Today we’re going to discuss the career of weightlifter Lee James. If you’re not a fan of Olympic Weightlifting, or a lifter yourself, you’re probably asking who Lee James is? It’s not surprising that one would ask that question because Olympic weightlifting has never been a popular sport in America. Most USA lifters get very little recognition, and they don’t receive compensation for the countless hours they devote to the sport.
Such was the case with Lee James, who won the Silver Medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. No American male lifter has won an Olympic medal since except for Mario Martinez (Silver) and Guy Carlton (Bronze), who both medaled at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Not to diminish their accomplishment, but Soviet Bloc countries boycotted the 1984 Games.
You can read the whole story and listen to the podcast episode below.
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Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond. He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training.
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Who is Lee James?
I first met Lee James in 1985 at a weightlifting clinic in York, Pa. Humble then as he is now, he’s a modest man with a strong faith in God, who speaks little of his achievements. Because of his modesty, I was afraid he might say no when I asked if I could write an article about him and his accomplishments. Thankfully, he graciously granted my request.
Born on October 31, 1953, Lee remembers watching all the movies about Sampson as a child and reading about Sampson’s mighty strength in the Old Testament. He hoped one day that he could be as big and as powerful as Sampson. Lee started weight training in 1969 at the age of 15. His source of inspiration was his lack of size. When he tried out for football at Westover High (GA), the coach told him he was so small that the team didn’t have a uniform that would fit him.
When Lee told his parents that he wanted to start weight training to gain weight and muscle, they purchased him a Bruce Randall 110-pound weight set for Christmas. Randall was a former Mr. Universe. Later on, Lee started weight training at the YMCA in Albany, Georgia.
Albany is where his family settled when Lee was eight years old. It was his third stop: First, he lived in Gulfport, MS (his birthplace). Later on, his family moved to Mobile, AL, and finally Gainesville, GA. With no one to coach him, he learned proper techniques from reading and studying photos in weightlifting magazines. He had plenty of great lifters to emulate, too. Tommy Kono, a Gold Medalist at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, and Norm Schemansky, Gold Medalist at the 1952 Olympics, were the two he emulated most.
He entered his first competition in December 1970 and managed to Clean & Jerk 255 lbs. Six months later, at a bodyweight of just 173 lbs, he clean & jerked 295 Lbs and snatched 235 lbs at the Teenage Nationals in Georgia.
Along the way, Lee mastered the technique of the lifts. In Olympic Weightlifting, the objective is to lift the weight from the floor to the overhead position. The Snatch is completed in one motion. The other two lifts (Clean&Jerk & Clean&Press) are completed in two movements.
Because he experienced lower back discomfort, Lee was relieved when The International Weightlifting Federation eliminated the Press from competition shortly after the 1972 Olympics.
Lee continued making tremendous progress for someone who had no prior experience with weightlifting. He didn’t have a coach, either. He attributes his progress to the fact that he comes from an athletic family. His father, Lee Sr., played football, baseball, and boxed in high school. His sister was an outstanding softball and tennis player. His brother was a good enough baseball player to be drafted by the LA Dodgers.
Lee Joins the Army
Lee’s lifting career was put on hold in 1972 when he joined the Army’s 101st airborne division. He wasn’t able to do any weight training during basic training, but once basics were over, he worked out at a gym in Port Campbell, KY. It wasn’t an ideal place to train, though. The barbells were bent, and climate control was nonexistent (no heat in the winter, no AC in the summer).
But it was better than nothing, so Lee made the best of it. He purchased squat stands and a sheet of plywood to use as his lifting platform. A friend, Carl Dougherty, lent him an Olympic barbell to use. At that point, Lee was considering going to Ranger School. Instead, he accepted the Army’s offer to work temporary duty at the gym.
Lee was finally able to compete again in October of 1973, and he picked up right where he left off–lifting 330 lbs in the Clean & Jerk. At another competition in January of 1974, he lifted 132.5 kg in the Snatch, 292 in-lbs, and 162.5 kg in the Clean & Jerk, that’s 358 in-lbs.
Those lifts qualified him to compete in the Junior and Senior Nationals in the 82.5 kg weight class. That’s roughly 182 pounds. He took second in the Juniors and fourth in the Seniors. Those performances qualified him to lift in international competitions, and he then went on to compete in Germany, France, Spain, and England. His best Snatch was140 kg/308.6 lbs, and his best Clean & Jerk was 170 kg/374.8 lbs.
It was at that point when Lee realized he might have what it takes to become an Olympian. His goal? Make the 1976 Olympic weightlifting team. Although still without a full-time coach, Lee received helpful advice from Dick Green and Marty Cypher. Soon after returning from his European trip, Lee was off to Mexico to compete in the Pan American Games. Lee placed second with a 135 Kg/297.6 lb Snatch and a 165 Kg/363.7 lb Clean & Jerk.
Next up was the World Championships in Manila, Philippines. He placed a respectable 8th, which wasn’t bad considering this was Lee’s first opportunity to compete in the World Championships. Later, in a local competition in Georgia in December, Lee snatched 315 lbs, which was the most he had done up to that point. One month later in Philadelphia, he lifted his all-time best in the Clean & Jerk–380 Lbs. A month later, in Iowa, he set yet another PR (personal record) with a 695 lb total (both lifts combined).
Then came the Senior Nationals in California (June 1975). Lee snatched 142.5 kg/314 lbs and Clean & Jerked 170 kg/374.8–the same as Pete Rawluk, his main competitor, had performed. But Lee had to settle for second place. The reason? Tiebreaker goes to the man that weighed in with a lighter bodyweight, and Rawluk was slightly lighter than Lee. Later that year, he once again competed in the Pan American Games and took first place with a 140 Kg/308.6 lb Snatch and a 175 Kg/385.8 lb Clean & Jerk.
Moving Up In Weight
All the heavy training resulted in Lee gaining size and muscle, which meant he would move up to the next weight class (90 Kg/198.4 lbs). His first two competitions in that new weight class were Europe vs. the Americas. The first competition took place in Toronto, and the second was in Gettysburg, PA, both taking place in November 1975. His lifts were now up to 150 Kg/330.6 lbs in the Snatch and 185 Kg/407.8 lbs in the Clean & Jerk.
Around that time, Lee and his family moved to York, PA, a move made possible with help from weightlifting official Bob Crist. Crist wrote letters to the Army and the Pentagon on Lee’s behalf urging the Army to reassign Lee to York. There, Lee would be able to work out with many other top USA lifters. There was more to the move, too. Lee now had a coach in Dick Smith, and he enrolled at York College, where he studied marketing.
In February, Lee began his attack on the American record in the Snatch (90-kilo weight class) with a lift of 157.5 kg/347.2 lbs. The late Rick Holbrook had held the record previously 155 kg/341.7 lbs. In June at the 1976 Senior Nationals in Philadelphia, Lee took first place, beating out his good friend Phil Grippaldi with a 160 kg/352.7 lb Snatch and a 195 kg/430 lb Clean & Jerk. The 160 Snatch broke the American record of 157.5 that Lee had set back in February. The 1976 nationals also served as a qualifier for the Olympics, and both Lee and Grippaldi made the team.
Lee hoped to become just the second American lifter to earn a medal since the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when superheavyweight Joe Dube won the Bronze Medal. No American weightlifter had medalled at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Lee arrived at Olympic Village about a week before the competition. Lee remembers it clearly.
“Lee James: Although I was experiencing some pain in my right knee, I was able to snatch 358 lbs in the training hall four days before the competition. I felt ready and confident! But I had to hold myself back a little bit in training because my adrenaline was sky-high. I knew I needed to save some of it for the competition.”
At 22-yrs-old, Lee was the youngest of the 19 competitors. The main competitors were David Rigert of the Soviet Union (the heavy favorite), Atanas Shapov of Bulgaria, and Lee’s teammate Phil Grippaldi. All three men were very proficient in the Clean & Jerk. Lee knew he had to do well in the Snatch to have a chance at medalling.
Rigert missed his opening Snatch attempt but made his next two and finished with 170 kg/375 lbs. Lee, on the other hand, made all three of his lifts and finished with 165 kg/364 lbs. Lee’s 165 snatch was an Olympic record until Rigert snatched 170 just a few minutes later. Shopov made only his opening attempt at 155 kg/342 lbs. Grippaldi made his first two attempts but missed his third, finishing with 150 kg/330 ½ lbs.
The lifter predicted to win the Silver Medal, Serhiy Poltoratsky of the Soviet Union, failed on all three attempts in the Snatch, thereby eliminating himself from the competition. Lee and Michel Broilet of Switzerland were in the spot Poltoratsky had vacated, dead even for second place going into the Clean and Jerk portion of the competition.
But then Lee put himself in jeopardy of not medalling when he missed his 1st C&J attempt with 190 kg/419 lbs. Thankfully, he came back strong to make it on his second attempt. And that’s when things got exciting.
U.S. head coach Tommy Kono wanted Lee to take 195 kg/430 lbs for his third attempt, but Lee’s coach Dick Smith felt that Lee needed 197.5 kg to stay in medal contention. It would be the most weight Lee had ever done in the C&J.
Kono relented and gave Lee the ok to take the 197.5. “The last thing I remember that day, Lee recalls, “is Smitty saying to me as I walked out to the platform, ‘You need to be successful in this lift, Lee. If you miss it, you’ll not only lose your chance for a medal, but I’ll be in big trouble with coach Kono.'” “I felt confident that I could lift it,” said Lee, “and thankfully, I did.”
Now all Lee could do was wait and see what the others were capable of lifting. The waiting was nerve-wracking. “I was hopeful that I would at least win a Bronze Medal. Even if I tied for third, it would go in my favor because the tiebreaker would go to the man with a lighter bodyweight. I was much lighter than the others.”
Lee James' Silver Medal
Finally, the waiting was over. Broilet of Switzerland missed all three of his attempts with 197.5 kilos, eliminating himself from medal contention. Soviet lifter David Rigert made two of three lifts in the C&J, finishing with 212.5 kilos. The Bulgarian Shopov made two of three, finishing with 205. American Phil Grippaldi also made two of three, finishing with 205.
After adding the two lifts together, the final results were as follows:
1st place: David Rigert, USSR — 382.5 kilos
2nd place: Lee James, USA — 362.5 kilos
3rd place: Atanas Shopov, Bulgaria — 360 kilos
4th place: Phil Grippaldi, USA — 355 kilos
Lee James had done it! He had won the Silver for Team USA. The patriotic Lee was proud to have won a medal for his country.
Here is Lee’s response when I asked how it felt. “I always believed that God had a destiny in mind for me. As I continued lifting and getting stronger, I began to think that this was the direction God was sending me in. I always prayed for the strength to push harder and harder. I felt incredibly blessed to have won the silver medal.”
Named the Best of the Best
When they added the final votes to name the best USA lifter of 1976, Lee won 93% of the votes. In winning, Lee acknowledged that he could have never done it alone. Lee gave special thanks to John Terpak and Bob Crist for convincing the Army to allow him to train in York, PA. Also, Bob Hoffman for the Hoffman Foundation scholarship that allowed him to attend college while training, and the people of Albany, Georgia, his hometown, for always supporting him.
He also thanked his coach and trainer, Dick Smith. “Smitty” was a great coach and a wonderful person,” said Lee. “He was kind of like a third parent to me, even though I already had terrific parents. Smitty would have me doing things that were not conventional. For instance, he would have me facing all different directions in training while doing the lifts. Smitty didn’t want me to get used to always facing the same direction. He also didn’t want me resting too long in-between sets. The reason for that is if you fail to succeed on your 1st or 2nd attempt, and you elect to attempt that same weight again, you are only allowed two minutes to get back out there and try it again.”
“Another thing he would do,” Lee continued, “is that he’d sometimes have me practice taking big jumps in weight during training. His thinking was that you never know when you’re going to have to take a daring increase during a competition to win a medal. In one competition, he had me take 330 lbs for my opening attempt on the Snatch. That was a conservative opener, considering I had done 369 lbs in training. But on my second attempt, he had me take 352. (Note: Most lifters only take a five kilo/11 lb jump from 1st to 2nd attempt.).
My 3rd attempt was 167.5/369 lbs (Note: that was an American record). A 17.5-kilo increase from 1st to 3rd attempt is very unusual, but I was used to that with Smitty as my coach. I felt training with Smitty was a supreme gift from God, and that perhaps God had put Smitty and me together for a mutual purpose.”
Lee's Workout Schedule
Here is a sample of the training routine Lee was following at the time. He trained Monday through Friday, with Wednesday reserved for jumping drills and stretching (but no lifting). Interestingly, he did the actual competition lifts just once a week–although for many sets. Lee also did many pulls … once a week on Snatch pulls and once a week on Clean pulls. He also did strict-form overhead presses once a week.
Lee believed it was imperative to do extra lower back work as he employed both hyper-extensions and the good morning exercise once a week. And Lee left nothing to chance when it came to leg strength. He squatted four times a week–twice on back squats and twice on front squats. He also did leg extensions four times a week.
Lee didn’t skip his ab work either. He did sit-ups four times a week.
Lee's Knee Surgery
Unfortunately, 1977 didn’t go quite according to plan. Lee started to experience pain in his right knee shortly after the Olympics. X-rays revealed the patella tendon was ripping off the kneecap, and Lee had to undergo knee surgery.
“Once recovered from the surgery, I started training again,” said Lee. “But the pain was too great to train heavy.” That’s when the doctor told Smitty that repairing the tendon didn’t mean the cause of the problem had been fixed. Instead of being rounded where the tendon from the knee cap runs to the tibia, Lee’s was more pointed, and it was also cutting through the patella tendon. That meant a second operation, which took place in the late summer of 1977. The doctor took off some of the kneecap and rounded the rest.
I asked Lee if he had any doubts or reservations about coming back after two knee operations. “I believed that the adversity I had been through was to strengthen me mentally and physically. Even after the first two knee operations, I thought God had intended for me to do more.”
Still, many people wondered if Lee would ever be as good after not one, but two, knee operations. In February 1978, Lee put those doubts to rest. He was back in York, PA, in his first competition since the 1976 Olympics. And Lee served notice that he was not only back but better than ever. He broke his American record in the Snatch with a lift of 167.5 kg/369 lbs. A month later, Lee participated in The Friendship Cup in Russia, and although he didn’t lift his best, Lee still took second place.
1978 Senior Nationals
A few months later, Lee was at the 1978 Senior National Championships, where he easily won first place in the 198 lb weight class with lifts of 352.7 lbs in the snatch and 430 lbs in the C&J. There were only two lifters in the competition that totaled more than he did, and both of them were much larger men than Lee. He also won the coveted “Best Lifter” trophy.
Yet Lee walked away, somewhat disappointed. “I had Snatched 375 lbs and Clean & Jerked 452 in training just one week before the competition,” he remembers. “I was expecting to do those same weights at the Nationals. I took 352 for my opening Snatch attempt and made it relatively easy. Smitty and I knew that lift would be enough to win first place in the Snatch, so we went straight to 375 for my second attempt.”
Had he made the 375, it would have set an American record, breaking his old record of 369. Lee explains what happened. “I had it locked out overhead, but, as I stood up, I had to take a step forward. As I stepped forward, I slipped on some talcum powder, which caused me to lose my balance, and I had to drop the weight behind me. (Note: Lifters will often use talcum powder on the front of their thighs to reduce the bar’s friction.)
Lee tried the 375 on his third attempt, and once again, he had it locked overhead, but this time he lost it forward. Then, Lee missed his opening attempt with 430 on the Clean & Jerk. He cleaned the weight without too much difficulty but, as he jerked the weight overhead, his back foot once again slipped on talcum powder.
Lee took the same 430 on his second attempt and was successful. On his third attempt, he called for 452–and that would have broken the American record–but he was unable to rack the massive weight on his shoulders. He tried it again on a 4th attempt but had the same outcome. (Note: Lifters are allowed a 4th attempt when attempting a record). It’s also worth noting that Lee weighed-in at 88.6 kg. He usually weighed in at the class limit of 90 kg. That’s a three-pound difference in body weight.)
Sadly, that was Lee’s final competition. “As I started training again for the World’s Championships, I began to get severe pains in the knee,” Lee explained. “And, this time, pain radiated to the top of the tibia. The tendon was peeling off the tibia from being hyper-stretched under heavy loads. To eliminate some of the tendon’s hyper-stretching, the surgeon operated on the right hip to try to drop the quadriceps to compensate for the shortened patella tendon. But the surgery was pointless. It’s not exactly the way I wanted to go out of the sport, but we don’t always get to choose.”
Sadly, Lee’s weightlifting career was over at the young age of 24 years.
“When I couldn’t compete any longer due to the knee issues, I was bitter for quite some time. I am glad to say that I look back now, and I think that perhaps it was for the best. President Jimmy Carter ruined a lot of people’s Olympic dreams in 1980 with that boycott, and I know I would have pushed myself extremely hard to be the best at those Olympics–only to be told we’re not going.”
One can only speculate how much more Lee could have done if not for the bad knee. Lee believes he could have eventually snatched over 400 lbs. I, for one, think he’s right. To some, that may seem like a bold statement. But consider this: up until February of 1976, the American Snatch record stood at 341.7 lbs. Just six months later, Lee had it up to 363.7 lbs. He increased that record to 369.2 lbs and came extremely close with 374.8 lbs with a bad knee!
Lee’s American record total of 362.5 kg set (1976 Olympics) held up until Curt White totaled 365 in 1985. If you think that’s impressive, hold on. His 167.5 kilo American Snatch record, set in February 1978, still stands! Tom Gough equaled Lee in 1996, but Tom did the lift with slightly higher body weight.
Where Lee is Today
Not one to sit around feeling sorry for himself; in 1980, Lee took up Karate/Shotokan. “The main reason I took up Karate is that my son, Steven, then seven years old, wanted to take lessons. I figured as long as I had to drive him back and forth for these lessons, I might as well join in. My son eventually lost interest, but I continued and earned a Black Belt. I did that for about 3 or 4 years, and it was gratifying. Then I got into cave diving for a while, which was a lot of fun, too.”
Lee turned 68 years old in October. He worked in the insurance business for many years and is semi-retired today. “I do some work as a handyman, and I enjoy woodworking,” Lee said. “I have a workshop in my basement.”
Lee lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife, Lori, and their 18-year-old daughter, Abigale. His 29-year-old daughter, Shannon, and her husband James, live right down the road. His 48-year-old son Steven and his wife Tracey live in Georgia. Lee also has three granddaughters ranging in age from 4–13 years old, and a two-year-old grandson.
It was a pleasure and honor to chronicle the story of one of America’s great weightlifters and a man whom I respect enormously. He’s Olympic champion, Lee James.
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