Indomitable: The Tommy Kono Story

Sacramento native Tamio "Tommy" Kono overcame hardship and discrimination, becoming one of the greatest weightlifters of all time.

By California Museum

Kono Family Portrait (1939) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

The Kono family

Tommy Kono was born on June 27, 1930, in Sacramento, California, to Kanichi and Ishimi Kono. Both of his parents worked at the California Packing Company, a local cannery. 

As a boy, he had such severe asthma that he missed a third of his classes and much of his physical education training.

Tule Lake (1942/1945) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

Tule Lake incarceration camp

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, he and his family were forced from their home and sent to the Tule Lake incarceration camp in far northern California. 

In the dry desert air, his asthma improved, allowing him to play team sports and practice martial arts, as well as start lifting weights. 

Tule Lake Judo Club & Gi (1942/1945) by Japanese American Archival CollectionOriginal Source: California State University, Sacramento Library. Department of Special Collections and University ArchivesCalifornia State University, Sacramento Library. Department of Special Collections and University Archives

Tule Lake Judo Club

Kono was a member of the Tule Lake Judo Club (left). His mother made this white judo gi (right) for him while in camp. 

The gi is the traditional judo uniform worn for both practice and competition and was the first modern martial arts training uniform. It consists of an uwagi or jacket, zubon or pants, and an obi or belt.

Site of the Tule Lake incarceration camp

Over 18,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from the West Coast during WWII and were incarcerated here in remote northern California. Today the site includes the Tule Lake Segregation Center National Historic Landmark and nearby Camp Tulelake. 

Tommy Kono High School Graduation Photo and Lifting at YMCA (v2) (1948) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

Early training

In December 1945, his family returned to Sacramento. Kono graduated from Sacramento High School and weight trained at the local YMCA. 

He entered his first weightlifting contest in 1948 in San Jose, California, at age 18, and within two years he had finished second at the national weightlifting championships in Philadelphia. 

Tommy Kono lifts weights in Sacramento’s Buddhist church (1950/1959) by Amy Wong CollectionCalifornia Museum

Buddhist Church of Sacramento

He also lifted weights in Sacramento’s Buddhist church “kaikan” (assembly hall.) The building had stored possessions of the Konos and other Japanese American families during the incarceration, and provided shelter for them when they returned and couldn't find housing.

The church organized many events for Sacramento's Japantown, such the Obon Festival, the Cultural and Food Bazaar, and the Hanamatsuri.

When the Capitol Mall Redevelopment Plan was announced, the Buddhist Church, like most other locations in Sacramento's Japantown, was slated for demolition.

"Arnold Knows Me - The Tommy Kono Story"

In this documentary by Ryan Yamamoto and Suzanne Phan, Kono recalls creating a home gym in the basement of his family's home. 

Current view of Kono family home

The Kono family lived in this house on the corner of 12th and T Streets in Sacramento, California, during the 1950s. 

Tommy Kono with Clyde Emrich, a fellow weightlifting champion (1951/1953) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportsH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports

Army service

Kono joined the Army in 1951 when the Korean War began, but he was allowed to stay behind due to his Olympic potential. He was sent to Fort Mason to be near Oakland, then a center of U.S. weightlifting.

He and Clyde Emrich, also a national weightlifting champion, competed in numerous exhibitions during the time they were in uniform.

Tommy Kono at exhibition in Berlin (1952) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

Olympic gold

The Army paid for Kono's training, and at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, he achieved a world-record 259-pound snatch on his way to winning a gold medal in the lightweight class.

In Helsinki, people remarked about how Kono wore street shoes while lifting. "They're street shoes, it's true," said Chet Teegarden in the Pacific Citizen in August 1952. "But something has been added." Tommy customized his shoes with leather in the heel to help him balance. 

This photo is from an exhibition after the Olympics, held at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Swimming Pool in front of 6,000 spectators. He wore sunglasses to protect his eyes from the sun. This was Kono's favorite photo. 

A portion of Tommy's training log (1950) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

A portion of Tommy's 1949-51 training log

Kono could adjust his body weight to compete in several weight divisions without losing ability. 

He kept detailed training logs to track his diet and performance. This page is from December 15, 1950. 

Tommy Kono with Dr. Richard You (1956-09-15) by Pipi Wakayama, The Peary and Mabel Rader CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

Tommy Kono & Dr. Richard You

Kono moved to Hawaii in 1955 and considered retirement. His promoter and physician, Dr. Richard You, convinced him to keep competing. 

During the next several years, he dominated in worldwide competitions.

Tommy Kono on Podium (1957) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

World champion

Kono earned legendary status as a lifter through his skill in the press, snatch, and clean & jerk.

His power in these events eventually earned him two Olympic, six World Weightlifting Championships, and three Pan-American Games titles. This photo was taken when Tommy won the middleweight world title at the 1957 world championships in Tehran, Iran.

Tommy Kono training in sandals (1969) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

The power of positive thinking

Although Kono was physically well-suited to be a weightlifter, he and many others believed that the true secret of his strength was his ability to focus, stay mentally positive, and believe he would succeed in competition.

Kono drew his ideas on mental preparation from various sources: Chester Teegarden, Larry Barnholth, Zen Buddhism, his Japanese upbringing, and the “power of positive thinking” movement that swept America in the 1950s following the publication of the book by the same name.

Strength and Health magazine cover (1955) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

"Strength & Health" cover

Kono appeared on several covers of Strength and Health magazine, including this August 1955 issue. The bodybuilding/fitness/Olympic weightlifting publication was one of the earliest magazines devoted to fitness and bodybuilding.

In October 1955 he would go on to win gold in the light-heavyweight (82.5 kg) class at the  World Weightlifting Championships held in in Munich, West Germany. Kono’s winning total was 435 kg, consisting of a 142.5 kg press, a 127.5 kg snatch and a 165 kg clean and jerk.

Tommy Kono competes in the Prize of Moscow competition (1958) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

Prize of Moscow international tournament

During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union held several weightlifting meets. In 1958, Kono was the lone American to participate in the Prize of Moscow, which he won. In an interview later in life, Kono cited this win as his greatest athletic accomplishment. 

He recalled "leaving the balmy weather of Hawaii and arriving in the freezing cold weather of Moscow almost halfway around the world on a propeller plane with no coach or teammates, with only a translator backstage in the warm up area who knew nothing about weightlifting."

Tommy Kono posing in front of mirror (1950/1965) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

Bodybuilding

During the 1950s and '60s, Kono competed not only in weightlifting but bodybuilding, winning the Mr. World title in 1954.

He continued competing in bodybuilding competitions and won the Mr. Universe titles in 1955, 1957, and 1961. 

Tommy Kono Posing With Trophies (1950/1960) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

Record holder

By the time he retired in 1965, Kono had become an icon in national and international lifting circles. 

He established seven Olympic, 37 American, eight Pan American, and 26 world records. 

He is also the only weightlifter to win medals in three different Olympiads in three different weight classes, and the only one to set world records in four separate weight classifications.

Tommy Kono Coaching at the Chalk Board (1968) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

Coaching

After retiring from competition, Kono coached the Mexican team at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games, the West Germans at the Munich 1972 Olympic Games, and the Americans at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games. He bridged the language barrier by using drawings to illustrate form. 

He officiated national and international competitions, served on the board of the U.S. Weightlifting Federation, and conducted weightlifting seminars around the world. 

Tommy Kono Family Photo (2000/2016) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

The Kono family

Kono passed away in April 2016 in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the age of 85. 

He was survived by his wife, Florence, whom he married in 1962, daughter joAnn, sons Jamieson and Mark, and three grandchildren.

Tommy Kono with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harold Sakata (1970/1985) by The Tommy Kono CollectionOriginal Source: H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and SportH.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport

Tommy Kono's legacy

Kono’s legacy lives on through his inspiration of many of the biggest names in the fitness industry, including former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (center). They are shown here with Harold Sakata (left), a fellow Olympic weightlifter, wrestler, and film actor.

Kono has been inducted into the International Weightlifting Hall of Fame and the U.S Olympic Hall of Fame, and is considered one of the top 100 Olympians of all time. 

Credits: Story

The California Museum thanks the following advisors and contributors:

Amy Wong
Center for Sacramento History
H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports
John D. Fair
Ryan Yamamoto
Sacramento State University Library, Special Collections 
Walter Imahara

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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