York Barbell’s Tommy Kono: ‘He’s the greatest weightlifter — and I’m talking worldwide’
Tommy Kono, Coach Tommy Kono at work. The location is unclear but those are York Barbells waiting to go airborne. Background posts: Olympian/lawyer Whitney Metzler comes home to York County, Who were most prominent 20th-century sports heroes in York and Adams counties? and York Barbell blog category.
Who was the greatest weightlifter in York’s storied past?
Many believe it was three-time Olympian Tommy Kono.
And make that the greatest in America’s past … .
Tommy Kono became the United States’ best lifter in the 1950s.
“I think he’s the greatest weightlifter of all time — and I can say that without any resentment,” Peter George, himself a three-time Olympian, said.
Weightlifting historian John Fair agrees:
“In my estimation, he’s the greatest weightlifter — and I’m talking worldwide.”
But who was Tommy Kono?
Well, York Daily Record/York Sunday News writer Jim Seip penned a comprehensive piece (8/08/04) on Kono:
The name of the place makes the old man stop. He usually doesn’t talk about that place, because he was only a boy then. But he remembers. Tommy Kono, 74, remembers the place where everything seemed to die a little.
The greatest weightlifter of them all remembers Tule Lake. It was considered the worst of 10 Japanese-American internment camps. And it was his home from 1942-45.
“Being herded together,” Kono said from his home in Hawaii, “and living in a place like that — you lose touch with civilization.”
His soft voice, the sound of an old friend you knew a long time ago, goes silent. The laughs that come free and easy the rest of the night are lost. He won’t tell stories. Only details. Barbed wire and watchtowers. Lost childhood.
The old men still don’t understand how he did it. The ones who saw Tommy Kono the first day he came to York in 1950.
Kono never had a coach. He never wanted one. He never needed one.
And he won, despite what the other lifters thought.
“The worst thing you can do in any sport is not have a coach,” said Joe Pitman, a U.S. weightlifting teammate of Kono’s and a 1948 Olympian. “You need somebody to bawl you out and scream at you — otherwise you’ll just repeat bad habits.”
Kono didn’t need a coach. He came to York to measure himself against the best weightlifters in the country. And he made history. He won.
Kono won Olympic gold in 1952 and 1956. He lost for the first time in more than eight years when he took silver in 1960. Kono is one of four weightlifters in history to win eight or more world titles.
“In my estimation,” weightlifting historian John Fair said, “he’s the greatest weightlifter — and I’m talking worldwide.”
Tommy Kono remembers being a boy with questions.
Would he live?
Stretched out in bed, he struggled to breathe. There was never enough air.
The boy was allergic to hay. Asthma. For every two days of school he could attend, he missed one because of asthma.
His mother tried giving him powders made from snakes. She tried burning dried herbs near the boy’s skin. The old women said there was healing power in the heat.
But the boy didn’t get better.
Would he ever get better?
Would he ever be strong? Like men in those muscle magazines the boy read, including York Barbell’s Strength and Health magazine.
A young Tommy Kono wanted to know: Would he ever be normal?
Tommy Kono is part of York. His picture is painted in the center of the “Muscletown USA” mural at 37 W. Philadelphia St. He’s pictured next to men he admired — bodybuilder John Grimek and York Barbell founder Bob Hoffman.
Kono’s face is also one of the first pictures visitors see when they enter the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame near Emigsville. Pictured in an oversized black-and-white photograph, he is shown sitting on a bench at York Barbell’s old Broad Street gym. Slender and wearing glasses, he looks at the camera.
Kono cemented York’s reputation during the 1950s as the place where the world’s strongest trained.
Yet few people around town recognize his name. Or his greatness.
“I think he’s the greatest weightlifter of all time — and I can say that without any resentment,” said former teammate Peter George, who won a gold and two silver medals during his career. “He was the greatest competitor because he always went where the competition was the toughest. Most lifters go where the chance of winning is the greatest — at least that’s what I did. Tommy would select the weight class that was the toughest.”
Kono is the only lifter to set world records in four different weight classes, and the only lifter to win Olympic medals in three different weight classes. Of history’s four greatest lifters — Vasili Alexeyev, John Davis, Naim Suleymanoglu and Kono — only Kono regularly shuffled between weight classes.
“Most athletes have an ideal body weight where they perform at their peak,” said weightlifting historian Arthur Drechsler. “Maybe an athlete can move to a second weight class. But for an athlete’s career to span four weight classes and have world records in all four? There can’t be more than one or two very remarkable people capable of accomplishing that type of feat.”
It was morning, and the young boy did as he was told, because the soldiers had guns and orders to move about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry away from the Pacific coastline. The U.S. government said it wanted to protect the country from sabotage and to protect Japanese-Americans from their fellow citizens.
So the Kono family walked away from their home. Each person was allowed to carry only one bag. They sold everything else.
They boarded a train to an unknown destination. The others on the train had the same skin color and those eyes.
They all looked scared.
Later, the family learned the name of their destination: Tule Lake.
The name was a lie. There was no lake at the camp, just a flat stretch of sand between the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and the lava fields of Northern California.
Former prisoners usually describe Tule Lake by what it didn’t have.
Prisoners lived in barracks without siding, long buildings separated into small rooms to house entire families. No separate rooms. No privacy. No running water.
“It was a place where no one had lived for hundreds of years, and where no one would live again,” former Tule Lake prisoner Jimi Yamaichi said. “Our only crime was our face.”
Nothing seemed to grow in the sand, only weeds.
The monsters dwelled across the street from the railroad tracks, on the second floor of the red-brick building.
Everybody just called it “The Gym” or “York,” as if the two-story building at 51 Broad St. was the whole town. The place meant that much to the monsters, the biggest and best weightlifters in the country.
“The thing about the gym was York was the hub of weightlifting throughout the world,” said Frank Spellman, a 1948 gold medalist. “People would travel from South Africa and India just to watch us train.”
York Barbell founder Bob Hoffman had built a cage for the beasts.
On any given day, world record holders and Olympians could be seen in the same room — working out together at the five weightlifting platforms. One sitting on a bench between reps. One lifting. One preparing.
The Russians had one of the best weightlifting teams in the world. That irked Hoffman. How could he promote York Barbell if his own country didn’t have the best team in the world? The “Father of American Weightlifting” — as Hoffman called himself — needed the best team in the world. So he poured everything he had into U.S. weightlifting.
He was the coach. The cheerleader. The bankroll.
Never the best weightlifter, Hoffman paid the strongest men in the world to come to his town and train at his gym. He gave them jobs at his barbell factory. And they trained together, where the really heavy lifting started after work.
“It was a matter of camaraderie, we were all doing the same thing and aiming toward the same goal,” Spellman said. “You’re at work, and all of a sudden a guy says you can do this or you can’t do that — well, you go over to the gym and you show him.”
It was a good gig.
“York? That was a magical name to weightlifters around the world,” said three-time Olympic medalist Peter George, who lifted for the York Barbell Club. “Being on the team was like playing baseball for the New York Yankees. Once you were on that team, you became a superstar.”
Tule Lake became the worst of the 10 Japanese-American internment camps, a place where the U.S. government moved troublemakers and internees who refused to declare their undivided loyalty to the United States.
At Tule Lake, prisoners rioted.
Violence broke out.
Martial law was declared.
But most of the original families — like Kono’s — remained. They did not want to be displaced again.
“The one thing that has always struck me is what motivated lifters,” weightlifting historian John Fair said. “I found that they often started out as weaklings. One of the other dynamics that came into play was that most of the great weightlifters are foreign or ethnic … non-mainstream American.”
Tommy Kono remembers his first trip to York in 1950.
He never wanted to come back.
He had rented a room at the YMCA, and was excited. All his heroes were here. And he was only a short walk from The Gym. He had to go down Philadelphia Street, past the Central Market — and past the building where his likeness would be painted on a mural 50 years later.
“As I walked down the street, kids were playing in an open lot and they stopped everything they were doing to look at me,” Kono said. “I felt so ill at ease, and these are only young kids. It disturbed the heck out of me. I swore I would never come back here again.”
But at the gym it was OK.
No one stared. No one laughed at his appearance. Men respected him as a lifter.
They saw him only as an American.
“Away from the gym I was received differently because I looked different,” Kono said.
But Kono returned to York to train for weeks and months at a time, because the U.S. team often gathered in York before flying out of New York City. Immediately recognized whenever he came to town, Kono said he learned to endure the attention instead of dreading it.
It’s where he learned about the death of his mother, receiving a telegram while he trained. And it’s where he suffered a knee injury that ultimately led to the end of his undefeated streak and competitive career.
Hoffman had talked Kono and two other lifters into giving an exhibition at a Boy Scouts jamboree in 1959. A quiet thinker, Kono realized he and the two other lifters all used the same style — they squatted when they lifted.
“There is a split style they should know,” Kono remembers thinking. And despite never using a split style in competition, he performed it for the Boy Scouts. Lifting only 135 pounds — “it was very light,” Kono remembered — he felt a twinge in his knee.
It was never the same.
Later that year, his knee locked up after he attempted a world record. Unable to train using his legs, his undefeated streak ended at the 1960 Olympics when he earned silver.
The world’s greatest weightlifter had his streak of dominance ended by 135 pounds and a couple Boy Scouts.
It’s a time he never forgot.
Tommy Kono heard the howls of young drunken soldiers. And he was scared, too. He didn’t want to die.
Drafted into the Army and stationed at Camp Stoneman in California, Kono was going to be sent to Korea. He was waiting to go to war.
But on the day when he was supposed to learn his orders, he was sent to see his commanding officer. There was a change of plans. Someone told the Army that Kono was Olympic material.
Kono was eventually stationed near San Francisco — within driving distance of world-class gyms. But Kono realizes he could have been one of the soldiers who never came home.
“You could say weightlifting saved my life,” Kono said.
Kono believes Hoffman was the man behind the change of plans. Only Hoffman had enough clout to reach the Army brass.
In 1952 — a year before being discharged by the army — Tommy Kono won his first Olympic gold medal. He wouldn’t lose again for eight years.
In a land where everything seemed to die a little, the youngest Kono boy felt himself grow stronger. The dry air at Tule Lake helped. He didn’t have as many asthma attacks.
He could run. And play. And go to school.
One day his friends handed him a York dumbbell. They had seen it in a magazine advertisement and paid for it with money they earned running a hamburger stand.
Lift it, they told Kono. And you’ll get stronger.