By Artie Drechsler                                          Ó Arthur Drechsler 2000

Anthony Terlazzo is the 4th lifter from the left, in this picture of the US team heading for the 1938 World Championships. Tony and John Davis (2nd from the left) were each to go on to win a World Championship in 1938. It would be Terlazzo’s last (he retired from lifting just after the end of WWII) and Davis’ first (he was to go on to win again as soon as the first World Championship was held after WWII (in Paris in 1946, and he would remain undefeated internationally until 1953),

The first article in this series explained how some of Weightlifting’s early promoters and administrators laid the groundwork for the development of Weightlifting as an organized sport in United States. But promoters and administrators can only set the stage for champions to emerge. Once the stage has been set, individual athletes, through their training and dedication, must do the emerging. They must step forward to be the first champions, the groundbreakers. 

A number of weightlifters did step forward to popularize Weightlifting in this country. They became America’s first weightlifting heroes. For example, 7-time National Champions Art Levan, Dick Bachtell and Bill Good all emerged during the late 1920’s and had great success during the early to mid-1930’s. But among this group of early champions there was one truly special athlete. He was not only the best in his country, but he became one of the best in the world. On an international level, this lifter was to become the US’s pioneer, its pathbreaker, its standard bearer. He was Anthony Terlazzo. 

How did this wonderful athlete’s weightlifting career begin? Tony Terlazzo’s first athletic love was gymnastics.  He belonged to the Hoboken, NJ, “Turnverein” (a German term for a gymnastics club), where he practiced gymnastics in his youth.  Tony began his weightlifting training at the Turnverein in 1929 when, while doing his gymnastics training, he happened upon a barbell.  Tony tried his hand at lifting that barbell and he was unable to raise 75 pounds above his head.  While this would not be considered very auspicious start, the young Terlazzo fell in love with the barbell and began to train in earnest for this new (to him) sport. 

By the time Tony had been training for a year, he had improved sufficiently to compete in his first national competition, the 1930 Nationals.  By the 1931 Nationals, he had progressed to the point where he was able to place second overall at the Nationals.  Finally, in 1932, he won his first National Championship and earned a coveted place on the US’s first formal Olympic Weightlifting Team, which was to compete in Los Angeles later in the year.

Tony proved to be worthy of the confidence of the team selectors, when he went on to take America’s first post WWI Olympic Weightlifting medal – a bronze.  Competing in the 60 kg. weight category, Tony lost by only 7.5 kilos overall. Moreover, he actually tried the weight he needed to win the gold medal on this third attempt in the C&J.

While a medal won by American was quite a surprise to many Europeans of that day, Tony was actually disappointed by his performance (American lifting was not taken seriously at the time, although another American, Henry Duey, managed to take a bronze medal at the 1932 Olympic Games as well).  Terlazzo believed that had an illness and a related weight loss not interfered with his training earlier in the year, he would have actually won the Olympics.  Because of this, he was most anxious to have another chance at competing against the World’s best.

Unfortunately for Tony, in those early days of international Weightlifting competition, there were no annual World Championships.  Therefore, he would have to wait another four years for the opportunity to battle of the best in the world once again, at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.  Tony Terlazzo was not one wait idly for his next opportunity. 

In 1933 he moved up to the 67.5 kg category and won his second National Championship.  In 1934, an injured shoulder prevented Tony from finishing the competition at the Nationals, so his two-year winning streak was interrupted. But he was back in 1935 at 60 kg., where he not only won the national title, but he set his first world record – a 95 kg. military press. That record was not only Tony’s first, it was the first official world record ever set by a US lifter. The lift took place on December 5, 1935, in Chicago, IL.

The following year, 1936, was to be Tony’s best year yet.  He won another Nationals and in so doing established another world press record at 97.5 kg.  With such lifting, his prospects for winning a medal at the Berlin Olympics looked bright, but taking home a gold medal was another matter.  There were number of significant obstacles to Tony’s winning at the Games.  First, there was the issue of travel logistics.  At that time, ships were the only viable form of transportation to Europe.  Training and maintaining a proper diet during the many days of the ship’s voyage presented no small challenge.

In addition to the challenge presented by the trip itself, Tony was battling his bodyweight.  In the years since the 1932 Olympics, it become ever more difficult for Tony make the 60 kg category.  Despite the conditions aboard ship, upon arriving in Germany, he found that he still had to reduce his body weight.  Finally, Tony found himself in a particularly difficult weight class.  There were a total 22 competitors from 17 countries entered in Terlazzo’s weight category (a very large entry list for that era) and those entered included several former and current world record holders (Tony held no records going into the Games).

Despite all these difficulties, Tony was able to maintain his composure and focus solely of the task at hand.  His focus and highly competitive nature enabled him to come through with a victory and take home to the US its first overall Olympic gold medal in Weightlifting (you may remember that Oscar Paul Ostoff won the one-arm competition for the US in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis).

Terlazzo’s victory was not only a great source of joy for him, but for the entire American delegation is well.  Writing in Strength and Health magazine at that time, Bob Hoffman said of Tony’s victory “Yes, Anthony Terlazzo had realized a lifelong ambition and had reached the highest point in the lifting world.  He was champion of the world.  What a triumph.  All the American lifters and officials were delighted, the rest of the world, represented by their lifters and officials, were astounded.  For they could not realize that there had been developed in America at least one lifter who surpassed the rest of the world in his bodyweight class.  And by a very comfortable margin too.  It was a great moment for Terlazzo.  It was great moment for American Weightlifting.  It was great moment for us of the York team, and Dietrich Wortmann, national Weightlifting chairman who had helped and encouraged him so much in the past.”

As shocking as Tony’s victory 1936 had been to the rest of the world, that world was going to be even more shocked by what Tony had in mind for 1937. Not one to rest on his laurels, Terlazzo was determined to win again at the 1937 World’s Championships in Paris, which was the first World’s Championship to be held after the International Weightlifting Federation’s decision to hold annual championships of this kind. But Tony’s planned victory in 1937 was to have an unexpected twist. He would not defend his 60 kg. title, rather he would move up in bodyweight in an attempt to win the very competitive 67.5 kg. weight category.

To prepare for this objective, Terlazzo had trained intensely and carefully increased his bodyweight. By the 1937 Nationals, he established a world record total of 780 pounds (barbells calibrated in pounds, instead of kilos, were used in US competitions until the early 1970’s). Tony then went on to win the World Championships in Paris and broke his own world record total in so doing. And in winning, he defeated the great Austrian Olympic Champion and many time world record-holder, Robert Fein.

Terlazzo repeated his National and World championship wins in 1938 (the last time the World Championships was to be held until after World War II).  He continued to compete at the Nationals each year thereafter, and to increase his total during the war years.  By 1945, the last year he competed in the Nationals, Tony had won 13 National championships – a record unmatched by the American history of Weightlifting – even to this day.

During 1939, while actual international competition among nations was generally curtailed, Terlazzo engaged in a long distance competition of sorts with two great Egyptian lifter’s Hamouda and Shams.  These lifters traded world records in the C&J throughout 1938 and 1939, pushing each other until Sham’s finally made 153.5 kg, a lift that was considered to be incredible at that time.  So outstanding was Shams’ record that it was not officially broken for 18 years.

Tony Terlazzo has always been admired for his tremendous physical strength and power, but he is even better remembered for the power of his mind.  He alone was bold enough to believe that he could defeat all challengers in Los Angeles, when everyone else thought than merely taking a medal was virtually impossible.  He held on to his dream for four years despite disappointment at Los Angeles, determined to overcome any obstacles to secure his victory in Berlin.  He had the courage to go up a weight class after his outstanding victory in 1936 and to improve his total by more than 45 kg in one year to assure his victory in 1937.  When others weren’t even dreaming of an 800 pound total in his weight class, Tony was thinking of 850 pounds.  He was thinking about 160 kg C&J when many others believed that a 150 kg C&J was out of the question.

Tony believed that confidence, devoid of fear, was the primary requirement for lifting record poundages, and that the only real factor which restricted lifting performance was fear.  Terlazzo was quick to point out that once an athlete has seen someone else break a performance barrier that was previously believed to be insurmountable, he or she is able to set even higher goals.  Reflecting on his career nearly 20 years after he had retired from competition, Tony stated, “The champion of the past has paved the way and set higher standards than his predecessor for him to shoot at and surpass.  If he has the stuff champions are made of he may set new records and help a lifter tomorrow set his sights even higher.”

Terlazzo had to look at the records of lifters from abroad for his inspiration, because he could not look to those in his own country to provide such inspiration.  Later, when he was leading the world, he had to rely himself for his own motivation, by making up his own challenges.

It took a mind of that caliber to enable the US to experience its first victory over the nations that had dominated lifting for so long.  Tony was right on target in terms of what he said regarding the role of champions.  He knew that great trailblazing champions give their sport two great gifts.  The first is the joy of seeing the actual performances that these champions make.  The second is the emotional fuel that they provide to future champions to make their road just a little easier.  Tony supplied such fuel to many US lifters who followed him, one of which was the great John Henry Davis (the only pre-WW II world champion from the US who became even more dominant after WW II). John Davis will be the subject of the next article in this series.

Because of the great “lift” that he gave American lifting, we all owe a great debt of gratitude to Tony Terlazzo – a pioneer, a perennial champion and a man with the vision to see what was possible for the US’s future in Weightlifting. Today, after a period of forty years during which the US has experienced a drought in Olympic Weightlifting gold, I wonder which US athlete will emerge with the vision needed to bring Olympic Gold back to the US once again. Who will be our next Anthony, or Antonia, Terlazzo? The challenge ladies and gentlemen, is yours!

Author’s Postscript in June of 2024 – This article was written early in 2000, well before that year’s Olympic Games, where Tara Nott Cunningham answered the challenge by winning the inaugural Olympic Games competition for women. Now, on the eve of the Olympic Games of 2024, we have a new crop of USA lifters ready to see if they can join the elite group of champions and recordholders from the USA. We wish them well, not only for their success, but for the inspiration such a success can provide to those who are watching them.