Vasily Alekseyev (One of the Greatest Weightlifters of All-Time)

In 1975, the cover of Sports Illustrated identified Soviet weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev as “The World’s Strongest Man.” Few could contradict that claim. His achievements spoke for themselves. At the time, Alekseyev was preparing to win his sixth consecutive World Superheavyweight Championship.

What Made Alekseyev So Powerful?

When he was just 11 years old, Vasily was put to work in the forests to help his father and the other lumberjacks. It was his job to lift and move the heavy tree logs. He believed that is where he gained his great strength. His first weightlifting barbell was an axle from an old truck. He began competing in weightlifting at the age of 18, but he didn’t win his first world title until he was 28.

First Man to 600 Kilos

In March of 1970, he became the first man to lift a total of 600 kilos in the three lifts combined, clean & press, snatch, and clean & jerk. Later that year, he became the first man to clean & jerk 500 lbs at the World Championships in Columbus, Ohio. ABC’s The Wide World of Sports televised the competition and, suddenly, Vasily Alekseyev became a very famous man.

In 1971 Alekseyev again won the World Championship title and continued his onslaught of breaking world records. And, in April 1972, he increased the world record total to 645 kilos while also breaking the clean & press record with a lift of 236.5 kg/521 lbs. Later that year, he competed in his first Olympics in Munich, Germany, and won the gold medal while breaking four Olympic records.

Black September

In an interview many years later, Alekseyev spoke about how difficult it was to focus on weightlifting after the tragic events of “Black September” the day before. “I knew many of the murdered athletes. It was difficult to focus on the competition after the murders, and many of the other weightlifters performed poorly because of it.”

Alekseyev continued to dominate the superheavyweight division for the next three years, winning the World Championship in 1973, 1974, and 1975, all while increasing the world records. And in 1976, he again won the gold medal at the Olympics in Montreal with a two-lift total of 440 kilos. His nearest competitor was 35 kilos behind him.

In 1977 at the age of 35, Alekseyev showed no signs of slowing down. He once again won the World Championships and increased his world record in the snatch to 190 kilos/419 lbs. Two months later, and nearing his 36th birthday, he raised his clean & jerk world record to 256 kilos/564 lbs. One month later, at an exhibition in Las Vegas, Nevada, he snatched 100 kilos/220 lbs with one arm.

Vasily Alekseyev Injuries

“But by 1978, age and injuries began to take their toll.”

He suffered a hip injury and had to withdraw while competing at the 1978 World Championships. His streak of eight world championship victories in a row had come to an end.

He went into a temporary retirement but began training in 1979 for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. But, as it turned out, the comeback was ill-advised. Alekseyev was unsuccessful with all three of his attempts in the snatch. By the time the Olympics began, he was nearing 39 years old, and his weight had ballooned to 357 lbs. Retirement was at hand, and Alekseyev left the sport with no less than 80 world records to his credit.

What enabled Alekseyev to dominate the superheavyweight division for almost an entire decade? It certainly wasn’t his physique. He had an abnormally large belly and appeared to be fat and out-of-shape. But he was very athletic for a man his size, displaying tremendous speed and flexibility. He also had excellent technique and explosive power.

The characteristic that separated him from his competitors was extreme confidence. Before approaching the bar, he would close his eyes for roughly 10 seconds, appearing to be in an almost trance-like state. When asked why he did that, he said: “It is a visualization technique. When I approach the bar, I know I can lift the weight because I have already done it in my mind.”


Alekseyev Mind Games

He was also known to psych out competitors by not beginning his warm-ups until everyone else had done so. He sat with his feet up, watching them prepare. A fellow lifter once asked: “Aren’t you going to start getting ready and begin your warm-up routine?” Alekseyev replied, “No. I’m sitting here waiting for you guys to finish.” It was Alekseyev’s way of telling them that the gold medal was his!

He was also somewhat of a recluse. For most of his career, he trained alone using self-made equipment and doing twice-a-day lifting sessions at home. When asked why he didn’t have a coach like most other lifters did, he replied, “I don’t trust the coaches. It might sound egotistical, but I know more than they do. Only I understand what is right for me.”

As a matter of interest, it should be pointed out that Vasily’s weightlifting success came during the height of the Cold War. Tensions were high between the United States and the Soviet Union, but the athletes generally got along well, including Alekseyev, primarily because of camaraderie among weightlifters. For example, USA weightlifters would often trade designer jeans to the Russian lifters in exchange for weightlifting shoes and lifting belts.

Leadership as a Coach

Leadership was also in the picture for Alekseyev. In 1990, he was named the head coach of the Soviet National team, and he coached the team for three years. Under the banner of “Unified Team,” the team placed first at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona by winning five gold medals and four silver medals.

Alekseyev had many interests, and his favorite hobby was reading. He also liked to cook, sing and was an avid gardener. He was particularly proud of his vegetable garden. In the 1975 article about him in Sports Illustrated, he boasted, “I have the finest peppers in all of Russia!”

Vasily Alekseyev died in November 2011, just six weeks before his 70th birthday, leaving behind Olimpiada, his wife of almost 50 years, and their sons, Sergei and Dmitri.

Vasily Alekseyev was, and still is, one of my all-time favorite athletes.  If you enjoyed this article and podcast episode, you may be interested in my story about the career of U.S. Olympic Weightlifter – Lee James.

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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