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Julie Havelka turns heads by flipping over tires

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It's not easy being a woman with big muscles, much less being considered one of the strongest women in the nation.

Seven years ago, Julie Havelka said women's bodybuilding probably would not be accepted for a while -- except in a gym or health club.

Nothing has changed much, she said this week.

Nothing, that is, except Havelka, 28. The structural engineer and Portland resident has moved from powerlifting, where she excelled and broke records, into the rapidly growing "strongwoman" competition. She is the favorite heading into the biggest strongman/strongwoman competition in the United States, the New England Extreme Showdown, which is today in Boston.

Despite her achievement in the sport -- she was runner-up in last year's competition and is one of 10 in the women's field in Boston -- she thinks there are barriers to overcome.

"I don't feel any more accepted for this kind of sport, for wanting to be bigger," Havelka said.

Most women want to be thin and "weigh 50 pounds less than I do," said Havelka, who is 5-feet-7 and 180 pounds. Out in public, she said she struggles to fit in. "If you're bigger, you need to dress appropriately and carry yourself, and not be trying to show off."

The gym provides a haven. At the Jungle Gym off Southeast Foster Road, Havelka trains by dragging a variety of heavy implements -- including a 350-pound tractor tire -- out of the way. A 500-pound tire was already parked against the wall. At the gym, she said, "nobody cares."

Havelka began her athletic career in the late 1980s as a 115-pound freshman on the Grant High School cross country team.

By her senior year she was into lifting weights.

"Little Julie," Noel Fuller, owner of the Jungle Gym, said with a chuckle. "She was really shy at the beginning, back in a corner, and nobody really noticed her."

She would show up at the gym on a moped with her boyfriend and would outlift him, Fuller said.

"You could tell back then she was going to be competitive," he said.

Havelka loves strength training. "It's a hobby, a personal way to push yourself and set personal goals," she said.

But she found bodybuilding contests too political.

"Kind of a turnoff," said her trainer and boyfriend, Tod Becraft.

"We have a lot of friends really into it. But Julie never did it to where she dieted down and did a contest."

Becraft, a powerlifter for 14 years, oversaw Havelka's strength training, which included competitive powerlifting between 1996 and 2001.

In 1996, she could bench press 205 pounds. By 1999, weighing the same as when she benched 205, she became the first woman in the Northwest to bench 300.

"I feel I reached most of my goals in powerlifting, such as benching 300, so I don't plan to do that anymore," she said.

A television show on a strongman competition caught their attention. Huge men were lifting, dragging and tossing weighted objects. After attending a couple of local shows, Havelka and Becraft were hooked.

The strongman/strongwoman competition is mostly "picking up stuff off the ground," said Havelka, who can deadlift 435 pounds. "It makes workouts a lot more interesting."

Fuller agreed. "This is an interesting sport. In competition, they are lifting tires and pulling cars, something we can all relate to and watch.

"And when they train, everybody in the gym wants to go back to that area and watch. It excites and motivates people."

In Boston, Havelka will compete in a medley, which means hauling or dragging weighted objects 50 feet.

First will be walking with a yoke with 325 pounds in weights hanging down, then flipping a 500-pound tire, then dragging a weighted sled.

It's a race against the clock.

Havelka is favored to win because of her previous performances, including a first in the Beauty and Beast in Hawaii in 2001.

She also was second in an Ohio contest, first in Idaho, and second in September at the women's masters at the North American Strongman Society nationals in St. Louis.

At the nationals, Havelka was runner-up to Becca Swanson of Nebraska, the strongest woman in the world. "She just became the first woman ever who squatted 700 pounds," Becraft said.

Havelka's best squat is 474.

The Portland resident is successful at strongwoman events because she is consistent.

Lyn Silbert of Hawaii had more first places than Havelka in one competition last year, but Havelka won because her scores were "straight across the board," Becraft said. "Steady seconds will beat out a couple of thirds and a first."

Havelka's biggest winnings were $1,000 plus a treadmill in Hawaii. This weekend, the women's top prize is $2,000.

"I know people who think they're going to win money, or get on TV," she said. "That's not how I want it. It's just a hobby."

She paused, laughed softly and said, "It's a labor of love."

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