Weightlifters are the groundhogs of American Olympic athletes. They apparently spend most of their time between Games in a hole somewhere, from which they emerge ever so briefly into the limelight about once per annum. This year they cast their shadows at the National Sports Festival last week in Colorado Springs, and in the three days before they rushed back out of sight, they reaffirmed that the U.S. team has two medal threats for the '84 Games. Curt White, in the 181¾-pound class, and Jeff Michels, in the 242-pounds-and-over division, were the Festival's two big stars, but the weight they lifted last week was nothing compared to the load they must now bear as America's brightest hopes in this sport at the Summer Games in Los Angeles.
The U.S. has won only three weight-lifting medals in the past 20 years, and no American lifter has taken home a gold since 1960, when Chuck Vinci finished first in the 123-pound class. The U.S. dominated the sport from the 1948 Olympics until the late '50s, but next year White and Michels will face a formidable lineup from the U.S.S.R., Bulgaria and other Soviet bloc countries. "They have 20 people over there who can beat our national champions, and we don't even know who they are," says U.S. Coach Harvey Newton. At the moment, Michels' personal best total (the clean and jerk and the snatch combined) is 897 pounds, against a world record of 959 pounds; White's highest is 780 pounds, 101.8 pounds short of the world mark.
Though they're held in similar regard in their sport, Michels, the technician, and White, the fiery competitor, could not be less alike as lifters. However, they do have in common a rather remarkable knack for not letting their weightlifting get in the way of a good time. White, in particular, has a bent for the bent. He's 20 years old and has been lifting for 12 years. From time to time during those years, the bar must have fallen on his head and altered his outlook on life.
White is only 5'7", but his bulging body is as solid as a rock, and he insists he doesn't even eat a lot, mostly just small meals. "I go out with girls who eat more than I do," says White, who lives in Charleston, Ill. and attends Eastern Illinois University. "Of course, you should see the girls I go out with."
The most important thing for a top athlete, White believes, is staying loose, an important fact often forgotten in the midst of rigorous training. White doesn't forget. "I go out and drink three or four nights a week," he says. "Relaxation is important. There are guys who sit around their rooms thinking about lifting, and they aren't any better for it. My friend Louie Mucardo and I don't believe that's any way to train. We like to go out, get drunk and raise hell."
To understand White, it's important to know that he considers Hawkeye Pierce, the incorrigible doctor from M* A* S* H, and Arthur, the drunk from the movie of the same name, to have the right attitude. Before his Sports Festival triumph. White put in a dedicated night at the training table. "I had 15 whiskey and Sevens." he says. "Write that down. It wasn't a pretty sight. Ugly, in fact. I still don't know how I got home. That could be why I was a little shaky on my winning lift."
Michels, who also believes in serious relaxation, grew up in a predominantly German neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. His father worked in a hydraulics factory there for 30 years; his mother tended bar for 11 years at a place called the Chicago Drinking Company. He didn't get into weightlifting until he was a scrawny 16-year-old. "I didn't even know there were world championships when I started out," says Michels, 21, who is studying electronics at DeVry Institute of Technology in Chicago. "I never thought about competing then." He wasn't able to overpower heavyweights, but from the start his leverage and flexibility were good, and it quickly became apparent that his technique with the bar was world class. "He's not as naturally strong as a lot of weightlifters," says Newton, "so he uses technique to his advantage."
Technique is just another way of saying form, agility and flexibility, and technique can help the weaker lifter beat the stronger. Michels' most obvious deficiency has always been his lack of strength. "He's not weak," says Newton, "but he's not as strong proportionally as you would expect." His lack of power may have even helped Michels in the beginning. "Building strength is often the easier part," says Newton. "It's a lot easier to take a skinny kid and teach him technique and then build strength later than it is to teach good technique to someone who's already got the necessary strength."
Last week in Colorado Springs, the 6'1½" Michels was up to 250 pounds so that he could compete in the super heavyweight division. That's the weight class once dominated by Vasily Alexeyev, the Russian behemoth with the enormous belly who won gold medals at the '72 and '76 Olympics. Alexeyev is gone now, retired to some Soviet fat collective, but he isn't forgotten. "We got too much exposure with Alexeyev and his belly," says Newton. "The result was that there were a lot of mothers out there who were saying they didn't want their kids to go into the sport. That's why it would be such a good thing for us to do well in Los Angeles next year. Curt and Jeff are both kids that people can identify with."
Americans might be able to identify with them, but they'll probably find it hard to relate to the fact that Michels at 250 pounds still manages to keep his waistline at 34 inches. Not only that, he has a standing vertical leap of 42 inches, just two less than basketball's skywalking David Thompson.
Michels is extremely self-confident, and sometimes he rubs other weight-lifters the wrong way. "Many people think he's cocky," says Newton. "He's not as popular as Curt within the weight-lifting fraternity, but I think he's been misjudged." Bob Wentlejewski, another American lifter, isn't so sure about that. "Michels is a very, very cocky guy," says Wentlejewski. "He'll come up to you and say, 'Hi, my name is Jeff Michels. I snatch 414, and I'm going to do better in the next meet.' He's very obnoxious in that way, so everybody stays away from him. Nobody dislikes Jeff, but you can only put up with so much of that egotistical stuff."
White also has great confidence in himself as an athlete, and he's so aggressive that until four years ago he used to literally run up to the bar and lift it almost in one motion. But Newton believes White is actually the less secure of the two lifters, a follower, and he cites as proof that the person White now considers his inspiration—he doesn't have an official coach—is a St. Louis chiropractor named Ralph Filson who cured a back problem that had plagued White for about five years. "That's a big part of Curt's success," Newton says. "He finds somebody or something he believes in, and once he has that he does the rest of the work himself." White lacks Michels' refined technical skills, but he is a superb mental lifter.
White was originally attracted to weightlifting for what now seem like obvious reasons. "I don't like breathing hard, and weightlifting training is pretty relaxed," he says. "It stayed relaxed the first two years, but by the time I hit 10 I started competing pretty seriously." When he was 14 years old, still a junior by the sport's reckoning, he won the men's national championship in the 114-pound class, and the age records he set still stand.
White's exuberant style has always made him a crowd favorite, just as he was last Friday at the Air Force Academy. "I'm ragged and crazy," he says. "I like to go berserk, go as fast and as hard as I can. When I'm going out to the bar, I'm in a rage. I don't see the crowd, but I feel it. During the lift it's like I'm in a different world, almost like a dream." He snatched 330.7 pounds for a Festival record, and in the clean and jerk, his specialty, he lifted 402.3 pounds, for a total of 733 pounds, 66 more than the runner-up, Mark Levell of Chicago.
Michels' approach is much calmer and more deliberate. "Everybody can be strong, but not everybody can be mentally involved," Michels says. Fie had been entered in the Festival as a heavyweight, but chose to disqualify himself for a medal and go instead for the American records in the snatch and total in the super heavyweight division. His snatch of 414.4 pounds got him the first mark he was after, and his total of 892 surpassed the existing record by nearly five pounds.
With that the-weightlifters dropped out of sight again for another year. The next time we'll see them will be at the Los Angeles Olympics. Or in White's case, probably Tijuana.