Bolling Hall Museum

Stephen Brown – Bradford’s blind powerlifter

July 1, 2024

In spring 2024 Bradford District Museums and Galleries were delighted to receive a small collection of objects relating to Stephen Brown, an award-winning powerlifter who had a rare genetic condition. Our Collections Curator, Lowri has written the following blog about it. She writes:

The collection was donated by Stephen’s cousin Mary, and facilitated by the National Paralympic Heritage Trust, who will be using some of the objects in an online exhibition due to open summer 2024. The collection includes the tracksuit Stephen wore while competing for England, his powerlifting belt, a trophy, medal and certificates reflecting his achievements, as well as a number of photographs.

Stephen – or Steve – Brown was born in 1962. Both he and his sister Alyson had Alström Syndrome, a rare genetic syndrome that presents with blindness from childhood and is associated with a number of chronic and life-threatening health challenges. Stephen was blind, with severe hearing loss and insulin-resistant diabetes.

While at school Stephen was a talented chess player. He would take public transport down to Bournemouth from Bradford ever year to spend a week playing chess on the south coast, and – in the days before computers – would play long games of chess by post. These remote games worked through the use of tapes, with Stephen and his opponent taking it in turns to record their next move onto tape and post it to the other. You can imagine the patience it took to play chess in this way. Stephen also played against sighted opponents at a chess club in Wibsey.

Stephen started powerlifting in his 30s. In 1993, by chance someone offered to take him to Bradford University Sports Centre to spend an evening in the gym. It was while he was at the gym trying out different pieces of equipment that people noticed that he seemed to find lifting weights remarkably easy. He was taken under the wing of an experienced power lifter and sports coach Eddie Bennett. Under Bennett’s tutorship and with the support of fellow weightlifter Gerald Pilling, Stephen developed this talent until he was lifting weights to an international standard. 

Photograph of Pilling, Brown and Bennett in a gym

By 2003, age 41 and ten years after first lifting a weight, Stephen held multiple world titles and records in blind powerlifting. He also held the title of British Masters Champion Powerlifter, a competition where he competed against non-disabled lifters. He travelled to various different countries to compete, accompanied by Bennett and Pilling.

Stephen’s cousin recounts how  ‘[w]e were told that the power lifters from Russia were very disgruntled when they knew Stephen had arrived at competitions, as they knew the gold medals and titles would be coming home to the UK with Stephen.’ A major achievement was the winning a world record at the 2002 IBSA International Blind Sports Federation Championships in Powerlifting held in the Czech Republic (now Czechia) in the men’s 60kg category. 

Photograph of Pilling, Brown and Bennett, with the certificates Stephen won at the IBSA International Blind Sports Federation Championships in Powerlifting, 2002]

When not lifting, Stephen worked for many years at an engineering company in Bingley. He loved traditional country and bluegrass music and had a large record collection. He also loved to listen to Rugby League matches and was a strong supporter of Leeds Rhinos. Stephen died in 2016 aged 54 and was survived by his mother. His sister Alyson had passed away in 2007, aged 41.

Written by Lowri Jones and Mary Cockcroft.

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