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Norbert Schemansky And How He Changed the Shape of Weightlifting

by Dresdin Archibald, Canada, 2010

Whenever lifting enthusiasts gather the talk can often turn to the influence of bodyweight on performance. Does it always help to get bigger? Less often discussed is longevity. Lower age limits are often discussed but what about the other end. How long can a lifter remain competitive? With the advent of Masters lifting this point is now discussed more frequently.

There are some names that are always mentioned when the talk turns to elite performances made past age 35. Iran's Muhmoud Namdjou was still medalling at age 40. Vasily Alexeev won his last title at 35 while Teranenko was a 35 year old Olympian. There are other examples but the best one still stands head and shoulders above all others. That man is Norbert Schemansky of Dearborn, Michigan, USA who I believe was the inspiration for the establishment of the 90 and 110 kg categories as well as the entire Masters program for the over-35s.

Norbert Schemansky was born on March 31, 1924 in Detroit, Michigan. He is of Polish extraction and like most Poles, he liked nothing better than to beat the Russians. While I don't know the exact details an educated guess would have his grandfather (he has been described as a 3rd generation American) emigrating from a Polish part of one of the old German, Austro-Hungarian or Russian Empires sometime between 1870 and 1914.

They probably settled in Detroit's large Polish community and perhaps came to work Ford's River Rouge plant in neighbouring Dearborn.

Early on he was nicknamed "the Ol' Professor" due to his receding hairline, glasses, scholarly demeanour, and if they knew him well, his IQ of 132. The only dis-similarity was that most profs that I remember from my university days never had forearms like his.

The family ended their name with the more Ukrainian "Y" instead of the "I" usually preferred by the Poles. Despite that his second nickname was then always rendered as "Ski" which is what I will call him in this paper so as to save some typing effort.

That said it behoves me now to give a narrative on his long career with an emphasis on his bodyweight and age and how he defied the experts on both for over twenty years. He stared at age fifteen, training with his older brother Dennis. He did some shot-putting in high school and then spent two years with Uncle Sam in Europe trying to bring Hitler to heel. Ski returned home in late 1945.

 

1946

Norbert Schemansky's winning the 1946 Juniors marked the start of the 22 year old's career as an elite weightlifter. Remember that in those days "Junior" applied to skill level, not age. It simply meant that the athlete had never won the Juniors or the Seniors before.

 

1947

There were no events for juniors in those days and especially during war-time so many of what would have been good years were spent in the US Army in WWII. For the first few years after the war standards were still low due to several years of inactivity. Davis was totalling about 100 pounds less than what he did before the war. Ski was only 30 pounds behind but it should be remembered that he was in peak form for that stage of his development while Davis was not. But he was on his way.

(Note: Weights are recorded in both Imperial for the Seniors and Metric for the Worlds. I will assume that readers will know which I am using).

 

The Worlds were held in Philadelphia so both Davis and Ski were selected for that team. As a bonus they would not have to lift under the handicap of previous teams that would have to get to Europe by boat, a six day trip from New York. The results below show that the two Americans more or less repeated their Seniors performance. Competition was not that stiff throughout the whole event due to the travel situation and the fact that many Europeans just could not afford the fares in the first place.

 

 

1948

In this year Ski did not enter the Seniors but he did enter the Olympic Trials held later in the summer. Specially made kilo weights were used since they were what would be used in the Olympics.

 

The 1948 London Olympics were held in a city much damaged in the war and organized as a sort of celebration of peace after the difficult war years. This was the first Olympic meeting sine Hitler's 1936 effort so some political atmosphere was evident. Both US heavyweights were considerably lighter and more athletic than most of their opponents. This situation would prompt many to assert that large bodyweight, even muscular weight was not necessary to be a successful lifter. That was true as far as it went but it was not noticed that much of the opposition were still recovering from WWII. The extra groceries needed to develop the needed bodyweight were not available to many Europeans. But as yet no one could see these developments taking place.

 

 

1949

Ski wins his first Seniors while his teammate took 2nd and younger brother Jerome took 5th place. Harold Sakata, the future "Oddjob" of Olympic and James Bond fame took 3rd. All competitors are only a bit over the future 90 kg mark. But Ski is already 25 years old. This was not unusual in those days but today many athletes are looking at the closing days of their careers at that age. (All seniors results from "Olympic Weightlifting On The Web").

 

1950

At the Seniors John Davis returned to rare form, topping the half ton mark. Ski is not too far behind, doing 75 pounds more than the previous year. Jim Bradford is right behind. These three men will dominate the category for the next few years. Ski appears to be gaining weight but is still a bit rangy for a heavyweight.

 

 

1951

At the Seniors and lifting in the brand new 90 kilo category Ski trained down and still easily edged out Roy Hilligen. The latter was in the process of picking up his athletic points that he would need before taking the Mr. America crown later that night. This was very good lifting for a bodybuilder of that era. Hilligen would later live and train in several western Canada cities. We remember him well. This new category fit Ski like a glove, coasting to victory with a low total. He did not have to contend with the larger Davis and Bradford so this made things a bit easier for him, provided he could make the weight.

 

 

At the Worlds in Paris He went on to the Worlds and still had little to worry about eve with the stiffer competition from Saleh. It would be a while before the rest of the category's talent level could match the 82.5 and 75 kg categories.

 

 

1952

This was again an Olympic year. I am sorry that I do not have detailed results of that year's seniors but Ski won with 402.5 kg so apparently did not have to extend himself there. He had to find a higher gear in Helsinki and did so. He gave up 12.5 kg to the short (5'2"), squat Russian pressing legend Novak but was able to reverse that in the snatch and then really go to town in the third lift. No information on his bodyweight but Ski is a full nine inches taller than Novak. He is now just shy of the magic 1000 lb total but a question remained How long could he stay in this new category?

 

 

1953

The Seniors were another family affair with Norb winning and again Jerome coming in third. Norb did not have to extend himself, lifting well below his best.

 

 

At the Worlds of course Ski's total would be higher but the opposition not even as good as that at the Seniors. This would be Ski's last year at 90 kg. Although he was not an easy gainer he must have realized that making weight would be more difficult in future and would need more muscle to lift against Davis or his eventual successors.

 

 

1954

Over the winter since Stockholm Ski had gained 12.5 kilos of solid bodyweight to lift as a heavyweight. It paid off as the results show. His press had increased dramatically but the quick lifts also came up. He finally makes it into the 1000 lb club with 50 more to boot. Second went to Art Jones who never did much more in the sport but became famous for his Nautilus cam-driven exercise machines many years later. In fifth place was Otis Chandler who was to achieve fame as publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

 

 

The true test for Ski's new bodyweight strategy would come at the Worlds. Held in our sport's cradle city of Vienna Ski added even more weight to all his lifts, breaking the WR in the total. After his last C&J he then broke the unofficial Continental and Jerk record with 200 kg, showing all that he would be able to jerk anything he might clean in future. Later he made a successful C&J with the storied Appollon barbell in Lille, FRA (167.5 kg and a 50 cm bent non-revolving bar). Only Charles Rigulot and John Davis had lifted it before. Rigulot trained for a year before mastering it while Davis could only lift it with a reverse grip due to his small hands. But Ski's large hands enabled him to do it in conventional split clean style. Doug Hepburn did not show. He had concentrated on the Commonwealth Games held in his hometown of Vancouver and would then turn professional immediately afterwards. John Davis was injured so Ski had a clear run at the title. Jim Bradford had gotten out of the army so was now quite up to his best but still took the silver. It seemed that Ski was now ready to rule the world.

 

 

Four hundred pound jerks were becoming commonplace for Ski. While John Davis was the first to C&J that amount on an Olympic bar, Ski was the first to lift that weight frequently and comfortably.

That year Ski entered the Mr. Michigan bodybuilding meet, probably on a lark, and won it with no special training. It would often be said that he had the best shape of any heavyweight in our sport's history.

1955

But it was not to be. Two disasters hit him in 1955. One was named Paul Anderson, who soon matched Ski in the quick lifts and also outpressed him by seventy pounds for good measure. Andy did not have Ski's style but that didn't matter.

The reason Ski was not at the Worlds was due to the second disaster. This took the form of a severely injured back which required a spinal fusion. Normally this would end any career in any active sport. This situation allowed Anderson to easily take the world title in our sport's other birth city, Munich.

The injury was so serious that Ski would also have to miss the 1956 Olympics. This would be very maddening to him since a severely sick Paul Anderson totalled ONLY 500 kg to win on bodyweight. Ski thought that he would have been able to beat that but could do nothing sitting in his own hospital bed. His doctors had told him that naturally he would never lift again. But this stubborn Pole had other ideas. His medals won in four different Olympics are all the more remarkable when one considers that he was forced to miss an Olympics in the middle of his career, one that he might have won.

He did win the Pan-American Games in Mexico City before the injury, however.

1957

Slowly he rebuilt his body. Starting with 135 in the lifts and slowly working up. Eventually he accomplished the impossible, meaning that Ski had the audacity to think that he could again enter the Seniors. Against all medical advice and the predictions of the sports experts he showed up at Daytona Beach.

By this time the deep thinkers in the sport were starting to think that while the addition of the 90 kg category was a good idea it did not go far enough. With monsters like Hepburn and Anderson looking to be the future of the sport it was still a long way to go from 90 kg to what would be needed to press 185 or more kilos. Since the FHI was not keen on adding any new categories the American AAU then decided to add a 225 lb category for its Seniors in the hope of eventually getting it accepted internationally. This proved to be Ski's perfect re-entry gambit. His weight was down a bit from Vienna and so were his lifts but he was on the way back. Or so it seemed. He easily defeated future super Sid Henry and a come-backing Stan Staczyck, a former 67.5-75-82.5 world champ. His lifts were not what they were but his doctors had to have been humbled in light of their prior prognoses.

 

 

However, any elation over these results would be short-lived. Once again Ski's back gave him severe pain. That meant he would need ANOTHER spinal fusion. Surely anyone else with any brains and common sense would have to quit. In fact 1958 did not see Ski on the elite platform so many assumed he was through.

 

1959

Like Sisyphus of the Greek fable Ski had now once again set out to roll his boulder all the way back up the hill. Against all odds the Ol' Professor was back. His re-debut at the 1959 Seniors saw him take the bronze with more bodyweight but a total even less than his 1957 one. Nevertheless many thought that with his two fused vertebrae what more could his fans expect. He's doing great just to be there so one shouldn't expect more. Medalling in his last Seniors would be a nice way to end a long career, but forget about ever winning again. Just be satisfied that he could walk again. After all, a new threat has arisen in Dave Ashman who like the younger Ski was a quick lift specialist, but a much bigger one.

Moreover, Norb was now 35 years of age. Surely he would not have much left at that age even if he was healthy. Some men could lift decent weights at that age but they were not winning championships. Even if the strength remained, most men at that age have other concerns that limit training, like jobs, family and other distractions. A 980 total would not be enough to get to the Worlds anymore. Retirement must soon follow, right?

 

 

1960

The 1960 Seniors and Olympic Trials were combined since the Olympics would be held only a couple of months later. By this time the Ashman had came and went but old-timer Jim Bradford was, like Ski, also re-asserting himself. Bradford would edge Ski at the Seniors but Ski would still post a PR 1075 total. Both would earn themselves a trip to the Eternal City. Ski had put on more bodyweight which was beginning to bear fruit in the press especially

 

 

And at the Olympics both would do very well, setting more PRs. All of this occurred despite the fact that the lifting went on until 3:00 AM or so. The USSR's Yuri Vlasov was rounding into top form so there was little realistic expectations for either of the Americans to take the gold. With the added bodyweight Norb could now press with more authority and look better than any other heavyweight ever did to boot. His snatch had also moved though he still lagged on the C&J, lifting no more than he had at 90 kg. It seems now that he still needed some time to get into shape after the long layoffs.

The big story was of Jim Bradford taking the silver. The man from Washington, DC was in the best shape of his 32 year life. His PR press was also more than he had ever C&Jed before! When it came time for that lift he PRed there as well. Edmonton's Dennis Hillman lifted for GBR in this meet and has told me many times of the way Ski would intimidate the other lifters with his pre-meet trademark, just standing in a room, rocking on his heels, and looking intimidating. It worked, especially for those close to him in performance. Dennis always said it didn't work on him because he was too far away for it to matter.

 

 

1962

1961 was not a good year. He missed the Seniors and subsequently the Worlds as well. I'm not sure why but he may have had other injuries. But 1962 would be a very good year as he once again reasserted himself. By this time his long-time teammate and nemesis Jim Bradford had come to the end of his career while Dick Zirk went back to his pansy farm. A new world record of 362.5 lb was established in a local meet by the now 38 year old Ski. I believe this age is still a record for anyone making a WR in any sport. This left a clear run at the Seniors. His press, snatch and total had reached new levels with his now 260 lb bodyweight while his jerk was still stuck at 1954 levels.

 

 

At the Worlds in Budapest Ski almost made it back to the top of the podium. Vlasov was given gift white lights on his second C&J after double dipping. While he could have tried it again there was always the hope that he would have missed it again, giving Ski the victory. As an aside Ski's age was starting to betray him, especially in the open air stadium on the night of lifting. Due to the popularity of the heavyweights it was decided to hold that category in the larger outdoor stadium (remember that the Worlds are held in the fall). Being by far the oldest man in the category the cold air affected Ski more than the others so he was tighter than usual. Ski made it into the 400 lb press club here and was knocking on the door of a 1200 lb total. Team-mate Gary Jay Gubner at 20 was young enough to be Norb's son.

 

 

 

1963

This appears to be a Seniors where Ski was either injured or perhaps pre-occupied. Sid Henry snuck up to take his only Seniors gold. Gubner did not compete in lifting that year as he concentrated on the shot-put.

 

 

The Worlds were another story as he bounced back to top form. While Vlasov enjoyed yet more white moments of victory, another new threat surfaced in the 186 cm, 150 kg Zhabotinski. Even so, if Ski had pressed what he did in 1962 he would have easily overtaken the giant Ukrainian.

 

 

1964

At the Seniors Ski lifted well but did not extend himself in the snatch. By now he again owned the supers like he had a decade before. Sid Henry did not live up to expectations and would soon cease to be a threat. Gubner was still doing field events.

 

 

The 1964 Olympic Trials were held at the New York World's Fair. Ski and Gubner easily outclassed the field and got tickets to Tokyo.

 

 

 

At the Olympics Ski once again found his higher gears. He was now 40 years old but was to attempt a WR snatch on a 4th attempt of 172.5, just missing. He also came close with a PR 205 C&J. Norb finished where Hoffman had predicted. Uncle Bob took a lot of flak for not predicting a higher finish but he was only being realistic. He correctly noted that his athletes could read results as well as anyone and knew what they were up against. He knew it would do no good to put any overly optimistic Pollyanna ideas into the heads of men who knew the score. He noted that even though both Russians had too much for Ski that he would lift well. And he did just that while the two Russians played out their epic battle.

 

 

1965

After such a good result in Tokyo surely Ski would finally retire. But no, he was not going to quit while he was still on top. At the Seniors Ski would win on bodyweight over Gubner. It was at about this time that the arch-splitter Ski would experiment with the squat clean. I'm not sure if this was due to an injury or as a bid to shorten his pull to keep up to the opposition. He never squat snatched. Elbow injuries kept Ski from going to the Tehran Worlds.

 

 

1966

By now it was obvious that Ski wanted to go to yet another Olympics. The only thing he had to worry about was Father Time, who had been lurking over his shoulder for years but was now showing greater staying power. At the Seniors Ski was suffering from another injury so took things easy, doing just enough to take the bronze. Gubner would win his only Seniors. But by this time there was a new threat in Bob Bednarski, a fellow Polish-American who idolized Ski. Bednarski was soon nicknamed "Little Ski". Earlier Bednarski had beaten Ski's record for heaviest man to do a double bodyweight C&J, by hoisting 442 at 221. At this time Norb must have realized that the writing was on the wall. He was now 42 years old and youth was demanding to be served. How long could he keep going?

 

 

1967 and Beyond

The 1967 Seniors would be Ski's last national championship meet. He got off to a bad start in the press but still managed to out-snatch the field in that young man's lift. Figuring that he couldn't realistically overtake Little Ski, he opted to take 430 to pass Dube but that was not going to happen. He bombed for one of the few times in his very long career.

 

 

Norb rounded back into form a couple of months later in order to qualify for the Little Olympics, the test event for the 1968 Games in Mexico City. He lifted well there but had to contend with Bednarski, Dube, Gubner and now another new monster, George "Ernie" Pickett. Dube and Pickett got the nod.

Despite this disappointing result Ski was not through yet. He was to lift in the now legendary Empire State Open in Monticello, NY in a field that was just as deep as the Seniors, even more so for the heavyweights. Although he finished behind the latest generation of Bednarski, Dube, Picket and Gubner he still did 415-350-400 for 1160. The press was a lifetime official best, done at the age of 43 years and about eight months. Elbow injuries prevented him making a decent jerk. Amazingly this result put him #10 on Herb Glossbrenner's unofficial world ranking list for the year.

That meet marked the high point of his final year of competition. In 1968 he would lift a couple more times at least, in the Monroe JayCees Invitational and the Milwaukee Open. He did not do quite so well there but most mortal athletes half his age could only hope that through some sort of miracle they would one day lift so much in their primes. He continued to train for four more years but never competed again. Like most lifters he probably thought that he had one more good performance in him. But he also would have been running into the "Age 45 drop-off" syndrome now familiar to all Masters lifters. One day at around that age the weights just don't fly up like they used to. The usual rationalization is that it's due to not having trained hard enough. So the intensity is hiked up but it's still the same story. Someone as stubborn as Norb would just keep trying but one day, as the recent PRs keep sliding ever downwards, one has to finally come to terms with the fact that the glory days are gone.......forever. So Ski packed it in and found other things in life. He could leave with the satisfaction that he had remained at or near the top of a young man's sport for many years longer than most.

This all reminds me of what an ex-boxer said to me once. Someone had called him a has-been to try to rile him up. Instead he just calmly remarked that perhaps he was indeed a has-been, but it was better to be a has-been than a never-was (not-so-subtly aimed at his detractor). Nobody lasts forever, but the memories sure do. The feats of Norbert Schemansky of Dearborn, Michigan will inspire people as long as barbells exist. This is especially true of those supposedly too old, too injured, and too light to beat the big boys.

 

The Schemansky Legacy

Undoubtedly the 90 kg category and its modern counterparts owe their existence to the feats of Norbert Schemansky in the early 1950s. In addition, the feats of Ski and John Davis certainly inspired the discussions about needing yet another larger category. The 110 category eventually became a reality in 1969 due to the fantastic lifting of "Little Ski", Bob Bednarski. Although Ski was not the inspiration for the 100 kg category, it would certainly have been welcomed by him and Davis if it could have arrived three decades earlier. Then they and Jim Bradford could have won many more world champions in their prime years. It is ironic that their good results then convinced many that added bodyweight would not help a lifter. It was only when these fine athletes started to lose to much larger men that the limitations of that thinking became apparent. If those categories were available then, I'm sure that Ski and Davis would then have been able to join Stan Stanczyk, Tommy Kono and Naum Suliemanoglu as triple category champions. At least today athletes of the Caucasian mean heights of 175 to 180 cm do not have to starve or stuff themselves in order to lift in an appropriate category.

One thing often forgotten is that Ski's use of the split style all his career probably prolonged that style's popularity even as the squat was replacing it. His snatches were so low that he had no need to squat there. This convinced many that the split was just as good as the squat. It might be but most forgot that they could not get as low as Ski did. His depths were low for anyone but especially for a 270 pound man. The Russians reputedly used his form in the split as a template for their own extended use of that method. I think that his use of it in the clean may have cost him some kilos in that lift. Despite added bodyweight he never did much more than his 1954 best. The extra height needed limited his potential there. He did try switching to the squat clean but that was too late in life to effect much change.

Schemansky's other legacy was his drawing attention to what the older athlete can accomplish, to prove that advancing age need not be a barrier. An athlete often gets old in his thinking long before he gets old in his body. The Ol' Professor was almost certainly Bill Clark's major inspiration when he founded the Masters movement in the 1970s. Clark would have been aware of Schemansky's feats done at an age when many men are nearing grandfatherhood and must have been wondering what a separate age category would be like when such could compete without worrying about the 20-somethings.

Closely related to his age was Norb's "never say die" attitude. He had an early taste of what it is like to be a world champion and he never forgot it. While he never won again after 1954 he did not stop trying. Trying hard. He stayed near the top for thirteen more years, longer than most careers. That would be hard for anyone in their 30s but Norb also had to fight the back injuries and the rise of so many larger competitors. This is hard to do physically but is probably harder to do psychologically. It is so much easier to just retire and think about past glories. A hard gainer in youth he became very muscular just trying to keep up. Even bodybuilders can relate to that.

Without his example would the Masters lifting movement ever have gotten off the ground? I suppose it would have sooner or later. The boomers were aging but were still interested in competing if only for fun and some degree of fitness maintenance. Few of them would have the same lofty ambitions as Ski. But they would have had to do so without the towering inspiration that was supplied from the Original Powerful Pole. He is truly the world's original Masters Lifter who changed the shape of our competitions with new age and bodyweight categories so that more can compete longer.

 

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