When Diane Winner, fifty-two, prepared to deadlift 360 pounds at the World Powerlifting Congress this past October, she was facing more weight than she’d ever lifted before. But she was having a good day. She’d already benched 209 pounds and squatted 286 pounds, setting world records for her age and weight in both events.
Staring at the barbell on the floor, she shook her hands and fingers rapidly and blew fast breaths out puffed cheeks. Then she bent her body at the waist, bent her knees slightly, grabbed the bar with both hands, and without hesitation, straightened back up, bringing the 360 pounds with her. As she stood fully upright, she let out a scream, and the crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
“I have no idea why I screamed–it’s so funny!” Winner says now. The deadlift set another record, and though this was only her third competition ever, it confirmed Winner as one of the world’s great women powerlifters.
A vice president with Bank of Ann Arbor, Winner lifts weights to manage the stress of a busy life and the effects of polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder that causes insulin resistance and weight gain. “I’ve always been super active,” says Winner, “but I’m just not lean.”
She began working out in her teenage years in Westland and continued a rigorous fitness routine while a student at EMU. She worked out at her local gym and took aerobics classes, but weight training was limited to dumbbells in exercise classes. “Women did not lift weights in the gym,” Winner remembers.
She met her husband, Wendell Winner, at EMU when they both showed up late for an 8 a.m. class and found themselves locked out. They’ve now been together thirty-two years. Wendell worked at the Ford Rouge plant while Winner raised two children and then worked her way up the finance ladder. She joined Bank of Ann Arbor in 2013.
For her fortieth birthday, Winner gave herself the gift of a personal trainer, thinking she would be paired with a “cute, unthreatening girl” she’d seen around the gym. But that girl left her job, and Winner was instead assigned to “the scary guy” with biceps like logs and tattoos snaking down his arms: Shaun Davis. Davis introduced Winner to barbells and powerlifting and is still her coach to this day. “He told me I could do this,” she says, “and I started to believe him.”
Winner liked that the weight-lifting room was the one place in the gym where body size didn’t matter. “In weight lifting, the other people look at your accomplishments, not your appearance,” she says. “Over the years, Davis gradually added more weight, and I could lift it.”
But Winner avoided competing. “I didn’t want people to know what I was ‘doing,” she says. She still had body image issues and a lingering sense that weight lifting was a weird thing for a woman to do.
That changed three years ago. Her daughter, Cassandra, then twenty-four, had just completed a lengthy treatment regimen for Burkitt lymphoma. With the cancer in remission, mother and daughter often worked out together. One day after watching her mother bench, Cassandra said, “You should compete.”
“I can’t really put it into words,” Winner says, “but I did it for her. She was working on getting herself back to being physically strong, and I wanted to show her what women can do.”
After years of feeling self-conscious, Winner decided to just get over it. She created an Instagram account and began posting pictures and videos of herself in the gym. “It’s kinda weird to look at yourself working out,” she says. “It was bizarre for me at first. But now I’m proud of myself.” Comments confirmed that women found her posts empowering.
At her first meet–a 2018 state ‘competition–Winner signed up for the bench event. She set a new record and realized, “Oh, not everyone can do this.”
After a successful 2019 national competition doing bench and squat, Winner was all set to compete in nationals in Myrtle Beach in April 2020 when it was canceled because of the pandemic. Though the gyms were closed, her basement workout space allowed her to keep training, and when the World Powerlifting Congress was confirmed for October in Lombard, Illinois, Winner decided to go. She arrived intent on doing all three events. “I wanted all the records.”
Although steroids and other ‘performance-enhancing substances are not banned from the powerlifting sport, Winner says, “I don’t take anything except a multivitamin.” She also competes “raw,” as opposed to “equipped,” which means she eschews assistive gear like knee wraps or body-hugging suits. The only equipment she wore to compete that day was a belt to protect her lower back and wraps to keep her wrists straight. (She didn’t wear a mask while lifting, but coaches and judges were masked and attendance was limited; as far as she knows, no cases of Covid were traced to the competition.)
For each event, Winner lifted more than she had ever lifted before. The total weight she lifted in the three events made her the No. 1 Masters 3 women’s record holder of all time in the American Powerlifting Federation. Across all powerlifting federations, worldwide and all-time, she is ranked twenty-first in her class–and that includes women taking performance enhancers. “That is pretty amazing,” Winner admits, “and I’m not done yet.” Next time, she plans to sign up for the “tested” meet, so that her lifts will be recorded as achieved by a weight lifter who tested clean from performance-enhancing drugs.
Winner says some of her banking clients know about her weight lifting, and “they love it.” They apparently like to joke: “My financial advisor is stronger than your financial advisor.” And letting people in on her success has strengthened her sense of self. “It has given me my own confidence,” she says. “This is my thing, my sport. It’s who I am. I’m not lean, but I have strength.”