Janet Gilmore does the impossible, something that some professional football players could not do. She lifts 450 pounds with her legs — three sets of 15 repetitions each. Don’t be surprised if you see her in the Olympic Games this summer in London. (Photo by Len Lear)

by Janet Gilmore

Late in the day, the last rays of sunlight shone through the windows and across the floor almost to the free weight section in the back of the L.A. Fitness building in the Andorra Shopping Center. I approached the leg press machine with my usual confidence, bypassing the 5- 10- and 25-pound weights. The 45-pound weight clunked softly when I lifted it with both hands and slipped it over the weight bar. I went back and picked up another heavy weight to balance the other side.

There: 90 pounds. That should be enough for any gray-haired lady. After all, the young man on the next leg press machine, with his tattoos and his shiny new Nikes, was lifting 180 pounds. In the meantime, I added three more heavy plates to each side. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the tattooed young man stopped lifting for a minute and was looking in my direction. Good. I had stacked 360 pounds onto the machine. Enough for my new modified workout.

But not what I’d like to be doing. Not what I’m capable of doing. I sighed. No one could know I’d only set a fraction of the weight I usually lift. I wasn’t feeling good about this new change my doctor and my husband want me to make. I’m not happy about traveling light like this.

In the seat, I pushed for the first set. It felt good but too easy. It’s difficult for a weight lifter to lower the amount of weight she’s used to. It felt like cheating. I like to challenge my muscles. I work hard for strength and flexibility. I can’t control getting older, but I can control my strength training for now, and I’m determined to.

Last December I had a “big” birthday. Not big enough to end with a zero, but big enough to ride the train for a dollar without being asked for I.D. That very day my doctor gave my knee a cortisone shot and started me on blood pressure medication. An injection and blood pressure medication are not good birthday gifts and never will be. And my doctor told me to decrease the leg weights in my workouts.

While I rested before a second set of 15 repetitions, I thought about an April, 2006, New York Times Magazine interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She claimed she could press 400 pounds on the leg machine at her gym. Huh? Madeleine Albright? Not exactly a bodybuilding magazine cover girl.

Back in the leg press chair, I began my second set.

After I’d read that article, I’d decided to see if I could lift at least as much weight as Madeleine Albright. I worked hard and got stronger week-by-week, and after two years of training I was lifting 450 pounds with my legs.

Why? Because this is something — maybe the last thing  — I can do that is physically extraordinary. I think I can press more leg weight than any other little old lady in the gym and more than some of the big fierce-looking guys who strut chest-first around the gym as though they own the world. I get a secret delight from lifting more weight than those guys. I love being strong.

But now, here I was, reduced from an Albright-beating 450 pounds to a mere 360 — just for the sake of common sense. Could I really go through with this new sensible workout?

As I worked halfway through my new, cautious routine I remembered all the advice I’d been given lately. “Janet, as the body ages…” “If you can injure one knee, don’t you think you can injure the other one also?” “You will reach a point when cortisone shots don’t help you any more, and then we’ll talk about knee replacement surgery.” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” “Listen, Queenie, who’s going to push me in my wheelchair if you can’t walk?”

Back in the leg machine seat, I started my third set. I did two repetitions, then stopped. I couldn’t take it anymore. Enough common sense for one day. I rose from my seat. I added another 45-pound plate to each side of the machine, sat down and continued the third set with 450 pounds. Not easy but do-able. How’s that, Madeleine?

I felt much better. Felt like myself. Strong. Striving. On a mission. I hope to add a tiny bit more weight by the end of the year. I decided to let pain be my guide, not common sense. I hope my knees hold out.

I hate to make concessions, especially to myself.

(Ed. Note: When I received this column from Janet last Saturday, I could not believe that Janet, who weighs a mere 125 pounds, could really lift 450 pounds with her legs, so I insisted on verifying it the next day at L.A. Fitness and taking her picture while lifting the weight. On Sunday I did take the accompanying photo while Janet lifted 10 plates of 45 pounds each. Unbelievable! Janet insisted that I try to do it also, so I did try. I could not budge the weight one inch, and I almost got a hernia trying.)