Author Archives: Thom Van Vleck

Granddad’s Tall Tales were not so Tall After All

By Thom Van Vleck

Katie Sandwina and her husband Max Heymann

When I was a kid, my granddad told me stories when I would spend the night. He was a great story teller and often, I fought sleep to listen to them. The topics were many, but since he had an interest in weightlifting, he often told me of strongmen of his day or before.

On one occasion he told me of a woman named Katie Sandwina. What I recall from his stories was she was 6’3” tall and 250lbs. She could carry a 1000lb cannon on her shoulder, lift her husband overhead with one arm, clean and push press 300lbs, and she never lost a wrestling match against a man. He told me that she once beat Sandow in a lifting contest.

Many years later, I read an article in an old Iron Man magazine on Katie and found that much of what he told was TRUE. Here are some of the things I have found out on Katie.

Katie Brumbach was her real name and her parents were circus performers Philippe and Johanna Brumbach. Both were large people and her father was said to have a 56” chest. In her early years, Katie performed with her family and her father would offer one hundred marks to any man in the audience who could defeat her in wrestling. It was claimed no one ever succeeded in winning the prize and it is also said Katie met her husband of fifty-two years, Max Heymann when he tried to beat her in a wrestling match and she knocked him out! They were married for 52 years….maybe he was afraid to leave! It was said that when Katie was just a teen she was over 6ft tall, 187lbs, and had 17” biceps and 26.5” thighs and was even larger after that. From what I can tell, she would feign modesty when asked for her dimensions. Perhaps it was modesty, or showmanship, but I do know that an Iron Man article on her listed her at 6’3” and 250lbs, confirming my grandfathers claim.

Brumbach took the stage name “Sandwina” after defeating the Sandow during her show. She offered a cash prize to anyone that could outlift her and Sandow took the stage. Katie lifted 300lbs over head and Sandow only managed to lift to his chest. After this victory, she adopted the stage name “Sandwina” as a feminine derivative of Sandow. I sometimes wonder if these sorts of things are staged by the strongmen to give each other credibility, but at any rate, it is agreed the event happened and it launched her career.

Sandwina worked in the Ringling Bros & Barnum & Baily circus until she was at least 60, possibly 64. One of her standard performance feats was lifting her husband (who weighed 165 pounds) overhead with one hand. She performed many other feats, such as bending steel bars and the pull apart with four horses. She would hold carousels of 14 people on her shoulders and support a half ton of cannons on her back. In between all of that, she also bore a son, Theodore Sandwina who not surprisingly became a large man and was a champion boxer.

There is no doubt Sandwina was quite a strong woman and many of her feats were real or at least close to the claims made about her. She may have been the strongest woman of all time!

To the Top of Scotland

by Thom Van Vleck

Thom Van Vleck at the Top of Scotland

On a recent trip to the Scottish Masters World Championships I decided to take a day and do some mountain climbing. My grandfather had a copy of the famous painting “Monarch of the Glen” when I was a kid and the Cairngorm Mountains are the back drop that inspired the painting. I decided, to honor my grandfather, I’d climb that mountain! And, to honor my friend, Al Myers, I wore my Dino Gym cap when I did it.

It was a 9 hour grueling hike for a 300lb, 45year old weightlifter with a bum hip. The weather turned typically bad….really bad and it turned into a real adventure. But an adventure I’ll never forget and one I’m writing a much longer story about that I’ll share when it is done. I made it to the top of the 2nd and 5th tallest Mountains in Scotland. Ben Mcduibh was thought to be the tallest mountain in Scotland for centuries and traditionally is still thought of as the tallest (it falls short by a mere 30ft). Many legends surround it, it’s said to be haunted, and you will find primitive stone “forts” that the highlanders used centuries ago when they used the Mountain tops to signal each other in times of invasion.

The picture is at the top of Mcduibh because when I made it to the top of Cairngorm, I was dealing with freezing rain, winds gusting 70plus mph, and fog so thick you could barely see! I made it, just barely!

Al Myers Inducted into the RMSA Hall of Fame

by Thom Van Vleck

Al Myers receiving the RMSA Hall of Fame Award Picture Left to Right: Thom Van Vleck, Al Myers, and Chad Ullom

I recently was contacted by Greg Bradshaw of the Rocky Mountain Scottish Athletes (RMSA) and asked if I would do the honors of inducting our own Al Myers into the RMSA Hall of Fame. They asked that I do it at the McPherson Scottish Highland Games in McPherson, Kansas. Al was the Athletic Director of this games for many years and built it into one of the premier Scottish Games in the Midwest. In 2007, Al hosted the Scottish Masters World Championships in McPherson. I presented a speech for Al and in it are things I think you should all know about him and that his involvement in Strength Sports goes far beyond the USAWA. Al has had quite a career as an athlete and going into the RMSA Hall of Fame (there has been only 6 inductees in over 30 years) is a just reward for a great athlete and friend.

The following is my speech:

We are here today to honor Al Myers and induct him in the RMSA Hall of Fame.

Al is a veterinarian and his family includes his Wife – Leslie of 23 years, and three daughters – Emily, Katie, and Molly. Al has always counted on their support.

As a competitor, Al started in the Highland Games in 1987 at the age of 20. He retired in 2005, after 19 years of competition. During that time he competed in over 200 Highland Games and over 100 Powerlifting Meets. Al competed as a professional Highland Games athlete for 10 years, from 1990 to 2000. He held the American Record in the 16# Sheaf toss in 1995, with a height of 35 feet (which is when I first met him). His best throws in the Highland Games were 16lb Sheaf 35 feet, 20# Sheaf 31 feet, Open Stone 48 feet, Bramaer Stone 38 feet, LWFD 81 feet, HWFD 41 feet, 16# Hammer 130 feet, 22# Hammer 108 feet, and WOB 15’11”. Al’s favorite and best event was the Caber Toss – an event he always placed high in. He has won over 100 Caber Competitions in his Highland Game career. Al was a 6 time Rocky Mountain athlete of the year – from the years 1991 to 1996 and held several RMSA records. As if this weren’t enough: Al also had a whole other athletic career in powerlifting. He was a 12 time state champion, 3 time collegiate National Champ and 7 time National Champion.

You would think the guy might want to take a break, but Al has continued on in another sport: The United States All-Round Weightlifting Association. He just recently was awarded Overall Best Lifter at this past year’s National Championships. He has won 6 All-Round National Championships since “Retiring” from the highland games, and was the Overall Best Lifter in three of these. He has won 3 All-Round World Championships, and was the Overall Best Lifter in the 2006 World Championships, which was held in Glasgow, Scotland. At the awards banquet following this competition he wore his Kilt to honor Scotland and the Scottish Games.

But Al was NOT just an Athlete. He was the Kansas representative to the Rocky Mountain Scottish Athletic organization for over 10 years. He was responsible for introducing many new throwers to the Highland Games and helped in getting new games started in other areas (including mine). Al has spent countless hours training new throwers at his gym, the DINO GYM, which is fully equipped as a Highland Games training complex! He has promoted several training Games at his place through the years to help build interest for the Highland Games athletics.

Today, even though he is retired as a thrower, Al is still very involved in coaching and promoting games. He just recently promoted the very first Highlander Nationals – which is a combination of Highland Game events and Strongman events.

But perhaps more importantly to those here today, he was the first athletic director of the McPherson Highland Games, and performed in that capacity until 2007. In his last year as athletic director of the McPherson Games, he hosted the Masters World Highland Games Championships.

Now, you might be thinking at this point that Al is Ten feet tall, weighs two tons, eats hammers and nails, and can take a shot gun blast standing…..his hammer actually travels faster than a speeding bullet, his run up on the Caber can derail a locomotive, and his WOB could clear the Empire State building……and those are his warm ups….

But joking aside, the reality is, Al is one of us and never made any of us feel any less. Scottish games are built on kith and kin, friends and family. Athletes used to participate knowing that the next day they might be called to fight side by side. Al very much embodied that friendship and made all of us that came after him feel like part of the highland games family. Al’s impact goes far beyond what I’ve talked about today. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this recognition and it’s a standard that I know many of us here want to maintain. Thanks, Al, and may God continue to Bless you and your family for many years to come.

The JWC Perspective on Team Nationals

by Thom Van Vleck

John O'Brien (of the JWC) loading the last stone at the NAHA Nationals to secure his first place finish!!

John O’Brien and I have trained together for about 6 years now. John is one of my partners on our Strongman Evangelism team and since we are similar height and strength, we figured this would be a good event for us.

Believe it or not, I last competed in an “odd lift” meet nearly 30 years ago. I have helped with USAWA meets and even helped coach John in his USAWA efforts over the years, but I was so focused on my Highland Games career I just hadn’t had the right time to do a meet. Well, having just finished the NAHA Highlander meet the previous day, I had no excuses so John and I joined in. I soon realized what I was missing out on!

Team lifting puts a premium on team work. You have to match your partner’s efforts while applying your own maximum effort into the lift. Timing is everything. A lesson learned on the first lift of the day, the Two man one arm Snatch. John and I can both power snatch around 225lbs…..but it ‘s a whole new ball game when you have to do it together. We managed 215lbs. On the other lifts, the Straddle or Jefferson Lift, the thick bar Ciavattone grip deadlift, and the Bench Press Feet in Air did not require split second timing, but still you had to lock out together.

I don’t think at any point John and I felt we were a threat to Chad and Al…..they had been training for this event while John and I had not. We just might have to put some more effort into it for next year and see if we can catch Al and Chad napping. We did manage to beat them on one lift, the BP with Feet in Air with our age handicap, but to be honest, their last attempt looked easier than ours.

It is a lot of fun to walk up to a bar loaded to 850lbs and think that you are going to lift it. Even if it’s a two man lift, seeing all those plates rise up is a real adrenaline rush. I know we were too tentative on this lift and next year I see 1000lb as a real possibility.

I think the best part of All around lifting is the fun of trying new things and having so many ways you can set a record. You get sore in ways that regular training will never make you sore. You also learn how to “lift on the fly”. What I mean by that is that many guys train a limited number of lifts and their strength gets very specific. In other words, a powerlifter will get very strong on the Bench, Dead, and Squat, but they ever find themselves in need of tapping into that strength outside their usual training range of motion, they’ll find themselves coming up short. All around does just that, it trains you to be all around strong.

At any rate, it was a blast. I look forward to the Dino Gym/JWC rematch next year. I plan on bringing more than one team of lifters to take out the Dino Gym crew once and for all! Anybody going to stop us! It was great fun, how lifting should be.

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