Copyright © Brian Niiya 2001. All rights reserved.
By Brian Niiya
During the late 1940s, the crowds stuffed the gym at Honolulu’s Nuuanu YMCA. Emerick Ishikawa remembers the spectators clambered onto the basketball goals, peered into the windows from outside, and stood at the doorways hoping to catch a glimpse of the action. The sport was weightlifting and the Nuuanu YMCA was once one of the two centers of competitive weightlifting in America. Four men who trained there would make the 1948 U.S. Olympic team and two would return from London with medals. It was the middle of a golden age of weightlifting for America in general and Hawai’i in particular.
In the early days of competitive weightlifting, the United States was not among the world’s powerhouses. One man sought to change that. His name was Bob Hoffman and he had a selfish reason for doing so: as the publisher of Strength and Health magazine and owner of the York Barbell Company, he stood to make a lot of money if he could popularize lifting weights for America’s youth. Developing American world and Olympic champions was a time-tested means of doing this. So in the 1930s, Hoffman began to recruit top weightlifters from around the country, bringing them to his headquarters in York, Pennsylvania. There, they would be given jobs at his barbell factory, provided a training facility, and sent to major meets on his dime. As they predictably began to dominate American national meets and began to make inroads in the world championships, their exploits would be reported in Strength and Health.
Another of Hoffman’s secrets was that when it came to lifting heavy weights, he was colorblind. While other sports of the time discriminated against non-whites, Hoffman seemed to actively seek out non-white athletes. His York teams, and later, the American national and Olympic teams he coached, represented the diversity of America at a time when few other sports did.
In Hawai’i, three teenagers who would play a key role in the local weightlifting scene first came together in the late 1930s. Each read magazines like Strength and Health carefully and tracked their own progress against the national champions profiled in their pages.
Richard Tom grew up in Palama, outside Honolulu. He began lifting weights as a teenager, inspired by the magazines and by seeing older guys lifting at the Central YMCA and wanting to look like them. He soon became hooked. "From there, weightlifting was my life," he remembered.
Meanwhile, Maui’s Emerick Ishikawa began lifting in between participating in other sports. "I was a swimmer first," he recalled of his days as part of Coach Soichi Sakamoto’s famed "Three Year Swim Club." He was a friend and contemporary of such legendary swimmers as Keo Nakama and Halo Hirose. "In the back room, they had some weights, so I got started with weightlifting."
He soon became a friend with Big Island’s Harold
Sakata, who had moved to Maui around 1937. Both moved to Oahu by the
time of the first territorial weightlifting championship in 1938, where
they met Tom. The three became friends and trained together. Soon, each
was lifting at a level that made them national contenders. Unfortunately,
lacking funds and a support system, there was no way they were ever going
to get to compete in any of the national meets, all of which were held
on the mainland.
Ishikawa Heads East
Realizing that this was the case, Ishikawa decided to make a move. He caught a ship to the West Coast in 1940, hoping to get closer to his goal of a national championship. He ended up in Seattle for a time, then moved to Sacramento, where he was living when the Pacific War erupted. Along with 110,000 other Japanese Americans on the Coast, Ishikawa ended up in a so-called "relocation center" on account of his Japanese ancestry.
He went first to a so-called "assembly center" in Marysville, California, then to the War Relocation Authority camp in Tule Lake, California, just a few miles from the Oregon border. That camp would later become notorious as a "segregation center," where the so-called "disloyal" were moved to after the loyalty questionnaire of early 1943.
"At Tule Lake, I worked for the recreation department and I started a club," he recalled. "They gave me a whole building. They made for me platforms and everything."
That club attracted nearly 200 young lifters, no doubt hoping to escape the boredom of being locked up. Ishikawa charged no dues, but collected an entry fee of $1 from each member; that money was used to buy weight equipment from the outside. Meets were held in camp and, later, even involved people from outside the camp, such a weightlifting team from the nearby town of Klamath Falls, Oregon. National caliber weightlifters such as Mits Oshima and Kaz Izumi were members of the club.
By this time, Ishikawa was a well-known figure among weightlifting hopefuls. A fourteen-year-old boy named Tommy Kono watched Ishikawa do some demonstrations at Tule Lake (after he left camp, he was brought back in 1944 and 1945 by the camp administration to do the demos). "I remember seeing the Olympic weights he was lifting. They looked like train wheels to me!" recalled the Sacramento native Kono.
Kono, who went on to become one of the greatest weightlifters of all time, remembers that the first weights he lifted at Tule Lake were actually those purchased by Block 27 of Ward II out of proceeds from a carnival hamburger stand. "We ordered a York Ten-in-One exercise kit, along with basketballs and other sports equipment," he remembers.
After segregation, Ishikawa left Tule Lake for another camp in Colorado, then left camp shortly thereafter for Chicago. (Many professedly "loyal" Nisei were allowed to leave camp starting in 1943 for areas off the West Coast.) In Chicago, he and Yaz Kuzuhara worked out at the Duncan YMCA. Ishikawa entered the Illinois State Championship meet and won his division, setting a record.
"I called Bob Hoffman from York Barbell, and I told him what I could do and what I did at the Chicago meet and he said to come right down," recalls Ishikawa. "York Barbell used to be a dream for all lifters in those days." So off he went to York.
When he got there, he found a weightlifting utopia. A state of the art facility was augmented by an environment in which weightlifting reigned supreme. "We’d talk nothing but barbells," he remembers.
The factory and warehouse employed some of America’s (and the world’s) top weightlifters. There was Stanley Stanczyk, a Polish American from Detroit who became a six time world and Olympic champion middleweight and light heavyweight. There was John Terpak, the great middleweight whose parents had emigrated from the Ukraine. Frank Spellman’s father was a Ukrainian Jew and his mother was from Austria. Heavyweight John Davis was an African American who was born on a Southern sharecropped farm.
In addition to the regulars, there were also frequent visitors. "That gym was everybody’s dream," Ishikawa remembered. "So a lot of these lifters, bodybuilders, everybody used to, whenever they can, they come to York and spend a week over there you know and get pointers from all those guys. Everyday, we had visitors from all over the world. Every day."
His job involved filling mail orders for weight equipment. "Oh, you should see the barbells we used to ship out. Oh, lots of sets, those days. Two basketfuls of cards, one in the morning, one in the afternoon."
Once a month, everyone would be called together to help in the mailing out of Strength & Health magazine. Ishikawa remembers that the lifters would quit work early and work out in the afternoons. They became a close knit group, and their talk lasted even beyond the work day, as he roomed with Stanczyk, the world champion middleweight and light heavyweight.
That environment paid off in results. Ishikawa won four consecutive
national championships from 1944 to 1947, the first two as a bantamweight
(123 pounds), the last two as a featherweight (132 pounds). Though he was
defeated in 1948, he came back to win the Olympic trials later that year
and represented the United States at the London Olympics. He would have
Richard Tom had wanted to follow Ishikawa to the mainland but never got the chance. Once the war broke out, all hope for leaving the islands went by the wayside for a while. He and Sakata continued to train and compete locally, and they read about their friend Ishikawa’s accomplishments in the magazines.
Then, in 1947, Nuuanu YMCA athletic director Henry Koizumi approached Tom and Sakata about starting a weightlifting team with the promise that that team would be sent to the major national competitions on the mainland. The two men eagerly accepted, along with a number of younger lifters, including Kalihi’s Richard Tomita.
The team made its national debut in Dallas, Texas, at the Junior Nationals, where Tom won the featherweight and Sakata the light heavyweight (181 pound) title. The nationals were a week later in Chicago, so the pair journeyed north.
Once there, they had a reunion with an old friend. "Stanczyk and I drove over together from York to Chicago," recalled Ishikawa, "and we walk down to the stadium to look around. Typical local guys -- two guys, Tom and Sakata sitting down on the steps just talking story." Though the pair didn’t fare as well at the nationals, Ishikawa won his fourth straight national title.
With the world championships scheduled for later that year in Philadelphia, Tom and Sakata decided to stay on the mainland for the three intervening months rather than go back to Hawai’i. Having no money, they were given jobs in York by Bob Hoffman and spent a memorable summer working out with the York team. At the World Championships that year, Tom took second, Ishikawa third, and Sakata fourth in their respective divisions.
At the end of the meet, Ishikawa decided to return to Hawai’i with his friends, at Sakata’s urging. "Sakata, oh, everyday he’s telling me ‘come home, come home.’ Boy that guy sure talk to me every day," recalled Ishikawa, laughing.
The next year was a whirlwind of training, meets, and demonstrations as the group readied themselves for the Olympic trials in New York in July. Though Koizumi managed them, Richard Tomita recalls that they were largely self-coached, with the old hands Tom and Sakata being the leaders.
"In those days, the weightlifting scene in Honolulu was booming. Meets at the Nuuanu YMCA drew 2,000 to 3,000 people, packing the house," recalled Tomita. The meets would also get extensive coverage in the local press, which led to Koizumi being able to raise money among locals which allowed the Nuuanu team travel to the national and international meets.
After the final Olympic trials in New York, the U.S. Olympic team was chosen. Four of twelve team members (three of four in the bantamweight and featherweight divisions) were from the Nuuanu Y. They were Richard Tom, Emerick Ishikawa, Richard Tomita, and Harold Sakata.
The London Olympics were a triumph for the American team as a whole as well as for Hawai’i. The Soviets and Germans did not compete, and the Americans won the team title over a powerful Egyptian team. Tom won the bronze medal in the bantamweight class, behind teammate Joe DiPietro and just 2-1/2 kilos out of second place. Sakata finished second in the light heavyweight division behind the great Stan Stanczyk, winning a silver medal. Ishikawa placed sixth and Tomita eighth in the featherweight class. The Olympians and Koizumi received a hero’s welcome upon their return to the islands.
After the Olympics, Tom and Ishikawa, now nearing thirty, retired from
active competition. Though younger, Tomita continued to compete even as
he worked a full time job and saw his family grow to include three kids.
Sakata continued to compete for a while. But as he put it at the time,
"A very wise man asked me if I were happy. Sure, I said. ‘And you’re proud
of those silver trophies?’ Sure I’m proud. ‘Now let’s see if you can eat
them,’ he said." As such, he turned to the better paying world of professional
wrestling and, later, movies and television, which brought him worldwide
fame and fortune.
One More Go Round
In about 1950 or ‘51, Dr. Richard You, a Korean American physician living in Honolulu, called together some of the old Nuuanu YMCA lifters to see if they would be interested in taking one more shot at the Olympics, to be held in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland. That team, which came to include Richard Tomita, Emerick Ishikawa, John Odo, Ed Bailey, and George Yoshioka, would make weightlifting history.
Pretty much from the beginning of organized weightlifting competitions in the United States some twenty or so years earlier, Hoffman’s York Barbell team had dominated the competition. The York team had taken home the team championship from the nationals each of the previous twenty-one consecutive years. But in 1952 nationals held in a muggy New York City, the team from Hawai’i upset the York team to take the team title. It would be the high point of weightlifting in Hawai’i.
Despite winning national titles in their weight classes in ‘52, both Tom and Tomita were left off the U.S. Olympic team by Coach Hoffman. This created a minor controversy in the local press. Hoffman’s stated rationale -- that the second place finishers in the higher weight divisions stood a better chance of scoring points in the Olympics than the winners in the lighter divisions -- proved to be true, defusing much of the controversy. Indeed, the lifters put on the team instead of Tom and Tomita provided the key points in the U.S. team’s successful defense of its team title. "We didn’t put up a big squawk about it," remembered Tom of the incident. Both men did get to travel to the games as alternates, which took some of the sting out of the incident.
Though no Hawai’i lifters made the U.S. Olympic team in 1952, a young
Japanese American named Tommy Kono won the gold medal in the lightweight
division, capping a year in which Kono won both the junior and senior nationals
and set a world record. It would be the first of an amazing eight consecutive
world championships for Kono, who would win most of them as a resident
The old Nuuanu YMCA isn’t there any more, having been torn down and replaced by the current structure in 1963. The old site, cattycorner to the current one, is now a grocery store and shopping center. But one of the mats from the old Nuuanu YMCA is still in use in the weight room of the new facility, according to Tommy Kono. "It is the cruder of the two platforms."
By the mid-1950s, the golden age of Hawai’i weightlifting was over. Richard Tomita attributes the decline to increasing number of youth sports programs in team sports, which drew many of the top athletes away from competitive weightlifting. He recalls that his own kids were like this, more into baseball and football than weights. "It’s not something you can force on them. You have to have it in you," he says today.
Tomita continued to compete until 1954, when he retired but continued as a volunteer instructor and coach at Nuuanu YMCA into the 1960s. Today, he can be found on the golf course, along with many other old Nisei athletes.
Sakata became a successful professional wrestler, but came to greater and lasting fame as a movie actor, playing James Bond’s most memorable nemesis, the Korean henchman Oddjob, in Goldfinger in 1964. The most outgoing of the group and its unofficial leader, Sakata held regular reunions at his home until his death of cancer in 1982.
Both Tom and Ishikawa retired in 1952, but continued to work out. Both men also did some coaching and Tom helped out with contests and with refereeing at meets as well. Both men continue to work out to this day, even as they near 80, and remain close friends.
Local lifters coached by Ishikawa include John Yamauchi, who became
a national champion in the 1970s. Today, Yamauchi’s sons are promising
lifters and they, along with contemporary national champion Legrand
Sakamaki from the Big Island, continue the local tradition started
so long ago.
For Further Reading
Fair, John D. Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999); for a review, see http://www.cbass.com/muscleto.htm
Niiya, Brian, ed. More Than A Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000); see also the Japanese American National Museum film documentary Top of Their Game (2000), http://www.janmmedia.org/projects/game.html
Reynolds, William Mason. "A History of Men’s Competitive Weightlifting in the United States from its Inception through 1972," unpublished MS thesis, University of Washington, 1973
Svinth, Joseph R. "Harold Sakata." Wrestling Then & Now 2000 Annual, 36-40. A slightly different version appears at InYo: The Journal of Alternative Perspectives on the Martial Arts and Sciences, http://ejmas.com/jalt/jaltart_svinth_0401.htm
-----. "Tommy Kono, U.S. Weightlifting Giant," Physical Training, http://ejmas.com/pt/ptart_svinth_0100.htm
Thomas, Al. "Pleasures of Another World and Time: The Great Strength and Health Picnics," Iron Game History, March 1991, reprinted at http://www.davedraper.com/york-strength-and-health-picnics.html