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The kid was 13 and running, trying to find a place to hide from the Washington, D.C. police, who were running just as fast and not far behind. He rounded the corner of Georgia and Madison, stopped, surveyed the possibilities and decided on the recreation center to his right. He was lucky. The members of the weight-lifting team who were training in a small corner of the center agreed to hide him.
The group that gave the kid refuge in February 1974 was a collection of neighborhood boys who had been learning how to lift weights for the past three months in a corner of the recreation center. In that time they had been hassled by neighborhood pimps, bruisers who thought there was no sport in lifting weights and local pool sharks who played at the table on the other side of the room. A boy on the run from the cops was the least of their problems. According to the team's coach, Bob Thompson, "The police used to come in and handcuff some of our own guys right as they were getting ready to lift. I'd say, 'Do you mind if he finishes this before you take him away?' " But in three years such inner-city kids would form the core of the only black Olympic-style weight-lifting team in the U.S. competing on an international level—the Crushers Unlimited.
Apart from two blacks—Jim Bradford, who won a silver medal in the heavyweight class at the 1960 Olympics, and heavyweight John Davis, the 1948 and 1952 gold medalist—and Hawaiian Tommy Kono, light-heavy and heavyweight Olympic champion in 1952 and 1956, respectively, weight lifting in America has been pretty much a sport for whites living in small towns in states like Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Illinois. The development of the Crushers, in 70% black Washington. D.C., from a group of scrawny kids between the ages of 13 and 20, is a phenomenal accomplishment. In five years team members have won two Junior Olympic National championships and set seven Junior Olympic national records. Overall, the Crushers have won more than 15 team awards—at the 1978 Teenage National Weightlifting Championship they were second—and brought home more than 300 individual trophies.
Mark Cameron, a University of Maryland student who is one of the country's top Olympic lifters, says of the Crushers. 'They have all of the prejudices of society going against them. They're a pile of city black kids who have succeeded through their own abilities."
The heart of the Crushers are Adrian and Andre Johnson and Tony Sims, members of the team since its inception, and Ron Crawley, who has been a member for 2� years.
Andre Johnson. 19, weighs 148 pounds and can snatch 209 pounds and jerk 270. He came in fourth in the 1977 Junior Olympics. His brother Adrian, 17, weighs 104 pounds and stands 5'2". He was the 1977 Washington area 114-pound champion and was seventh, sixth and fifth, respectively, in the last three Junior Olympics. Sims, 18, was the 1977 Junior Olympics champion in the 165-pound class for 16- and 17-year-olds and has won more than 100 weight-lifting awards. In 1978 he set a Junior Olympic record in the snatch by lifting 253 pounds despite being hampered by a broken toe. Crawley, 20, the 1977 Junior Olympic champion in the 123-pound class for 18- and 19-year-olds, has won more than 80 awards and has never been lower than second in any competition. He holds five Junior Olympic records, all in the 18- and 19-year age group, and finished 12th at the world championships in his class in Athens last June.
Obviously, for these four and the other six regular team members, Crushers Unlimited is more than merely an after-school activity. It is also more than a group of guys lifting weights over their heads. The Crushers are different from most teams—in the way they train, in the way they relate to each other. It is apparent in the applauding and cheering on the edge of the mats during exhibitions, the rap sessions after practice and above all in the exorbitant amount of time spent socializing together, almost to the exclusion of all family life. The Crushers have taken good old American team spirit one step beyond. For these athletes, the team is a brotherhood. Weight lifting is merely the vehicle that brought them together, and for that they have Thompson to thank.
That 41-year-old Bob Thompson should have been such a catalyst might seem highly unlikely. He is white and hails from Danville, Va., where a number of people, including Thompson's father, who has lived there all his life, "don't like a bunch of niggers hanging around the house all day." When Thompson graduated from high school in 1956, he enlisted in the Air Force in order to avoid having to go to work in the local cotton mill or one of the factories, like most everyone else. Out of service in 1961, he headed for Washington, D.C. and a job with the D.C. Fire Department. He has been there ever since.
Having been exposed to weight lifting in the service, Thompson lifted competitively from 1961 to 1964 and set the D.C. squat record in 1963. He staged local weight-lifting meets at a YMCA in the Washington area until he got married in 1964, whereupon he dropped out of the sport. But the family he hoped for never arrived, and Thompson came to feel that he hadn't been quite ready for marriage. He and his wife were divorced in 1968, and he went back to weight lifting, but this time as a coach.
"I knew I was good with children." he says. "In the neighborhood where I worked I saw many boys who had no fathers, and, since I had no children. I felt I could teach them and give them a better world to relate to. I felt that if I could only show them I cared and teach them how they could express love. I could reach them. I knew I couldn't just walk into some school or rec center. I needed a vehicle—and I thought of weight lifting."