As a child, I was considered weak and awkward by my classmates and a slow learner by my teachers. I started weightlifting to get a little stronger.
I won my first state championship at 14 years old. But at that time, if your sister had been entered, she would have won. It was during World War II, and all the top lifters were in the service. It was old men and little boys.
I’m a very strong believer in positive thought, because there’s practically nothing you can’t do if you believe it.
I lifted 300 pounds over my head at age 15. When I graduated, I was asked where I’d like to train for the Olympics.
I was a middleweight. At the national championship in Cleveland, I placed second, and my older brother placed third. Between 1947 and 1960, my brother and I won more Olympic medals than all but four nations in the world.
The commanding officer of the Dental Corps in Hawaii said that he didn’t want any jocks on his staff, and if I wanted to be a weightlifter, I should join the special services. It was kind of irking because at that time, I was the defending Olympic champion representing the United States, and I thought the U.S. Army Dental Corps would offer me some concessions.
We were invited to give an exhibition to the students. It was during the school day at a fairly good-size high school with a large auditorium. It was full.
Weightlifters, when giving exhibitions, have to arrange for a truck to bring in platforms to put on the stage to protect it. Otherwise, if a weight drops, it would go through the floor.
When I say platform, that gives the impression that it was something raised. But it was just planks lying tightly together on the stage.
The mental attitude in weightlifting is the most important part. The lift is made or lost before you even touch the bar.
After you’ve trained so long, you just sort of forget which muscles you tense and which you don’t. It’s almost like walking — you don’t think about putting one foot in front of another.
We routinely started with moderate weights and then went heavier. Let’s say the Clean and Jerk: probably about 320 pounds, working up to about 350. Clean and Jerk. In that lift, you pull the weight up to your shoulders and then lift it over your head. That’s the lift I did that day.
There are some times it just feels so light you don’t realize you’re doing it. It’s like being in a dream. It just glides into position before you know it.
But as the weight landed on my shoulders that day, the downward pressure pushed my leg to the side, and the boards split apart from one another. They should have been closer together.
I was in trouble. I felt my knee wrench. Right then, I felt that might disqualify me from the Olympics.
One of the primary rules in lifting is to always hang onto the bar if it’s falling. Never let go of the weight or try to run from it. Just hold onto the weight and push yourself away from it.
But I couldn’t hang on. My foot slipped out, and automatically, the weight just fell out of my hands.
It was slow motion.
Thud. The weight hit the floor. Clang. The plates hit each other. I just limped away. There were some “oohs” and “ahhs” and so forth.
I went to Tripler Hospital and saw an orthopaedic doctor there. He told me just to lay off the knee for about a month or so, which was terrible because I had to train for the Summer Games.
I wanted to win my second gold medal because my first Olympics was in London in 1948, and I placed second there. I won the gold easily in ’52, and I thought I’d win it again in ’56.
By the time the Olympics came, most of the pain was gone, but I hadn’t done enough training.
I was too weak. It was a sickening feeling. I was the defending champion, and a man I had beaten several times before — a Russian — beat me.