Articles | history

Lee James (1953-2023)

by Jim Moser | April 05, 2023

lee james snatching in competition photographs by bruce klemens

Lee James snatches at the 1978 Senior Nationals. Photographs courtesy of Bruce Klemens.

I am very saddened to report the passing of Lee James. Lee passed away at age 69 on Saturday, February 11, 2023. Lee was a great weightlifter and a more impressive person. Lee is often referred to as America's last great weightlifter. Lee James’s silver medal at the 1976 Olympics is part of his great legacy. This was not the end of his weightlifting accomplishments, but the start of his quest to be one of the best weightlifters in the world.

Lee James did not celebrate his silver medal as one would think. Lee was furious he only got second place. He finished second to David Rigert, one of the greatest weightlifters of all time, from the former Soviet Union. Lee swore to his coach Dick “Smitty” Smith that he would not let his country down again, he would beat David Rigert. Lee told Smitty there was only two people in the world who believed he could beat David Rigert – he was one of them and he sure hoped Smitty was the other.

To Lee, the USA was the greatest country in the world. He believed it was his job to prove this greatness to the World. Lee was the first person I knew who believed weightlifting was war, and who understood its role in Cold War propaganda. He saw the international weightlifting platform as one of the Cold War’s battlefields. Lee was very upset at the performance of his teammates. He felt they were simply lifting weights, and that they did not understand the propaganda warfare that international weightlifting was a part of.

During this period, weightlifting in the Soviet Union was serious business. Local club, regional, and national contests were sold out with thousands of spectators. The Soviet Union bragged about their 300,000 plus registered weightlifters, and their system that they considered the best in the world. The USA could barely muster 3,000 registered athletes and our federation was in disarray. York Barbell – but mainly, the founder and owner Bob Hoffman – was more interested in softball then weightlifting. Hoffman felt that weightlifting had turned its back on York Barbell and himself. USA Softball was eager to be the beneficiary of Bob Hoffman's philanthropic efforts. Funds that had gone to weightlifting were funneled to softball. Softball's gain was weightlifting’s loss. With Hoffman's backing, the York Barbell softball teams became among the best in the world.

lee james clean and jerk in competition photographs by bruce klemens

Lee James clean and jerk at the 1978 Senior Nationals. Photographs courtesy of Bruce Klemens.

Smitty was Lee James coach, but more importantly Lee’s close friend. Smitty went above and beyond the coach/athlete relationship. On many occasions Smitty would show up with bags of groceries for Lee and his family. Smitty did the best he could to ease Lee’s financial and scheduling burdens.

Lee James had served his country honorably in the Army's 101st Airborne Division. Smitty’s job was to convince the army of Lee’s potential. Lee needed to get stationed in York, Pennsylvania in order to train at York Barbell full-time. Smitty made that happen. There was a military component to the political situation at the time, as Lee knew – he didn't consider that he was goofing off by being posted at York, but that he was doing his part in the Cold War.

It was no secret the USA had gone from being a weightlifting powerhouse to an embarrassment on the World stage. The USSR was quick to point out that the Soviet people were stronger than their USA counterparts. Their highly decorated weightlifters backed up this claim. This was the era of Yuri Vardanyan, David Rigert, and 8-time world champion Vasily Alekseyev, the original Russian bear. Smitty had befriended the Soviet weightlifters on many of his international trips, notably Vardanyan. Over the years Smitty and Vardanyan had become long-distance friends. Vardanyan agreed to discuss training methods with Smitty in return for Smitty showing Vardanyan how to ride his Harley Davidson.

Smitty had ridden his bike cross-country from York to Las Vegas for the annual International Record Makers meet. One evening, over much Vodka, Smitty was able to get a 4-week training program from Vardanyan. Vardanyan had followed this program leading up to the World Championships. (On a side note, the Smitty-Vardanyan relationship became very strained after this trip – Vardanyan wrecked Smitty’s motorcycle. Smitty’s motorcycle meant the world to him. Smitty would often tell me jokingly he wanted to be buried on his motorcycle.)

With the knowledge of the Soviet Weightlifting programs, Smitty went back to York armed with this new information to help him coach Lee. After reviewing the information, Lee and Smitty came to a simple conclusion: the Soviet weightlifters' training programs were very similar to what they were already doing, the one exception being that they were training with heavier weights. Lee’s defining moment came when he was invited to lift in the USSR. That was when he discovered the training methods used in the Soviet Union were no different than his. This elevated Lee’s confidence to levels not seen by American weightlifters in many years.

Smitty was the perfect coach for Lee James. Smitty had witnessed the glory days of American weightlifting as the manager of the York Barbell weightlifting team. Smitty had overseen many great American weightlifters of the past, the likes of Bob Bednarski, Bill March, Joe Dube, Ken Patera, Norb Schemansky, and the legendary York Barbell Olympic teams.

Lee and Smitty were the perfect duo. Smitty was a hard man to impress; he had seen it all. He was never awed by the weights Lee was training with. Smitty knew that for Lee to be the best in the world he needed to keep his foot on the gas at all times. Lee needed to lift heavy and lift often. No matter what weight you lifted, Smitty always had a story of someone doing more weight in a more impressive fashion. I remember the first time I jerked 429 lb out of the rack at York Barbell. Smitty was coaching me at the time. In typical Smitty fashion he would say, “Good job Jim Moser, did I ever tell you about the time Bob Bednarski jerked 525 lb out of the rack right where I am standing?” In fairness, I lifted in the 100 kg class and Bednarski was a super heavy weight, but at the time all I knew was Bednarski did 525 lb. The weight class did not matter – I needed to do more. Smitty always ended my training session with “Next time you need to lift more.”

My favorite Lee James story occurred at York Barbell. Lee was training for the 1978 World Championships and was having a horrible training session. Lee was missing everything; he was beyond exhaustion both mentally and physically. His pride and win-at-all-cost mentality would not let him stop. Smitty sat very quietly in a steel chair in the corner of the gym. Every time Smitty would offer Lee coaching advice, Lee would shrug him off. After a failed miserable attempt at 150 kg snatch, Smitty had decided he would forcibly interject. He shouted to Lee, “Enough, Lee James, you need to go home and get some rest.” Within seconds Lee had his hands around Smitty’s throat and was shaking him like a rat. Lee yelled at Smitty, “Do you think David Rigert is resting?” Smitty, being a tough bastard, looked Lee in the eye and told him that if he put that anger into lifting the weights he would stop embarrassing himself. He let Smitty go, walked over to the bar, snatched 150 kg for a double, and walked out of the gym. The next day Lee trained with a renewed fire in his eye. There were no more bad training sessions.

Lee retired from weightlifting shortly after winning the 1978 USA Nationals. He set an American record in the snatch and was steamrolling his way to the 1978 World Championships in Gettysburg. To put in perspective how great a lifter Lee James was, in the world of what could have been, Lee James’s legacy must contain the following:

I have footage of Lee James in training months before the 1978 Worlds snatching an easy 170 and clean & jerking an equally easy 205 kg for a 375 kg total. Shortly after this impressive performance, Lee's knee injuries caught up with him. At 24 years of age and after several botched knee surgeries, the “Cinderella Man” of American weightlifting was finished. Had Lee’s knee held up he would have achieved his goal. He would have been World Champion and proved to the World that America was back and stronger then ever. Rolf Milser won the 1978 worlds with a 377.5 kg total, only 2.5 kilos more than Lee had done several months earlier. Would Lee have beat Milser had his knee held together? The answer is a resounding Yes – only a fool would have bet otherwise.

Rest In Peace, Lee James. You were a true legend of U.S. and World weightlifting and an inspiration for many generations of American Olympic weightlifters. After his outstanding performance at the 1976 Summer Olympics, he trained and carried himself as a Champion always. I owe a big part of my success as a weightlifter and a coach to Lee James. Whenever I hear it cannot be done, I think of Lee and say, Yes, It Can!

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