In 24 years of directing competitions sanctioned by the World Natural Powerlifting Federation, Ron DeAmicis has never met another powerlifter like 81-year-old Willie Murphy.
"Willie's one and only," said DeAmicis, the World Natural Powerlifting Federation vice president.
"I've had other seniors competing in their low-70s or middle-70s, but Willie's my first 80 year-and-older. And as far as her personality, there's no one that can beat Willie."
Murphy is from Rochester, New York, and started competitively powerlifting about 10 years ago. Her reason? "Just to maintain myself," she said.
"Everybody is not able to powerlift," Murphy said. "A lot of older people, they're into swimming, yoga, tai chi, various other things. But I guess I'm just unusual because I'm into natural powerlifting."
Typically, a full powerlifting meet consists of the bench press, deadlift and squats. Instead of the squats, Murphy does the bench for reps, which involves bench-pressing half of her 105-pound body weight as many times as she can in two minutes and the strict curl. She also competes in an "Ironmaiden" category that combines her best bench press and best deadlift into one total weight.
She holds the national records in the bench for reps, the strict curl and Ironmaiden categories. Murphy was named the WNPF Lifter of the Year in 2014. And she now holds New York state records and national records across multiple WNPF age brackets.
"Obviously everything she does above what she did the last contest is a new record," DeAmicis said. "Plus she's very entertaining and people just love her because she's so friendly and very supportive of the other lifters."
She trains three days per week at her local YMCA in Rochester, working on the lifts she attempts in competition. Although she said the camaraderie among gym-goers makes the YMCA feel "like a family," there aren't any women close to Murphy's age for her to train with. In fact, Murphy got into the sport by picking up tips and techniques while watching men lift at the YMCA. She has never worked with a trainer.
"I was surprised that people were thinking that it was strange of me to be in the gym with mostly men at that particular time," Murphy said.
"But I kept getting stronger and stronger and I don't wear any belts, I don't use chalk and I don't use the ammonia like other people when they compete in a competition. It just happened. I guess, I'm just one of those things that nature has taken good care of me."
Videos of Murphy showcasing her strength in the form of one-handed pushups and impressive deadlifts have been watched thousands of times, with the top hit on YouTube -- aptly titled "This 77-year-old grandma can lift more than you" -- amassing 1.1 million views since 2014.
"Strangers, they come up to me now that the weather's nice, and they give me love and they take time to say, 'I want to be just like you,'" Murphy said. "To me, I'm loving it. Because I think if you're able to be independent you should do some type of exercise."
Since Murphy retired from her 40-year career with the New York state government she spends her free time working out, watching television and volunteering at her local health clinic. Once a month, she goes to the Anthony L. Jordan Health Center in Rochester and helps older people exercise with simple resources such as chairs and steps.
"Hopefully I'm able to change the attitude about how it is just to work out," she said.
For now, Murphy remains the lone octogenarian competing at WNPF meets, but she said she's seeing many younger women getting involved in competitive powerlifting.
"There are new individuals coming into the gym and they give me a lot of respect and a lot of hugs because they say it's unusual to see a woman my age in the gym working out with large weights," Murphy said. "And I thank them so much because that's a compliment."