Named the ‘Best of the Best’
When the vote was taken to name the best USA lifter of 1976, Lee won 93% of the votes. In winning, Lee acknowledged that he could have never done it alone. Lee gave special thanks to John Terpak and Bob Crist for convincing the Army to allow him to train in York, PA, Bob Hoffman for the Hoffman Foundation scholarship that allowed him to attend college while training, and the people of Albany, Georgia, his hometown, for always supporting him.
He also thanked his coach and trainer, Dick Smith.”Smitty was a great coach and a wonderful person,” said Lee. “He was kind of like a third parent to me, even though I already had terrific parents. Smitty would have me doing things that were not conventional. For instance, in training, he would have me facing in all different directions while doing the lifts. Smitty didn’t want me to get used to always facing the same direction. He also didn’t want me resting too long in-between sets. The reason for that is if you fail to succeed on your 1st or 2nd attempt, and you elect to attempt that same weight again, you are only allowed two minutes to get back out there and try it again.”
“Another thing he would do,” Lee continued, “is that he’d sometimes have me practice taking big jumps in weight during training. His thinking was that you never know when you’re going to have to take a daring increase during a competition to win a medal. In one competition, he had me take 150/330.6 for my opening attempt on the Snatch. That was a conservative opener, considering I had done 167.5/369.2 in training. But on my second attempt, he had me take 160/352.7. (Note: Most lifters only take a five kilo/11 lb jump from 1st to 2nd attempt.). My 3rd attempt was 167.5/369.2 (Note: that was an American record). A 17.5-kilo increase from your 1st to 3rd attempt is very unusual, but I was used to that with Smitty as my coach. I felt training with Smitty was a supreme gift from God, and that perhaps God had put Smitty and me together for a mutual purpose.”
Lee’s Workout Schedule
Here is a sample of the training routine Lee was following at the time. He trained Monday through Friday with Wednesday reserved for jumping drills and stretching (but no lifting). Interestingly, he did the actual competition lifts just once a week–although for many sets. Lee also did a lot of pulls … once a week on Snatch pulls and once a week on Clean pulls. He also did strict-form overhead presses once a week.
Lee believed it was imperative to do extra lower back work as he employed both hyper-extensions and the good morning exercise once a week. And Lee left nothing to chance when it came to leg strength. He squatted four times a week–twice on back squats and twice on front squats. He also did leg extensions four times a week.
Lee didn’t skip his ab work either. He did sit-ups four times a week.
Unfortunately, 1977 didn’t go quite according to plan. Lee started to experience pain in his right knee shortly after the Olympics.
X-rays revealed the patella tendon was ripping off of the kneecap, and Lee had to undergo knee surgery.
“Once recovered from the surgery, I started training again,” said Lee. “But the pain was too great to train heavy.” That’s when the doctor told Smitty that repairing the tendon didn’t mean that the cause of the problem had been fixed. Instead of being rounded where the tendon from the knee cap runs to the tibia, Lee’s was more pointed, and it was also cutting through the patella tendon. That meant a second operation, which took place in the late summer of 1977. The doctor took off some of the kneecap and rounded the rest.
I asked Lee if he had any doubts or reservations about coming back after two knee operations. “I believed that the adversity I had been through was to strengthen me mentally and physically. Even after the first two knee operations, I thought God had intended for me to do more.”
Still, many people wondered if Lee would ever be as good after not one, but two, knee operations. In February 1978, Lee put those doubts to rest. He was back in York, PA, in his first competition since the 1976 Olympics. And Lee served notice that he was not only back, but that he was better than ever. He broke his American record in the Snatch with a lift of 167.5 kg/369.2. A month later, Lee participated in The Friendship Cup in Russia, and although he didn’t lift his best, Lee still took second place.
1978 Senior Nationals
A few months later, Lee was at the 1978 Senior National Championships, where he easily won first place in the 198 lb weight class with lifts of 160/352.7 and 195/430. There were only two lifters in the competition that totaled more than he did, and both of them were much larger men than Lee. He also won the coveted “Best Lifter” trophy.
Yet Lee walked away somewhat disappointed. “I had Snatched 170/374.8 and Clean & Jerked 205/452 in training just one week before the competition,” he remembers. “I was expecting to do those same weights at the Nationals. I took 160/352.7 for my opening Snatch attempt and made it relatively easy. Smitty and I knew that lift would be enough to win first place in the Snatch, so we went straight to 170/374.8 for my second attempt.”
Had he made the 170, it would have set an American record, breaking his old record of 167.5. Lee explains what happened. “I had it locked out overhead, but, as I stood up, I had to take a step forward. As I stepped forward, I slipped on some talcum powder, which caused me to lose my balance, and I had to drop the weight behind me. (Note: Lifters will often use talcum powder on the front of their thighs to reduce the friction of the bar.)
Lee tried the 170/374.8 on his third attempt, and once again, he had it locked overhead, but this time he lost it forward. Then, Lee missed his opening attempt with 195/430 on the Clean & Jerk. He cleaned the weight without too much difficulty but, as he jerked the weight overhead, his back foot once again slipped on talcum powder.
Lee took the same 195 on his second attempt and was successful. On his third attempt, he called for 205/452–and that would have broken the American record–but he was unable to rack the massive weight on his shoulders. He tried it again on a 4th attempt but had the same outcome. (Note: Lifters are allowed the 4th attempt when attempting a record. It’s also worth noting that Lee weighed-in at 88.6 kg. He usually weighed in at the class limit of 90 kg. That’s a three-pound difference in body weight.)
Sadly, that was Lee’s final competition. “As I started training again for the World’s Championships, I began to get severe pains in the knee,” Lee explained. “And, this time, pain radiated to the top of the tibia. The tendon was peeling off the tibia from being hyper-stretched under heavy loads. To eliminate some of the hyper-stretching of the tendon, the surgeon performed an operation on the right hip to try to drop the quadriceps to compensate for the shortened patella tendon. But the surgery was pointless. It’s not exactly the way I wanted to go out of the sport, but we don’t always get to choose.”
Bottom line: Lee’s weightlifting career was over at the young age of 24 years.
“When I couldn’t compete any longer due to the knee issues, I was bitter for quite some time. I am glad to say that I look back now, and I think that perhaps it was for the best. Jimmy Carter ruined a lot of people’s Olympic dreams in 1980 with that boycott, and I know I would have pushed myself extremely hard to be the best at those Olympics–only to be told we’re not going.”
One can only speculate how much more Lee could have done if not for the bad knee. Lee believes he could have eventually snatched over 400 lbs. I, for one, think he’s right. To some, that may seem like a bold statement. But consider this: up until February of 1976, the American Snatch record stood at 155 kg/341.7 lbs. Just six months later, Lee had it up to 165 kg/363.7 lbs. He increased that record to 167.5 kg/369.2 lbs, and came extremely close with 170 kg/374.8 lbs with a bad knee too!
Lee’s American record total of 362.5 kg set (1976 Olympics) held up until Curt White totaled 365 in 1985. If you think that’s impressive, hold on. His 167.5/369.2 Snatch record, set in February 1978, still stands! Tom Gough equaled Lee in 1996 with 167.5, but Tom did the lift with slightly higher body weight.
Where Lee Is Today
Not one to sit around feeling sorry for himself; in 1980, Lee took up Karate/Shotokan. “The main reason I took up Karate is that my son, Steven, then seven years old, wanted to take lessons. I figured as long as I had to drive him back and forth for these lessons, I might as well join in. My son eventually lost interest, but I continued and earned a Black Belt. I did that for about 3 or 4 years, and it was gratifying. Then I got into cave diving for a while, which was a lot of fun, too.”
Lee will be 67 years old in October. He worked in the insurance business for many years and is semi-retired today. “I do some work as a handyman, and I enjoy woodworking,” Lee said. “I have a workshop in my basement.”
Lee lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife, Lori, and their 17-year-old daughter, Abigale. His 28-year-old daughter, Shannon, and her husband James live right down the road. His 47-year-old son Steven and his wife Tracey, live in Georgia. Lee also has three granddaughters ranging in age from 3–12 years old, and a six-month-old grandson.
It was a pleasure and honor to chronicle the story of one of America’s great weightlifters and a man whom I respect enormously. He’s Olympic champion, Lee James.