Mom and I enjoyed a family reunion last Saturday, in an unlikely place - at the CrossFit Maui facility in Kahului. Actually, the venue was appropriate, being that this family was not connected through blood ties; it was bound together by blood, sweat and tears. Mostly sweat.
The occasion was the Doc Yogi Maui Invitational Weightlifting Meet, and the 'ohana was made up of Maui and Oahu lifters and supporters. Named for my late father, the event was resurrected after more than 10 years by a handful of "Daddy's boys," as I called the hundreds of young men he trained in our garage. Still a relatively obscure sport, Olympic-style weightlifting is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to the popularity of cross-training programs like CrossFit.
Olympic weightlifting involves more than brute strength; mobility and flexibility are crucial in executing the competitive lifts called the snatch and the clean and jerk. In the snatch, the barbell is lifted from the floor to overhead in a single, smooth movement. The clean and jerk consists of two steps, from floor to shoulders (the clean), then the jerk from shoulders to overhead. When done properly, both lifts, but especially the snatch, are beautiful to behold: explosive yet graceful.
Three-time Olympic medalist Tommy Kono is considered by many to be the greatest weightlifter of the 20th century. He is the only athlete in history to have set world records (26!) in four different bodyweight classes. He also excelled in physique contests, winning the Mr. Universe title in 1955, 1957 and 1961. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called Kono his boyhood idol, having been inspired by watching Kono compete in the 1960 World championships in Vienna.
Born and raised in California, Kono adopted Honolulu as his home in 1970 and continues to play an active role in Hawaii weightlifting as an official and a mentor. He and my father, a national champion lifter himself, were longtime friends, and I remember him coming to Maui as the celebrity attraction at local weightlifting meets in the early 1960s.
Daddy was a competitor in those old Wailuku Gym meets, and his weightlifting technique was, indeed, beautiful. I loved watching my father lift. During a break in the contest, Uncle Tommy would rip a phone book in half or drive a nail into a two-by-four with his bare hands. But mostly I remember how kind and gentle he seemed, with the same soft-spoken strength and confidence that my father carried. Both Daddy and Uncle Tommy devoted countless hours to coaching young athletes and teaching lessons beyond how to lift weights.
In the online magazine Oldtime Strongman, Uncle Tommy expressed his philosophy in an article titled "If I Had My Way."
If I had my way, the weightlifting area would be treated like a "dojo" as the martial arts students would use their area and equipment for training. . . . The entire area would be treated with respect from the bar to the barbell plates. . . . The barbell lifted would never be "thrown" down or dropped from overhead except for safety reasons. . . . Anger from a failed lift would be controlled so no four-lettered words would be used. Instead the energy (from) the anger would be directed for a positive result.
. . . Development of a strong character begins with respect even for innate objects.
Daddy's boys, including Maui's two-time Olympian Vernon Patao, were trained in that way. My father's No. 1 rule was that his lifters (which eventually included women) show respect and humility at all times, and he, like Uncle Tommy, led by example.
I was moved to tears twice on Saturday; the first time when Mom and I walked into the meet and spotted Uncle Tommy in the audience. While he and Mom reminisced and reacquainted, I caught up with Vernon, who, with Frank Tam, organized the day's event.
Vernon and his brother Val have opened Patao Weightlifting at CrossFit Maui, training lifters the way they were taught in our garage. Vernon told me that his mission is to carry on Daddy's legacy of building character along with strength. I got all choked up as I listened to him echo my father's words as well as his passion. I knew he meant it, because I kept a close eye on the lifters wearing "Patao Weightlifting" shirts. On or off the platform, they carried the weights, as well as themselves, with respect.
Daddy would have been proud. Mom and I certainly were.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.