weightlifter Karyn Marshall Feels Pressure to Project ‘Femininity, Intelligence’

Times Staff Writer

Karyn Marshall, former world champion and current national champion in her sport, says the biggest obstacle she faces in competition is that she thinks too much.

Marshall is a weightlifter. Probably most people have images of weightlifters that would exclude the possibility of thinking too much, but Marshall is a happy exception. A stockbroker and financial analyst on Wall Street, Marshall also holds 53 world and American records in the snatch and clean and jerk.

But whereas her insight and powers of analysis are essential in the stock market, too much self-analysis is a bad thing in weightlifting.


“My problem is that I think too much,” Marshall said Friday from the Civic Center Music Hall here, where she won the gold medal in the 82.5-kilogram weight class at the U.S. Olympic Festival. “I’ve been at this 11 years and I’m still learning.”

Marshall has become the biggest thing to happen to women’s weightlifting since the International Weightlifting Federation sanctioned the first world championship for women, which Marshall won in her weight division. Never before had reporters flocked to weightlifting, and it is because of Marshall, 33, and her unique story.

After graduating from Columbia University, as a dean’s list student, Marshall studied to become a nurse. But after working at a hospital for only six months, she changed her mind about that profession.

“There were a lot of frustrations,” she said. “I loved the teaching and working with the people, but I wasn’t used to the stress of the being a nurse in an overcrowded hospital. There are some very dangerous situations.”

At about the same time that Marshall was casting about for a suitable career, her father was searching for a young person to train as a financial analyst. He picked his daughter.

“He has very unique ideas about economy and the world,” she said. “He didn’t want a typical MBA with a preconceived notion of how economics work.”


In 1980, Marshall went to work at P. R. Herzig and Co., a small company where she is able to do many jobs.

“I do some brokerage,” she said. “I’m not a trader, but I do some trading. Basically, I’m an analyst, a numbers cruncher. I look at the economy and decide what investments are good. We analyze the economic indicators and go from there.”

Few on Wall Street would have predicted the crash of Oct. 17, 1987. Not only was the effect devastating for Marshall on the job, but it occurred at the worst possible time for her in her life as an athlete--just two weeks before the World Championships.

“That was exciting,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t have time to think about (weightlifting). I used to go into work at 9 and leave around 4:15. That week I was working 12 hours a day and on the weekends. I went into the gym at night, around 10, and I’d leave about midnight. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep. I must have done something right, maybe because I didn’t think about the competition.”

That was the year Marshall won the world title and set a world record of 220 kilograms (485 pounds) for the two-lift total.

Marshall had already been weightlifting seriously by the time she moved to Wall Street. She said that at first she tried to hide her sport from the people she worked with, but as she became more successful--and her name began to appear in the newspapers--she gradually began to reveal her avocation.


Such is the stigma of the sport that women often tend to be defensive when they discuss it. Marshall can laugh when she talks about the image of a female weightlifter--and how she tries to combat it.

Marshall was asked if she was good for the image of female weightlifters.

“I think so,” she said. “I try to be. I try to be myself, but at the same time knowing that we have a lot of preconceived notions of what we are about. I think I project femininity and intelligence, which people may not think is possible. When people start looking at us as athletes and not oddities, we will be better off.”

Marshall says that, then in the next breath tells a bizarre story about what she termed a publicity stunt.

Ever since she began lifting, Marshall had heard of Katie Sandwina, an Austrian circus strongwoman who, in 1911, lifted 286 pounds over her head, which is recognized as the world record by the Guinness book.

Marshall broke the record by lifting 303 pounds in the relative quiet of her local gym. Then she got a phone call from Japanese television. Eventually, against her own better judgment, Marshall and her husband Peter, who is also a weightlifter, accepted a great deal of money to perform on a television special.

“They had all kinds of weird people on there,” she said. “The tallest twins, the world’s shortest man. I was a little apprehensive. I didn’t feel that I belonged in that freak show.


“That was a risk I took in doing that. I am acutely aware of the image problem. It was such an attractive offer. I sensed the circus atmosphere but I was an athlete and they respected me for it.”

Carol Cady, a two-sport athlete, won in her weight class, 82.4 kilograms, Friday. Cady, a graduate of Stanford, a two-time Olympian and current American record-holder in the discus, was suspended for four years earlier this year by The Athletics Congress for her participation in a track tour of South Africa.

U.S. Olympic Committee officials say there is no reciprocity among sports to prevent this kind of situation, in which an athlete banned in one sport is eligible to compete in another.