THE SPORT OF OLYMPIC-STYLE WEIGHTLIFTING
Training for the Connoisseur
Olympic lifting may be one of the purest of all sports. It distills the quickness, agility, power and coordination essential to all athletic endeavors into a single, brief motion. It truly is a sport for connoisseurs. There’s nothing like it.
True story. I was interviewing Carl Miller in the main office of his gym when a man came to the door. “Carl Miller? I just moved back to town, and saw you still had a gym here. I want to thank you. I was in your gym class at Carlos Gilbert Elementary, 30 years ago, and you changed my life.” The universe sure has a way of punctuating a moment.
Carl and I had been talking about his life and work, and this interruption was perfectly timed. In a few words, this man summed up why Miller and I had been talking at all. His contributions to the field of Olympic weightlifting have been enormous, and his influence within the field of fitness has been equally so.
Miller was first introduced to weightlifting by his stepfather, Leonard McRae. McRae almost lost his leg in World War II and was told to exercise to maintain the function of his knee. He worked out regularly and sometimes he brought his 12-year-old stepson with him. One day, McRae took the boy to a gym in Hollywood. Not just any gym, it was Bert Goodrich’s chrome-and-leatherette-appointed “Gym to the Stars.”
Goodrich was the first Mr. America, earning the title in 1938, and his gym was training central for Hollywood luminaries like Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Fess Parker and Mario Lanza. But Bert didn’t just cater to actors. Serious, competitive athletes trained there, too. UCLA and USC track and field athletes worked out at Bert’s, as well as a number of Olympic medalists and contenders. Mel Whitfield, 400-m Olympic gold medal winner was a regular Bert’s guy, along with Parry O’Brien, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the shot put and Olympic Hall of Famer. On occasion, John Davis, a twelve-time Olympic-style weightlifting national champion and two-time Olympic gold medal winner, trained there, too. Frank Spellman, a 1948 Olympic weightlifting champion, was a regular.
Then there were the body builders, like the legendary Roy Hilligenn. Hilligenn won both the Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles, before the wide use of steroids. Miller remembers that Hilligenn was exceptional in that he trained for body building three days a week and Olympic lifting three days a week.
Miller trained regularly with his stepfather, and about once a month, they would drive down to Venice Beach. This was California in the fifties, blue skies, clear water and a nation breaking into an age of post-war prosperity and promise. Everything, and anything, was possible. Men and women began to explore the limits of weight training and body building, combining it with other disciplines. While some lifted weights, their skin oiled and glistening in the sun, hand balancing, acrobatics and gymnastics were part of the show, too. A new age was dawning, and a new consciousness of fitness and health were a part of it. So was Miller.
He was 14 when McRae introduced him to Frank Spellman, the middle-weight lifting champion of the 1948 Olympics. Carl was awed by Spellman, and after a time, he mustered the courage to ask Spellman to teach him the lifts. Spellman looked him over. “Let me see ya’ do a high pull. Do a squat.” Carl did both and Spellman agreed, “Yeah, you can train with me.”
Of all the people Miller met at Bert’s, Spellman would be the most influential. Spellman had moved to California from York, Pennsylvania, where he was a machinist at York Barbell and trained with the legendary Bob Hoffman, considered the Father of American Weightlifting. The factory had a gym where workers were encouraged to train and numerous important lifters emerged from it. When Spellman moved West, he brought his love for lifting with him. It was Spellman who taught Miller the Olympic lifts, and they trained at the gym regularly.
After a time, like many lifters today, Spellman set up his own garage gym and invited his friends to come by. Olympic shot put medalist, Dave Davis, trained in the garage, and so did Dallas Long, another Olympic shot putter and gold medal winner. Discus champion Jay Silvester was another. Dave Sheppard, yet another Olympic medalist, came by from time to time. Paul Anderson would show up, too. Miller remembers Anderson picking up a 200-pound dumbbell with his fingers, calling to Spellman, “Hey Spellman, I bet you can’t do this!” Years later, Miller would hear a Russian lifter refer to Anderson as “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Spellman’s low garage ceiling spawned a theory in weightlifting that one hears to this day, at least in Miller’s gym and always in jest. Miller was too tall to jerk the bar into a full extension so Spellman would assure him, “If you can clean it, you can jerk it.” It wasn’t just Miller’s height and Spellman’s low ceiling that lent this statement its truth. There was another reason. At the time, weightlifting rules prohibited contact between the bar and the lifter’s leg. This forced the lifter to hold the bar slightly out front throughout the lift. When this rule was eliminated, lifters were able to move more weight.
(Over the years, many rules of weightlifting have changed, including the weight classes and the use of kilos instead of pounds. At one time, too, Olympic medals were granted for both lifts and a meet total. This will explain to the reader changing references to pounds and kilos, and an occasional mention of an obsolete weight class.)
Miller worked with Spellman for several years, and Spellman coached him to the Teenage National Weightlifting Championships. At age 19, weighing 198 pounds, Miller snatched 245 pounds, earned the first place trophy for his division, and set a new national record.
College followed. Miller attended UC Berkeley, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Education, with an emphasis in exercise physiology and biomechanics. He earned his Masters at the University of Arizona. He organized Olympic weightlifting teams at both schools before an unusual stint in the Peace Corps opened the door for international travel.
President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961. It was a popular program offering young Americans the opportunity to provide service overseas. One Peace Corps initiative promoted competitive athletics as a means of building national pride among developing countries, and the Corps actively recruited coaches for the program. Miller applied and was among the second group of this kind, arriving in Colombia in 1963. He succeeded Jim Curry, a former basketball player with the St. Louis Hawks.
Miller lived in Cali, the sport capital of Colombia, where he assisted Olympic weightlifting coach, Ney Lopez, and worked with the track and field team, helping with strength training. He enjoyed some noteworthy success while he was there. One of his track athletes was runner, Pedro Grajales. Miller helped him shave an incredible 3/10 of a second from his time in the 200 m, in just three months. This was a great achievement, particularly because Grajales was already 29. With the new time, he qualified for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Another of Miller’s athletes, Alvaro Mejia, ran second in the marathon at the Pan Am Games. In addition to his coaching assignments, Miller taught anatomy at the University of Cali.
The Colombian sport program was already underway when Miller arrived. Coaches from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Japan were invited to Colombia to conduct weightlifting clinics, and Miller became acquainted with a number of them. It was an opportunity to learn the training methods employed behind the “Iron Curtain,” a part of world from which little information was available. Miller traveled throughout South America with the Colombian team, visiting every country except Venezuela.
At the end of his Peace Corps assignment, Miller was invited to weight train the women’s volleyball team affiliated with the Nichibo Textile Factory, in Kobe, Japan. To augment the small salary they offered, he also worked as athletic director for the Canadian Academy and conducted research in exercise physiology at Miyagi University. And in the nascent days of Japanese baseball, Miller even weight trained the Hankyu Braves, and he worked with the Japanese weightlifting team.
The volleyball players were recruited from the southern island, where the population tended to be taller. They worked in the factory during the day and after eight hour work shifts, trained for seven hours at night. Miller is still astonished by the intensity of their work ethic and clearly recalls an especially grueling practice drill. The drill involved diving onto the floor into a shoulder roll, then springing quickly to the feet to hit a ball back over the net. The balls were moving fast and were fired off continuously, forcing the woman to immediately jump to her feet and dive again. The drill lasted fifteen minutes, after which the women literally crawled from the court, the floor slick with sweat.
Miller marveled at the effort the women dedicated to their sport and when he asked how they could work so hard, night after night, they told him, “We do it for our country.” They were rewarded for their hard work when the team was selected to represent Japan at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and Miller was there when the women of the Nichibo volleyball team won the gold medal. They returned to Japan as heroes.
After three years of coaching in Japan, Miller returned to the US, and as the saying goes, when one door closes another opens. Though Olympic lifting had long been popular in Europe and South America, it was largely unknown to American athletes and sports enthusiasts. It was Olympic weightlifting’s relative obscurity that provided Miller with the opportunity of a lifetime.
The Olympics had gone poorly for the Americans in 1972. To address the problem, the Olympic organizing committee explored the possibility of a national coach and wanted to test the strategy with a lesser-known sport. Prior to this, there had been no national coaches for the American Olympic teams. They chose Olympic lifting because of its relative obscurity and contacted Miller. When he told them his terms, that he needed to travel to find talent and to study training methods used outside the US, they turned him down. A year later, the committee returned to offer him the position and agreed to his terms. He took the job and traveled extensively for the next five years, 1973-1978.
During the week, Miller taught physical education in the basement gym of Carlos Gilbert Elementary School in Santa Fe, New Mexico and on weekends, traveled around the country, scouting gyms and athletes. There were a number of communities where Olympic lifting seemed to thrive. Not surprisingly, York, Pennsylvania, where York Barbell was headquartered, was an important bastion of the sport. And there were other towns across the country where Olympic lifting was practiced, small towns like Safford, Arizona; Willimantic, Connecticut; Daytona Beach, Florida; Marietta, Georgia; Ames, Iowa; and visited the famous Central Falls Weightlifting Club in Rhode Island, under the coaching of Joe Mills.
During this time, Miller traveled to many large, international competitions and clinics throughout Eastern Europe and Germany. He toured training halls in Bulgaria, Germany, Poland, Romania, Japan and Russia and met with coaches and athletes. Sometimes it was after a meal, sharing “national beverages,” that he learned the most. He studied, took notes and returned from each trip with more information and more insight about his sport. He learned directly from the athletes and coaches who dominated it.
Earlier in his career, Miller learned that Japanese athletes trained for Japan. During trips to the eastern bloc countries, he met athletes who trained for their lives. In poor nations where opportunities were so few, athletics opened doors to better food, apartments and a standard of living otherwise beyond the reach of most people. Needless to say, the athletes trained very, very hard. In Bulgaria, they trained six hours a day, every day. When Miller asked how the body could tolerate that level of stress and exertion, the response was cool, “There are casualties in every war.” Competition was taken very seriously.
While attending an international coaches clinic in Sofia, Bulgaria, Miller had the opportunity to spend time with Ivan Abadjiev, the great Bulgarian lifter and coach. Over the course of five days, the two spoke at length about lifting and training. Abadjiev acknowledged the importance of science in the development of training programs but warned of its limitations; “Observe nature,” was his advice. “Watch animals, how they move, accelerate, recruit power. There is information there, too.”
The Bulgarians maintained a dogmatic program in which one either succeeded or failed. The Russians were more adaptable to the specific needs of certain individuals. One world champion, Kurentsov, was permitted to train just five or six hours a week. The Hungarians and East Germans were somewhat flexible, as well, permitting small deviations from target goals.
In 1974, Miller toured Germany, France, Spain and England with a group of lifters, aged twenty-three and under. The group was scheduled to compete in four meets in sixteen days, and the lifters set new personal bests at each one. It was an epic accomplishment that won praise from European coaches and lifters, alike.
It was not all hard work and weightlifting on these trips. Miller enjoyed touring the sights and the opportunity to experience the unique cultures of the places he visited. There were misadventures, as well. In Moscow, for the World Championships in 1975, Miller decided a jog through Red Square might help shake off a little jet lag. He was arrested on sight. Jogging through Red Square was forbidden. For this gesture of “disrespect,” Miller spent a few hours in a Moscow jail cell, just long enough for the US ambassador to apologize to authorities.
He traveled with his American lifting team to the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Phil Grippaldi finished third in the clean and jerk. Bruce Wilhelm was second in the snatch and placed fifth in his division. When Lee James earned a silver medal, it was the American lifting team’s last shining moment at a fully attended Olympic Games. In 1984, the year of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union’s boycott of the Olympics, two American lifters won medals. It was not until 2000, when Tara Nott won a gold medal, and Cheryl Haworth won the bronze, that the US again medaled at an openly attended Olympic Games.
After almost five years as the first U. S. Olympic Coaching Coordinator in any sport, Miller resigned. The Olympic committee’s new administration preferred a different model of promoting lifting in the US They invited lifting greats from overseas to perform demonstrations for the American audience, with the idea that this would stimulate interest in Olympic lifting. It was a top-down system, at odds with Miller’s bottom-up, cultivate talent and build a team, approach. Travel was curtailed and recruiting came to an end. It was time for something new.
Between 1977 and 1982, Miller held summer weight training camps in and around Santa Fe. Many important contributors to the sport attended. Kim Goss, now editor of the excellent strength sport magazine, Bigger, Faster, Stronger, was a student. Halsey Miller and Derrick Crass attended, and so did Marty Cypher, later a coaching inductee to the Olympic Weightlifting Hall of Fame. Olympic competitors, Luke Klaja, weightlifting, and Sam Walker, shot put, also attended. Cory and Jeff Everson were also in Santa Fe for Miller’s course. Cory is a six-time Ms Olympia and Jeff, former editor of Muscle and Fitness Magazine, also claimed a Mr. USA body building title. Dr. John Garhammer, the respected sport scientist, was one of Miller’s campers, too. A close associate and coach for chess champion Bobby Fischer, John Kay, came, too.
Miller’s credentials also include consulting with strength coaches for the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots and Chicago Bulls. And since 1982, he has owned and run a gym in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Carl and Sandra’s Conditioning Center serves clients from 9 to 90 years of age, addressing general fitness, cross-training and rehabilitation needs. Memberships of 10 years duration, or longer, are not unusual there. And quite literally, gym members at both ends of this age spectrum have participated in Miller’s non-sanctioned “fun” meets, competing in the Olympic lifts and enjoying the challenge.
Miller has published five books on the subject of weightlifting and fitness. His early books were the sole primers for lifting in the US, based on methods and training tools of the Eastern Europeans, who dominated the sport. They are still read today.
As for his own weightlifting achievements, Miller’s best lift in the Snatch, before retiring at age 23, was 255 pounds, and 320 in the Clean and Jerk. Years later, at age 51, he lifted in the 198 pound class and Snatched 270 and Clean and Jerked 341. Carl Cleaned and Jerked 352 in practice a couple of years later.
Miller’s work is based on years of observation and sound principles of exercise physiology. The Europeans conducted the research, published the papers and tested the limits of their athletes. Miller takes their science, his experience, and applies them.