The Ambridge VFW Barbell Club
by John McKean
Earlier this year the Ambridge VFW Barbell Club celebrated its 50th anniversary ! It was jointly founded by the USAWA’s own Art Montini and his long time friend, Harry McCoy, who went on to serve many terms as Western Pennsylvania’s Chairman of Olympic weightlifting. It was neat to see both men in attendance at the recent USAWA 3 man challenge meet!
Since the early 1960s the Ambridge club has been a hotbed of weightlifting competition. At one time or another, most of the top dogs in the Eastern US in olympic and power lifting, and physique competitors attended these exciting contests. Remember Phil Grippaldi, Tony Fratto, Hugh Cassidy, Frank Remschell, Mr America past 40 Jim Karas, Bob Weaver, George Crawford, Cal Shake, Roger Estep,etc,etc? -all attended VFW meets! Later, with Art, Bill DiCioccio, and me getting into the initial USAWA meets, it was just a natural to host annual all-round contests along with several nationals. Heck, Art’s birthday meet alone has gone on longer than most clubs last these days!
Part of the charm of the Ambridge gym is its old style “hardcore” decor -mostly older olympic sets and pegs chock full of plates, solid iron dumbbells, sturdy racks & benches, and multiple lifting platforms. Yes, there are a few heavy duty machines in the lower part of the gym, but even these “bodybuilding devises” only got in by heated screaming matches during rather wild club meetings!! Training here has always been geared to huge strength and lifting competition, so the well used barbells show more wear and tear than do lat machines seen in most health spas!
A key feature of many of the racks, supports, and odd gear seen in the gym is that they were mostly homemade, and one-of-a-kind. That is, during the 60s the local steel mills were thriving and most of the members were steelworkers – these guys were terrific at welding together all manner of heavy duty structures that would withstand an A-bomb! No one ever asked about the limits of a stairladder squat rack, for instance, because one look at it would quickly convince any user that its support limits would outdo even Paul Anderson’s top weights! If a member feels a piece of steel looks damaged or somehow unsturdy, or just needs modification, almost as his concern is expressed, ole Art Montini has his welding mask on and torch aflame! Believe me, it can make for a unique training session when sparks and superheated metal are flying around -even the rats run for cover (just kiddin’ , never saw a rat during my 43 year membership ,tho Art early in the morning and unshaven is close!).
All members dues,always quite reasonable, have been continually invested in new equipment. It may have been rather Spartan in 1960 when Art and Harry first pooled their own barbells and plates, but quickly evolved into a barbell club that would easily satisfy a healthy roomful of dedicated iron men. Regular clean-up and maintenance crews keep things tidy yet rugged looking. I well remember attending my first power meet at the VFW -it was the most impressive, well equipped “dungeon” I’d ever been in ; even the extensive solid dumbbells on the long rack had been freshly painted a neat shade of dark blue just for that contest! I immediately promised myself that right after graduating from college I was gonna join this group who took such pride in their facility!
I have to fondly recall the many big olympic, power, all-round, and physique meets held upstairs from the gym. This was in the large “dance hall” and stage behind the VFW’s bar on the main floor. Meets would begin at 9 am in the good old days, and last well past midnight! The place was packed with spectators, and even was often stacked 3 deep in the surrounding overhead balcony, and had all the noisy atmosphere that a big sporting event SHOULD have! Great food was sold (and sold OUT!) by the ladies auxillary upstairs, and the “occasional” lifter or official would sometimes sneak out to the front bar for a quick beer! The only problem was dressing downstairs in the locker room just below the lifting platform -when the olympic lifters dropped a big one the lights& rafters always threatened to bury those down below (never actually happened,though!)!
Nowadays, some of the old time trainees have departed, but current competitors, new barbell buffs, and student athletes still frequent this friendly old pit ! If you haven’t visited already, be sure to attend one of the upcoming USAWA meets that we’re planning!