An unusually large number of notable bodybuilders and weight lifters have hailed from Georgia. They include two Mr. Americas, a Mr. Olympia, two “World’s Strongest Man” claimants, one of the world’s greatest female power lifters, and a world champion arm wrestler. Georgia is also the home of two of the most successful weight-lifting programs in the nation.
The first of these preeminent Georgia athletes was Bob Hoffman, so-called Father of American Weight Lifting, who was born in Tifton in 1898. Though he later won fame and fortune in York, Pennsylvania, Hoffman forever maintained close associations with his native state.
A stronger influence on the development of the sport in the state was Lurten Cunningham of Atlanta, who in 1925 won Strength magazine’s posing contest, defeating seventy-five other contestants nationwide. The magazine described his pose as “an illustration of the body beautiful in its highest conception.” As physical director of the Atlanta and Athens YMCA facilities and numerous others in north central Georgia, Cunningham introduced thousands of young athletes to weight training over the next several decades.
Foremost among Cunningham’s trainees was Bill Curry, a University of Georgia student who became a weight lifter of national caliber during the years preceding and immediately after World War II (1941-45). Curry was dubbed “the Strongest Man in the South.” (His weight-trained son, Bill Jr., was later a football all-American at the Georgia Institute of Technology, all-pro for the Green Bay Packers, and head coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama, and Kentucky.) Most important, the elder Curry, as physical director at Georgia Military Academy (later Woodward Academy) in College Park and later as sporting goods manager at Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta, brought the sport of weight lifting to the attention of thousands of Georgians.
Another early promoter was Karo Whitfield, who developed an association with Hoffman and the Amateur Athletic Union at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, California. An Atlantan, Whitfield became a physical trainer and therapist at the Piedmont Driving Club in 1937. After World War II he opened his own gym on Forsyth Street near the Paramount Theater. For decades thereafter he conducted regular meets, including the Georgia State Championships, the Dixie Open, and the Mr. Georgia contest.
The Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s
Foremost among Whitfield’s protégés were Harry Smith and Harry Johnson, both of whom had earlier trained with Curry at Georgia Military Academy. Smith won the Junior Mr. America title in 1948 and afterward embarked on a successful professional wrestling career under the moniker “Georgia Boy.” Johnson took the Junior Mr. America title in 1954 and, after trying a record five times, became Mr. America in 1959. At thirty-six, he was the oldest person ever to win the most-coveted title in bodybuilding. In 1965 Jerry Daniels of Rossville, at twenty-one, became one of the youngest to win it.
Meanwhile, one of the most remarkable strongmen in the annals of weight lifting emerged in Toccoa. Paul Anderson, “the Dixie Derrick,” was best known for his leg strength and pressing ability and lifted poundages previously thought impossible. He quickly became national (1955), world (1955), and Olympic (1956) heavyweight champion, but his most notable achievement occurred at a dual meet in Moscow, Russia, in 1955, when he became the first weight lifter ever to press more than 400 pounds. The Russians were stunned, and Anderson was acclaimed a cold war hero and symbol of American strength.
Anderson’s fame and the continuous promotions of Whitfield, with his national connections, facilitated the rise of a new generation of lifters and coaches in the 1960s. Howard Cohen of Savannah, who won the Junior National featherweight title in 1955, was the Georgia lightweight champion fifteen times from 1952 to 1972. In 1952 he opened Howard’s Gym and began training other weight lifters. Cohen worked in conjunction with other lifters/coaches—Ben Green of Newnan, Dale Rhoades of Albany, and John Coffee of Marietta —to make Georgia a major force in Olympic weight lifting for the rest of the twentieth century. Featherweight Bryan Jacob (Alpharetta), lightweight Michael Jacques (Warner Robins), middleweight Davy Jones (Eastman), and light heavyweight Michael Cohen (Savannah), the son of Howard Cohen, were all champions of national or international caliber. But the greatest distinction belongs to the middle heavyweight Lee James of Albany, whose silver medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada, remains the highest won by any American male in international competition since 1969.
The sport of power lifting (bench press, squat, and deadlift) made inroads into Georgia mainly through the efforts of Dick Reno of Marietta, who helped organize at least ten meets a year for ten years. He and Coffee also coached a talented group of women power lifters at Coffee’s Gym. The most outstanding of these was Ann Leverett of Savannah. Assisted by Coffee and Howard Cohen, Leverett has won fifteen national and two world championships and has held numerous national and world records at 105 pounds or less bodyweight.
The most outstanding male power lifter was Dave Pasanella, the director of player development at Georgia Tech. In 1989 he posted the highest total of all time at 2,458 pounds, with a 1,030 squat, 573 bench press, and an 854 deadlift at 275 pounds body weight. At the time of his fatal car accident in 1990, Pasanella was being likened to Paul Anderson as the world’s strongest man. Also notable was Buddy Duke of Adel, who succeeded Reno in 1990 as Georgia power-lifting chair and won five national and four world championships as a mid-heavyweight. In 1984 he hoisted an enormous 788-pound deadlift. Judd Biasiotto, known as “Dr. Judd,” is a power lifter of note as well as a professor at Albany State University. The author of hundreds of articles and more than thirty books, Biasiotto wrote a monthly inspirational column for many years in the publication Powerlifting USA.
Other important figures include Jan Todd, who, as a student at Mercer University, was trained by her husband, Terry, a Mercer professor and former national champion, to become America’s first women’s heavyweight power-lifting champion. Cleve Dean, a hog farmer from Pavo, never lifted weights, but he was immensely strong and won seventy-five world championships in arm wrestling through many federations. From 1984 to 1991 Lee Haney won the coveted Mr. Olympia title eight times, more than the well-known bodybuilder, actor, and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. At Haney’s Atlanta gym, Evander Holyfield trained with weights in preparation for his second heavyweight boxing title fight. And Jonesboro promoter Kenneth “Doc” Neeley has made Atlanta a center for national and regional physique competitions.
Coffee’s Gym and Team Savannah
The most exciting recent development, following a long tradition, has been the flowering of Olympic weight lifting in Georgia. In the early 1980s Coffee’s Gym became a focal point for women lifters. With world champion Robin Byrd Goad of Newnan and Sibby Harris Flowers of Carrollton as mainstays, Coffee’s teams won fourteen national championships and helped nurture women’s lifting to maturity. As interest intensified, Coffee sent his male lifters to Green for coaching, and Green sent his females to Coffee. Then Michael Cohen, building on family tradition and city and county financial support, developed a major weight-lifting center in Savannah. With 200 lifters, 12 coaches, most of the top women lifters in the nation, many of the top men, and a multimillion-dollar budget, the center had resources by 1999 rivaling those of the Olympic Training Center for weight lifting in
Colorado Springs, Colorado. An indication of Cohen’s success is that three of the six members of the American team at the Sydney, Australia, Olympics—Oscar Chaplin, Cara Heads-Lane, and bronze medalist Cheryl Haworth—were from Team Savannah. Also rooted in Georgia were Robin Goad and gold medalist Tara Nott, who lifted for Coffee’s team for several years before the Sydney games.
As a measure of interest, Georgia had more registered lifters (7 percent of the national total) than any other southern state in 1999 and was surpassed only by California and Minnesota nationally. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Georgia remains a focal point of weight-lifting and bodybuilding activity. In January 2009 the inaugural Cheryl Haworth Classic, an annual weightlifting competition, was held in Savannah.