Power move: Retiree beats cancer, becomes elite weightlifter

La Verne resident Nancy Sassaman competing in February at the International Powerlifting World Competition for Masters in Newfoundland, Canada. Photo/by Bob Sassaman

By Lisa Butterworth | Special to the Courier

When Nancy Sassaman finished up six grueling rounds of chemotherapy in 2003, she felt so weak she couldn’t open a jar. Now, with her cancer long in the rear-view mirror, the 75-year-old is a medal-winning powerlifter who can deadlift nearly twice her body weight.

“I’ve never been a very athletic person,” said Sassaman, who lives in La Verne’s Hillcrest retirement community. “I was a dancer when I was younger, but I wasn’t one of those fitness people.” Now she’s at the gym nearly every morning: Monday is squat day, Tuesday is bench day, Wednesday is core strength, Thursday is deadlifts, and Friday’s focus is upper body. “I take Saturday and Sunday off because I need two days of recovery,” she says.

Sassaman had just retired as a high school English teacher when she noticed a growth by her Adam’s apple. After that came a number of tests, biopsies, and oncologist appointments. It was during these months that she made a conscious effort about how to view her lymphoma diagnosis. “I had time to wrap my head around the fact that I had some choices. I decided, I’m going to make it a wake-up call. It’s time to be selfish, to say ‘I’m retired and I’m going to get better, and I’m going to make the most of this experience, however it comes out.’”

Her aggressive treatment, which included chemotherapy and radiation, had its consequences. “I dropped a lot of weight and a lot of muscle mass. I spent most of my time sleeping. I got too tired to even chew. And of course, I lost my hair,” she says.



But Sassaman never lost her determination. The self-proclaimed “control freak” took charge of her narrative and made getting better her job. She consulted Chinese medicine. She drank “weird things.” She did qigong and recited positive manifestations. “I thought, I’m only 55 years old and I’m not giving up,” she says.

When her treatments were done and her oncologist gave the cancer free clearance, Sassaman started small, finding ways to build her strength. She began taking tai chi classes and doing yoga, working herself up to a single pushup. That’s when she discovered that she really liked exercising. Running isn’t her thing, and she claims she doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination for team sports. But Sassaman found her groove in the weight room. “I started going to the gym. Then I took a kettlebell class. Then I got a trainer. And then I said, ‘Instead of these foo-foo body weights, why don’t we go over to what I would call testosterone corner, where there are squat racks and stuff and the big beefy guys are grunting.”

She learned to do a squat — resting the weight bar on her shoulders then bending her legs to bring the hip crease lower than the knees before coming back up — and she was hooked. “The exhilaration of being able to do something that was difficult and challenging was really fun. And there’s a real serotonin rush you get from it,” she said. She now squats 125 pounds. “There was nobody I was competing against except me.”

That changed about five years ago when Sassaman entered her first powerlifting competition at a gym in Claremont. “I said to my trainer, ‘Well, what the hell, I’m going to enter,’” she recalls. “It wasn’t a perfect meet, but you get a little bit better at each one. You know what to expect because the rules are always the same.” Sassaman competes in the category for women 70 and up, in the 57-kilo weight class, which means she has to keep her weight under 126 pounds. In addition to squats, powerlifting activities include bench presses (when the lifter lies on their back bringing the weight bar down to their chest and up again) and deadlifts (when a weight bar is picked up from the ground and hoisted level to the hips).



The federation she competes in is called Powerlifting America, which hopes to one day make powerlifting an Olympic sport. This is one of the reasons the organization does Olympic-level drug testing, something Sassaman appreciates, since performance-enhancing drugs can run rampant in the sport and, she believes, are adverse to its health benefits. It also means that in addition to competing at nationals, she can participate on the international team in world meets. She skipped last year’s, which was held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, due to the long plane flight, but competed in Newfoundland, Canada, in 2022.

The competitions are judged by kilos rather than pounds, which Sassaman claims makes it easier. “When my coach said, ‘We’ll do 102.5 kilos for your third deadlift,’ [I said,] ‘Oh, okay.’ ’Cause I don’t know how heavy it is!” she said. “If you don’t know, then it doesn’t play with your head.” Perhaps that’s the key to success since Sassaman has never failed to place, winning a medal at every meet she’s entered. She claims the wins with a bit more humility. “[It’s] because I’m the only one!” she said with a laugh. “And my joke is, all my competition’s died.”



Competing in different cities is fun, but it’s her daily routine that Sassaman enjoys the most. “As much as I love the meets — they’re a wonderful atmosphere, everyone’s so supportive — I really like my just day-to-day, going to the gym and throwing stuff around. Well, I don’t throw it,” Sassaman said with another laugh, “but picking stuff up and putting it down.”

But even she can have trouble with motivation. “Some days, I go, ‘Oh my God, it’s 5 o’clock [a.m.] and I’m going to go to the gym,” she says. “I will say this, I have never felt bad after a workout. The trick is just getting your butt in the door.”

For those looking to build their own strength, Sassaman has some advice: “You’ve got to find something that is fun. Find your passion,” she says. “Maybe it’s pickleball, maybe it’s just gardening. Find something you love that gets you moving.”


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