ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Early Monday morning, dawn cracked over the roof of the Maplewood YMCA, and there were three people in the weight room.
One man had biceps the circumference of telephone poles. Another looked like he could easily lift a small car.
The third was a 77-year-old lady with a sweet laugh who was saying that the Y is such a lovely place for seniors.
Which one just came back from the World Natural Powerlifting Federation World Championships with a cartload of trophies?
Ms. Willie Murphy, of course.
Self-taught, self-trained and weighing 105 pounds, Murphy deadlifted 215 pounds at the WNPF Championships, held Nov. 15 and 16 in Atlanta. For context, the 120-pound newspaper columnist can't deadlift 100 pounds and could barely roll the 215-pound barbell along the floor.
Don't worry, she told me. Everybody has to start somewhere.
She started with 5-pound weights a few years ago, after seeing a sign about a weight-lifting competition at the Metro Carlson Y. She asked a Y employee if she could participate. "Go for it, granny," he said.
She took his advice with a vengeance.
In addition to lifting more than twice her weight, Murphy can do one-handed pull-ups, one-handed pushups, fingertip pushups, and the pushups where you put your fingers in diamond formation and press your nose all the way to the floor.
Murphy is quick to point out that her strength is all natural. "None of those steroids for me," she said, setting down a barbell.
She doesn't even use the ammonia or belts or hand powder that many competitors used to gain an advantage at the recent World Championships. She might consider it, but no one has taught her how to use any of those weightlifting aids. Personal training is expensive, she said, even at the Y. "Who has $39 an hour?" she said.
And it's not as though she needs it. She handily won her division in the deadlift competition at the recent WNPF World Championships. She also came home with first-place awards in power curl, bench press, bench press repetitions and the World Natural Powerlifting Federation 2014 Lifter of the Year award.
As if that weren't enough, soon after returning home from the World Championships in Atlanta, Murphy picked up another bunch of awards at the WNPF New York State Powerfest competition in Henrietta.
She's running out of room to store all of her trophies at home and has brought some of them to display at the Y. She says she hopes they inspire women, seniors and people of color who suffer with higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure.
Exercise is key to staying healthy. You don't have to be a world-class weight lifter or do one-handed pull ups, she said, just do enough so that "you are moving something and the blood is flowing in your body."
Murphy laughs a lot and eats what she wants to eat, including Pizza Hut on football days, washed down with rum and cranberry juice. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, she heads to the Maplewood Y to lift weights and powerwalk. She wore a unitard with the Y logo when she crushed the competition at the World Championships.
"She is so spunky, sweet and inspirational," said Lisa Greer, director of administration and member services at the Maplewood Family YMCA. "I couldn't do half the things she does."
Since her victory, Murphy's been getting a lot of love at the gym. All morning, people stop to congratulate her, give her fist bumps or ask to touch her biceps. One lady gets off the step machine to tell Murphy that she is her idol. Murphy says thank you and curtseys.
"They see I'm old and I'm not being pushed around in a wheelchair," she said with a laugh. "I can shovel my own snow. And I can push my car if it gets stuck in the snow... I'm almost 80 years old and I am still living life."