The kid was 13 and running, trying to find a place to hide from the Washington, D.C. police, who were running just as fast and not far behind. He rounded the corner of Georgia and Madison, stopped, surveyed the possibilities and decided on the recreation center to his right. He was lucky. The members of the weight-lifting team who were training in a small corner of the center agreed to hide him.
The group that gave the kid refuge in February 1974 was a collection of neighborhood boys who had been learning how to lift weights for the past three months in a corner of the recreation center. In that time they had been hassled by neighborhood pimps, bruisers who thought there was no sport in lifting weights and local pool sharks who played at the table on the other side of the room. A boy on the run from the cops was the least of their problems. According to the team's coach, Bob Thompson, "The police used to come in and handcuff some of our own guys right as they were getting ready to lift. I'd say, 'Do you mind if he finishes this before you take him away?' " But in three years such inner-city kids would form the core of the only black Olympic-style weight-lifting team in the U.S. competing on an international level—the Crushers Unlimited.
Apart from two blacks—Jim Bradford, who won a silver medal in the heavyweight class at the 1960 Olympics, and heavyweight John Davis, the 1948 and 1952 gold medalist—and Hawaiian Tommy Kono, light-heavy and heavyweight Olympic champion in 1952 and 1956, respectively, weight lifting in America has been pretty much a sport for whites living in small towns in states like Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Illinois. The development of the Crushers, in 70% black Washington. D.C., from a group of scrawny kids between the ages of 13 and 20, is a phenomenal accomplishment. In five years team members have won two Junior Olympic National championships and set seven Junior Olympic national records. Overall, the Crushers have won more than 15 team awards—at the 1978 Teenage National Weightlifting Championship they were second—and brought home more than 300 individual trophies.
Mark Cameron, a University of Maryland student who is one of the country's top Olympic lifters, says of the Crushers. 'They have all of the prejudices of society going against them. They're a pile of city black kids who have succeeded through their own abilities."
April 16, 1979
The heart of the Crushers are Adrian and Andre Johnson and Tony Sims, members of the team since its inception, and Ron Crawley, who has been a member for 2½ years.
Andre Johnson. 19, weighs 148 pounds and can snatch 209 pounds and jerk 270. He came in fourth in the 1977 Junior Olympics. His brother Adrian, 17, weighs 104 pounds and stands 5'2". He was the 1977 Washington area 114-pound champion and was seventh, sixth and fifth, respectively, in the last three Junior Olympics. Sims, 18, was the 1977 Junior Olympics champion in the 165-pound class for 16- and 17-year-olds and has won more than 100 weight-lifting awards. In 1978 he set a Junior Olympic record in the snatch by lifting 253 pounds despite being hampered by a broken toe. Crawley, 20, the 1977 Junior Olympic champion in the 123-pound class for 18- and 19-year-olds, has won more than 80 awards and has never been lower than second in any competition. He holds five Junior Olympic records, all in the 18- and 19-year age group, and finished 12th at the world championships in his class in Athens last June.
Obviously, for these four and the other six regular team members, Crushers Unlimited is more than merely an after-school activity. It is also more than a group of guys lifting weights over their heads. The Crushers are different from most teams—in the way they train, in the way they relate to each other. It is apparent in the applauding and cheering on the edge of the mats during exhibitions, the rap sessions after practice and above all in the exorbitant amount of time spent socializing together, almost to the exclusion of all family life. The Crushers have taken good old American team spirit one step beyond. For these athletes, the team is a brotherhood. Weight lifting is merely the vehicle that brought them together, and for that they have Thompson to thank.
That 41-year-old Bob Thompson should have been such a catalyst might seem highly unlikely. He is white and hails from Danville, Va., where a number of people, including Thompson's father, who has lived there all his life, "don't like a bunch of niggers hanging around the house all day." When Thompson graduated from high school in 1956, he enlisted in the Air Force in order to avoid having to go to work in the local cotton mill or one of the factories, like most everyone else. Out of service in 1961, he headed for Washington, D.C. and a job with the D.C. Fire Department. He has been there ever since.
Having been exposed to weight lifting in the service, Thompson lifted competitively from 1961 to 1964 and set the D.C. squat record in 1963. He staged local weight-lifting meets at a YMCA in the Washington area until he got married in 1964, whereupon he dropped out of the sport. But the family he hoped for never arrived, and Thompson came to feel that he hadn't been quite ready for marriage. He and his wife were divorced in 1968, and he went back to weight lifting, but this time as a coach.
"I knew I was good with children." he says. "In the neighborhood where I worked I saw many boys who had no fathers, and, since I had no children. I felt I could teach them and give them a better world to relate to. I felt that if I could only show them I cared and teach them how they could express love. I could reach them. I knew I couldn't just walk into some school or rec center. I needed a vehicle—and I thought of weight lifting."
Inner cities have an abundance of kids with nothing to do—they can be found hanging out on the corners, on stoops or around the firehouse. A great many of these kids are not so much economically deprived as emotionally deprived, as Thompson realized. One day in January 1974 Thompson asked Michael Screen, one of the kids who used to drop by the firehouse several times a week, if he'd like to learn how to lift weights. Soon Michael was bringing his friends around, and in no time the new weight-lifting team had outgrown Thompson's house. He packed up his weights and his team and moved them to a corner of a small room in the Emery Recreational Center across the street from the firehouse. The ceiling slanted, which made it difficult to lift weights overhead, and the team shared the room with a pool table and about 100 other neighborhood kids. Nevertheless, after two months the group had 10 members and was competing in local contests.
"Emery was a center with a lot of bad, but baaad, people around," says Andre Johnson. "It was more of a community thing—with crowds, drunks and all sorts of strange people milling around—than it was a gym."
But plenty of kids came, too. During the five years the Crushers have been in existence several hundred have come and gone, relatively few remaining long enough to become members of what had developed into a first-rate team. But Thompson worked diligently with the basic group: Tony, Andre and Adrian. Toward the end of 1975 Thompson got restless and took off on a five-month trip around the world, flying to Europe, then hitchhiking around India before flying back to Washington. On his return, the only thing he expected to find of the Crushers Unlimited was a set of 200-pound training weights, but working out every day and awaiting his return were Tony, Andre and Adrian.
Early in 1976 Thompson managed to secure a small classroom, about 15' by 30', at Rabaut Junior High School in northwest Washington, and the D.C. Department of Recreation donated $1,500 for equipment. The remainder of the money—some $4,000—needed to convert the classroom into an adequately equipped training room came from Thompson's pocket.
The classroom at Rabaut became more than a gym for the Crushers—it was home. They painted the walls bright blue with white zigzags, hung a bulletin board with pictures of the team on one: on another, an artist painted murals of the team in action. There is also a blackboard on which a different quotation is written each day before practice. One day it might be COMPASSION IS THE ROOT OF ALL MORALITY—ROUSSEAU. Another day it may read IF WE WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO DO, LOVE AND RESPECT EACH OTHER, AND WORK TOGETHER, THEN NOBODY WILL STOP US FROM REACHING WHATEVER GOALS WE SET—BOB THOMPSON
The room at Rabaut is open five or six days a week, with regular training sessions scheduled Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m., and with another session on Saturday morning from nine until noon, unless a meet or exhibition is planned.
The evening training period presents a scheduling difficulty for Andre, who is studying to become an aeronautical engineer. He leaves home in D.C. for work at 5:30 a.m., is at his job as an animal caretaker at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. until about 11, when he takes a bus, a subway and a train to get to his classes at National Airport in Arlington, Va. At three he takes the subway back to D.C. to train with the team until 7:30. Last semester, twice a week after practice, he went to night school at Washington University of the District of Columbia. "Without the team, sometimes I feel I might not be able to do it," he says.
When Andre was 16 his family life was in disarray, and he gave up training and considered running away from home. The team threatened to throw him out, and he changed his mind.
"Lifting kept me off the streets and changed my attitude about life." he says. "I decided that if I stuck with it, I could get something out of it. Now I plan on training until my body just won't let me anymore. If I could get a job later, just coaching other kids. I could train and be able to teach."
Fourteen-year-old Wayne Smith's father is dead, and his older brother doesn't live with the family. Wayne joined the Crushers in 1976 but after eight months he got bored with lifting—he began to feel that the people around the neighborhood were having fun, while he was just working in a hot gym—"So I stopped training. But I missed the Crushers, and I came back. They treat me like a person, and I can talk things over with them. I'm planning on sticking with the Crushers when I get out of school. Bob is like our father—we're like a family. He tries to let us know what's happening in the world."
Crawley is the oldest of the Crushers. He lives with his mother, who works as a domestic in the White House; his father is a truck driver, whom he sees infrequently. Only 5'3", he is a shy and easily intimidated young man, though, as he recalls. "I used to run the streets a lot. I was always active, but I couldn't find the right spot for me, because of my height. Now I'm doing what I like to do, and I'm good at it."
Ron is stocky and powerfully built, and has good leverage with a tattoo of a panther on his left arm. He had done some lifting here and there, and one April day in 1976 he dropped in on an exhibition. It was Olympic-style lifting, which he had never tried, but the Crushers showed him how and he took third in the 114-pound class. A few days later he joined the team, and a month later, in his first meet, the Junior Olympic National championships, he was second in his class. Today he is considered the best all-round lifter in the country for his size. Last April Crawley won the Teen-age Nationals and in June he won the Senior Nationals and finished 12th in the world championships.
In June 1976, Ron graduated from vocational school as an auto mechanic. "I would like to work during the day and teach here in the evenings," he says. "There might be a little money involved, but even if there isn't, I'm still going to teach. We're not just a team, we're friends. We're family. It's half-and-half whether I'm closer to the Crushers or to my real family."
The Crusher who has probably been through the most is Tony Sims. He is also the Crusher with the most natural weight-lifting ability—ability that may enable him to participate in the 1980 Olympics.
At 18, Tony is a good-looking, articulate, street-wise kid who stands 6', 165 pounds and can clean and jerk more than 300 pounds about as easily as other men toss an apple in the air. He sports a pierced but unadorned left ear, and has been in and out of trouble since he was 13, when he was first put on probation for stealing cars.
Tony's father isn't home much; it was an older brother who had the most influence over him. "I actually started lifting weights with my brother, who went on to play basketball and football in high school," he says. "But I can't talk to him, can't communicate with him the way I really want to."
Tony joined the Crushers in 1974 and stayed out of trouble for a while, but last year he started backsliding and it seemed there was nothing anyone could do about it, including the Crushers. He quit the team and hung out with another kind of gang.
"We used to do things like set up our own bumper cars with real cars," he says. "I started stealing because I wasn't getting enough out of weight lifting anymore and I wanted a car to ride around in—a little responsibility."
Thompson sums up the Crushers' view of Tony. "He was like an idol to them, an older brother. Tony was here almost from the start, and everybody looked up to him. When they found out he was stealing cars it was a shock. Some of the boys just couldn't understand it. And the trouble with Tony hurt me. It was an unsaid thing, but it ripped me up and I think it ripped the Crushers up. He had let us down."
And then one day Tony found him-self trapped in the middle of a side street in Montgomery County, Md. with two very scared young ladies sitting beside him in the front seat of a stolen car, police cars blocking both entrances to the street and policemen standing behind those cars with drawn guns.
The offense was grand larceny. However, Tony was a minor, it was his first arrest in Maryland, and the Montgomery police department was sympathetic. It decided not to report the matter to the Washington police if Tony promised that he would stay out of trouble for the next six months.
The only thing Tony still seemed to have at that point was the Crushers—if they would take him back.
"He was so scared, he was sweating when he came to see me," Thompson says. "He told me he used to ride by the gym but was too ashamed to come in. Tony's not a mean kid, or a bad kid, he was just misdirected.
"I'm sure he felt that he had let the Crushers down. But after it was all over, the group said they knew he could do it—get himself back together."
But it was up to Tony to face them. One day at the end of practice he showed up at the gym, stood in the middle of the floor and said quietly, "I would like to apologize for what I did. I'm sorry. I'd like another chance."
No one said anything. Finally, one by one, the Crushers filed by and silently shook his hand. The prodigal son was welcomed home, though not without reservations. Adrian shook Tony's hand, but left the gym muttering, "I don't want to be around him anymore." (He later changed his mind.)
"Tony was headed for some bad news," Thompson says. "If it hadn't been for the Crushers, he'd be in the can right now. He has a real need for the team. With Andre and Adrian it was a little different. They were headed in the right direction, they just needed a father figure, and I gave them that. Ron had his head together when he came here.
"But I have gotten just as much out of the Crushers as Tony or anyone. I need the program as much as they need it. I've gotten my head together, too. I owe everything I've got to them."
The Crushers put on free exhibitions anywhere in the Washington/Virginia/Maryland area that will let them lay down their mats. During the last two years they have put more than 70,000 miles on the fire-engine-red 1974 Dodge van that has become their mobile home, while traveling to Wheaton, Md. and as far away as Mexico.
People sometimes refer to the team as Bob Thompson's Crushers, but they are the Crushers, plus Bob Thompson—friendly, sensitive and together. On a Friday night before an exhibition they will ride by the Wheaton Mall in Maryland and sit in the parking lot, staring up at the bright sign advertising an exhibition by THE CRUSHERS UNLIMITED—AN OLYMPIC WEIGHT-LIFTING TEAM. Or, when no activities are planned, they will go bike riding or spend a Saturday afternoon gokarting and eating pizza at Shakey's,'and end up spending the night at Thompson's house.
Before an exhibition, the team concentrates on the members who are lifting that day, massaging their legs and arms, rubbing down their backs. When someone completes a difficult lift, the rest of the Crushers stand cheering and shouting, showing team spirit in what is traditionally an individual sport. "Lifting the weights on the platform is up to you," Tony says, "but the team keeps you going. What makes us stay together is we love everybody. The Crushers are getting us prepared for the world."