The U.S. Olympic gold medalist who received little acclaim at home
In 1952, Norbert Schemansky was working at a Detroit manufacturing plant when he asked his boss for a few days off to compete in that year’s Helsinki Olympics. Like most Americans at the time, Schemansky’s employer was indifferent to his sport of weightlifting. “One of the guys from downstairs said, ‘Give him all the time off he wants: Fire him,’” the weightlifter recalled. The 6-foot, 265-pound athlete quit, went to Helsinki, and won gold in the middle heavyweight class in front of cheering fans.
But when Schemansky flew home to the U.S., no adoring crowd was waiting at the airport to meet him. Only a bus porter recognized the returning champion. “[He] said, ‘Nice going, Semansky,’” Schemansky said. “He mispronounced my name, but he knew who I was.” Born in Detroit, Schemansky had “steel in his sinews since childhood,” said The New York Times. By age 11, he was working at a city market unloading 100-pound bags of potatoes. Schemansky started lifting at 15 and began his Olympic run at the London Olympics in 1948, winning silver in the superheavyweight class. Surgery to repair damaged disks kept him away from the 1956 Games in Melbourne. But he won bronze at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and again in Tokyo in 1964.
“During his 27-year weightlifting career, he shattered 26 world records” and became a star in Eastern Europe, said the Dearborn, Mich., Press & Guide. Because there were no endorsements in his day and no money for athletes, Schemansky had to take menial jobs—once cleaning latrines—to support his family. He retired from competition in 1972 and became a civil engineer in Dearborn. “Sometimes,” he said of his weightlifting career in 1996, “I wonder why I did it.”