Powerlifter Holly Oxford at home with the swords and a trophy won in competitions.
It’s simple, almost Rocky-esque. Jammed between Eastgate Rental and Volkmann Woodworking, the Bullet Gym on East Spruce Street is the kind of hole-in-the-wall that struggles to find room above its door for a sign. Inside, Taylor Swift and Flo-Rida crank from speakers attached to the corrugated steel roof. The place is dim and a bit chilly, dominated by the free weight rack spanning the far wall. Holly Oxford lies in the corner, all 5-foot-7-inches and 198 pounds of her, stretched out with rubber plates under her feet because they won’t quite touch the floor. A rolled up ankle weight rests in the small of her back to help her hold the proper form; 285 pounds of metal rest on the horizontal bar above her chest.
She wears a tight elastic bench press shirt, standard garb for competitive bench pressers, to help her lift the bar the first four or five inches. Next to the bench lies a notebook full of rep counts and weights, a lifter’s diary and, on top of that, a pair of reading glasses.
Lately she has trouble getting by without them—not that she’s in poor health. Oxford, 50, is one of the strongest women in America for her age and weight, according to USA Powerlifting. Her 248-pound bench press at the national championships in Denver last fall earned her fourth place overall among the women. Ranked 22nd in the world for the bench press in her weight division, according to the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF), Oxford has also competed in world powerlifting competitions in Miami, Germany and the Czech Republic. On Feb. 23, at the World Association of Benchpressers and Deadlifters (WABDL) meet in Missoula, she benched 275.5 pounds—a personal best and a world record for the association. And this week she’s in Bratislava, Slovakia for the April 16-19 IPF World Masters Bench Press Championship.
How did she turn into such a powerhouse? Not by planning, Oxford says.
A native of Tulsa, Okla., she spent her early adulthood working with her husband on a 150-acre ranch she inherited from her father. But after divorcing, Oxford—who in her 30’s earned a wildlife ecology degree from Oklahoma State University—decided to move to Montana with her teenaged daughter. Also in tow: Tigger, a beloved mountain lion, who died in January at age 19. (Oxford fondly tells stories of the legally obtained 100-pound cat—declawed and trained to use a litter box—riding in her pickup.)
Once in Missoula, Oxford couldn’t find work in wildlife ecology, so she took a job at Blackfoot Communications and, eventually, won a position as a warehouse worker. Being outdoors and rolling spools of cable around offers sweet release, not to mention better pay.
“I keep teasing everybody I’m gonna have to work here till I’m 65, a little old gray-haired lady driving around the forklift,” Oxford says.
Her home is a one-bedroom log cabin on seven acres in the Potomac Valley, four miles off the highway up in the trees. Keeping her company are two Jack Russell terriers, housecats, and Molly, a legally purchased pet bobcat. But if she ever feels lonely Oxford knows where to go: the gym.
Her passion for weights started 10 years ago. It was a way to get in shape—something she could do with her daughter at the YMCA. But when Oxford moved from Missoula to Potomac, she needed something more convenient. The Bullet Gym fit the bill.
Gym owner Mike Casey, a powerlifter and trainer, directed Oxford toward some free weights—and soon after was amazed to see her lift 100 pounds, without any formal training. In short order, Oxford joined the gym’s powerlifting team and began snagging medals from Idaho and Florida to Eastern Europe.
Casey says Oxford is genetically gifted for the sport, with 135-145 natural pounds of lean tissue compared to the 100 or 110 pounds in most women. At a health fair Oxford was told she had one of the highest bone densities ever seen in a woman.
“If I meet some guys, I don’t usually go and tell ’em, ‘Hey I can bench press 275,’” she says. “Other people tell ’em and I think they’re pretty much intrigued by it…But secretly behind their backs they’re going, ‘Oh my God! Look at the size of her arms!’”
While bench press is Oxford’s specialty, she has also competed in the squat and deadlift, achieving personal bests of 385 and 400 pounds, respectively. Dave McCarthy, a local parole officer and powerlifter who has known her since 1999, says at many competitions she lifts with the men.
In Oxford’s eyes none of it matters: When she was younger she says she talked herself out of trying things because she thought she’d fail. Now she realizes success is related to effort.
That effort, Oxford adds, does not involve steroids, a scourge in her sport. The Russians and Ukrainians are currently banned from the IPF for steroid violations. Oxford says she’s also seen abuse at the state level, especially in the WABDL, which isn’t as strict in its drug testing as the USA Powerlifting group.
“I don’t want to do that to my body just to be stronger than somebody. Why would I want to do that?” she says. “And I don’t want to look like a man.”
Back in the gym before the Bratislava trip, Casey coaches Oxford from his spotting position. “Practice keeping your shoulders down, breathe into your diaphragm, not your upper chest,” he says. She grabs the upright supports of the rack and centers her body. Her ring fingers find the smooth groove in the bar. She takes a huge breath as Casey helps her un-rack 285 pounds of iron. The bar slowly falls to her chest, pauses, and goes up, up, almost stops, wavers side to side, and her elbows finally lock, the lift complete.
Oxford has won so many trophies that she now throws away the plastic ones and only keeps the sculptures, jackets or medieval swords. Traveling to competitions, which she pays for out of her own pocket, offers camaraderie—a way to see friends. Pumping iron offers a way to stay strong for the future. “I want to be able to lift weights when I’m 80,” she says.