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LOOKING FOR A LIFT
Mark Kram
September 12, 1966
Watched moodily by the one friend who believes in him, Norbert Schemansky works out faithfully in a sleazy underground gym and ponders his years as the world's greatest weight lifter, an achievement that wins him neither glory nor a job to help support his family
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September 12, 1966

Looking For A Lift

Watched moodily by the one friend who believes in him, Norbert Schemansky works out faithfully in a sleazy underground gym and ponders his years as the world's greatest weight lifter, an achievement that wins him neither glory nor a job to help support his family

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"Momma! Momma!" his father called.

"Come and talk to this boy, this...."

Norbert did work, of course, and he kept working when he got married—and he kept lifting. At night he would come home, have dinner and leave for the gym across town. Clutching dirty tennis shoes in a brown bag under his arm, he took three streetcars before reaching his destination. In 1948. while working in a factory owned by a celebrated sportsman, he needed time off to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics in London. He got the time off—without pay—and won a silver medal. In 1952, while working at the same factory, he requested time to compete in the Olympics at Helsinki. The word went upstairs, and the word came down: "Sure, he can have all the time he wants. Fire him." Schemansky went anyway, and beat the undefeated Russian world champion, Gregori Novak. He came home with a gold medal, caught a bus from the airport to downtown Dearborn and took a streetcar home. Only a porter at the airport greeted him. "Nice going, Mr. Schemansky," the porter said.

A month after the Olympics Norbert was interviewed on a local sports show. "Can the people of Detroit do anything for you?" the announcer asked. "Yeah," said Norbert. "I need a job." The announcer blanched.

The jobs, mainly menial labor, grew fewer and the family grew larger, but he could not let go of weight lifting. In 1954 he won the heavyweight championship of the world, but he spent most of the following two years in bed and in a brace. He had undergone two major back operations for ruptured discs, and doctors said he would never lift again. In 1960 he won a bronze medal in Rome; the Russians called it the greatest comeback in sports history. In 1962, 8,000 people watched Schemansky, 38, and Vlasov, 26, head to head in the "heavyweight match of the century" in Budapest. Schemansky beat Vlasov in the press and the snatch, but in the clean and jerk, the final lift, Schemansky's ankle collapsed. The Russian won 1,191-1,184. The crowd, standing and roaring for five minutes, would not allow Norbert to leave center stage.

In the 1964 Olympics at Tokyo, Schemansky became the first man to lift a total of 1,200 pounds. He also won a bronze medal. The following year, at 41, he captured another national championship, but it was apparent to him, finally, that an AAU official was right when he had told Norbert, "You could set four world records, and nobody would care. You wouldn't get the Sullivan Award. You talk too much." Through the years Schemansky could have played the game, kept his mouth shut, become a "Deltoid warmer" ("That's the muscle around the neck on which they always put their arms when you're going good"), and maybe now he would be known as a man of substance. But he flailed and goaded the AAU constantly.

A sampling:

"Don't eat, and go out there and see what you can do—that's the AAU philosophy."

"The first time you ever see anybody from the organization is when you're going overseas. A guy comes along and pins a little button on your lapel, and from then on they take credit for what you do."

"Have you ever seen a picture of a weight lifter? No, all you see in the papers are pictures of officials. Look for a photographer and you'll always find an official."

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