by Joe Garcia
Part One: Our beginning.
Most of you probably know that Bill is the founder and creator of the USAWA. Recently the organization decided to honor Bill, and a letter of appreciation and a Lifetime Achievement Award were presented to him at the Goerner Deadlift Dozen Plus One a few weeks ago. I also thought it would be both fun and instructive to go over the history of the USAWA and some of Bill’s story. We sat down the other day for a lunch and I interviewed him about both subjects. Keep in mind that this is bare bones as it would take a book or two or more to get the whole picture. We’ll start this story with a chronological line from the beginning as he tells it.
The whole entity that was to become known as the USAWA basically started in 1959 with the local boxing team that Bill coached. The boxers wanted to lift weights, so an Olympic weightlifting team was created. In November their first state meet was held at the Armory in Columbia. A common theme for most of the meets is that odd lifts were almost always performed whenever meets were held.
The next year 1960, Bill was appointed as Chairman of the Missouri Valley AAU. They had eleven lifters including Wilbur Miller, Art Tarwater, and Bill Fellows. At the same time, the prison system became a hotbed of odd lifting. Bill worked the ‘home’ games of baseball in the prisons from 1956 through 1967, and so was very familiar to the recreation directors in the system. He was contacted by the Feds to start a federal program of lifting which he agreed to do. Two stories from this era: First, at one of the prisons, they cut metal decking for the weight plates. These weighed between 10 and 25 pounds and the lifters used a short steel bar that limited how much weight could be loaded, so for the lifters like Joe Bradford, they would load the bar with about 400 lbs, then attach another 100 or so with wire, which wouldn’t come off the ground until the bar was just under the knees. This same concept was used in later years when performing lifts like the Hip lift. The second story concerns the Federal pen at Leavenworth. Bill had been told they made almost all of their equipment, but when he went there, they had 22 platforms with commercial looking bars. It turns out that they bought one bar, then had the shop fabricate 21 more for the lifters.
Coming into 1961, Powerlifting and Odd lift competitions were being held in Missouri Valley. These competitions were sanctioned under the Weightlifting umbrella as there was no official Powerlifting or Odd lifting at that time. If anyone has access to old Ironman magazines, they would be able to find results listed there from some of the meets. Rules for the odd lifts were first created about that time and records were kept as Missouri Valley Odd Lifts.
One of the key years was 1962. This was the year that the foundation was laid to make Powerlifting a separate event from Weightlifting. Lifters like Jim Witt, Homer Brannum, and Bill were some of the main forces to achieve this goal and they journeyed to the AAU Convention in Detroit, where they asked to make PL a subcommittee under Weightlifting. At that time there still were no sanctions for either Powerlifting nor Odd lifting. 1962 was also the year of the first National Prison Postal Meet. This first meet was an Olympic meet with subsequent years also having Powerlifting meets. By 1968, they dropped the Olympic meets. Typically the regular competition would be held, and afterwards the lifters would perform the Odd lifts.
The first National Powerlifting Championships was held in 1963 by Bill at Jeff Junior High in Columbia even though it was an unofficial one as there was no sport of Powerlifting at the time. One of the officials sitting in a chair was Bob Hoffman of York Barbell fame. Another event that helped further our sport was Bill got the AAU to form a new committee – Correctional Sports and by 1966, convicts were granted full AAU memberships. The following February one of the convicts won the National Flyweight Boxing Championship. In 1968, Jenkins Hudson of the Maryland State prison defeated Bill March in Olympic lifting, Bill being a 5 time Senior National Champion. That same year Otis Harrison won the North American title in body building. By the time the correctional sports program ended, there were about 1000 participant lifters nationwide.
In 1964, at the National AAU convention at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston, Texas, a vote was held to allow Powerlifting to be a separate part of the Olympic Sport. This motion was carried in a very close vote. Later at the same meeting, Bill put in a bid to hold the National Championships which he won, beating Bob Hoffman by one vote. Hoffman was able to get the AAU chairman to hold another vote on the bid, this time beating out Bill’s bid by one vote. Due to this, Hoffman went into the history books as holding the first National Championships.
During the next decade, numerous Powerlifting and Odd lifting competitions were held in the Missouri Valley area and elsewhere. Bill started having the Double Decathlon, a forerunner to the Zercher meet. Twenty lifts were contested, with the Zercher lift and the Steinborn always being anchor lifts. The Steinborn was originally known as the “Rocking Squat” but Bill renamed it to the Steinborn, in honor of ‘Milo’ and let him know that they had done so. Years later, just before his passing, Henry sent $50 for a trophy.
In 1973 Bill brought forth another proposal to the AAU membership, that of having a Masters Program. This was quite a contentious motion but did pass on a close vote. The following year, Bill tried to host the first Masters Powerlifting and Olympic Championships. With only 4 entrants, Bill Fellows, Bill Clark, Jack Lano and Wilbur Miller, the meet was called off. However, in 1975 the meet was held at Columbia College with a total of 15 lifters. They also had a track meet afterwards where they ran the 880 and threw. Today, the National championships have over 200 contestants and the Masters program exists in over 70 countries.
Around 1981, Tony Cook from England contacted Bill about holding a Postal Odd meet between English lifters and American lifters. This meet was held in the US at Sailors Gym over in Kansas. Twenty five lifts where performed in one day on three platforms and a single lifter might actually have been ‘up’ on multiple platforms at the same time. Numerous meets have been held at Sailors Gym, and in the early years of the USAWA, the Missouri Valley records were held as the standard for the USAWA, with most of them having been set at Sailors. Sailors was owned by Bobby Fulgroat who himself was a master powerlifter and bicyclist. He would ride everywhere including to Columbia for meets.
Bill and Tony started making plans for an international organization in 1985, and Bill flew over to England in October, 1986 to meet with Tony and Frank Allen, where the IAWA was organized. In 1987, the USAWA was formed and the first IAWA meet was held, albeit it was a postal meet. In 1988 the first USAWA Nationals was held with John Vernacchio as the host and also the first IAWA Worlds were held at Leicester, England with Frank Allen hosting. As a side story, at the same time Bill was over in England in 1986, Bill Buckner committed his infamous fielding error during Game 6 of the World Series, allowing the Mets to tie the series and go on to win over the Red Sox.
From the beginning of the USAWA until 2009, Bill served as Secretary/Treasurer and starting with his first Journal on Sept 10, 1989 until his last one on October 19, 2009 wrote just under 150 Strength Journals, keeping the membership informed about meets, events and any other odds and ends that he saw as interesting. He was also President of the IAWA for the first couple of years. While his travels today are limited, he still hosts a few USAWA meets at the gym, notably the Zercher, Deanna Springs Memorial and the Goerner Deadlift Dozen Plus One.
Part II will continue with background information about events Bill has held plus accomplishments and achievements over the years.