Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tommy Kono - Charles Coster

Tommy Kono, Squat Stylist
by Charles Coster

When one has been associated with a particular sport for nearly 30 years as I have been – it is possible to learn, and comment on many things. My first meeting with the great Olympic lifters of the world took place in Paris way back in 1935, but I commenced to study the greats of lifting long before that.

The very first weightlifting personality that can be said to have had a really cataclysmic effect upon the modern Olympic school was that amazing 165 pound middleweight Khadr El Touni of Egypt. When Touni made his debut at Berlin in 1936 he shocked the entire foundations of the Iron Game with his terrific achievements at the Olympiad. The young Egyptian Colossus made an 853 total – thirty odd pounds more than the best light-heavyweight – and only 50 pounds less than the 903 pound aggregate established by the 238 pound heavyweight Josef Manger on that occasion!

The important point of this particular form of introduction to a story which is to be devoted to a certain young American athlete is just this: Seventeen years have passed since than, and at the moment of writing the U.S.A. now has a weightlifting genius who is capable of duplicating the Egyptian’s performances – as a 148 pound lightweight. This new star of the weightlifting firmament, Tommy Kono, began to show signs of great promise two or three years ago, and slowly his individual poundages, have mounted until, today, at the age of 23 years, he stands revealed before us as an athlete possessing the greatest potential that can be imagined.

Kono is an equally outstanding performer on all three Olympic lifts – being a very strong presser, and an equally remarkable exponent of the two fast lifts. But just as Tommy marks the quality of his greatness by nearly Touni’s total whilst being fifteen pounds lighter in bodyweight, I predict that he will be the only Olympic weightlifting specialist in the near future who will hold all three World records as a lightweight, in addition to an all-time high total.

In this respect it must be mentioned that the constantly increasing tempo of modern competition has resulted in the dispersal of World records. In days gone by it was no uncommon thing for a lifer to hold the three record lifts in his particular class. But so terrific has competition and specialization become in recent years that not one lifter at the present time holds all three World records in his own division. Tommy Kono is so outstanding however that it would be quite easy for him to collect all three World records as a lightweight – in addition to a record total.

At the time of writing this, January 17th, 1953, his bodyweight has gone up to a full 165 pound middleweight, but if he is asked to help the American struggle for team supremacy by once again reducing to the lightweight class I have no doubt he will do so – and if that happens his total will certainly be somewhere between 842 and 853 pounds.

At Helsinki in 1952 he gained his first World record by making a lightweight class snatch of 259 pounds, and before the year was out he succeeded in making a new World record press of 248 pounds during an officially sponsored weightlifting exhibition at Copenhagen. On that occasion he snatched 253 pounds – and clean and jerked 331, thus establishing a total of 831 pounds within the nine attempts permitted. Nothing like this level of lightweight class lifting had ever been seen in the world before. But greater achievements were soon to follow, and whilst these words of mine are awaiting publication, even more fabulous lifts and totals may be established by him whilst serving in the American armed forces on the continent of Europe.

About one month after this Kono again gave a weightlifting display, this time at Karlsruhe, and once again he reached the heights. A press of 242 was followed by a sequence of three unsuccessful snatches – and he finished at 264 pounds without failure. On the clean and jerk he reached an amazing 341, thus totaling 848 pounds, his highest ever at that time. One thing, however, spoilt the whole thing – he was a few ounces overweight, and this misfortune caused three new World records to be missed by the proverbial hairs-breath. The snatch, the clean and jerk, and the total were all World records; but he missed official recognition by just a few measly ounces – what bad luck!

This was not the first time he had cleaned 341 in public by any means, for I myself saw him twice successfully clean the same weight during the actual Olympics at Finland, but each time he failed to finish the jerk, otherwise his total would have been 33 pounds higher than the 798 he recorded and which was more than sufficient to win the title.

After the Karlsruhe affair Tommy allowed his bodyweight to go right up. At the beginning of January this year he was practically a middleweight and while on his way to Great Britain he stopped long enough to give the local inhabitants a demonstration in France. His all-round Olympic lifting ability once again manifested itself in the shape of an 881 total. I was not present to see the lifting personally, but I am told that Tommy took only eight attempts, and when passing on to the clean and jerk, he missed his first poundage for some reason or other. In spite of this his lifts were: Press 270, Snatch 264, Clean & Jerk 347 pounds.

On the 10th January at Wandsworth Drill Hall in London he gave an almost identical demonstration which resulted in yet another 881 pound aggregate. This was the first time I had seen him appear at his full bodyweight, and I was struck by his general physique improvement. His thighs are sensational, his arms are backed by bulging triceps and the entire deltoid area is rounded and full. As both the quality of poundage as well as the method of executing the lifts were alike remarkable, I intend to mention the attempts individually. He commenced by pressing 260 pounds, a weight which he elevated rapidly and apparently with ease. His next attempt was with 275, and once again he was successful, the bar being impelled aloft quite fast, in spite of the fact that it was only six pounds less than the World middleweight record, which incidentally is held at the moment by Khadr El Touni. He then asked for 280 for his final press – failing to elevate. However, as he received this formidable weight at the sternum before pressing I could not help but marvel at the sheer strength and great basic power he brought to bear – for once the initial leg drive had been applied, he did not again dip or bend his knees as the bar reached his sternum. This lifter is very, very strong in many respects, which you will learn later on when I recount a certain training ‘incident.’

The two hands snatch saw him once again record a personal record. He commenced at 260 and then asked for 270 for his second lift. Both were smashed aloft successfully. He then decided to take 280 lbs. for the final attempt, but from where I sat the bar appeared to be too far forward. He asked for an extra attempt, but the same thing happened again. I would say that he will make 280 in the near future providing he stays a middleweight for a while. A poundage such as this, we must remember, is very close Duganov’s World record which stands at 283½. The Russian is also a squat lifter like Kono, and specializes on the snatch. He has lifted 286½ recently and it is expected that the record will be ratified by the F.I.H. in due course.

When Tommy commenced Clean & Jerk operations that night he scored a comfortable success with 335 for a first attempt. Everything seemed to go according to plan – the timing and action were superb, his pull strong, and he experienced no difficulty at all when straightening out from the knees bent position. The jerk was easy. At this point he seemed to be all set to exceed Stanczyk’s wonderful 892 lb. effort which was established at Philadelphia during the World Championships in 1947. Kono jumped to 335, but at last his luck deserted him – for he failed to clean twice. I don’t know just what it was that went wrong, but on both occasions the weight was not even fixed at the sternum. Once again I thought the bar was not pulled back sufficiently and instead of being able to maintain an upright and rigid back as the weight was whipping, he seemed to lean too far forward.

Our weightlifting thrills were not finished by any means. Although he had once again been dealing with near World record poundages and these two failures were obviously unexpected – after a few minutes rest Tommy walked onto the platform and lifted the weight to the hang position – and then successfully cleaned it! This time his timing and action were perfect – and although the leg recovery was none too easy – he still seemed to have something to spare. His efforts met with rapturous appreciation from the audience, and this may have inspired him to greater effort . . . for he once more asked that the weight be increased to 365 and make us gasp by performing a successful squat clean with a weight which was roughly three or four pounds heavier than the existing World record.

This time he experienced considerable difficulty in straightening his legs and the effort involved prevented him from completing the jerk.

It seems quite certain, barring the usual risk of training accidents, that this astonishing squat lifter will reach the 900 lb. mark in the not too distant future, and in fact, even as these words are being prepared for publication – he may in the meantime have fulfilled my prophesy. A most unusual evening’s weightlifting entertainment was concluded when he finally appeared before us in trunks and gave a brief by very impressive posing routine.

When viewing this athlete lifting I have always been impressed by the tremendous basic muscular power he has gone to the trouble to build up, and which enables him to perform such prodigies of lifting skill. As a squat-style specialist his degree of skill is outstanding- but without the possession of basic power he would be forced to handle more moderate weights. I believe this lifter right from the start tackled his future lifting problems correctly when he decided to concentrate on a program of building great bodily power.

About two years ago, when I was attending the Milan Championships, I was told by members of the American team about Kono’s possibilities. Among other things, they mentioned that he had performed thirty-five consecutive deep knee bends with 365 pounds, at about a 155 bodyweight. This account was quite reliable – but it constitutes one of the greater feats of strength/stamina that I have heard of. It seems quite clear to me that his patience and perseverance in training this way are now repaying Tommy with handsome dividends in the realm of Olympic lifting.

There is a Proverb that says, “Strength in sufficient quantities will conquer everything” and when it is backed up by a brilliant technique as well, then it becomes plain that something quite out of the ordinary may be confidently expected.

Super Skill – when it is not accompanied by adequate physical power – can be a most unreliable servant at the most inconvenient time. And this is where Tommy scores heavily, for he has both. His latest feat of strength, however, just beggars description. During his brief training in London recently, Tommy performed two front squats with 420 pounds. To my way of thinking this form of Olympic training preparation is most logical. If more lifters would analyze their weaknesses and prepare themselves along these lines by embracing new and unusual ideas, and taking care to get out of the rut of routine training – then we might see a succession of improved totals among the people interested in our fine sport.

No wonder Kono can clean 365 from the hang. Two years ago he was able to perform an almost identical movement with the same poundage thirty-five times in succession. Small wonder that he can clean 340 as a lightweight, or clean 36 5 from the hang as a middleweight using the squat technique when has taken the trouble to make himself so basically powerful that he is now able to make the same bodily movement with 420 pounds for 2 reps in training.

Does this athlete possess a weakness of any sort? Possibly! It is a well-known fact that squat cleaning imposes a very great muscular effort when top poundages are being undertaken, and this sometimes leaves the lifter somewhat weak for the jerk when it is to be performed. I don’t know how much weight Kono can handle from the shoulders for limit jerking, but it would be a sound idea if he used the same plan as Pete George who worked this part of the lift hard – until he possessed a thirty or forty pound margin of safety.

Since 1948 Pete George has not lost one solitary jerk in competition and the reason is – he has trained himself up to a point where he can jerk nearly 400 pounds from the shoulders – a very wise precaution.

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