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I didn’t know anything about them, Riecke said of the pills. I know it sounds naïve, but I really didn’t.” Start of 'roids rage, Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun, November 2, 2008

Lou Riecke, Weightlifting Champion and Pioneer Strength Coach, Gone at 90

Judge Dan Sawyer Remembers Lou Riecke (see below)

I knew Lou Riecke before he became a world record holder and a central figure in the first experiments with Dianabol, an anabolic steroid developed by Ciba, a New Jersey pharmaceutical company. I’ll never forget seeing him for the first time at the weight-in for an Olympic weightlifting contest in Dallas. It was in the mid-50s. I was just out of high school and Lou was about 10 years older. He was having trouble making weight as a middleweight, my class. I whispered to my dad “He’ll be sorry if he makes it.” Needless to say, he did—and he wasn’t.

My father and I saw him lift several more times in Dallas. He was yet to become a world class lifter, but he was very good, having won the NCAA national championship twice and the Louisiana state championship numerous times. I was good, but he was much better.

We watched with great interest as he moved up in the lifting ranks, winning three national YMCA titles, when the YMCA championships were second only the Senior Nationals, where he came second several times.

He peaked in 1964, with a world record snatch of 325 in the 181 bodyweight category—winning the Olympic trials and competing in the Tokyo Olympics. Considered a probable silver medalist, he pulled a groin muscle and was forced to withdraw.

The May, 1964, cover of Iron Man Lifting News (see below) showed Riecke making his World Record snatch of 325. I am told that he had a blowup of that spectacular photo on the wall behind his desk. Bet it brightened his day many a time. “Lou’s snatch was not only a world record, but was one of the last, if not the last, record ever set using the split style,” lifting historian Artie Drechsler wrote in the July, 2017, issue of the AOBS NEWSLETTER. He also delighted in noting that Lou made the lift wearing a pair of high-top sneakers.

 Magazine Cover courtesy of Judge Dan Sawyer

“I’ll never forget those contests in Dallas where I saw you lift,” I wrote in a letter to Lou dated November 3, 1993. “That was when you were only a good lifter—before you became a world beater—but I was extremely impressed. My father, now deceased, and I followed your career with great interest and talked about you many times over the years. I think we both felt a particular pleasure in your success, because we kind of ‘discovered’ you before you hit the really big time.”

The Little Pills Helped

It wasn’t until some years later that I learned about the role of the little pills in Lou Riecke’s late—he was 38—surge to the pinnacle of Olympic Weightlifting. It’s a story for the history books. I’ll give you the thumb-nail version here—and tell you where to go for the full story. As you’ll see, another chapter in the sporting life of Lou Riecke was yet to come. He may have hung up his high top sneakers, but he was yet to rise to the top in conditioning for professional football players.

I don’t remember when I first became aware of Lou’s experiments with Dianabol, but I know that I found the whole story in Professor John Fair’s book Mucletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell, published in 1999. http://www.cbass.com/MUSCLETO.HTM   

My note to Lou (quoted above) was prompted by a visit from John Fair, who was in Albuquerque for a convention and used the opportunity to interview me for his upcoming book. He had just visited Lou Riecke for the same purpose. I’m sure that his experience with the little pills was a topic of conversation. All John told me at the time was that Lou was training regularly, staying in shape, and looked “wonderful.”

Riecke is prominently featured in Fair's chapter titled “The NEW York Gang.” The chapter includes a full page photo of Lou on stage after his world-record snatch, but the bulk of the text involving Lou deals with Dr. John Ziegler, who introduced Lou and several other members of the ‘new’ York gang to functional isometric contraction and a little pill called Dianabol.

Ziegler’s pitch to Lou about isometrics was that “the way you improve is by lifting weights, the heaviest possible. What’s the heaviest weight you can lift?—one you can’t lift.” Lou was to do one rep isometric contractions in eight positions once a day and then test his gains by lifting limit poundages with a barbell once a week. To assure proper nutrition to the exerted muscles, Riecke was given an anabolic daily. “Riecke had no idea how these pills would effect his performance,” Fair wrote.

Ciba gave Ziegler samples of Dianabol in the hope that the drug would produce strength gains without the unpleasant side effects of straight testosterone. No one knew if it would work. Several York lifters had shown rapid improvement when Ziegler began working with Lou.

In less than a year Riecke added muscle and for the first time became a serious threat to win Olympic gold.

“He was doing things that became the talk of the country,” Fair later told Childs Walker, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

In correspondence unearthed by Fair, Ziegler sounded unsure which of his methods led to Riecke’s great leaps in performance. He didn’t run proper scientific experiments with control subjects and adequate sample size. Instead, he worked with a handful of athletes and bombarded them with everything from hypnosis to isometric training. “I’m not sure [Ziegler] knew where his results came from,” Fair said.

Like the other York Lifters, Riecke preferred to attribute the gains to isometrics.

Bob Hoffman wrote a book about the wonders of isometric contraction and began marketing a power rack for doing the exercises recommended by Ziegler. I talked to Hoffman directly and bought one of his racks. It was an interesting experiment. Maximum exertion while holding your breath turned out to be a tricky proposition. Go too long and you find yourself passed out on the floor. I know because that soured me on isometrics.

“I hate to attribute any portion of our success to medicinal factors,” Riecke wrote in a letter obtained by Fair. “But some portion of my improvement coincided with my ingestion of them.”

”It helped me,” he acknowledged. For more details, check out a copy of Muscletown USA at your local library.

On to the NFL

Lou Riecke went on to become one of the first two strength and conditioning coaches in the National Football League. It's another story for the history books.

He gave up competitive lifting after 1964, but remained active in the Senior Olympics well into his 70s, setting national records in the 100 and 200 meter dash.

His athleticism and fast feet helped him become strength coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His success as an Olympic weightlifter brought him to the attention of Chuck Noll, head coach of the Steelers, but he still had the players to win over. He recalled to Artie Drechsler that some of the Steelers expressed concerns about weight training causing them to become muscle-bound. "Lou addressed their concerns by doing a back flip in front of them," Drechsler wrote in the AOBS NEWSLETTER. "He was also so fast, even in his 40s, that he was able to keep up with the players when they did wind sprints," he continued.

During his 10 years with the Steelers, they became one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history, winning four Super Bowl titles. 

"In addition to sports and his family," his obituary tells us, "Lou loved history, Westerns, a good joke or limerick, and perhaps most of all, ice cream."

His was indeed a life well lived.

Our condolences to Lou’s wife Enid, his four daughters, seven grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. 

August 1, 2017

* *  *

Judge Dan Sawyer Remembers Lou Riecke

World Record Thrills Lifting World

Dear Clarence:

Thanks for the info about Lou Riecke. 

I first knew Lou when we were both about 26. I was fresh out of Law School. I saw him periodically in the weight room of the YMCA. 

We were always alone. He worked pretty hard - a lot of reps of whatever he did. 

Lou brought with him a case used to deliver cokes - about 25/30. He also had a Coke bottle that he would move from one slot to another to another to keep up with his sets. He did a lot of sets.

A time or two we went down on the wrestling mat and he did back flips.  He wore leather high tops, "Clod Hoppers."

After that, I wasn't in touch with him so much. He did call me once to get someone I knew to put in a word for him to be listed in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He made it the next year.

He told me he hated to work out but loved to compete - that kept him in the Senior Olympics.

He said he always wanted to beat Kono. But Kono didn't show up. Just think - had he known Kono wouldn't show - he would not have set the record.

Editor's note: Dan also sent us the issue of Iron Man Lifting News shown above. Peary Rader's description of Lou Riecke's record snatch conveys the electricity:

A total of ten National and International records were established of which the greatest of these was the 325 lb. world record in the snatch turned in by 37 year old Lou Riecke of New Orleans. In my 26 years of attending weightlifting championships I have never witnessed anything as dramatic. When Lou selected three hundred pounds for his first attempt in the snatch everyone including the writer thought he was starting too high, but after a success with ridiculous ease I felt that he was on his way to get an American name in the record books. A second performance with 315, a miss with 325 (lost weight behind him), the stage was set for this dramatic event. I do mean stage because a 14 by 14 platform had been built to a height of two feet and a black velvet backdrop with a huge YMCA emblem flanked by the American and Christian flags made even the lifting platform encouraging for world records.  The weight indicator to the rear of the lifter with the impressive figures of 3-2-5 had just been turned by the spotter. Lou mounted the platform to a thunderous applause, he pranced to and fro behind the bar, a stillness came over the audience and though the Downtown Y is in the Civic Center it seemed that the traffic cooperated by being silent. Lou strode briskly to the bar and meticulously placed his hand at the proper distance. If there is a way to measure nervous energy I am sure that even the electronic device would be unable to contain the great force that Lou had built up at this time. The bar inched off the floor and with the speed of a missile it shot to arms length and with a low fast split the weight was fixed at arms length. Riecke, while in this position, was making sure that he had the bar in a proper position before standing erect and at this moment the audience went wild with such words as "Hold It Lou."  "Come on Lou" "Don't Drop It Lou." Riecke stood erect and the audience cheered long and loud, and you were aware of the fever pitch emotions and admiration for this great Southern Gentleman.

Editor's clarification: Kono did show up, but lifted in the middleweight class (165), while Riecke was a light-heavy weight (181).

Dan concluded: Lou was as nice and likeable a person as I ever met. I won't forget his saying, "I didn't like to work out, but I loved to compete."

September 1, 2017

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