Sunday, September 6, 2015

Smithsonian - Jan Dellinger (2015)



Dick Smith






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"Smithsonian"
 by 
Jan Dellinger 




This was Dr. John Ziegler's nickname for Dick Smith, long-time coach of York Barbell's and America's quality Olympic lifters. While he was an astute and highly trained medical professional, Dr. Ziegler was no stuff-shirt, possessing colorful dimensions to his personality. Hence, he liked to bestow nicknames on many of those with whom he associated. 

In addition to "Smithsonian," Bill March was "Will-Yo", Weaver was "Verno", Grimek was "Strong John" and there is an outstanding chance that Dr. Z was the real origin of the Bob Hoffman shorthand moniker, "BoHo."


While Smitty might have been unheralded among much of the mainstream weight world, and especially by the more recent generation, esoteric Iron Gamers of a certain age, and especially if they have personal knowledge of either York Barbell Club/Company or American Olympic Weightlifting history, recognize the contributions he made.

A case could be made that Smitty's name came up most often in regards to his association with Dr. Ziegler and the introduction of isometric-style strength training. Consistently, Smitty voiced the belief that he was blessed to have been involved with both the good Doctor and isometrics, which he whole-heartedly felt was a bona fide advancement in the area of strength acquisition. Why it is not recognized as that today, he also whole-heartedly felt, was because virtually everyone--including its prime advocate, BoHo--did not fully grasp the concept, as well as its simplicity. Hence, it was misused, distorted and rendered nonproductive. 


The bodybuilding-strength training culture loves to cling to the notion of mystic secrets which have yet to be revealed. According to Smitty, if the strength training world truly has a deep, dark lost "secret", it is isometric -style strength training!


If one knows Smitty's personal background, perhaps it is fair to say that his involvement with isometric strength training was his destiny. His introduction to muscle training came at an early age as his father faithfully followed one of Earle Leiderman's mail order bodybuilding courses, which featured the self-application of manual resistance moves coupled with isometric holds in the contracted position. 


That got him on the progressive resistance exercise journey; however, Smitty really started motoring down the physical culture highway in his early teens. His prime inspiration at that time was seeing the tremendous development of professional wrestlers of that era--Jim Londos, Strangler Lewis, Ray Steele, and the Garibaldi and Dusek Brothers. Plus,he also became aware that many football players were quite "husky" in their own right. 


Going into high school, Smitty's prime passions were wrestling and football, both of which he participated in at West York High School. But his high level of motivation kept prompting him to focus more on steadily improving his athletic performance. The question of how best to do that nagged at him, until he got wind of the existence of barbells. 


Next, he learned that the city of York had a company which sold barbells, so he scooted on over to Broad Street where he encountered Bob Hoffman who outfitted him. However, while there he noticed the Broad Street York Gym, and several "slapped together" guys who physically resembled those pro grapplers to which he initially gravitated.


Suddenly, devoting as many waking minutes as he could spare to watching these extraordinary specimens who he so wanted to emulate,became an overriding concern in Smitty's young life. Suffice it to say that he utilized any and all tactics imaginable to sneak into the gym, remaining as inconspicuous as possible for as long as he could just to watch these mighty men exercise.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall, but alas Smitty wasn't. Smitty would recall that, "Grimek and Stanko showed me the door to the street many times when I was kid. When I became a co-worker years later, we'd joke about that!" 


After high school graduation in 1943, Smitty enlisted in the Army, which formally assigned him the duty of driving trucks. This aspect of his military service he never discussed. What he did talk about readily was the fact that his stay in the Army inadvertently allowed him the chance to learn the fine art of athletic coaching which altered the course of his life.


The base Smitty was stationed on had a pretty fair boxing team in large part because the coach of said team had worked previously with a number of highly ranked professional pugilists, including well-known featherweight fighter "Machine Gun" Nicky Jerome. According to Smitty, this wily coach knew all of the ins and outs regarding the "Sweet Science", fully grasping the mental as well as the physical. 


Because Smitty showed plenty of interest and aptitude, ( by rising early in the AM and doing road work with the fighters, as well as sparring with them), the old coach took a decided liking to him, and along the way clued him into the real nitty gritty of preparing fighters to be maximally effective in the ring. 


Smitty came to view his association with the camp boxers and especially the coach himself, as serving sort of an apprenticeship in the fine art of athletic coaching. Among the wizened instructions he came away with, knowledge which he transferred over to handling lifters, was that coaches should coach by what they see. It isn’t so much what athletes are doing in training workouts, but how they are doing it. Actually, this was a standard operational mantra with Coach Smitty.


Are their reflexes sluggish, or are they snappy and crisp in their movements? Do they remain mentally and physically alert throughout training, or do they just go thru the motions? Are certain body parts showing signs of lethargy while others are functioning in a consistently timely fashion? These are the kinds of issues that coaches should constantly be monitoring when training athletes. Of course, knowing what to do when these situations arise among your athletes makes all the difference, and the old boxing coach prepared Smitty for all contingencies. 


So, just how did Smitty end up at York Barbell? After leaving the Army, he banged around for a while before eventually making his way back to the York area. Of course, he still maintained his fervent interest in resistance exercise, making the local YMCA and a local flower house—yes, a flower house—his training bases over time. Both places proved fortuitous as he developed lasting associations with a couple of local boys who made a name for themselves in weightlifting and bodybuilding circles. At the YMCA, he became quite friendly with Bill March, while at the flower house, he was a training partner of Vern Weaver. 


By 1958 or ‘59, March was a card-carrying member of the York Barbell Club. Recalling his considerable abilities as a "handler", Bill petitioned Bob Hoffman to allow Smitty into the fold. Needless to say, the BoHo-Smitty interview went swimmingly, due to the latter’s likeable personality, forming yet another lasting bond in Dick’s life.


Smitty was a unique man in several respects. After all, how many people from the Iron Sports do you know who studied the artificial insemination of cattle at Cornell University? 


Then again, how often does one find a national-international level coach who never actually competed in the sport he coached? That has to be rare, but this description fits Smitty, who was the platform coach for United States Weightlifting teams at six Olympic Games and 22 World Championships. And speaking to the quality of his coaching presence, the great Norbert Schemansky, who is not known for easily passing out compliments, is said to have labeled Smitty as the best platform coach we had. 


Dick's counterparts from other highly regarded nations also recognized his versatile abilities and gravitated to him. For example, Smitty was quite well liked by the lifters and coaches from the Soviet Union, having spent many evenings at international lifting meets in their hotel rooms sampling their cavier, smoked fish and swapping all manner of lifting-related stories. 


However, their regard for Smitty reached a new high in the late 1970s when the Soviets, as well as the rest of the weightlifting world, came to Gettysburg, PA--a short jaunt from York--for the World Championships. Being quite serious about retaining their status as THE top country in Olympic weightlifting (and because they were government funded), the Soviet squad arrived quite a bit in advance of the actual competition. This necessitated that they put in a few pre-contest workouts at the York Gym on Ridge Avenue. 


After one of these sessions, the entire Soviet team had assembled at the side door leading out of the gym, socializing while waiting for their ride back to the Yorktowne Hotel. David Rigert, their renowned 198-pound World Champion, took the opportunity to get in additional physicality by performing a "flag" on the hand railings of the steps. As one of the onlookers, Smitty applauded, complimenting Rigert on the quality of his fine impromptu feat. Whereupon, Rigert smiled in appreciation and gestured that Smitty should try it. 


Smitty, who was in his 50s at the time, laughed and acknowledged that he stood no chance at matching David. However, he then posed a friendly counter-challenge to the great Russian lifter, asking if Rigert would try his pet exercise, the stiff-arm pulldown on the lat machine.


By that stage of his life, Smitty no longer engaged in any sort of formal workout routine. In fact, mostly what he did was perform the occasional spontaneous example of "old man strength". For instance, in the middle of the work day, I once witnessed him walk up to a bar left loaded to 402 pounds on the platform, take a serious look at it, and then execute a very powerful clean grip deadlift with it....sans formal warm up of any kind. 


Actually, if there was anything Smitty did with any sort of regularity, it was the stiff-arm pulldown on a lat machine. Nevertheless, he was thoroughly expecting Rigert to "blow his doors in" despite the fact that the latter probably had never attempted the movement prior.


So, Smitty threw 125 pounds on the weight peg of the lat machine and proceeded to crank out 12 reps. Rigert himself was no doubt thinking that if this "old goat" can knock out a dozen reps, this should be easy, and he grabbed the lat bar. Trouble ensued quite quickly for the great lifter as he had to resort to generous amounts of arm-bend and body heave to even cheat out a few reps.

Other members of the Soviet team began taking notice of Rigert's plight and wanted to try it themselves. Sultan Rachmanov, the young superheavy phenomenon who was thought to be the heir-apparent to Alekseyev, was able to bat out 6 or 7 reps in good form, but expressed amazement at how difficult it was. And it should be noted that the Soviet coaches, in particular, who were around Smitty's age, took particular delight in watching the young bulls (and especially Rigert) struggle.

Smitty, however, was not crowing about besting Rigert, worrying that he may have damaged his very cordial prior relationship with Rigert by unintentionally showing him up. Fortunately, to the contrary, the coaches and lifters (including Rigert) began inquiring as to how much Smitty could do. To put an end to this, another 20 pounds went on the weight peg, and Smitty knocked out 6 reps. 


World class athletes and coaches or not, the Soviets possessed a tremendous level of respect for all manner of strength demonstration and are not shy about spreading the news. So the aforementioned incident gave Smitty newfound "street cred" among them. To the point that upon his next visit behind the Iron Curtain, all manner of Soviet lifters, coaches and even officials were coming up and pinching his arms and praising his performance that they had heard so much about. 


Earlier I mentioned that from his exercise beginnings, Smitty's eventual deep involvement in isometric-style strength training, which came thanks to Dr. Ziegler, was his "destiny." That is my reflective analysis; to Smitty at the time, it was a combination imperative-learning experience.

You'll recall my mentioning previously that Smitty was a rarity, in that he coached the sport of Olympic lifting at the highest levels despite having never competed in it himself. While Bill March had ever confidence in Smitty's judgements, not all of the other York lifters felt similarly early in Smitty's York Barbell tenure. A couple were not shy about pointing out to him that while he had done a fair amount of general weight training, he had, "never been under really heavy, heavy weights."

Hence, when the Ziegler-inspired exploration of isometric-style exercise came to York Barbell, and especially when March consented to be a part of it, Smitty saw this as his opportunity to be under some "really heavy, heavy weights" and perhaps silence his critics. 


Despite being past the prime age of a typical strength athlete when embarking on the Ziegler rack routine, Smitty vowed to ultimately have 1000 pounds "on his back" (partial squat) and support 500 pounds overhead. The record shows that it took him two solid years of partnering with March in rack workouts, but Smitty was forever immensely proud of the fact that he did a partial squat with 1010 (photos of which can be found on the internet) and supported 525 overhead. And, yes, the critics took notice!


Of the twin accomplishments, he possessed the greatest satisfaction from the 1010 back squat as he felt as though he "beat" a pre-existing weakness in one of his legs. In 1954, Smitty was involved in a motorcycle accident on the Blue Ridge Parkway. While he required surgery from taking out several guard rails with his right hip and leg, as well as receiving the appropriate recovery time, thereafter, he was never quite sure what his structural limitations (if any) where. A thousand pounds on your back will test just about anyone's skeletal structure, so Smitty considered himself lucky to have achieved this goal and thought this was a good point for common sense to step in. 


And speaking of motorcycles, they were one of the other passions in Smitty's life. Brand of choice: Honda Goldwing! Day trips, week-long trips, month-long trips on his various generations of Honda bikes allowed him to visit most of the states in America over the decades.


And, no, the 1954 accident was not his only motorcycle accident. In this regard, Smitty and Bob Hoffman were kindred spirits: the latter totaled a few cars in his time, while the former had to "lay over" a couple bikes in his traveling days. 


Actually, Smitty was involved in a motorcycle accident in which he was not even on the bike at the time. When the World Weightlifting Championships were staged in Gettysburg in the late 1970s, Smitty decided to ride his Goldwing to the meet site one day. Yuri Vardanian saw him on the Goldwing, told him that he had his own motorcycle back in the Soviet Union and asked if he could ride Smitty's. Sensing Smitty's reluctance, Vardanian assured him that he was quite experienced and would not go far. 


The problem here was the vast discrepancy between the Soviet understanding of "horse power" and the American definition of the same. Motorcycle top-speed behind the Iron Curtain at the time was 30-40 miles per hour. Let's just say Smitty's Goldwing had well more than twice that capability...and could reach maximum output m-u-c-h faster than anything Vardanian was used to.


Despite Smitty's generous cautionary instructions on how to handle the bike, Vardanian immediately open the throttle full tilt...and went off the end of a retaining wall! Fortunately, Vardanian was enough of an athlete to separate himself from the bike without sustaining real injury. By the way, the Goldwing was not quite as lucky. 


Smitty was not sure just how long it was until his heart started beating regularly again because he knew if Vardanian had been hurt to the point where he couldn't have competed...and especially if the Soviets were not able to take the team title as a result of it...there would have been h--l to pay!

You would think that just one episode of this nature would have been enough to prohibit another such incident involving modes of transportation. You'd be wrong! Whether this incident happened before or after the Vardanian mishap, I do not recall. However, at some point during the Soviet's stay in York, one of the other lifters on the team eyed up Terpak's fully loaded Chrysler enough to overcome any shyness about asking to operate it. 


As with Smitty and Vardanian, Terpak, who was taken completely by surprise, didn't know how to diplomatically say "no!", although I'm sure he wanted to. So, there they--I think the lifter was Militsojen, and Terpak-- were in his Chrysler in the parking lot aside from the York Barbell gym on Ridge Avenue. Just as Vardanian did, Militsojen tromped the gas pedal down to the floor, and suddenly the Chrysler was careening around the parking lot parameters in, shall we say a decidedly unsafe manner. Fortunately, Terpak was able to get him and the car under control before taking out any of the neighbors' garages, autos or backyard fences. 


I'll wind up with a couple of other anecdotal things about Smitty: Even as a student in school, he loved geography and desired to see as much of the world as he could during his time here on earth. Of course, he was very indebted to the sport of Olympic weightlifting for the opportunity to visit 37 different countries (certain of them multiple times), as well as to Bob Hoffman for providing the gateway to become part of the sport of Olympic weightlifting.


Daily, Smitty brought that gratitude, as well as his amicable personality and innate passion for all things related to progressive resistance exercise, to the work place. And especially when it came to waiting on York Barbell customers...it didn't matter if you came thru the doors wanting to purchase nothing more than a pair of 10 pound dumbbells, or you wanted two Super Power Racks and three 400-pound sets, he connected with you. 


If the purchaser wanted quality advice on general fitness, or training for a sport or how to pump his arms, Smitty's extensive background in multiple areas gave them considerably more food for thought in a single encounter than any YouTube videos or e books which are the current "fountains of knowledge" to which exercise pursuants flock. 


Contemplate this a minute, how many other places in the Iron Field could a customer walk into and get a bona fide multiple-time Olympic coach to wait on them...and dispense quality advice, upon request, free of charge? Only York Barbell Company! 


And I'll also point out that Smitty was quite generous with his time, even off the clock, and to average customers, not just those who were interested in Olympic lifting. For example, if someone showed up right before closing time, and especially if they drove some distance to get to York Barbell, Smitty would give the same low-pressure, high information sales treatment to him as he did the first customer thru the door the next day. He genuinely wanted everyone who visited York Barbell to have the best possible experience, and, hence, the best possible impression of York Barbell. He conducted business in this manner when York was riding high, and when they were in decline.


Historically, I guess the "best known" ambassador of York Barbell would have been Bob Hoffman himself. And that was probably true for the first 25-30 years of the company. But clearly, from that point forward, the "number one" booster or ambassador of York Barbell (company, lifting team, gym...feel free to pick one) was "Smithsonian."


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