THE STRONGEST MAN ON THE PLANET
In the world of heavy weightlifting in the 1950s and 1960s, every possible superlative available in the English language was used to describe the accomplishments of Paul Anderson (1932-1994) of Toccoa, GA (and later Vidalia, GA), including “the world’s strongest man” and even “the strongest man who ever lived.”
There was nothing physically remarkable about Paul Anderson in his childhood and youth. When he was five, he had a serious bout with Bright’s disease, an inflammation of the kidneys, which nearly took his life (kidney disease would ultimately end his life decades later). And though he was a stocky 190 pounds in high school — on a 5’ 9” frame — there was nothing extraordinary about him as an athlete. But he was good enough to get a football scholarship to Furman College.
Paul’s first efforts at weightlifting were discouraged by his high school coach, lest he become “muscle-bound” (an ungrounded fear in those days) to the detriment of agility and quickness. At Furman, Paul met two students who were dedicated weightlifters, and he decided to join in. He discovered he was able to quickly add strength and muscle mass. Within a year he weighed 275 pounds; his peak weight would be over 360 pounds. He left college to focus full-time on weight training.
Within two years of self-directed bodybuilding, Paul began to win local and regional weightlifting competitions, with growing fame and notoriety nationwide in the sport. He began breaking national and even world records in various events. He won the national championship in 1955, just three years into his participation in the sport, and in 1956 in Melbourne, Australia, won the Olympic gold medal in the heavyweight competition.
Paul had been raised in a conservative Christian home, attending at various times Methodist, Baptist, and Christian churches, and had several relatives who were preachers. Paul mentally assented to the Biblical truths he had been taught, and was moral and well-behaved in personal conduct, but had made no soul commitment to Christ.
At the 1956 Olympics, Paul, who had just turned 24, seemed the shoo-in to win the gold. But for two weeks before the competition, he was extremely ill, unable to train, and almost unable to compete. His victory seemed almost surely lost by “poor” lifts (by his standards) in the first two events. During his final lift, he requested the bar be loaded with enough weight to ensure his victory overall. By his own testimony, he cried out to God during this final lift, and counted his conversion to Christ from that moment. He pushed 414.25 pounds overhead and held it for the requisite two seconds. He was officially “the strongest man in the world.”
Once, on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” Paul did a full squat with 15,000 silver dollars, and the steel boxes necessary to hold them — right at 1,000 pounds. His heaviest squat was an astonishing 1,200 pounds — nearly double the world record when he began weight training! Once, he back-lifted 6,200 pounds — a feat never equaled nor seriously challenged to this day.
Paul sensed God’s leading to start a home for troubled youth. He started the Paul Anderson Youth Home in the early 1960s in Vidalia, GA. During Paul’s lifetime, hundreds of boys passed through the home — staying a year on average. The teen boys were given Bible training, education, purpose, and firm but loving discipline, with nearly all developing into productive individuals, and many becoming truly outstanding citizens.
From the 1960s through the mid-1970s, Paul kept a brutal schedule of personal appearances to raise funds for the home, speaking about 500 times per year — for Youth for Christ, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, local churches, at least one Billy Graham crusade, but especially public high schools. Paul always gave his own testimony of salvation through Christ, and declined speaking engagements where he was not permitted to speak of his personal faith. As one author noted, “Paul Anderson didn’t … focus on maximizing his fame for personal gain, but instead, turned his attention to helping boys whose lives had gone awry.”
This exhausting speaking schedule proved detrimental to Paul’s health, which seriously declined by the early 1980s, ultimately requiring a kidney transplant. He was largely confined to a wheelchair the last decade of his life and his weight dropped to 160 pounds. He died at the early age of 61. The Paul Anderson Youth Home continues the ministry to youth for which it was founded.
Two accounts of Paul Anderson’s life are: A Greater Strength by Paul Anderson, with Jerry B. Jenkins and James R. Adair. (Revell, 1975, 1990); and Paul Anderson: the Mightiest Minister by Randall J. Strossen (IronMind Enterprises, 1999).