Isaac Berger is a three time Olympic medalist. Originally born and raised in Israel, Berger moved to the United States at the age of 13 where he would become a naturalized citizen. Berger began his Olympic career by winning the gold medal for the 60 kg (132 pounds) weight division at the 1956 Melbourne Games. In his next two Olympics, he won two silvers in the 1960 Rome Games and the 1964 Tokyo Games. In 1964, Berger set a world record of 152.5 kg (336 pounds) in the clean and jerk, over 200 pounds above his bodyweight, making him pound-for-pound the strongest man in the world. His record would last for nine years. Berger was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.
What was it like to come from Jerusalem to the U.S. and how did you get involved with weightlifting?
IB - When we came to this country, there were some bullies there. There was this guy and his brother and they kept pushing me around and I got tired of being pushed around. So I went to the only gym in town and I [saw] these guys with these big muscles. I went up there and I said “I’d like to work out here and get nice and strong.” I think I paid him a dollar a week, because I didn’t have any money then. So he said “have you ever worked out?” and I told him no. He said to me ‘you look very strong, did you ever lift weight?’ and I didn’t even know the meaning of “lifting weights”. So he showed me what to. He put on like 80 pounds and he pressed it and then I took the 80 pounds and I pressed it. Eventually, he put up 120 [pounds] on there and he pressed it and then I pressed it and he couldn’t believe that I pressed body weight and never touched a weight.
So he said, “Look from now on, I’m going to train you weightlifting. I think you have tremendous possibilities and there will come a time if you get really good and that maybe you’ll get to the Olympics and win a gold medal. Maybe you’ll get to be the strongest man in the world pound for pound.”
When I heard that, it impressed me – “strongest man in the world”. But that’s not why I did it. I wanted to beat the heck out of the guy that kept bullying me. Some maybe I thought I could kill two birds with one stone.
Describe your most memorable experience at the Games?
IB - It was at ‘56 winning the gold medal. That was my most memorable winning experience at the Games. It was also very trilling to win my two silvers. It's very hard to win a silver and many people struggle to medal. So winning two silvers was also a great honor.
Can you describe what you were feeling/ thinking during your first time on the podium?
IB - I was so overwhelmed that it’s hard to describe it. I got chills through out my body. I got tears during the national anthem and I don't normally cry, buthe feeling was so great that I couldn't help cry. It’s a tremendous feeling. It’s overwhelming. To win a gold medal is the greatest honor in the entire world. You have one shot at it once in every four years. If you don’t win it, you have to wait four more years. Thank God I overcame that, I mean there was tension, but I overcame that too. I was 19. I didn’t really realize what it really meant to win a gold medal. Biggest thrill I have ever had.
You were heavily favored for the to win gold in the 1960 Games. Would you mind reflecting back on what it felt like to win the silver that year?
IB - I could have made history in 1960. Five days before in Rome, I was the surest guy to win the Olympics. I was breaking all kinds of records in training, but the most important thing is I didn’t anticipate was the rest, which is so important. Five days before the championships, I broke three World Records and that was a no-no. I thought I may have had more time to rest, but I didn’t. I should have rested two weeks, but I didn’t rest. So I lost the Olympics because of that. I got carried away.
What were your favorite Games that you participated in?
IB - I enjoyed all the places that I participated in - Melborne, Rome and Tokyo. I enjoyed the food and the people and that I was treated very well.
Would you mind reflecting on your final Olympic experience in Tokyo?
I enjoyed Tokyo. The place was mobbed. That year I won silver. I was able to clean and jerk a world record of 336 pounds. That was an incredible honor. At that time, that was the greatest lift ever. Pound for pound, I was considered the strongest man in the world. That record stood for nine years.
What was your favorite part of the Games outside of competing?
IB - When you go to the Olympics you try to meet athletes from different countries. You talk to them and you trade all these pins. They give you American pins, they give you a Russian pin, all these different countries they have different pins and you do a lot of trading, but otherwise nothing really too exciting. You concentrate more on competing. The only thing is you try to talk to the athletes and you need an interpreter, because some can’t speak English. We would try to make conversation, but sometimes it wasn't it wasn't very effective, so we would need an interpreter or you just go to the next athlete.
Are you still active in the weightlifting community?
IB - Well I work out, but once a year we go to the Strong Men reunion and everybody is invited and it’s how I get to see people like Tommy Kono and a lot of my friends that are going to be there. It’s in New Jersey in the Marriott Hotel every October. I really enjoy going there because I get to see all of my old weightlifting friends, I'm appreciated there and it brings back great memories. However, that’s as far as it goes. There are no lifters in New York. I trained a few people, but then they stopped. I would like to train a few people if they’re interested. If they’re interested in weightlifting, I would be more than happy to train them here in New York City. Weightlifting is the greatest way to train. You don’t even have to be a weightlifter to train. If you want to be in great shape, lose weight or firm up, weightlifting is the greatest thing in the world. I’m 75, I have no injuries, my back is in good shape, my knees, my wrists – no injuries and I used to lift tremendous amounts of weights in my time. Why is that? Because weightlifting strengthens your ligaments and your tendons. This is great for any sport.
Currently, Berger is seeking to train anyone interested in weightlifting in the New York City area. If interested, please contact him at (212) 307-6697.