Editor's Note: USA Weightlifting legend Arthur Drechsler authored this piece about Charles Vinci in 2006. Vinci, America's last man to win an Olympic Gold Medal, died June 13 at the age of 85.
In the annals weightlifting history, it would be hard to find an athlete more versatile or more energetic than Chuck Vinci. Sometimes referred to as the “Might Mite”, this two-time Olympic Gold Medalist was truly an amazing strongman and pound for pound one of the all-time greats.
Charles T. Vinci Jr. was born on February 28, 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio. Small for his age but always interested in fitness, at the age of 12 he began to try to lift a barbell that his brother Billy owned. The barbell weighed 105 lb. and no matter how much he tried, Chuck couldn’t lift that barbell much higher than his waist. The barbell soon disappeared, but Chuck continued to exercise and by the time he ran across it again, this time at age 14, he was able to lift it overhead on his first try.
During this time in Vinci’s life, he and his friend, Carl Kelly, were tumbling, swimming and lifting regularly. At the age of 15, Chuck began to train at the Central YMCA in Cleveland. At first, he could not afford the membership, but sneaked over a wall behind the Y and slipped into the back of the weight room. He soon became a favorite of the weight room denizens, who admired both his emerging strength and phenomenal endurance. While others might perform several exercises and go home. Vinci would train for hours, performing virtually every weight training exercise in the book.
While at the YMCA, Chuck was fortunate to meet Lt. Vince Ardito of the Cleveland police department. Vince taught Chuck how to perform the press, snatch and C&J. The young Vinci took to these lifts immediately and he was soon dreaming of a great career in weightlifting. We are not certain of the exact date of Vinci’s first competition, but he was barely 18 years of age and managed to perform lifts of approximately 150 lb. in the press and snatch and 180 lb. in the C&J, which was enough to garner him a second place. Nearly two years later, just shy of his 20th birthday, Vinci won the Ohio State AAU Championships, with a 555 lb. total.
It happened that the Jr. Nationals were held in Cleveland in 1953 and Chuck was eager and ready to participate. He won the competition with lifts of 190 lb. press, 180 lb. snatch and 225 lb. C&J. During the year that followed, Chuck continued to train and improve. In June of 1954, he traveled to Indianapolis to compete in the National Championships. There Chuck won the first of his 7 National Championships, with lifts of 190-190-240. Winning the Nationals really set Chuck’s enthusiasm on fire
He trained with even greater intensity for the next several months and in February of 1955 he traveled to Boston to compete in an open meet at the Boston YMCA. It was there that Chuck broke his first American Record – a 260 lb. C&J. He also totaled 675. On the basis of that performance, he was invited to represent the US at the Pan American Games in Mexico City a month later.
Chuck was a big success at his first international event. He not only won the Gold Medal, but, on a 4th attempt, he set a new world record in the snatch with 223 lb. Less that 3 months later, at the National Championships, Vinci broke the American Record in the total, with a total of 690 lb. He also C&J’d 271 ¼ lb. on a 4th attempt for a new US C&J record. Several weeks later, lifting at the legendary Colonna’s Picnic in Norfolk, Virginia, an overweight Vinci broke 700lb. in the total for the first time by lifting 710 lb. In a demonstration of his endurance and versatility, he then went on to perform a strict curl 155 lb. and a bench pressed 300 lb. – all at a bodyweight of 132 lb.
Chuck’s lifting performances earned him a spot on the US Team selected to compete at the 1955 World Championships in Munich, Germany. In that competition, after only getting his first press with 95 kg., he snatched 102.5 kg. for a new world record. He went on to miss an attempt at the 137.5 C&J that would have won the competition, but came back on a 4th attempt to clean a world record 132.5 kg., missing the jerk.
It was during the team preparations for their trip to Munich that the members of the US team began to appreciate Vinci’s all around strength. He challenged everyone on the team to an arm wrestling match and, to their surprise, Chuck was able to defeat every member of team except for the team’s heavyweights. While disappointing to some on the team, the rookies arm wrestling ability soon proved to be very useful to the Americans.
During their international trips, the US team would typically retire to a local beer hall after the a competition. The strength of the US team was well known around the world, but there were always some locals who doubted the “real strength” of weightlifters in general. Consequently, these locals often challenged the US team to an arm wrestling competition. It was a such as moment that Chuck’s prowess as an arm wrestler could be very useful indeed.
It was at such a moment that one of the US lifters would say (in a seemingly innocent statement) “We are the greatest lifters in the world and have proven our strength in competition. Why should we bother with some local pretenders? But on the other hand, we are sporting men, respectful of the sincerity of our challengers. Therefore, we offer the following counterchallenge. Take our smallest and weakest man – little Chuck here – and see if you can make him work up a sweat. If you can, we will continue, but if not, please let us just enjoy our beers.”
Unaware of Vinci’s ability or endurance in arm wrestling, the locals always accepted this seemingly reasonable, if not boastful, challenge. They were confident they would summarily discharge the “little guy” and then go on to teach the Americans a lesson. Inevitably, one of their champions was brought to the table to wrestle Vinci. To his chagrin, Chuck was able to put him down. Attempts by several others met with the same results and the challengers soon had to admit that these weightlifters were incredibly strong. Little did they know that Chuck could have delivered the same result with most of the US team!
Vinci’s all around strength was no accident. He trained for it. In fact, Chuck was probably the hardest training lifter of his day, and even by today’s standards his workouts were amazing in terms of their length and intensity. While he generally trained no more than 3-4 times per week, Chuck’s workouts could literally last all day – and not with the breaks between sessions that modern lifters employ.
My confirmation of Chuck’s extraordinary endurance came from one of the very few men ever to have won National Championships in both weightlifting and powerlifting – Larry Mintz. Larry, a huge enthusiast of lifting, decided to take his vacation in York, PA one summer during the late 1950’s. Chuck happened to be training in York that summer. As Larry related the story, he walked into the York Barbell Company’s gym for a training session and saw that Chuck was already under way with his workout.
Larry was no slouch when it came to training endurance. There were occasions when he packed his lunch, and went on to spend much of the day training. But Larry was startled by what he saw from Chuck.
Mintz’s workout lasted about 3 hours that day. During that period he performed the 3 competition lifts, pulls and squats. He finished off with a shower and went to get something to eat. When Larry left the gym, Chuck was just as he had found him, still training. Larry found a restaurant, had a meal and then decided to take in a movie before retiring for the day. After the movie, Larry happened to walk by the Barbell Co. on his way toward his hotel. He noticed that the lights were on and he heard the clang of weights being lifted. Mintz wondered who might be lifting this late in the day. When he entered the gym he saw Chuck still training! A total period of more than 8 hours had expired. By the time he returned to NY, Larry certainly understood why Chuck Vinci was as great and as versatile lifter as he was.
Chuck’s long sessions included many bodybuilding exercises, like bench presses and curls. Through the employment of these exercises, Vinci developed and outstanding physique as well as great all-around strength. In fact, after competing in the World Championships in Munich, Chuck competed in the Mr. Universe competition, placing 7th, firmly establishing that Vinci could “do it all”.
Later that year, Chuck toured with the US team in the Middle East and Asia, performing in a total of 23 exhibitions in one month. Some of the athletes were exhausted after such a grueling schedule but Chuck was not one of them.
The Olympic year of 1956, started off as a great one for Chuck. Lifting in the Ohio State Weightlifting Championships in January, he made a World Record C&J with 290 lb. on a 5th attempt (lifters in this era were permitted to make a number of extra attempts at worlds records, as compared with the limit of only one extra attempt in later years and the elimination of extra attempts during the 1990’s). A few weeks later, he snatched a world record 228 lb. as an extra lifter at the Junior Middle Atlantic Championships in Bridgeport, PA (Vinci was living and training in York, PA at this time in preparation for the Olympic Games).
In May of 1956, lifting as an extra lifter at the Jr. Nationals, Chuck snatched a new world record of 231 ¼ lb. and made an American Record total of 730 lb.. Several weeks later he won the US Nationals again.
Then, in October of 1956, Chuck made an astonishing but little known piece of weightlifting history, at the preliminary Eastern Olympic Trials (the trials were held in two locations that year). It was at this event that Chuck had the distinction of probably making more attempts at a world record than any lifter in history – being successful on his 10th attempt in the C&J! As was mentioned earlier, there were no specific limits on the number of record attempts that an athlete could take in those years (though the vast majority of record seekers took only one such attempt). However, on Chuck’s 3rd attempt in the competition, he easily cleaned 296 lb., only to miss the jerk. He promptly asked for, and was granted a 4th attempt. He proceeded to clean the weight once again, repeating his miss in the jerk. Surprising the officials, he asked for a 5th attempt, and his request was granted. The result was the same. Chuck went on to clean the weight 4 more times, and to miss the jerk 4 more times.
The late Dave Sheppard, former Olympic Silver Medalist and World Record holder, was the first person to tell me about this event. Dave said that by the time Chuck had gotten to his 9th attempt in the C&J, the officials were bored to the point of nearly dozing off. They didn’t want to deny Chuck’s requests for further attempts, but began to wonder when he was going to run out of gas. Well that never happened. On his 8th attempt at the record (his 10th official attempt in the C&J that day), Vinci cleaned the weight and then, to everyone’s astonishment but his, Chuck jerked it successfully. The startled head official gave Chuck the down signal and the rest, as they say, is history. Little did the referees know that Chuck actually contemplated an attempt at 300 lb. to become the first 56 kg. lifter to make this amount, but he was satisfied with the 296 and decided not to continue.
As if to prove his extended world record assault did not fatigue him, six days after the competition in Cleveland, Chuck lifted in a competition in NYC and made a personal record total of 740 lb., while a little overweight. Two weeks later, at the Final Olympic Trials in San Jose, Chuck totaled 730 lb. Less that 2 weeks after that, he totaled 775 lb. while a few pounds overweight, making the 300 lb. C&J he had wanted for so long.
Then, on November 24, 1956, he competed for the grand prize – the Olympic Gold Medal. In Melbourne, Vinci more than lived up to expectations. He made lifts of 105 kg. in the press and snatch and 132.5 kg. in the C&J. The total was a new World Record. And Chuck cleaned 135 kg. for a new World Record on his 3rd attempt at the Games, but missed the jerk and did not request an extra attempt. He wasn’t tired, just satisfied.
Six months later, at a bodyweight of 128 lb Chuck totaled 800 lb. for the first time. He seemed to be just catching his stride when other interests in life intervened. Chuck had fallen in love and he decided to get married. His marriage caused him to miss the Nationals of 1957.
The following year Vinci was back in competition, representing the US in the 3 part invitational against the USSR team that took place in Chicago, Detroit and NYC over a period of less than a week. Vinci placed second in the first event, but then went on to win in both Detroit at NYC, with his best total of the series, 340 kg., being made at the last event.
Vinci was a little off at the Worlds later that year and ended up in second place with a total of 327.5 kg. He won the Nationals again in 1959 and then the Pan American Games, which were held in Chicago that year. At the Pan-Am’s, Vinci pressed a new world record of 243 lb.
At the 1960 Nationals, Vinci won again, but with a relatively low (for him) total of 700 lb. Many doubted if he could repeat his Gold Medal performance of 1956 in Rome. But Chuck was up to the challenge. Motivated by the prospects of a second Olympic medal, the Cleveland powerhouse trained himself into top shape.
At the Games, he made lifts of 105 kg. in the press, 107.5 kg. in the snatch and 132.5 kg. in the C&J. The snatch and total were new Olympic records and they equaled the world records. Charles Vinci was once again the Olympic Champion.
The following year was not as good for Chuck. While he won the Nationals again and totaled 785 lb. at the World Team trials, he had an off day at the World’s and ended up in 4th place with a total of 327.5 kg. Personal reasons kept the “Mighty Mite” out of serious training and competition in 1962 and 1963, but Chuck was determined to be ready for the 1964 Olympic Games. He was getting into the best shape of his life just before the trials but suffered a serious back injury and was unable to compete. Although he was ineligible for the team as a result of missing the trials, he did compete in a subsequent trial held in York, PA and totaled 725 lb. despite being hampered by his back problem.
At this point, the weightlifting experts thought they had finally seen the last of Chuck Vinci, but Chuck had one more surprise for everyone. In December of 1965, Vinci entered a competition in Ohio. Lifting in the 148 lb. category Chuck totaled more than 800 lb. officially for the first time with lifts of 280-230-295. The press was a new American Record – a fitting end to the glorious competitive weightlifting career of Chuck Vinci, though hardly an end to his weightlifting.
I saw Chuck recently at the Arnold Classic. At the age of 72 he is still in terrific shape. Hard as a rock, he told me that he still trains for several hours, 3 times per week. Seeing his condition, I have no reason to doubt Chuck’s statement. Today he is focused in helping the youth he encounters to see the benefits of exercise and dedication to ones goals. He remains as before – a human dynamo.
©2006 Arthur Drechsler, published with permission from the author