Tag Archives: Tommy Kono

Tommy Kono: A True All-Rounder



by Thom Van Vleck

When I was a kid I had my Uncle Wayne who was a “Paul Anderson Fan”.  He was all about strength and nothing about aesthetics.  Function first, looks second.  And Function was Olympic lifting!  My other Uncle, Phil, was much more at aesthetics but he also liked strength and he was a Bill Pearl fan.  The one guy they could both agree on was Tommy Kono!

Anyone that is involved in strength sports should know by now that Tommy recently passed away at the age of 85 after one of the most storied careers in strength history.  I did a story on Tommy a few years back and I’m going to say a few things here but you would need to large book to really do Tommy justice!

Tommy is famous for living in Hawaii but he was actually born in Sacramento, California and was relocated to the Tule Lake Internment Camp as a teenager during WWII due to the fear people had against those of Japaneses decent.  While this was a miserable experience in some ways it was the best thing to happen to Tommy.  During his stay the desert air helped clear up his asthma which had made him sickly.  He also got involved in weight training which obviously changed his whole life.

In 1950 Tommy was drafted into the army.  They realized his Olympic potential and gave him the opportunity to train.  Tommy worked hard and this all began to pay off in 1952 when he won the gold medal in Olympic lifting in Helsinki, Finland.  This was followed by dozens of World and National records and titles.  He was again Olympic champion in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics (when Paul Anderson famously won his gold) and the won Silver in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.  He kicked in 6 world championships and 3 Pan Am Golds to boot.  So he had the functional strength my Uncle Wayne appreciated.

Tommy also was a champion bodybuilder.  I don’t mean he looked good and did well against the best of the day.  I mean he was a 4 time Mr. Universe!  This was in the same years he was competing as a lifter as well.  So he had the aesthetics my Uncle Phil appreciated.

Tommy was also just as great a coach as lifter.  He coached three separate nations in three different Olympics.  He was elected to numerous Hall’s of Fame but what I recall that was most striking was being named “Weightlifter of the Century”.  Tommy deserved this and here’s why.

While other lifters may have won more world titles or broke more records there there three factors that made him the best.  First, he was undefeated from 1952 to 1960 on the world stage.  Second, his 26 world records were an amazing accomplishment.  Third, these were set almost equally in the three lifts contested in the day.  He was the best at all of them and not a specialist.  Fourth, and maybe most amazing, was he competed and set records in 4 different weight classes.

Maybe most important of all was Tommy was just a great person.  My Uncles met him in the 60’s while he was still lifting.  They told me he was a happy guy who offered advice and really listened to them when they asked him questions and gave them well thought out answers.  I found this out for myself in 2009 when I met him at the Arnold Fit Expo.  I stopped him in the hallway and introduced myself.  He stopped, talked at length, and made me fell like I was a good friend.  He was famous for helping others and never asking for a dime in return.

So I say Tommy all-rounder because he was the best at all the lifts, the best physique, the best coach, the best photographer of his era, and one of the best authors!  He also was just a great human being who would have been a great friend to have even if he had never picked up a weight in his lift.  So here’s to Tommy Kono.  The best!


Wayne Smith: All Round Legend Part I

 by Thom Van Vleck

Wayne Smith deadlifting the front end of a Volkswagon.

Wayne Smith was one of the original Jackson Weightlifting Club members.  He usually lifted in the 148lb class and competed in Olympic lifting meets, Powerlifting, and early “odd lift” meets and later USAWA meets.  Smith was born in 1932 and is currently 78 years old.

Wayne told me he first became interested in weightlifting as a kid with his twin brother, Ward.   But it was not until he joined the Navy that he actually started training regularly.  While in the Navy he was stationed in Hawaii and it was at this time he made a life long friendship with Tommy Kono (If you don’t know, Kono was one of the greatest Olympic lifters of all time and was actually voted “Weightlifter of the Century”).  Wayne has letters he has received over the years and a personally autographed copy of Kono’s book on lifting (Weightlifting: Olympic Style).  There is also a letter from Gary Cleveland.  Cleveland was a great York lifter who later put out a newsletter called the Avian Movement Advocate that Smith would often contribute to.  The letter talks about a letter Kono sent to Cleveland about Smith and it was very positive.  Smith told me that it meant a lot to him that Kono would write that letter about him.

Wayne Smith "wowing the crowd" with his Chinup prowess.

It was around 1957 that Wayne returned from the Navy and was approached by a group of brothers trying to find out more about weightlifting.  Smith felt he was no expert but these young men, the Jackson Brothers,  knew almost nothing and were lifting makeshift barbells made of concrete poured in buckets, old flywheels for extra plates, anvils, and pretty much anything that wasn’t tied down.  My favorite story was about the first thing Smith told them was to reverse their grip on their cleans, presses, and jerks.  They were using a “curl” or “reverse” grip!  Soon they were working out on a regular basis and the foundation for the Jackson Weightlifting Club as we know it today was laid.

Wayne’s first meet was in Omaha, Nebraska in 1958.  His Olympic lifting and Powerlifting career lasted until 1971.  During that time he entered many meets as a member of the Jackson Weightlifting Club.  He was part of a JWC team that won two state team titles.  He was also proud of the fact he never failed to total and he never failed to make weight for his weight class.  He said Kono had taught him to take a safe lift then go all out on 2nd and 3rd attempts and this served Wayne well.  In 1964 won the Missouri State Championships as a middleweight.  Just prior to winning that title he was told he had a lung condition and at the rate he was deteriorating he had maybe two years to live!  He received treatment from Dr. Valuck who he credits with diagnosing him and treating him back to health!

Smith at the top of one of his "perfect" one-arm chins at a powerlifting meet in Minnesota in 1966. You will find a poster of this picture on the wall in Clark's Gym.

In the late 70’s, Wayne began entering “odd lift” meets put on by Bill Clark.  He also lifted in the early USAWA years.  It was in 1977 that Bill nominated Wayne for the AAU Weightlifting Hall of Fame and Wayne was later inducted.  During his lifting years Wayne won 4 major titles.  Other than his state title in 1964, in 1966 he won the City Championships in Kirksville, in 1966 he won the Open Powerlifting title in St. Paul, Minnesota (where the chin up photo was take, more on that later!), and in 1971 he won his last title, a powerlifting meet in Jefferson City were he won the Open title.

Wayne was also a chin up specialist.  He would often challenge all comers to a chin up contest.  He told me he was only beaten one time.  It was by another JWC member named Dr. Rex Lee.  Rex had joined the club while going to the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine and lifted as 114lber.  Rex weighed only 105lbs when he beat Smith by one rep.  My Uncle Phil told me that every meet they ever competed in at some point Smith would put on a chinning exhibition.  If there was no bar to chin on then Phil and another member of the club would hold a 45lb bar up for Smith to chin on!  In 1998 I “revived” the club and in 1999 held a strongman contest and Highland Games that eventually turned into the Kirksville Games and the JWC Strongman Championships/Highlander.  My brother and I held a bar up and at age 68 Wayne did a perfect one arm chin up!  When I say perfect he did a “dead weight” pull and no “kip” or “kick”.  That’s how he always did them and had a best of 6 one arm chins.

Coming Soon: Part II

Meeting Tommy Kono

by Thom Van Vleck

Tommy Kono and Thom Van Vleck

It is not often you get to meet a living legend, but earlier this year I did just that! I was at the Arnold Fitness Expo for the first time in my life. I got to meet a slew of legends, current stars, and I’m sure some future legends. This included Frank Zane, Lou Ferrigno, Phil Pfister, Derek Poundstone, even Arnold himself as well as many others. But I have to say, the one that I saw that literally gave me the biggest thrill was Tamio “Tommy” Kono. Growing up in a weightlifting family, Tommy was like a mythical legend to me. I expected to see Arnold there, as well as many others, but I didn’t know Kono was going to be there so when I literally ran into him in the hallway while talking to my wife on my cell phone…..well, my heart jumped in my throat and I literally hung up on her as I ran to him like some star crossed teen seeing a teen idol. At least I didn’t scream!

Some might wonder who Tommy Kono was. Well, let me tell you about the man that was voted the “Greatest Weightlifter of the 20th Century”. He represented the U.S.A. in the 50s and 60s. Tommy Kono is the only lifter to have world records in four different weightlifting classes from 149lbs to 198lbs. He won a Gold Medal at both the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games, and a Silver Medal at the 1960 Olympics. He was world champion from 1953 – 1959 and set 21 world records. He was the Pan-Am Games champion in 1955, 1959, and 1963. In 1976, he coached the United States’ Olympic weightlifting team in the Montreal Games. He was also a successful Bodybuilder, winning the Mr. Universe title in 1955 and 1957. Of Japanese descent, Kono was born in Sacramento, California, on June 27th, 1930. Kono’s family was relocated to Tule Lake internment camp during World War II. Tule lake camp was in a very isolated area in the desert in northern California. Sickly as a child, the desert air helped Kono’s asthma. It was during the relocation that Kono was introduced by neighbors to weight training . After 3 1/2 years they were released and he finished high school at Sacramento High. In the 1970s he moved to Hawaii, where he has lived ever since and in 1993 he was elected to the International Weightlifting Hall of Fame.

Tommy was extremely cordial and allowed me to have my picture taken with him and a copy hangs with pride in the JWC gym. He made a glowing comment that I must be a champion myself and commented on how big and strong I looked as he sized me up. I was very impressed by him and he lived up to my lofty expectations. Tommy is a legend in the truest sense.