I’m sitting here somewhere around 30,000 feet over the Midwestern United States trying to make myself as small as possible and resisting the urge to play harmless, yet embarrassing, pranks on my sleeping seat mates. (I’m pretty sure I could stack at least three or four cups on the tattooed dude next to me before he fidgets again and sends them flying.)
I’m on the last leg of my journey home, Las Vegas to Birmingham, and about an hour into the flight. Oh good, drink service, time for another club soda. Not too much, though. It’s a total pain in the ass to pee in an airplane when your 6’2” and a shade over 250 lbs.
I’m flying home from Sacramento after having spent a week there. It’s a nice town with some of the biggest trees in an urban setting I’ve ever seen. It’s flat, but not freaky flat like Indiana or the Midwest. The trees offer shelter — and also fuck with your sense of direction — but once you get the hang of it (lettered streets run east-west, numbered streets run north-south) you can find your way around pretty well.
I was there to spend time with my mentor, Chip Conrad, and to get some hours in learning the ways of his gym, Bodytribe Fitness. I swam in the American River, both in Sacramento and further upstream in the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Nevada. I lifted weights and even added the historical split snatch to my weightlifting repertoire. As a result I added 20 pounds to my personal best in the snatch, and not to be outdone there, also added another 20 pounds to my clean and jerk. Yay, me.
I finally made it to the Pacific Ocean, and swam with dolphins…well, we could see them — they were in the same water that we were — that counts, right? I also saw a little bit of San Francisco and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.
Throughout all of this I learned the value of a good afternoon nap, managing to get one in almost every day I was there. I’m seriously thinking of installing a hammock in the loft over the gym when I get home. It’s amazing how much better a person I am when I’m fully rested.
The week culminated in the Kono Open, a USAW sanctioned weightlifting meet named for the should-be-more-famous-than-he-actually-is Tommy Kono. On my last full day I attended a lecture by Mr. Kono, also attended by lifting legends Jim Schmitz and Butch Curry, two excellent coaches and tireless promoters of this noble sport. Finally, I had the honor of going to lunch with and soaking up a few hours in the presence of one of our country’s most outstanding athletic champions.
Mr. Kono is a native of Sacramento. In the 1950s and 60s he was THE man of American weightlifting. In fact in York, Pennsylvania, at the York Barbell plant (you do know about York Barbell, don’t you?) there’s a mural featuring Tommy Kono alongside Bob Hoffman, the founder of York Barbell Company, and John Grimek, Mr. America 1940-41.
Tommy grew up a sickly, Japanese-American kid in pre-World War II Sacramento. He was skinny, frail and asthmatic. When the war broke out he was rounded up alongside all the other Japanese Americans and placed in an internment camp, Tule Lake. The camp was in a dried up lake near the Oregon border. The change of location did him good and his asthma improved. Additionally, a neighbor in the camp just happened to have a barbell and some weights and he invited Tommy to train with him.
At first Tommy’s father was completely against it. He thought his son too sick and frail for the vigorous exercise of weight training but Tommy managed to sneak out and train anyway. And it was in the camp that a love for lifting was born.
Once back in Sacramento Tommy continued to train. During the Korean War Tommy was enlisted in the army as a cook. It was a good schedule for a weightlifter as he was off every other day and could hitch hike out the gym to train. During the war the ever literal Koreans began to target American cooks on the front. Apparently they had heard the saying that “the American Army travels on it’s stomach” and figured the best way to cripple the army was to limit it’s food supply – one cook at a time.
In 1952 he was slated to ship out for the front when he was abruptly deferred. The army had gotten wind that he was a weightlifter and a good one at that. Instead of peeling potatoes and dodging sniper fire, Tommy was sent to train as a weightlifter for the army and ultimately make the 1952 Olympic team.
In 1952 he took gold and again in 1956. He silvered in 1960, possibly due to a knee injury some months before. He won the World Weightlifting Championships six times in a row from 1953 to 1959. He’s also a Pan American Games champion three times over having won in 1955, 1959 and 1963. He has set a total of 26 world records in four different weight classes, a feat as of yet unmatched. In the 1950s weightlifting and bodybuilding were much more closely related than they are now. In addition to his numerous weightlifting titles he won Mr. World in 1954 and took Mr. Universe in ’54, ’55’, ’57 and ’61. He then went on to serve as an Olympic coach for Mexico (1968) and Germany (1972) before returning home to coach the U.S. Team in 1976.
Simply put, Tommy Kono is the greatest weightlifter America has ever produced.
There is no greater repository of lifting experience and knowledge living in America today. Not only did I get to sit at his feet as he dispensed his vast knowledge of lifting, both technical and mental, I got to go to lunch with the man. I had steak and eggs and he had a Malaysian chicken sandwich. I had a chocolate torte for dessert and he had cheesecake. (Yeah, I know. I’m jealous of me, too.)
As you can see from the pictures we had a grand time. My guru, Chip Conrad, was there as was my dear friends and mighty lifters Kat Ricker and Allyson Seconds. Chip was the perfect guide into the world of Tommy Kono. His knowledge of lifting history is extensive and his knowledge of Tommy even more so. It was such a joy to sit and soak up the stories. Stories both personal and historical that added a roundness and humanity that made them not so remote – real and relatable.
It is staggering to hear Tommy mention, casually, a training regime that included squatting 360 lbs. for a set of twenty. “Ten was pretty good, 15 started to get difficult, but, man, 20 was murder.” Done by a man who weighed less than 180 lbs. at the time. But it’s also inspiring. I’ll never weigh 180 lbs. Hell, I may never squat 360 for a set of 20, but I know it’s been done and by someone I know. I’ve met the man, shook his hand and know he’s human, just like me. Maybe I can do that.
Tommy says, if you think you can’t you never will, but if you think you can…I think I can.