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.
Kono was born in Sacramento, California, on June 27, 1930. His family was of Japanese descent and were interned at Tule Lake internment camp in 1942 during World War II. Sickly as a child, the desert air helped Kono’s asthma.
Tommy Kono Early Life
It was during the relocation that Kono was introduced to weightlifting by neighbors including Noboru “Dave” Shimoda, a member of the Tule Lake weightlifting and bodybuilding club and brother of actor Yuki Shimoda and his friends, Gotoh, Toda and Bob Nakanishi. After 3½ years they were released and Kono finished Sacramento High School. He later worked for the California Department of Motor Vehicles and attended Sacramento Junior College.
Kono was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1950 but was kept home from the Korean War after officials learned of his Olympic potential.
As a boy, he had such severe asthma that he missed a third of his classes and much of his physical education training.
Tommy Kono Career
Kono was a gold medalist at both the 1952 Summer Olympics and 1956 Summer Olympics, and a silver medalist at the 1960 Summer Olympics under coach Bob Hoffman. Kono won the World Weightlifting Championships six consecutive times from 1953 to 1959 and was a three-time Pan American Games champion; in 1955, 1959, and 1963. A knee injury prevented him from qualifying for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the following year he retired from the sport. He set a total of 26 world records and seven Olympic records, making him the most accomplished U.S. male weightlifter to date.
Kono was also a successful bodybuilder, winning the Fédération Internationale Haltérophile et Culturiste Mr. Universe titles in 1954, 1955, 1957 and 1961. After his retirement he turned to coaching, taking on the Mexican 1968 Summer Olympics and West German 1972 Summer Olympics weightlifting teams before becoming head coach of the United States’ Olympic weightlifting team at the 1976 Summer Olympics.
During his weightlifting career in the 1960s, he developed a pair of bands to support knees during training. These eventually extended to the elbows and became standard weightlifting equipment. While he was coaching in Germany during the 1970s, his correspondence with Adidas led to the firm’s development of low cut weightlifting shoes.
Tommy Kono 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.
Tommy Kono 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 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 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.
Tommy Kono 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 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 Wife/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.
Kono died on April 24, 2016 in Honolulu, Hawaii from complications of liver disease, aged 85.
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