From The Desk Of Clarence Bass
In New York and in Moscow, in dimly lit cellar gyms and plush training centers, in camps of friends and foes, in 2066 and 3066, the story of Schemansky -- already a legend in his own time -- will be told: Joe Weider (Jerry Green, The Detroit News, January 2002)
Norbert Schemansky, Weightlifting Legend, Dead at 92
State Trooper Shares Stories About Norb
What do you know about Norbert Schemansky? “Who?” If that’s your response, you have plenty of company.
Norb Schemansky is far and away the best weightlifter known almost exclusively to insiders. When a park was named after him in his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan, they had to add a plaque listing his achievements, because so many people were asking “Who is Schemansky?”
When I began Olympic lifting in the 1950s, American Olympic lifters were the best in the world. Schemansky--known as "The Professor" because of his glasses, IQ, and wicked wit--ranked with John Davis and Tommy Kono as the best of the best. In 2005, he was recognized by the International Weightlifting Federation (along with Kono) as “Best Weightlifter of 100 Years.” Still, he remains better known today in Russia than in America.
Our Olympic Gold Medal winning weightlifters live in relative obscurity. Few could name them.
Our remaining Gold Medal winners are 93-year-old Frank Spellman (1948) and 87-year old Pete George (1952), 83-year-old Chuck Vinci (1956 & 1960), and 79-year-old Isaac Berger (1956). (Sixteen-year-old Clarence Cummings, our first Junior World Champion (20 and under) and record holder (17 and under) in 46 years, appears most likely to follow in the footsteps of these great old-timers. Our women lifters are also coming on strong.)
If Schemansky was competing today, he’d be living high on the hog, perhaps a multi-millionaire. But things were different back then. The amateur rules were strictly enforced. No endorsements, no payments for records and wins. He never made a penny from lifting.
To the contrary, Schemansky paid dearly for the privilege of representing our country on the world stage.
While he had jobs on and off, his wife's salary as a secretary was the only regular paycheck coming in to support their four children.
The period before and after the 1952 Olympics illustrates the atmosphere Schemansky faced.
The reigning world champion, he was fired from his job at Briggs Manufacturing when he asked for unpaid time off to train for the Helsinki Olympics. He went ahead anyway and won the Gold Medal, totaling 40 pounds over the world record and beating the undefeated Russian world champion Grigori Novak by 77 pounds.
Moreover, his double bodyweight clean & Jerk of 391 was the first ever by a heavyweight. (He weighed 195.) He tried—and almost made—402.
He was the best of the best. The Russians made his performance front page news, but his hometown newspaper relegated it to a single paragraph buried deep in the sports pages.
When Norb got home with the Gold Medal in his bag, there was no one at the airport to meet him. He took the bus home alone. The only applause came from his gym buddies and the pages of Strength & Health magazine. Nice but it didn't pay the bills.
What he really needed was a job that would allow him time to train and travel to competitions at home and abroad. It never came. Norb was the best in the world at something he couldn't make a decent living doing. (He worked as a civil engineer for the city of Dearborn after retiring from lifting.)
Nevertheless, he kept lifting and winning, becoming the first man to lift a total of 1200 pounds in the three Olympic lifts.
He won three more Olympic Medals (one silver and two bronze) and three more world championships, and two silver medals.
* * *
My father and I saw Schemansky up close at a lifting exhibition in Tucson, Arizona, sometime in the '50s. He was on his way to a world championship trials in California.
It made an impression I'll never forget.
He toyed with 300 in the power snatch and 400 in the power clean. Power oozed from every pore. The photo below gives you an idea of what we saw. In my mind’s eye, no one else has matched his look, before or since. Norb stands alone as athletic power incarnate.
I hope I’ve made you want to learn more about the life and times of Norbert Schemansky—and suggest three places where info on Norb is collected from different vantage points.
The first is a brilliantly composed outline of Norb’s life by iron game historian Bill Hinbern. Hinbern is the purveyor of the world's largest collection of old time strength training publications and a leading spokesperson for all aspects of weight training: http://superstrengthtraining.com/norbert-schemansky-death
Secondly, an enlightening interview of Norb in retirement (he was 77) by Jerry Green for The Detroit News: http://www.chidlovski.net/liftup/a_interview_schemansky_011102.asp
Finally, my commentary on Richard Bak’s superb “Mr. Weightlifting,” Norb's biography: http://www.cbass.com/Schemansky.htm
* * *
Norb's wife Bernice died in 1996.
Our sincerest condolences to their daughters, Paula, Pamela, and Laura, and son Larry, 10 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.
A special thanks to cousin Karen Sherman Ketover, who alerted us to Norb's passing.
Norbert Schemansky's like will never again grace the platform. Rest in peace Great One.
October 1, 2016
State Trooper Shares Stories About Norb
Another story I can share about Norb is what my Father, Art Matchulat, shared with me when he saw my passion for weight training. My Father joined the Detroit Police Dept. in 1950. Back then the physical requirements were extremely strict and rigid. My Dad shared a story about how they had to climb a rope at Police HQ with no feet. Dad shared with me that the great Norb Schemansky was one of the candidates. Dad tells me just how massive he was and that his arms were the biggest arms he ever saw on a human being. Although Norb was the strongest man on the planet he just couldn’t make it all the way to top to touch a red marker near the ceiling.
you’d enjoy hearing those stories.
Sincerely, John Matchulat, Asheville, NC
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