Chicago’s Weightlifting Legacy: Mark Levell

As with many weightlifters, Mark’s interest in the sport began with watching weightlifting on the Wide World of Sports on ABC television. Mark remembers watching Vasily Alekseyev become the first man to clean & jerk 500 lbs in 1970. This piqued Mark’s interest, and he began reading some Strength & Health magazines his older brother handed down to him.

Mark’s first sport was football, but as with many other weightlifters I have spoken to, his lack of size put him at a disadvantage in football. Standing only 5’6″ and weighing roughly 145 lbs, Mark decided to try competitive weightlifting.

He started training without a coach and competed in his first contest in 1977 in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 67.5 kilo/148 lbs weight class. He snatched 80 kilos/176 lbs and clean & jerked 110 kilos/242 lbs. These were outstanding lifts for someone who had never competed before.


Mark's New Coach

Mark met Coach Marty Schnorf at the contest. Marty helped him and told Mark to see Coach Mark LeMenager at the Sayre Park Weightlifting Club in Chicago. Under the coaching of LeMenager, Mark’s lifting improved, and in 1980, he competed in the Collegiate Nationals in York, Pennsylvania, where he placed first with lifts of 112.5 snatch and 150 clean & jerk. His C & J and 257.5 total were collegiate records in the 67.5-kilo weight class.

Mark qualified for his first Senior National Championships in 1980. The competition was in Philadelphia, and it would be his last time competing in the 67.5-kilo weight class. He snatched 105 and clean & jerked 150, which placed him fifth.

In 1981, Mark moved up to the 75 kilo/165 lb weight class. He placed first at the Mid-American Championships with lifts of 115/253 and 155/341. He placed second at the Nationals in San Francisco with lifts of 125/275 and 167.5/369. He also placed first at the Collegiate Nationals in Alabama with lifts of 120 and 165. The 165 C & J was a collegiate record.

Mark won a silver medal at the 1981 Nationals in San Francisco. Photo credit: Bruce Klemens photography
Mark won a silver medal at the 1981 Nationals in San Francisco. Photo credit: Bruce Klemens photography

Mark was somewhat disappointed with his performance at the 1982 Nationals in Northbrook, Illinois. He snatched 125 but injured his elbow, significantly affecting his clean & jerk. He hoped to clean & jerk 170, but he had to settle for 165 due to the injury. Nonetheless, he still placed second.

Mark placed second at the 1982 Nationals despite injuring his elbow on this 275 pound snatch. Photo credit: Bruce Klemens.
Mark placed second at the 1982 Nationals despite injuring his elbow on this 275 pound snatch. Photo credit: Bruce Klemens.

Moving Up A Weight Class

In 1983, Mark moved to the 82.5-kilo weight class and placed third at the Nationals with lifts of 127.5/281 and 177.5 /391. He also qualified for the Edmonton Cup in Canada and took second place with lifts of 130/286 & 175/385.

But like any other sport, injuries can occur in weightlifting, and all the years of heavy lifting were taking its toll on Mark’s body. He knew that 1984 might be his last year as a competitive lifter, and he wanted to go out on top. He trained extra hard to get in top shape for his fifth National Championship.

Mark knew it would be a tight competition, so he cut back on his caloric intake to weigh in light in case of a tie. His top snatch in this competition was 130/286, less weight than three of the other lifters did. Although Mark was concerned about his fourth-place position, he felt confident that he could make up for it in the clean & jerk, and he did just that, with a lift of 180/396.

With the two lifts combined, his total was 310 kilos, the exact total lifted by his two main competitors, George Pjura and Al Jakubowski. The tiebreaker was determined by body weight, and Mark weighed slightly less than George and Al.

Mark’s 180/396 C & J was the gold medal lift at the 1984 Nationals. Photo credit: Kevin Gittens.
Mark’s 180/396 C & J was the gold medal lift at the 1984 Nationals. Photo credit: Kevin Gittens.

Mark won the gold medal, which qualified him to lift in Las Vegas at the Olympic trials. Unfortunately, a fractured wrist and a back ailment prevented him from competing. After his wrist healed, Mark competed one more time before retiring. “I thought it would be best to retire before my back worsened,” said Mark. “I also wanted to start a family and focus on my job as a manager of the AT&T / SBC Long Distance Fraud Group.”

Mark’s best lifts in the 67.5-kilo weight class were 112.5/248 in the snatch and 150/330 in the C & J. In the 75 kilo class, he snatched 125/275 and clean and jerked 167.5/369. In the 82.5 kilo class, his best lifts were 130/286 and 180/396. Squats were a big part of Mark’s training. His best front squat was 205/451 for a triple, and his best back squat was 220/485 for five reps, 227.5/501 for a triple, and 240/529 for a single.

Advice From a Coach

Mark later did some coaching at the Sayre Park lifting club and got into cycling, which he continues to do at age 64. He once rode his bicycle 112 miles. He also enjoys spending time with his family, especially his six-year-old granddaughter, Leila.

As for advice, it is often said that if you can’t snatch 80% of your best clean & jerk; you must spend more time doing snatches. Likewise, if you can snatch more than 80% of your best clean & jerk; you need to spend more time improving your clean & jerk. Mark disagrees with this. “Most lifters are either better at the snatch or better at the clean & jerk,” said Mark.

“My best snatch was only about 73% of my best clean & jerk. I was just better at the C & J. I found that no matter how much I tried to improve my snatch, it stayed at 73%, so I decided I would not worry about it. I didn’t like taking training time away from my C & J to improve my snatch. Doing that, I made minimal progress on my weaker lift and hurt my better lift. My advice is to do your best and train both lifts equally hard. Your total (adding both lifts together) is what matters, not what percentage your snatch is compared to your clean & jerk.”

Mark Levell shows excellent form coming off the floor with 180/396. Photo credit: Kevin Gittens.
Mark Levell shows excellent form coming off the floor with 180/396. Photo credit: Kevin Gittens.

The two lifters Mark looked up to most were Mark Cameron and Lee James. Cameron remains the lightest American weightlifter to clean & jerk over 500 lbs, lifting 501 lbs at roughly 240 lbs body weight. James won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics and snatched 369 lbs in the 90-kilo class/198 lbs. “I truly believe these guys could have defeated the Eastern European lifters if they had lifted under the same conditions (not having to work a full-time job while training),” said Mark.

Mark’s training partner was Jeff Michels, who still holds the record for the lightest American to snatch over 400 lbs. “Jeff and I grew up together. We have been best friends for over 55 years. Jeff was the best man at my wedding, and I was the best man at Jeff’s wedding. Jeff and his wife Luetta are also my daughter Jacqueline’s Godparents.

We were just a couple of kids on the North / East side of Chicago, and there were a lot of bad influences around us. But Jeff and I were on the straight and narrow. Weightlifting and Mark LeMenager gave us a great opportunity, and we both took it.”

Mark also thought highly of his coach, stating, “Mark LeMenager was the most influential man in my life. He did more for me than anyone. My mom knew it and appreciated it, too. Every time I talked to my mom, she always asked about Mark. I will always be grateful for everything that Mark LeMenager did for me and so many others, too.

At the 1984 Nationals, I won the gold medal for the clean & jerk and total. I gave the gold medal for the clean & jerk to Mark LeMenager, and I have the gold medal for the total. I would have never won a National title without Mark’s coaching and help. So he has one of the gold medals, and I have the other. I wanted to do this for Mark to show him my appreciation”.

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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 (Second Edition): A Guide for People with Limited Time and Running Wild: (Growing Up in the 1970s)

Mark Morthier headshot - host of Yesterday's Sports podcast on the Sports History Network
Photo Courtesy: Mark Morthier
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