George Ernie Pickett, Pt 2

by Bill Starr | November 07, 2012

george ernie pickett

After the ’66 Senior Nationals, where Ernie had finished dead last in the heavyweight division, he decided to lose weight. He didn’t care for the way he looked weighing 280. Ernie was very much the ladies man and he felt he would be more attractive if he were a lot lighter. So for the next nine months, he shed pounds and switched the focus of his training to bodybuilding rather than Olympic lifting. He still included the three competitive lifts in his routine, but they were done with much less weight since he was considerably lighter.

And since he wasn’t planning on entering any Olympic meets for a while, he stopped coming up to York to train. Rather, he did his training at the Downtown YMCA in Baltimore or at one of the Holiday Health Spas. Then in March of ’67, he decided to enter an Olympic meet and see how he fared. He fully understood that he wasn’t going to come close to what he did when he was much heavier, but he really enjoyed doing the Olympic lifts. 

He entered the South Atlantic Championships, 18 March, and did 300, 260, 300. He totaled two hundred pounds less than he did when he won the Junior Nationals in San Jose, California the previous year. He had dropped eighty pounds and did have a much more appealing physique, but he was also a great deal weaker. That, in his mind, was totally unacceptable. He decided that being strong was more important than how he appeared to the weaker sex. He would just have to sacrifice having a six-pack and go back to packing on bodyweight so he could once again move the heavy weights.

The routine he used was quite different from what anyone else would have done to get in shape for the three Olympic lifts. He built his program around power movements and only included enough snatches and clean and jerks to maintain decent form on those quick lifts. He did lots of bench presses, which nearly every other Olympic lifter in the country shunned. He also did deadlifts, another exercise few Olympic lifters ever did because they thought the slow movements would make them slower in the cleans and snatches. Ernie didn’t agree with that idea. He believed if he made his body stronger overall, that strength could be applied to any other exercise. He also did heavy inclines, high pulls for both the snatch and clean, and front and back squats. Plus overhead presses.

As he steadily began to regain the lost bodyweight, all his lifts improved accordingly. But when the ’67 Seniors rolled around in June, he knew that he wasn’t ready to go up against Barski, Ski, Gubner, and Dube, so he didn’t go to Columbus. Most in attendance figured that Ernie had quit the sport altogether. He hadn’t been driving up to York, so Tommy, Barski, March, Garcy, Homer, and I had no idea what he was up to. What he was doing was getting bigger and stronger. I entered the Junior National Powerlifting Championships in Paterson, New Jersey, that summer and was happy to find out that Ernie had entered as well. Tommy went with me and we urged Ernie to start coming up to York again. He said he would, adding that he really missed the atmosphere of the YBC. 

Ernie won the heavyweight class, tying Jim Williams of Scranton, PA with a 1705 total. Ernie had to pull out a 705 deadlift to overcome a 90-lb. deficit after Jim had out-benched and out-squatted him. 

Bob Hoffman was, of course, in attendance and had always wanted Ernie to represent the YBC. Hoffman was especially fond of big men, and Ernie once again belonged in that category. The Senior Nationals for Powerlifting would be held in York the following month and Hoffman encouraged Ernie to enter wearing the York Barbell colors. 

Ernie told him that he was planning on focusing on the Olympic lifts for the rest of the summer, but he would think about it. Ernie started showing up at the YBC again, always for the group lifting on Saturdays and usually at least once during the week. His system of using the powerlifts to improve his Olympic lifts brought him good results. In one session on a Saturday, he put together a rather amazing 1100-lb. total, 385, 297, 418. That was thirty pounds more than he had done when he won the Junior Nationals. He was definitely on a roll.

Ernie did lift in the Senior National Powerlifting Contest and placed second, although he hadn’t done any of those lifts, other than the back squat, since he had competed at the Juniors in Paterson. Many in attendance were duly impressed with his pure strength, yet most lifters and officials during that period of time considered powerlifting and Olympic lifting to be two vastly different sports. Merely being strong didn’t mean he could excel in the much more athletic Olympic movements.  

Yet what Ernie did the following day, however, attracted notice from those who governed the sport of Olympic lifting.  Rudy Sablo,  Morris Weissbrot, Bob Crist, Joe Peters, Butch Toth, Hoffman, and Terpak had officiated the power meet and they were also present at Brookside Park, in Dover, for the York Picnic. 

Ernie had driven home after lifting in the power meet and come back the next day, mostly to visit with the other members of the YBC. Hoffman approached him to demonstrate the press, even though Ernie had benched 460 the night before. Ernie reluctantly agreed, thinking that he had to do what Hoffman asked since he was now a member of the York team. 

Ernie hadn’t planned on doing any lifting so hadn’t brought along any of his lifting gear. He had to borrow a belt and lifted in shorts, t-shirt, and gym shoes. No one in the crowd expected much out of him, since they all knew that he had gone to max on the three powerlifts less than 24-hours before, so they were both shocked and delighted when he pressed 400 pounds. This instantly changed the minds of those who ran the sport. There were only three heavyweights pressing this much: Gubner, Dube, and Barski. 

But Barski was no longer able to do presses at all. He was recovering from what many considered a career-ending injury he sustained at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Canada in August. Barski and Joe Dube were battling it out, with Joe taking a 6 1/2-lb lead in the press. Dube only managed 314 in the snatch, opening the door for Barski. Bob opened with 350, missed, came back to make it and called for 347. This would give him a healthy lead and establish a new Pan-American Record. Barski loved to break records.

He pulled the weight overhead with power to spare and locked it out. Then the bar began to travel backward but Barski was determined to save it – too determined as it turned out, because the bar won that battle and he dislocated his left elbow. That meant he would not be able to take part in the Little Olympics in Mexico City in October. The plan was to send the same lifters who competed in the Pan-Americans to the contest in Mexico City, which was to serve as that year’s World Championships.

So it was decided to have a tryout between Gubner and Ski to fill the vacancy in the heavyweight class. Both of them had bombed out at the Seniors, but were still considered the two best contenders in that division. No one had even thought about Ernie. He had been beaten by Tommy Suggs at the Seniors, then virtually disappeared from Olympic lifting for over a year. But that monster press at the York Picnic changed all that. Ernie got invited to take part in the tryout. 

Thus began the rather strange turn of events that sent Barski and Ernie onto paths that would eventually alter both of their lifting careers. First and foremost was the fact that Barski got injured. If he had made it through the Pan-Ams unscathed there would have been no reason for a tryout. Secondly, if Ernie hadn’t decided to go to the Junior Powerlifting Championship on a whim just to see how his training program was working out, he would never have encountered Hoffman and would not have even bothered entering the Senior National Powerlift Meet since he planned on concentrating on the Olympic lifts exclusively after the Juniors. And if he hadn’t lifted in the power meet, he would never have been invited to perform at the York Picnic, and therefore he would have not been able to impress the officials in attendance and receive a chance to make the team for the Little Olympics.

Another twist of fate, at least to me, was that once Ernie was asked to take part in the tryout, which was to be held in the York Gym just two weeks after the picnic, Barski took Ernie under his broken wing and did everything in his power to get his friend and teammate ready for the biggest contest of Ernie’s life. Barski wasn’t, of course, training as usual. He was receiving expert advice and therapy from Dr. Russell Wright of Detroit and Dr. John Ziegler. But he always took time to encourage Ernie at every workout and now Ernie was driving up from Baltimore four times a week to get ready for the tryout.

On the day of the tryout, Barski served as Ernie’s platform coach. Few people outside of the YBC realized that Barski was a terrific coach. He had an excellent eye for form, but what he did best was motivate a lifter to higher and higher levels. This is how Joe Mills had coached him and that’s how he pushed Ernie on that eventful Saturday. There is no doubt in my mind that it was Barski’s influence that made a huge difference in Ernie’s performance that day. Barski was able to transfer his tremendous enthusiasm and self-confidence to the older, but much less experienced lifter. 

The York Gym was packed as fans came from long distances to watch this classic showdown of heavyweights up close. While it was common knowledge that Ernie had recently pressed 400 and totalled 1100 in training, he was still the underdog by a wide margin. Most figured that the main reason he had been added to the program was to give Gubner and Ski more time between attempts. 

I’d say that the only person there that day who honestly thought that Ernie had a chance of defeating Gubner, a former national champion and runner-up at the 1965 World Championships, and Norbert Schemansky (“Ski” to us), a veteran with a wealth of experience under his belt – four Olympic medals, three World Championships, and nine National titles – was Barski. He planned on doing everything he could to help his friend make the team going to Mexico City in October. 

Prior to the battle of the heavyweights, Barski let everyone know that the rehabbing of his elbow was coming along nicely. The doctors in Winnipeg who operated on him said that he might never regain full use of that elbow and, at best, it would take him at least six months before he would be able to lift weights again. Yet just six weeks after his injury, he pressed 300 for three reps in front of a stunned audience in the York Gym. His remarkable recovery was due, for the most part, to the efforts of Dr. Russell Wright, a miracle man when it came to getting athletes back in action. He was the team doctor for the three pro teams in Detroit: Tigers, Red Wings, and Lions, and was regarded as the absolute best in his field in the country.

Ski weighed in at 274, Pickett 291, and Gubner 293. Ernie did have a bit of a home court advantage since he was used to lifting on the number one platform in the York Gym. That platform wasn’t stable and it took some trial and error to find out just where to stand so that the platform wouldn’t sway to one side or the other during a lift. 

Ski opened with 375 in the press and the platform moved slightly as he drove the weight overhead and he lost it. With Joe Puleo’s help, he moved the bar to a sweet spot in the dead center of the platform and he made the 375 easily. Ernie and Gubner came in at 380 and both made three-white-light successes. Ski called for 390, knowing this was a must-make lift if he was going to beat Gubner. It was close but he couldn’t quite lock it out. Ernie and Gary moved to 400 and to everyone’s surprise, Gary missed the clean. Ernie stepped up and did a smooth, powerful press. Gary had another tough clean but made the press this time. With Barski shouting out keys and encouragement, Ernie took 410 and rammed it home. He was leading Gubner and Ski, something no one would have thought could happen. 

At the start of the contest, the majority of the crowd was firmly behind Ski. But with this unexpected turn of events, many shifted their allegiance to Ernie. I think all sports fans like to root for an underdog, and Ernie was certainly that. However, the contest was far from over. Gubner was capable of throwing up big numbers on the snatch and Ski was absolutely one of the greatest snatchers in the history of the sport. Ernie knew full well that he would need much more than the 297 he had snatched when he put together that 1100-lb. total after the Junior National Power Meet.  

After having trouble with 255 during his warm-ups, Ernie settled down and made his opener with 300 rather easily. Ski started with a silky-smooth 310. Ernie took 315 and missed it badly. He would need that much if he were to stay in the hunt for the top spot. There were no rewards for second or third. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, Ernie, heeding Barski’s advice, declined taking the same weight again. 

Barski told me later that they wanted to see how Gubner dealt with the snatches as his warm-ups were really rough. Gary took 320 for his opener, missed it, and then missed it again. Ernie stepped in and made that weight with power to spare. Gubner tightened his belt and with strong encouragement from the New Yorkers in the crowd, finally succeeded with 320. But found himself still trailing Ernie by ten pounds. 

Ski took 325 for his second attempt and with flawless technique, made it easily. He called for 335, which would put in back in the thick of the battle. One of the most impressive sights in all of Olympic lifting was watching Ski stand over a bar and mentally prepare for the lift. He would place his hands on his hips, glare down at the bar and rock back and forth slightly. It was almost as if he was willing the bar to soar up over his head. On this occasion, that’s exactly what happened. The vocal crowd was treated to one of those picture perfect split snatches that only Ski could manage. He had made up fifteen pounds on the leader. 

Now those who were packed in the York Gym were getting extremely excited. Could they be witnessing a major upset? It surely seemed likely because Ernie was definitely on. Both the press and snatch were personal records and with Barski urging him on with the kind of enthusiasm that only Barski possessed, Ernie was gaining confidence with every attempt. 

But, again, Ski and Gary were much better in the clean and jerk than Ernie, whose best was 418, while Gubner had done 440 and Ski 445. It was still anybody’s race coming down the home stretch. 

Ski opened with a safe 400. Ernie started with a solid 410, and Gubner made 415 easily. Now the strategy and weight selection became very critical. Gubner had Morris Weissbrot and Rudy Sablo in his corner, and Joe Puleo was helping Ski. Barski and Ernie knew all too well that a big lift was needed in order to force Ski and Gary to take a weight that was too much for them to handle on this afternoon. 

Ski took 420, made it comfortably, then sat back and waited to see how much he would need to win. Gubner was also waiting. Ernie called for 425. This would be yet another PR. He made it with a strong clean and powerful jerk. The question on everyone’s minds was, does he have another lift in him? As it stood right then, both Ski and Gubner were capable of overtaking him. 

Ernie was getting advice from everywhere in the gym. Barski finally waved a towel and told them to shut up, then conferred with Ernie, and announced, “He’ll take 435.”  

A hush settled over the crowd as the bar was loaded and Ernie mounted the platform. Ernie hauled the weight to his shoulders with more pure power than form, made an easy recovery, then got set for the jerk. This was the part of the lift that usually caused him problems, but he made a solid jerk for three whites. When he set the weight back on the platform, Barski ran to him, lifted him up and led the crowd in cheering. 

But the meet wasn’t over yet. Gubner had two more attempts and Ski one. Gubner needed 450 to win and Ski 455. Ski was wise enough to know that he wasn’t ready for that much weight and didn’t want to risk injuring himself again. He was just recovering from several injures that had plagued him in the past year.

Gubner, on the other hand, believed he could handle 450. He was wrong. It was way too much. When he failed on his last attempt, the crowd erupted. Gubner showed excellent sportsmanship. After his miss, he walked over to Ernie and said, “Congratulations. You surprised me.” He shook Ernie’s hand. 

Gary wasn’t the only one who was surprised by Ernie’s performance that day. His press, snatch, clean and jerk, and total were all personal bests and he had put 65 pounds on his total in a month. Seemingly, out of nowhere, he had emerged as one of the best heavyweights in the world. And what most people didn’t know was that Ernie had worked half a day at the Continental Can Company in Baltimore before driving to York for the meet. 

After all the excitement settled down and Ernie showered and changed, Tommy and I walked with him up the street to Barski’s apartment to celebrate. Ernie seemed to be in a daze, “I still can’t believe I’m on that team,” he said. 

“But you are,” Tommy stated firmly. “You lifted great. You earned it.”

“But I haven’t been doing anything different in my training.” 

“Well,” I interjected, “I think all that power training you did in the summer and laying off the Olympic lifts helped a great deal. Plus, you’re heavier than you’ve ever been.” 

He nodded, and I added, “And you had Barski in your corner. That might have been worth sixty-five pounds”  

“I think he might have been worth more than that,” Ernie said with feeling.

This contest was certainly the turning point in Ernie’s lifting career. But it was not all smooth sailing for him as he turned in a lackluster performance in Mexico City and only did 1120 at the Empire State Invitational in December and 1130 at the Philly Open in January of ‘68. 

Once again, he trailed Barski, Gubner, Ski, and Dube. The question was, would Ernie be ready for the Olympic Trials at the end of August? 

  • Part 1
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  • Part 4
  • Part 5
  • Part 6
  • Part 7
  • Part 8
  • Part 9
  • Part 10
  • Part 11
  • Part 12
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