Strongwomen have always fascinated the public. Sometimes they are viewed as muscular freaks and other times as iron-armed beauties. Either way the female Hercules is sure to
get a reaction from her audience. One of the earliest of these queens of strength, Miss Athleta, was no different in this regard from her modern sisters.
Athleta was born in Anvers, Belgium, in 1868. She came from an athletic family and was encouraged to exercise with weights from an early age. By the time she was 18, Miss Athleta was ready to make her debut as a strongwoman at a music hall in Brussels.
By all accounts her performance was a revelation to everyone who witnessed it. No one had ever seen a woman do the kind of strength feats that Athleta accomplished. Rather than lift cast-iron weights the way other strength performers did, she chose to be more dramatic. Athleta lifted barrels and hoisted ponies, but her signature feat was even more impressive. She heaved a huge barbell to her dainty deltoids and invited four burly men to hang from it. The orchestra then struck up a dance tune, and with the weight perched on her shoulders, she waltzed around the stage as she smiled sweetly to the crowd.
These lifts were designed to amaze the audience-feats of strength and showmanship that people could understand. It was all very new and dramatic, and Athleta's audiences couldn't get enough of her. She was, as one commentator declared, "a bom artist."
After her initial triumph in Belgium, Miss Athleta embarked on several long theatrical tours. She traveled to England, Germany, France and across the Atlantic to the United States. Everywhere she went she created a sensation. Vaudeville audiences had always been fascinated with sporting personalities, and if the entertainment came in the form of a shapely young lady, so much the better.
Soon Athleta was not only the strongest woman in vaudeville, she was also one of the richest. It was estimated that her average yearly earnings grew to about 50,000 French francs. That works out to around 9,650 tum-of-the-century dollars-a handsome sum considering that most Americans at the time earned less than a dollar an hour.
As soon as she accumulated a tidy little nest egg, Athleta retired from show business. In the year of her stage debut the strongwoman had wed her hometown sweetheart, a certain Heer van Huffelen. Now all she wanted to do was leave the hectic theatrical world with her husband and raise a family. So Miss Athleta shortly became plain Mrs. van Huffelen.
The vaudeville veteran and her husband bought a modest villa near Athleta's birthplace in Anvers and raised three daughters: Anna, Louise and Brada. In time the girls came to rival their famous mother in both beauty and strength.
Inspired by Athleta, her daughters formed a music hall act and created a sensation of their own when they appeared at the Folies Bergere. Although they attempted to emulate their mother in performing feats of strength, the principal attraction of their show seems to have been the tights and skimpy costumes they wore.
Athleta kept alive the tradition of female strength through Anna, Louise and Brada, but her daughters were not the only ones to benefit from her pioneering efforts. As a result of Athleta's successful career other strongwomen were soon performing on the stages of the world, and gradually the public became more accepting of muscular women.
Although the distance from Athleta to Cory Everson and Lenda Murray might appear to be measured in light years, there is a connection. If it hadn't been for the Belgian strongwoman and her ground breaking activities a hundred years ago, who knows where today' s iron women might be?
Edmond Desbonnet, that early spokesman of strength athletes, was clearly impressed by Athleta's prowess. The words he used to describe her are as appropriate now as they were in 1912, when he wrote them: "Perhaps today, when women athletes have become more numerous...it is possible to find women who can do more than Athleta ever did. But it is no less true that Athleta was truly the first woman athlete, and at the time when she was performing triumphantly on the music hall stage and the circus ring, all those who saw her were awestruck to find such strength in a woman."