Arnold knows me: the Tommy Kono story

Arnold knows me: the Tommy Kono story

Beginning life as a sickly, underweight kid Tamio 'Tommy' Kono would go on to stand among, if not atop, the greatest weightlifters that have ever lived, even inspiring Arnold Schwarzenegger's success. This is his story.

On December 7, 1941 the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a surprise bombing run on the US naval base in Pearl Habour, Hawaai, killing over 200 sailors and injuring hudnreds more. The next day the United States formally entered World War II. Weeks later, in February 1942, president Franklin D Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorising military commanders to designate 'military exclusion zones' across the west coast of the USA. In these zones Americans of German, Italian, and Japanese descent -- suspected of habouring loyalty to the axis powers – were subject to forcible removal, curfew, and internment in purpose built camps.

By March these zones stretched from Washington in the north all the way to the southern tip of California. Thus did printing business owners Kanichi and Ishimi Kono find themselves forcibly relocated from their home in Sacramento to the Tule Lake internment camp in California's Great Basin Desert. With them came their four children, including asthmatic and severely underweight 11 year old Tommy.

This move would transform Tommy's life, and Tommy himself, beyond recognition.

Illness left a deep scar across Tommy's childhood. Weighing just 74lb/33.5kg at the time of relocation, he had missed a full third of his elementary school days due to chronic asthma. But he found the dry desert air helped his condition, and with the help of a boy he met at the camp – Noburu Shimoda – began practicing the basics of weightlifting.

Tommy kept his training up, and by the end of the war was a well practiced lifter. After release in 1945 he continued lifting at the Sacramento YMCA. Cycling to training each day as his family was too poor to afford a car. At a time when many Americans looked down on the poor and saw bicycles as children's toys, Tommy would stick to the side streets: “I just didn’t like to ride a bicycle in front of all those people, it was embarrassing,” he recalled in a 2015 interview. 

In 1948, at the age of 18, he entered his first local competition, and came second, spurring him on to enter more local, and then national, competitions, where he often placed first. But the advent of the Korean War in June 1950 saw Tommy drafted into the US army, and almost ended his nascent career.

Tommy was set for deployment as a cook, an especially dangerous role at the time: “They’d heard the American army moved on its stomach, and if you killed the cook, it would destroy their morale. So they were shooting off all the cooks,” he said. But just days from deployment Tommy received a letter from Army Command recognising his athletic potential and ordering him to stay in the US to train for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. “So in a way, weightlifting saved my life”.

Despite coming down with food poisoning during the games, Tommy excelled. Competing in the lightweight (67.5kg) division wearing a pair of reinforced office shoes and spectacles, he not only set a new snatch world record, but took gold for the highest total, setting a new Olympic record as he did so.

This was the first of 8 consecutive wins across the Weightlifting World Championship and Olympic Games for Tommy, seeing him undefeated on the world stage from 1952 through to 1959. At Melbourne's 1956 Olympics Tommy gave what he considers to be the best performance of his career: again taking gold with a world record total, this time in the light heavyweight (82.5kg) division.

Throughout his career Tommy would go on to set a total of 26 world records and 7 Olympic records in the snatch, clean and jerk, clean and press, and total across 4 weight classes. This was across a time period when weight categories remained static, highlighting his sheer athletic versatility and legendary mental focus. This mental discipline would shine through again a few years later: when a fire alarm sounded during his last clean a jerk at the 1964 Olympic trials Tommy turned down a second attempt, claiming he hadn't heard it. 

During this time Tommy also excelled in bodybuilding, winning the IWF Mr World title in 1954, and the Mr Universe in 1955, 1957, and 1961, despite never training specifically for the sport. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger, watching Tommy's glory, would go on to cite him as an inspiration. Years later people would ask an elderly Tommy if he knew Schwarzenegger. He'd always respond the same way: “Arnold knows me”.

A knee injury kept Tommy from competing in 1964, and a year later he retired from competition. But even this couldn't stop him leaving further marks on the sport. He went on to write two books on training, as well as a long running column in Strength and health magazine, and coached the Mexican, West German, and US Olympic teams throughout the 1960s and early 70s. Throughout the next decades he also coached lifters of all levels at the YMCA in Nuuanu, Honolulu for free.

In 1990 Tommy was inducted into the US Olypic Hall of Fame. While in 2005 he was a guest of honour at the International Weightlifting Federation's 100th anniversary celebration, where federation president Tamas Ajan named him 'Lifter of the Century'.

Tommy kept coaching well into his 80s, only retiring in 2015 to spend more time writing from sunny Honolulu, Hawaai, where he shared a home with Florence, his wife of 54 years. Sadly, he died less than a year later.

With his 26 world records and 7 Olympic records Tommy remains the most accomplished US weightlifter to this day, and likely forever.


George West