George Ernie Pickett, Pt 9


by Bill Starr | October 13, 2013

george ernie pickett

The Mexico Olympic Games drew a record number of participants: 5530, with 4249 of those being men and 781 women. They came from 112 countries and competed in 172 events in 18 sports. Mexico City’s high altitude, 7,350 feet, made life difficult for distance runners, but in the explosive events, the XIX Olympiad was a festival of record breaking, with 34 world and 38 Olympic records set.

Oddly enough, it was determined that all of those extraordinary performances were mainly a result of the high altitude. The topic had dominated the press before the Games and the consensus was that those athletes from lowland countries would be at a handicap in Mexico City. However, several weeks of training at high altitude led to an increase in oxygen supply to the muscles and this enhanced their performances.

While history was being made on the track, the long iump, high jump, in the pool, on the discus ring, in gymnastics, on the soccer field, and in the boxing ring, Smitty and I saw none of these achievements. The only sport we saw was weightlifting, and we saw a great deal of it. Plus, the inside of buses.

We had a routine we followed almost to the letter every day. We got up at 8am and had a huge breakfast prepared by Victoria, the Dollero’s maid, usually steaks, fried eggs, potatoes, sliced papaya and freshly-squeezed orange juice, milk, and coffee. Then we would hike a half hour to the bus stop on Insurentes Avenue and wait another half hour, or longer, to catch the bus that would take us to the Villa Olimpico.

When we arrived at the Olympic Village, we walked to the high rise where the team was staying and took the elevator up to the tenth floor. We would visit with the lifters: Puleo, Lowe, Knipp, Bartholomew, Dube, Grippaldi, and Ernie. The only topic was training. There was seldom any mention of what was going on in the other sports events. All of us had but one thing on our minds – to be 100% prepared for the task ahead.

Then we would walk over to the dining hall for lunch just before noon. This allowed the lifters time to digest their meals before going to the training facility. Our scheduled times were from two to four. All of the lifters, with the exception of Phil, ate sparingly. For a couple of reasons. Other than Ernie and Joe Dube, they all had to make weight and secondly, having a full stomach didn’t bode well for a heavy training session.

After a short rest in their rooms, they gathered their gym bags and walked to the main entrance and waited for the bus that would take us to the training facility. Typically, it was late, but since we started early for that very reason, everyone still had a full two hours in which to get their planned sessions in.

We weren’t, of course, the only team working out at the facility. Training at the same time as the Americans were the Russians, Hungarians, Poles, and Japanese. The training hall was well-equipped to handle all of these athletes comfortably. I was very impressed. Russ had informed us that the layout was great, but seeing it with my own eyes made me a believer. There were 22 platforms, with an abundance of power racks, squats racks, incline and flat benches, enough to satisfy any lifter’s needs.

But the part I liked the most was to be able to watch the great lifters such as Veres, Zielinski, Ozimek, Golab, Talts, Kurentsov, Zhabotinsky, Baszanowski, Ouchi, Nassiri, and many others that I had only read about go about their paces. I was also slightly surprised at how quiet the whole place was during the workouts. There was no shouting or urging on the lifters. Although Russ couldn’t help himself, he just had to encourage his teammates when they were about to go after a hefty poundage.

The coaches of the foreign teams were clearly in charge. I watched the great Russian coach, Vorobiev, handle his athletes. He helped load the bar, gave advice, then watched each and every attempt. Then he would move close to the lifter and speak to him softly. All the other coaches worked in that same manner. As for our coach, he wasn’t even present. Not that any of us cared. Russ told me that when Terpak did show up at the training hall, all he did was walk around and visit with the other coaches.

The lifters coached themselves, with some suggestions from their teammates. For my part, I only provided advice when it was asked for and concentrated on doing what I really came to do – to help Ernie be at his best when he stepped on stage for the heavyweight competition. I had told Ernie what I thought he should do in terms of training prior to the contest on Saturday: he would train hard on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, take Wednesday off, and then do a short session on Thursday. Most of the American lifters always took at least two days off before a meet and some took as many as four off. But I had learned that the Europeans often trained the day prior to a contest. I had tried that short program and found it helped a great deal. Ernie liked it as well, so that was our plan.

I had asked Ernie to keep a written record of all his workouts when he trained at the Denver Y and at the Training Hall after arriving in Mexico. He did, and after looking it over I could see that his pure strength was excellent. He was even stronger than he had been before the Olympic Trials. Going to the power meet had been the right move. What he needed to work on was his technique. We discussed it and he agreed with me. I never imposed any of my ideas on him. I made suggestions and we talked about them and he made the final decisions. I realized that the foreign coaches were extremely autocratic when dealing with their lifters, but that doesn’t work too well when an athlete has been his own coach throughout his career.

The two lifts that he needed to work on were the snatch and jerk. His press was fine and I didn’t want to change anything about that lift. But his jerk was erratic. His drive off the shoulders could go just about any direction. He made those jerks because he was so strong. The jerk he had saved at the Trials was one of the most amazing feats of strength I ever witnessed. So I had him drill on getting that line more precise, so that each one was the same, then I started adding weight.

There was another flaw in his jerk that I hoped he could correct in time. He would often turn his rear foot to the inside, rather that being up on his toes. This, of course, is incorrect and will cause the lifter to lose the weight because he’s not in a solid split position. Again, he had been getting away with this due to his awesome strength. I had him do countless jerks off the racks, marking with chalk where I wanted his feet to hit the platform and urging him to concentrate on landing his back foot high on his toes and not allowing it to turn sideways. It wasn’t easy, because the habit was deeply ingrained, but he finally got the feel of it.

At the second session where he worked on the technique for the jerk, he set a personal best in training by jerking 446 off the rack with perfect form. With that problem solved, I tried to figure out how to get him to pull longer on his snatches. He was cutting his pull and slipping under the weight instead of finishing high on the toes with his torso erect. Again, it was a habit that had been a part of that lift from the first time he tried to snatch and with no one to encourage him to change his form, it became part of his snatching technique.

I had him power snatch and he still cut his pull. Then an idea came to me. I can’t say that it was original. More likely, I’d read about it or heard someone mention it in the past. And this was the perfect place to try it. Weights were being dropped routinely from overhead after a lifter pressed or jerked, so a falling barbell was no big deal. I had done this exercise a couple of times in the York Gym, at night when no one was around. I called them “Throws” for lack of a better term. It consisted of throwing the barbell as high as I could. I told Ernie what I wanted him to do and we loaded a ten-kilo plate on each side of the bar and locked the weights down with collars. Then I demonstrated. He looked at me like I was crazy, but when I insisted, he gave it a shot. The bar barely went as high as his head and he jumped back so he wouldn’t be hit by the falling bar.

“Just throw it Ernie. If you throw it high enough you don’t have to worry about it hitting you. Finish your pull then step forward.”

Still skeptical, he tried a second time and while he still didn’t fully extend, he got the feel of what I wanted. On his third try, the bar soared high over his head and came down with a loud crash. Now, all the heads in the training hall turned to see what was making the noise.

Ernie noticed this and really got into the lift since he was now the center of attention. On his fourth try, the weight must have traveled a good twelve feet skyward. “Good,” I said with a grin. “When you finished that time you were fully extended and up on your toes. Let’s try it with more weight.” We added another ten kilos to each side and made sure the collars were secure and he went to work. With each subsequent attempt the bar climbed higher and higher. Russ came over and encouraged Ernie and the other American lifters would applaud when he sent the weight to a new high.

“That’s enough,” I said, “Now do some full snatches and see how they feel. Think about those throws when you pull and stay with your pull until you’re fully erect just like you’re doing now.” It worked great. He ended up full snatching 324, the most he had ever done in training.

There was no doubt in my mind that some, if not all, of the foreign coaches would find a place in their programs for that gimmick exercise soon. Sometimes we would stick around after Ernie finished his workouts to watch some of the other Olympians train. It was learn-by-looking, and very instructive. The thing that stuck with me was the self-assurance they displayed as they went through a session. There was no psyching up or screaming I’d seen often in contests in the U.S. It was methodical, consistent, and only few times did I see any of the foreign athletes miss an attempt.

Then our team waited for the bus to take them back to the Olympic Village. On the first trip to the training hall, I suggested we pool our money and catch cabs back to the Village, but I was informed that because the training hall was located in the center of the University of Mexico, the cabs didn’t run that route. So patience was a necessary quality for those dependent on buses.

While Ernie’s training was going exceptionally well, the same couldn’t be said for his caloric intake. I think my eight-year-old daughter, Christi, ate more than he did. He was the most finicky person I ever met about food. Ernie was the only person I ever met who didn’t like chicken. That’s abnormal. No leftovers and nothing that he wasn’t used to would touch his lips. He maintained his weight by drinking numerous milkshakes every day. He had brought a half dozen canisters of Hoffman’s High-Proteen powder with him and I had carried two more as backup. But he simply could not handle the artificial milk that they served at the dining hall.

Since he never checked his weight, heavyweights seldom do, I didn’t know for sure that he was losing weight, but he had to be since he just wasn’t eating much at all. I decided to do something about the problem.

I had learned that every team had access to a car or van. They would have to sign up for a vehicle ahead of time, but one was usually available since no one really wanted to be driving in the city. It was crazy, and not knowing the rules could result in disaster.

Terpak always showed up at the dining hall for the noon meal so he could get the lifters in motion so they would be sure to catch the bus to the training hall. When he and Major Ottot came in the dining hall, I cornered him and told him about Ernle’s problem with the milk and how he needed some real milk to keep his bodyweight up. I asked him to request a car and go buy a quantity of milk. The living quarters all had small refrigerators, so he could store it and have someone at the dining hall make him protein milkshakes.

He listened to me, shook his head and grunted, “No way Starr, I’m not going to give him any special treatment just because he doesn’t like the food they’re serving here. I find it just fine. Tell him to suck it up.” With that he walked to the serving line, leaving me speechless.

I couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t his job as a coach to do everything in his power to make sure his athletes were primed and ready for the upcoming competition? And this wasn’t the Philly Open, it was the most important event in all of weightlifting and most likely the only time Ernie would ever represent the USA in the sport. His reputation as a coach was on the line. If the team performed poorly, the blame would fall on his shoulders. I knew he was a jerk, but now I upgraded him to a selfish, arrogant bastard.

I had also been about to ask him to try and find rooms for Ernie and Dube at a hotel. The beds in the dorm were way too small for men their size. Then they could eat at the hotel restaurant just like they did last year when they competed in the Little Olympics. The Russians had put Talts and Zhabotinsky up in hotels, so the precedent had already been set. The way I was rebuffed for my request about purchasing whole milk told me that the chances of him going to the trouble to find rooms for our two heavyweights were about a million to one.

I went through the line, filled my tray, and walked over to the table where the American team, and of course, Ray Rigby were sitting. I pulled up a chair next to Ernie. He turned to me and asked, “What was that all about?”

I told him, and he said to me, “Don’t worry about it Starr, I’ll be fine.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” I replied, “Not unless you start eating more or we can figure out how to get you some real milk.”

We ate in silence for a while. They were serving pork chops, spaghetti, and a variety of vegetables. Although the food wasn’t nearly as tasty as it was at home, it wasn’t all that bad either.

Rigby, who was sitting on the other side of Ernie, sensed our sour moods and set about cheering everyone up a bit. He told us how he was getting a huge amount of coverage in the Melbourne papers. Whenever a reporter or photographer from his hometown paper would approach him in the Village and ask if he knew any of the Australian swimmers, divers, soccer players, or track and field athletes, Ray would reply that he participated in that particular sport. So they would take his picture, which would then appear in the Melbourne newspapers plus others all across the country.

And he had proof. He pulled out a half dozen newspaper clippings showing him posing for a wide variety of sports: shot put, pole vault, diving, kicking a soccer ball, and swimming in the Olympic-sized pool in the Village. He passed them around and everyone at the table broke up. It was hilarious because he was six-feet tall and weighed 280 pounds.

“How could they be so gullible,” Knipp asked him, “You’re way too heavy to take part in most of those sports, especially the pole vault.”

“I’ll have you know that when I weighed two hundred and fifty pounds, I high-jumped five feet, ran the hundred in ten point eight, and pole vaulted nine feet six inches.”

The one I liked the most was the photo of Ray at the end of a diving board and because of his weight, it was bowed down at a steep angle, and he looked absolutely huge. No one in their right mind would buy the idea that he was on the Olympic diving team. The eighteen-year-old from Down Under was certainly making his stay in Mexico City a memorable one and having more fun than anyone else in the Village. Except, perhaps the Canadian weightlifters, which I will get to later on.

Rigby was a big eater and proud of it. He had informed us earlier that he had won several eating contests at fairs in Melbourne. Watching Ernie pick at his food, Ray started teasing him about how much he was eating. “Hell Ernie, I eat four times as much as you. You eat like an undernourished Sheba. Where I come from, you’d have to sit as the kiddies table.”

Ernie didn’t respond. He simply didn’t care what people thought about his dietary habits. He’d heard it all before.

When I saw Grippaldi get up and go back to get more food, I turned to Ray and said, “While Ernie may not be a big eater, there’s another member of our team that can eat you under the table. And he’s just a middle heavy.”

“Yeah, who is that?” he asked me with a frown.

I pointed to Grippaldi in the serving line and replied, “Phil can out-eat you any day of the week.”

“l seriously doubt that,” he said with a smirk.

“How about a bet? An American dollar, not any of that Aussie money that’s probably worth half a buck. You’ve both had a tray of food so you’re starting even. And we won’t even mention the contest to Phil.

He stuck out his hand, saying, “You’re on.” I shook it and he quickly went over to the serving line and filled his tray.

When the pair returned to our table, they both had heaping mounds of pork chops and spaghetti on their trays. Ray had tried to match what Phil had selected so they would be on the same playing field. They both went through the food like they hadn’t eaten in a week and went back for another load. Same selection, chops and sketti. Ernie, Russ, Dube, Puleo, Lowe, Bartholomew, and I watched in fascination and they devoured those portions like a Hoover sucking up lint. But as they were finishing, Ray was slowing down considerably and eating, as my mother used to say, with long teeth.

When Phil got up and went back for more, Ray threw in the towel and handed me a greenback dollar. He, like the rest of us, just shook his head in amazement when Phil came back and dug into the food on his tray like a starving refugee. He was, indeed, an eating machine.

To console Ray at bit, I told him about the time Phil was living at home and his Italian mother made sure that he always had enough to eat. She would make him a big breakfast to start off the day right: pancakes, sausages, six eggs and a half dozen pieces of toast. Enough for three people, but not enough for Phil. He wanted to eat more, but was embarrassed to ask for anything else. So he would get up two hours before his mother did, fry up six eggs with some toast, eat it quickly, then wash up everything, get back in bed, and wait for his mother to call him for breakfast.

That got a laugh from everyone at our table. They all looked over at Phil, but he was too intent on eating to bother with what I was saying, so I went on. “When he stayed with the Holbrook brothers, Tom and Rick, at their home in Park Ridge, just north of Chicago, in three days, he ate everything in the fridge except for the frozen stuff, plus every edible thing in the cabinets: peanut butter, crackers, cereal, and fruit. He would have eaten all the frozen food too, but didn’t want to go to all the trouble of thawing it out and cooking it.

“And when he attended the first Teen-Age Training Camp two years ago at the York Junior College, he once ate 28 pancakes for breakfast, along with a pile of scrambled eggs and sausages. He’s a bottomless pit.”

I said to Phil, “That’s all true isn’t it?”

He merely grinned, nodded and went back to the task at hand.

“So you snookered me,” Ray declared.

“l wanted to humble you a bit. You’ve been bragging about your eating prowess at every meal. You are a big eater, but you’re not in the same league as our Phil.”

“No argument there,” he mumbled, which brought another round of laughter from the American team.

Terpak came over and announced it was time to get our things together and catch the bus to the training hall. I couldn’t help sending him a jab. “You going with us today?”

He paused. No one had bothered to ask him about his plans before. After all, he was the coach. “No,” he replied haughtily. “I have a meeting with some members of the International Weightlifting Committee in an hour.” He turned and left. So did the team and Rigby. His scheduled training time was right after ours but he always tagged along and watched the Americans and the other teams train.

Smitty edged up next to me as we walked toward the dorm and said in a low voice, “It won’t help to piss him off, Starr. Whatever’s eating you, let it alone until after the competition. Otherwise, I might end up having to work with all the lifters by myself.”

“You’re right, I’ll keep my mouth shut, but I’d like to strangle that little bastard.”

Smitty laughed. “Get in line.”

Whenever the team left the Village to catch a bus, we were surrounded by people wanting to exchange pins and asking for autographs. The two lifters that were mobbed more than the others were Ernie and Phil. Ernie, because of his size, 6’5”, 300+ pounds, Phil, because of the size of his upper arms. Even the foreign lifters and coaches were amazed at his arm development. They couldn’t recall seeing any Olympic lifter with such herculean biceps and triceps.

We began trying to find ways to avoid the crowds, but usually to no avail. Smitty and I were able to get out of signing our names by telling the people that we were only coaches, yet some insisted that we give them our autographs. But those wanting to exchange pins were more persistent. The trouble was that we had already traded all the AAU pins that we had brought along.

Ernie came up with the idea to make signing his name less tiresome. He began writing down any name that came into his head: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Mickey Mantle, Rock Hudson, and even Betty Davis and Marilyn Monroe.

One morning, Smitty, Bartholomew, Freddy, Ernie, and I caught a cab and hit the San Juan Basket Market, commonly referred to as the “Thieves Market.” It was an amazing place, larger than two football fields. Just about any item you could think of could be purchased there. Prices were dirt cheap, about ¼ of the cost at home. But you had to haggle. That was part of the process and it took us all some time before we understood that it was almost an insult to pay the suggested price. Bartholomew got quite adept at bargaining, the rest of us not so much. I thought I was getting a steal at the initial price, but got in the game and came away with enough souvenirs for everyone in my family, my brothers’ families, and my mother.

We all got so caught up in the buying that no one had any money left in their pockets when we left. That night, I hit Hoffman up for some expense money for the lifters and Smitty and me. He didn’t even hesitate, giving me a wad of bills. Unlike Terpak, he was willing to do whatever he could to keep the American lifting team happy.

On one of my strolls around the area where Smitty and I were staying in town, I saw signs indicating an Estadio Corrido – a bull ring. I walked to it and discovered that there was going to be a bullfight on Friday. This was something I really wanted to see, being a fan of Hemingway. I asked Ernie and the others if they wanted to go with me. Ernie did and so did Bob, but he was competing that night and thought it best that he stay in the dorm and rest. No one else was interested, so it was just Ernie and me that stood in the ticket line for forty minutes, only to find out that it was completely sold out by the time we got to the window.

“Shit!” we blurted in frustration. Then I thought, this is a sporting event. That means there are scalpers. I said this to Ernie and we went through the crowd, which was packed together like sardines, searching for someone selling tickets. We found one and after some back and forth, bought them at a ridiculously high cost. But we reasoned, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we couldn’t pass it up.

We joined the throng that was moving at a snail’s pace up the ramp to the seats. The people were so densely packed that I was afraid that we would get separated. I made sure Ernie was right behind me. We had just started up the ramp, when I heard Ernie shout, “Hey!” I turned to see him holding a small Mexican man by the arm and snatching his wallet from his hand.

He stuffed the wallet back into his rear pocket and gave the startled Mexican a hard shove that sent him sprawling. “That son-of-a-bitch was trying to steal my wallet,” he told me. “What kind of country is this?”

We moved on and hadn’t advanced ten feet when Ernie blurted out again, “Bastard!” This time the pickpocket had been successful and had already handed off Ernie’s wallet to his accomplice who had melted back into the crowd. Ernie had an iron grip on the thief and yelled for a cop. A policeman came, listened to Ernie’s story, then informed him in broken English that there was nothing he could do. The man Ernie had latched onto did not have a wallet in his possession so there was no proof that he stole it.

The policeman looked at Ernie and saw that the massive man was going to inflict his own kind of justice on the dark-skinned man he held captive. He said to Ernie, “Release him or I will have to arrest you.”

If looks could kill, both the thief and policeman would be dead. He did release the Mexican, but not before he gave his arm and good twist and pushed him into the crowd.

We had general admission seats and found room for two near the top of the stadium. Ernie was fuming, I think he was as angry at himself for putting his wallet into his back pocket after the aborted attempt as he was at the thief.

“It’s only money,” I said to him, hoping to calm him down a bit.

“Hell!” Ernie barked, “It’s not the money. I wasn’t carrying all that much. It’s my driver’s license and credit cards. Now I’ve got to go through all the bullshit to get them replaced. That sorry son-of-a-bitch.”

I didn’t know if he was referring to the pickpocket or the policeman and didn’t ask. As I thought about it, I was fairly sure that I had been targeted as well, There was so much pushing and shoving going on, someone with the skill could have easily checked out my pockets and I would have never known it. But they weren’t going to find anything of value if they did try to rob me. I had read Oliver Twist and was well aware of the notorious reputation Mexico had for petty theft. Before I left the States, I had secured half my money in my sock and the other half, along with my driver’s license in a thin case in my underwear. They would have to strip me naked to get to my cash.

We watched the bullfight without speaking for a time. From what I had read in novels, I understood the basics of what was going on in the ring. The picadors on horseback used lances to weaken the bull, then the matador did his act before killing the animal. The crowd erupted with “Ole!” any time there was a particularly close pass by the matador of the now-tired bull.

The more Ernie thought about being pick-pocketed, the madder he got. At first, he expressed his dislike for the country’s heat and humidity, food, and mariachi music in a normal tone. Then he got louder and louder to where he was finally shouting, “I hope that bull kills that damn sissy bullfighter! Then I hope the bull jumps over that fence and kills all you damn greasers and beaners!”

I was chuckling, although quietly. I didn’t want him to turn his wrath on me. Then I noticed that all the spectators that had been sitting all around us had silently moved far away and we were sitting alone in a wide triangle of empty seats. They may not have understood what he was saying, but they certainly understood his angry mood and wanted no part of this massive specimen.

And I was also suddenly aware that there was a large number of uniformed police all around us and they were all looking directly at my extremely irate friend. I tapped him on his shoulder and said quietly, “It might be a good idea to leave. You don’t want to spend any time in a Mexican jail. You lift tomorrow, remember?”

Quickly, he glanced around, stood up and said, “Yeah, let’s get the hell out of here. As we hurried down the same ramp where he had been tagged, he said to me, “I still hope the bull wins.”

I started laughing and Ernie joined in. We could have been mistaken for two drunk Gringos as we trotted onto the street and quickly put some distance between us and the policemen.

That’s one of the reasons I was so fond of the big lug. He never let adversities bother him for very long. He dealt with them and then moved on, never looking back with regret.

  • Part 1
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  • Part 6
  • Part 7
  • Part 8
  • Part 10
  • Part 11
  • Part 12
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