JIM SCHMITZ'S WEIGHTLIFTING LEGACY
Meet the man who sets the gold medal standard in coaching weightlifters
By Kim Goss
Published: Spring 2002
There are a few remarkable coaches in history who have set themselves apart from others by their accomplishments, inspiring their athletes to achieve what many thought impossible. What’s more, they have achieved their success with class and integrity, accepting their obligations as leaders and role models by refusing to compromise their core values. Basketball guru Phil Jackson is such a coach, as is football genius Joe Paterno and baseball legend Yogi Berra. These men will forever be remembered in the sports record books as “The Best.” In Olympic-style weightlifting, one coach who deserves to stand proudly beside these other great men is Jim Schmitz.
Schmitz has earned his reputation as one of the most accomplished Olympic weightlifting coaches in the United States. He has trained 11 Olympians - including three athletes who have clean and jerked 500 pounds and two who have snatched 400 pounds - and his team won the national championships seven times. He was selected as the United States Weightlifting Team Coach for the 1980 and 1988 Olympic Games, and served as the president of the United States Weightlifting Federation. He is also an accomplished coach of women lifters, having trained three who competed in the world championships. What makes these accomplishments even more noteworthy is the fact that most of his athletes have trained no more than two hours a day, three days a week, while holding full-time jobs. Further, Schmitz has never charged a penny for his coaching, and with few exceptions has paid his own way to national and world competitions.
of a Weightlifting Coach
Although Schmitz had lifted weights since his teen years, his major focus in high school and college was becoming bigger, faster and stronger for football. Since strength coaching was a relatively new field, Schmitz learned the basics of Olympic lifting, as so many athletes did in those days, by reading magazines and studying the now classic books on strength training such as those by Joe Bonomo. A 1968 graduate of San Francisco State College, Schmitz played on the defensive line and earned MVP honors for his team. But at 5’10” and 200 pounds he didn’t have the size to play in the NFL, so when his final season ended on the college gridiron he decided to change his athletic focus to Olympic-style weightlifting.
After receiving his degree in physical education in 1968, Schmitz became a co-owner of Alex’s Sports Palace Gym in San Francisco on Mission Street. The gym was a hardcore, free weight facility, or as Schmitz says, “The Sports Palace was a triceps and biceps, squat and bench, snatch and clean-and-jerk type of gym.” It had two lifting platforms, but when Schmitz came on board there was only one member who practiced competitive weightlifting, Walt Gioseffi. Gioseffi and Schmitz became good friends, and Gioseffi helped Schmitz learn many of the finer points of the classical lifts: the Olympic press (which was dropped from lifting competition after the 1972 Olympics), the snatch and the clean and jerk. Schmitz eventually reached a level where he could Olympic press 281, snatch 275 and clean and jerk 347 at a bodyweight of 200 pounds.
As Schmitz’s training knowledge grew, so did the number of Olympic lifters and potential Olympic lifters interested in training at Alex’s gym. One of the first was Dan Cantore, a future Olympian and American record holder who peaked with best lifts of 281 in the snatch and 358 in the clean and jerk at 148 pounds bodyweight. “Cantore and the other lifters who were now training at the Sports Palace were really good,” says Schmitz. “I watched them, helped them at contests, and as the Sports Palace lifting team evolved I found myself taking on a greater role in their training. I really liked what I was doing, and began to realize that coaching was my calling so I just stayed with it.”
The word spread quickly that Schmitz was an intelligent coach who could motivate athletes to perform their best at competitions. Soon the personable Schmitz found himself working with Ken Patera, a super-heavyweight lifter (over 242 pounds bodyweight) who became the first American to clean and jerk 500 pounds and the only American to Olympic press over 500 pounds (505.5). Many weightlifting experts believed that Patera had the best chance of any American lifter to defeat the famous Russian champion Vasily Alexeev. Unfortunately, an injury kept Patera from seriously challenging Alexeev in the 1972 Olympics, and a commitment to professional wrestling closed the door for good on any future Olympic battles for Patera.
In 1972 Schmitz was able to buy out his partners, and he moved the gym four and a half blocks to an old neighborhood on Valencia Street. He also shortened the name of the gym to simply the Sports Palace. His new location turned out to be a good one, enabling him to make enough profit to travel to numerous national and international competitions throughout the year. The new gym was also close to Mission High School, where Ken Clark was then enrolled. While in school Clark walked into the Sports Palace looking for a place to train, and Schmitz coached him to the Olympic games and to American records of 363 in the snatch and 470 in the clean and jerk at 220 pounds bodyweight.
As Schmitz’s stable of Sports Palace athletes continued to grow, his goals began to change. “As my team got better, I began to think that we might be able to win the national championships,” says Schmitz. “That was in the late ‘70s, and it took us until 1982 to win the national championships.” The significance of this achievement is that his team beat the York Barbell Club, which had won the championships for 29 years in a row. The York team was composed of athletes throughout the country who were sponsored by York, whereas almost all Schmitz’s athletes were from the San Francisco Bay Area and were dues-paying members at Schmitz’s gym. Proving the victory was not a fluke, the Sports Palace team went on to win seven more national titles.
Asking Schmitz who his favorite lifters are is like asking a father which of his children he likes the best - he just can’t do it. Schmitz was willing, however, to describe some of the best qualities of each of the following Olympians he has trained. “Ken Patera was the absolute strongest, Bruce Wilhelm [the first American to snatch 400 pounds] trained the hardest, Thanh Nguyen had the most natural talent, Ken Clark had the most determination, and Mario Martinez [415 snatch, 513 clean and jerk and a silver medalist in the 1984 Olympics] had the most success.”
In addition to developing new talent, Schmitz was also able to rejuvenate the careers of many lifters who had suffered slumps. For example, Tom Hirtz’s lifting had stagnated for several years until he came to Schmitz. Hirtz went on to eventually set an American record in the snatch of 342 pounds at 181 pounds bodyweight. Mark Cameron, already an accomplished lifter, moved to San Francisco to train with Schmitz for five months and soon afterwards clean and jerked 501.5 pounds while competing in the 242-pound bodyweight class.
One quality that sets Schmitz apart is that he has been able to work especially well with super heavyweights, having coached three of the four Americans who have clean and jerked 500 pounds. In addition to coaching Patera, Wilhelm and Cameron, he also coached John Bergman (396 snatch, 496 clean and jerk) and Tom Stock (391 snatch, 490 clean and jerk). “Superheavys have to train a little differently because they have big bodies they’re lifting as well as the big weights,” says Schmitz. “Their recovery is different and for a lot of them there are differences in their flexibility and their speed. I’ve been lucky to have the supers that I’ve had, but with two Olympians in the lighter classes (Cantore and Nguygen, who both weighed less than 150 pounds) I’ve proven I can coach these athletes