The year was 1986, and 40-year-old Linda Odum had a goal: to earn a spot on the U.S. Taekwondo team — a demonstration sport debuting at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Because she was older than her competitors, she felt she needed to step up her game and become stronger. She knew increased strength could give her the edge to make the team.
Having come of age when women were not encouraged to lift weights, Odum had never attempted that. “I grew up when women couldn’t even play full-court basketball!” she said.
But she thought working out with weights might be the key to her success, so she starting researching trainers. She kept hearing about Mike Craven of Mike’s Olympic Gym in Mechanicsville.
Craven had opened his gym in 1983, and was well known for having worked with highly competitive athletes. (He now says he has trained 11 world champions, 17 national champions, and a tremendous number of state champions.)
“Anyone who wanted to be the best was training here,” Craven said of the time. So that’s where Odum went.
While working with him, she did develop her strength and achieved her dream of qualifying for the Olympic team. But in a heartbreaking turn of events, she suffered a shoulder injury two weeks before training was to start in Colorado, and was unable to participate in the Olympics.
Refocusing her dreams
Instead, Odum focused on rehabilitating her shoulder, while continuing to work with Craven. Apparently, being around the gym inspired her, and “in about two years, once the shoulder was better, I told Mike I wanted to join the powerlifting team,” Odum recalled.
Odum said she was drawn to powerlifting in part because of its similarities to Taekwondo. “Both teach discipline, respect and focus,” she said. “Both disciplines are like a three-legged stool — you have to have physical, mental and spiritual strength to stay in balance.”
So she started working on squats, bench presses and deadlifts, and participated in several competitions, finding some success at the state level.
Now 72, Odum is currently ranked number one in weight lifting for her age group in Virginia, and number four nationally.
She also continues to train in Taekwondo (with Master Seung Gyoo Dong), and is now a 5th degree black belt. She hopes to continue advancing to the 9th and highest degree.
Despite her success, she remains modest and focused on the future. “The farther I get, the more I have to learn,” she said about Taekwondo.
Although Odum describes her experiences humbly and matter-of-factly, it quickly becomes clear that she possesses incredible energy, determination and drive in all aspects of her life.
VCU professor, entrepreneur
By the time she was working toward the Olympics, Odum had already earned her Ph.D. in higher education, taught as a professor at VCU, and started her own successful company, which developed technical manuals and instructional design.
Even as she was starting to find success with powerlifting, her new business led Odum to take a break from rigorous training to meet the demands of the job, which required frequent travel.
Those years were busy, but Odum derived enjoyment from making poorly-written policy understandable and compelling, and from turning an expert’s knowledge into something teachable.
Now, 30 years after initially meeting Craven, Odum is partially retired. She is no longer actively growing her business, but has several clients who keep asking her to work on “just one more” project.
As Odum describes it, she has always been blessed with good health. “I’m so medically boring,” she said, “I make doctors fall asleep.” Her good health enabled her to donate a kidney at age 62, beyond the age when most people can do so.
Her good health also enabled her to survive a harrowing motorcycle accident in 2010. Without the core strength and flexibility she had developed through lifting, she believes she would likely have had intensive back surgery and been kept in a “turtle shell” brace for at least six months rather than three.
After that accident, Odum made a promise to her partner (who is also named Linda) and to her sister Leslye never to ride a motorcycle again. “I do miss it though,” she admits. “And I might mention I was absolutely goofy on painkillers when I made that promise!”
She seems to have made peace with her decision, though. “I rode for 50 years without an accident,” she said, “so perhaps it was time to hang up my leathers.”
Intense training regimen
Whenever Odum talks about her powerlifting career, she credits Craven for her success.
Over the years, Craven shifted his attention from primarily training elite athletes to coaching a broader population. An expert in exercise science, he helps clients sort through conflicting health information and follow scientifically proven ways to improve their health.
When coaching Odum, Craven says his goal is not to make her muscles as big as possible. “Powerlifting is not just about how big a person’s muscles are,” Craven said. “If that were true, the best built bodybuilders would win.”
Instead, Craven works with Odum on her mental state, to train her brain to excite more muscle fibers and recruit more muscle groups when lifting.
Odum’s humility prevents her from acknowledging the remarkable amount of time and energy she puts into training. She lifts weights with Craven three days a week, for two and a half to three hours at a time. She does a cardio workout on her cross-country skiing machine at home several days a week for up to two hours.
She also trains with Master Dong two days a week, and practices Taekwondo at home.
All in all, she devotes about 20 hours to training every week. And because she lives in Lancaster County, Odum spends eight hours just commuting to and from Craven’s gym and Master Dong’s studio each week.
To be successful, Odum has figured out how to listen to her body. “Some days you get up and feel you can take on the world,” Odum said of her training. “Other days not so much.”
Even so, she doesn’t always listen: “Sometimes I have to ask myself if I’m making excuses [to myself] or telling the truth.”
Why continue to compete?
Participating in competitions motivates Odum to lift more than she can in the gym. “You pick up the enthusiasm and excitement of the meet itself, and sometimes that helps you powerlift more than you thought you could,” she said.
While she gains strength from the roar of the crowd, Odum focuses intensely on the lift itself. “I think about what muscles I have to recruit to stand erect or push the bar off my chest,” she said.
A drug-free lifter, Odum uses neither chemical enhancers nor garments or wraps that help her lift. “It’s just me and the weight,” she said.
How does a 72-year-old powerlifter celebrate being ranked the best in her age group? After a competition, “I was really craving a hamburger,” Odum said. So she and her family found the nearest hamburger joint in town.
What does a top-ranked powerlifter not do? She doesn’t let fame get to her head, and she certainly doesn’t gloat about her impressive ranking.
“It feels good to be number one, but the rankings are fluid,” she said. “Anyone who walks around strutting her stuff is asking for a shoulder injury.”
On March 24, Odum will compete in North Carolina’s competition (powerlifters may compete in their own states and in neighboring ones). If she does well there, she hopes to move on to national and maybe even international competitions.
There is a chance someone at the next Virginia competition may take over the top state ranking for her age group (70 to 74), but Odum doesn’t worry too much about that. “The only thing you can control is your own attitude,” she said.
When asked if she wants to be a role model for older adults, she answers in her characteristically self-deprecating way.
“I don’t consider myself to be a role model. But if people look at me and say, ‘If this old broad can do it, I can too,’ that would be wonderful.”