USA Weightlifting Presents Medal Memories: Frank Spellman

Aug. 08, 2012, 4:34 p.m. (ET)

Frank Spellman is former Olympic gold medalist with the United States. Born in Malvern, Pa. in 1922, Spellman lost his father at the age of seven and lived in an orphanage until he was 17 years old. He eventually earned a college scholarship for gymnastics, which is where he met man who first introduced him into the sport of weightlifting. In the 1948 London Games, Spellman made all nine of his lifts and defeated his fellow teammate Peter George for the gold medal in the 75 kg weight division. Currently, Spellman is retired and living with his wife Camylle in Gulf Breeze, Fla. At 89 years old, he is the oldest living Olympic Weightlifting Champion in the United States.

Describe your most memorable experience at the Games?

I had Goosebumps all over. It was very, very exciting. Immediately after the competition they had a little thing going on for the first, second and third place guys, but several days later we went into the Olympic stadium and they had a program there and our name was up on the billboard. It gave each athlete’s name, their country and the place they took, and that was very exciting. It just was something very special.

You came into the 1948 Games, which was the first Games in 12 years, what was that like?

The Egyptian, [Khadr El] Touni was heavily favored. They felt very strongly that he would be the winner but it didn’t turn out that way. As it turned out, two Americans and a Korean placed one, two and three.

I was the only Olympic Champion to make all nine attempts. That in itself was unusual, because normally your first two lifts, your first was generally a warm-up and your second is generally your best and the third you try to break your record. When we weighed in, Pete and I, I was found to be the lighter man. So in order to break a tie, Pete would have to out lift me by five pounds. He made some wonderful lifts, but at the very end thankfully everything I tried I made. It was one of those days that when everything seems to go right. No matter what I tried it worked. That was extremely a wonderful thing. I’m a flag waiver and I wanted the United States to win and I was willing to try my utmost in making I made the most out of every lift. As it turned out I was very fortunate. I had one of those days that every athlete wishes for.

What were some of your memories leading up to the Games?

We had the Olympic Trials at the St. Nicholas arena in New York City prior to picking the team and Pete George and I, and one other middleweight competed, and that’s when the team was chosen. So Pete and I were the two chosen and so then we went to on the Games by ship and we trained onboard the ship and we were the most popular team on the ship. Everybody used to come up and watch us work out. We kind of had to time ourselves while lifting so when the ship was rolling and reached its peak height in the center of the wave, that was when we lifted. We also had some competition amongst the athletes of the different sports. They were amazed that we were so well coordinated and that we had such speed and efficiency that we were capable of pushing them. They were so impressed that we were able to talk them into training with weights, which was a no-no for most people at that time. They thought weightlifting made you slow and what they call muscle bound. As they found out, we were all extremely good athletes and a lot of us were capable of doing many things, so that was quite an experience for them.

Outside of competing, what was your favorite part of the Games?

In the ’48 Games, in the track and field events, we were given the best seats and we were right on the finish line. That was very memorable because we saw all of the champions in each endeavor at the finish line and that was really a beautiful thing for us.  Also, meeting all of the different athletes from all over the world and exchanging insignias and talking to them was great.  We came to find out that the majority of the champions from each country trained very similarly. Also that their love for other things like art and music and books and things like that, all of the weightlifters were of similar thought. That impressed me very much.

How has your life been changed since your Olympic experience and you gold medal?

On my last attempt, coach Bob Hoffman said to me ‘Frank, if you make this you’ll forever be an Olympic champion for the rest of your life.’ I thought about that and that gave me even more of a desire. So I said to Bob, ‘This one is for you Bob.” As it worked out I was able to complete the lift.

Everybody that I have ever come into contact with since has treated me as special. It’s been a wonderful thing and it’s been one of the delights of my life. Very few people get the chance to have a life where people look at you in awe, out of respect for your accomplishments, everybody really appreciates it.

Could you talk a little bit about how you first got involved in weightlifting?

I started out as a gymnast. When I was four years old my mother and father took me out to a state fair. It was a small farming community and so when my mother and father took me to this fair I saw a guy doing handstands and balancing and it just lit me up right away. So I tried to do a handstand and I practiced and practiced and after I got to school I was on the gym team. My father died when I was seven years old in 1929 and I was put in an orphan home. So I spent the time from when I was seven until I was 17 in an orphanage. Going to school I did gymnastics. I did very well and got a scholarship in gymnastics. One day when I was in the gym a fellow came in and I noticed he had a terrific physique. So we started talking and I said “I couldn’t help but notice your physique, what did you do to get that?” He said “Weightlifting.” Then I said, “What’s weightlifting?” So one day after school I went down to his house and we went down in a cellar where he had a set of weights. He showed me how to clean and press a weight. At that time I was weighing about 120 [pounds], so he put on a 100 pounds and I cleaned it and pressed it. I ended up pressing 130 [pounds] and he couldn’t believe it. He said “You’re not supposed to be able to do that.” Of course I didn’t know. That sparked me. For one reason or another I thought I might try this weightlifting thing. I was living in South Philadelphia then. I went over to the South Philadelphia weightlifting club and joined and they had a guy who kind of ran the club. He saw something in me so he coached me and I used the same routines up until the days I retired.  

I was always excited about training and following the coach’s program. What we did mainly was the three lifts, high deadlifts and high pulls and dumbbell pressing. We cleaned the dumbbells and pressed them together. I got so I could press a pair of 100-pound dumbbells together for reps and I did a lot of squatting. That was one of my favorite exercises.

Are you still active in the weightlifting community?

I go to the gym three times a week and work out regularly. At this stage in my life, I’m just trying to stay in some type of shape and take care of myself. In September I’ll be 90. I’m doing pretty good for my age.

What’s it like to be a member of so many Hall of Fames?

I’m in either eight or nine different Hall of Fames. One of them is Israel, one in Russia and the rest in the United States in various places. It just throws me to pieces that people still think about that. They’re very, very surprised that I get around as well as I do and do what I do. To give you an example, I do seated presses as one of my exercise I do now. I start out with fifty pounds. I do five reps with 50, with 60, with 70, with 80, with 90 pounds and a couple with a 110. Then I do deep knee bends and I work up to 110. I do five sets of five. Then I do pull downs on the cable and I do a couple of sets with 70 and 75 pounds. Then I do pull overs with just an empty bar and I do two sets of ten with that. Like I said, I’m not in bad shape for my age.