In anticipation of the 2012 London Olympic Games, USA Weightlifting has reached out to some of it's former Olympic medalists to reflect upon their fondest experiences in a series called “Medal Memories”. To kick-off the series, we will begin with Tommy Kono and his prestigious Olympic career which includes two gold medals and one silver medal. We will continue to post the responses of each athlete interviewed all the way through the Olympic Games. Along with Kono, in the coming weeks you will hear from gold medalist and two time silver medalist Isaac Berger, gold medalist Tara Cunningham (formerly known as Tara Nott) and gold medalist and two time silver medalist Peter George. Their responses will be posted in a Question-Answer format.
Unfortunately, we were unable to reach all of our former medalists, but if you have contact info for anyone that we are missing, please contact Gage Axford at Gage.Axford@usaweightlifting.org so that we can reach them.
Tommy Kono is a three-time Olympic medalist with the United States. Growing up as a Japanese American in Sacramento, Calif., Kono and his family were relocated to Tule Lake during World War II. As a skinny asthmatic child, the desert climate improved Kono’s breathing and general health. Furthermore, it was at Tule Lake, that Kono first began lifting weights. He went on to win two gold medals in the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games and a silver medal in the 1960 Games. After his career as a competitor, Kono coached national weightlifting teams for Mexico, West Germany and the United States.
Describe your most memorable experience at any of the Olympic Games?
TK - In 1952, the fact that I was on an International team for the first time was a real thrill. Being among lifters who had been in the ‘48 Games…I was in fast company and I felt really privileged among them. I even shared a room with two of the former Olympians. One was John Davis, who had won a gold medal, and the other was a silver medalist. So that itself was a great treat for me. Of course competing in the contest, I broke a World record and set two Olympic records, so I felt very pleased about that.
In your first Olympics, you won a Gold. Can you describe what you were feeling/ thinking your first time on the medal stand?
TK - Well I felt like 'Gee, I’m among the champions here.' The champions of all the different countries are there and I’m one of them, but I was able to beat them to stand on this pedestal. It felt very good shaking hands with people below me. (laughs).
Did that feeling change with the second gold & third medal (silver) you earned?
TK - Oh yea. The second one, I was really prepared for that and I expected to do well. The first one [gold] I was in doubt of whether I was going to do good or not, but with four years of international competition behind me, I was well prepared for the second one [gold]. Then for the third one [silver], when I won the silver medal, was partly because I elected to go into a class that I had skipped. I was in what they called a lightweight class in Helsinki. That lightweight class is 148-pound class. In Melbourne, I was in the 181-pound class, light heavyweight. So came the Rome Olympics, I wanted to see if I could do well in between the Olympics, which was 165 and that’s where I got a silver instead of a gold.
Were you aware that you were number 95 on the SI’s 100 Memorable U.S. Olympic Moments, for you gold in 1952?
TK - I was invited to that 100 Golden Olympians and that was held in Atlanta. I was pleased to be selected as one of the Golden Olympians. Weightlifting is not well recognized in the United States. It’s like taken a back seat to everything, but in Europe and all of that it’s quite the popular thing. So to be recognized in the United States is really something.
You won a medal in three different weight divisions. How were you able to fluctuate between weight classes without losing any strength?
TK - Normally, my body weight would be at full maturity, probably be about 169 [pounds]. So to reduce a few pounds isn’t that much trouble. I just sort of eat a little bit less of the carbohydrates and all that and I would come down in body weight. Going up was the hard part for me, because my body couldn’t hold the bodyweight up. I broke the world record even in the fourth bodyweight class, which is the 198-pound class, but that was extremely hard, because I had to keep shoveling food in my mouth to keep my body weight up. It wasn’t normal for me to be heavy like that.
What were your favorite Games that you participated in?
TK - Believe it or not the favorite Games was the Los Angeles Olympics when I helped organize it. I was a sort of a stage manager, so I had to make sure that everything went on correctly on the weightlifting platform. If it had anything to do with the weightlifting platform, I was in charge of it. I really enjoyed that, rather than competing.
In your Olympic career, you have competed, coached and officiated. Which did you enjoy doing the most?
TK - I really enjoyed being a competitor, but sooner or later you have to drop out, because you can’t stay at it forever. But the background gave me a good way of getting into coaching. Then, because I couldn’t devote enough in coaching and all that, I became an official and so I helped with the Los Angeles Olympics, I was an official for the Barcelona Olympics and also for the Atlanta Olympics.
What was it like to coach in a different country?
TK - You have to understand the culture and you have to understand how the lifters think, because its not enough that you know the technique and that of lifting. You can’t have them adopt the ‘U.S. way’ of doing things, because the all have been born and raised in that country and the thinking is different. For instance in Mexico, when I was over there, it took me over a month to understand how to coach them, because if you say “You’re so far behind, you’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to sweat blood,” and all of that they would say “Forget it,” That kind of idea. So you’ve got to encourage them. When I went to Germany, it was completely opposite. They want to say “Show me, show me.” Like I had to prove it to them. So there’s a big difference. So coaching in the United States or coaching in Mexico or coaching in Germany, it’s completely different in all of them.
How have your three medals affected your life?
TK - People recognize a gold medalist. Not so much where I am from, which is Sacramento, Calif., but when I moved to Hawaii, everybody recognized me here in Hawaii. I got great publicity in Hawaii, not in Sacramento. For some reason, Hawaii thinks of people as their own people, like a family or something like that, and this is why here in Hawaii I feel completely at home. I moved here in 1955 and I’ve been here ever since. I go back to Sacramento to visit my brother, but other than that, I live right here in Hawaii. Most people believe that I was born and raised here in Hawaii, but I wasn’t. I got all of my education and everything in Sacramento.
How has weightlifting changed your life?
TK – [While] the Korean War was going on and I got drafted and that curved my training. I was to be sent over to Korea, because I became a cook in the Army. I found out that if you cook one day, then you’re off the next day. That was ideal for training. Well the North Koreans had heard that the American troops needed warm food otherwise they would get demoralized. So the North Koreans started shooting off all the cooks. So, I was tapped to be sent over to Korea. When I reported in to get shipped over, they said ‘No you’re not being sent over because you’re a candidate for the Olympic Team.’
So someone in Washington D.C. evidently said that I had a good chance at the Olympics, and that came down to the Army base in California. I could select wherever I wanted to go to be stationed, so I chose San Francisco, because it was close to Sacramento, and Oakland, which was across the bridge, was the hot bed for weightlifting at the time.
So you could say that weightlifting may have saved my life, because instead of getting shipped to Korea, I had a bigger assignment that was to represent the United States at the Olympics in Helsinki and that was a great opportunity for me.