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Know Tommy Kono

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

I started lifting weights a little later in life than, say, a high school jock or college athlete. I started Weightlifting even later than that, the capital 'W' indicating the sport of competing at those two specific lifts you see once every 4 years in the Olympics. My first Weightlifting competition was in my early thirties, and I'm quickly approaching the twenty-year anniversary of that, still looking to compete when Covid deems it safe.

When I was simply lifting weights, before I was a Weightlifter (this is sport snobbery, if you haven't figured that out yet), I already knew who Tommy Kono was, although vaguely. As the journey to the competition platform began, his name continued to pop up in my lessons. My first coach, Mel Siff, sang his praises, and his reputation in my lifting home of Sacramento had an underground legendary status, since he trained for his first two Olympic medals and many of his world records in the basement of the house he grew up in on T and 12th Streets in California's capitol city.

tommy kono weightlifting olympic legend gym
Tommy Kono's basement gym, circa 1950-something.
tommy kono chip conrad olympic champion
Our first picture together.

By the time our friendship began, I was well aware of who he was, so when he began his annual workshops at the original BodyTribe gym, it was an honor that only grew for the decade we got to know each other. I didn't film as much as I should've. For that I'll always have regrets. But I did get enough bits for two collections of his lifting and strength wisdom. Part 1 features the highlights of one of his BodyTribe workshops. Then I sat down with him one day and peppered him with questions. That's part 2. Both are available to members of the website, or you can purchase them for downloading here. For further Tommy-related film stuff, check out Ryan Yamamoto's wonderful documentary, Arnold Knows Me. A chunk of it was filmed at BodyTribe, and although everyone else who was there shows up on film, I don't. But I'm not sore, Ryan.

olympic lifting champion coach

I was lucky to write a farewell message about Tommy for MILO magazine, which also became part of my book, Are You Useful. Part of that memorial is what I'll leave you with today. An important prelude to know is that Tommy taught a 2-3 hour workshop at BodyTribe every year when he visited from Hawaii, for an entire decade. For the last 10 years of his life, he would make a point to visit and teach, what he regularly called the highlight of his trip.

olympic legend tommy kono workshop

An important point to know about Tommy, which transcends his well documented lifting history: he never asked for a dime for any of the time he spent teaching us. He never left empty handed, since I made sure everyone handed over $20 for the honor of literally sitting at the feet of the master, which meant each trip have some financial value for him. But, from day one, the money wasn't the issue. For Tommy, the knowledge needed sharing. And, even well into his 80s, he sat and chatted with us, sometimes a group of 30+ eager minds and bodies, for several hours, often even coaching us hands-on through some lifting. Tommy's practice was giving.

Which is a lesson in itself, especially for a journey of strength and movement. Practice isn't always physical. It isn't always even easily tangible. Sometimes it's just being good to each other.

chip conrad tommy kono bodytribe
Our last photo together.

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