For decades, Tommy Kono would often hear the same question when people learned that he was a legendary Olympic weightlifter and champion bodybuilder.
“Do you know Arnold Schwarzenegger?” people would ask the Sacramento native.
Kono always had a go-to answer ready: “Arnold knows me.”
After all, Kono came first.
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In his prime during the 1950s and ’60s, Kono held 26 world records and seven Olympic records in weightlifting, inspiring young athletes around the globe. Kono followed those triumphs by winning four Mr. Universe bodybuilding titles.
Still, even in Sacramento, few people remember Kono, lamented longtime TV journalist Ryan Yamamoto.
When Yamamoto started researching Kono, he found little material about this home-grown champion who discovered weightlifting as a boy while interned with his family at Tule Lake during World War II.
“He was named weightlifter of the century and arguably is one of the greatest weightlifters of all time,” Yamamoto said. “I thought someone needs to tell this story.”
Kono, who died in April at age 85, is the subject of a new 30-minute documentary written and directed by Yamamoto and his wife, Suzanne Phan, both of whom had worked until recently for ABC10. “Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story” debuts Wednesday, Aug. 3, on KVIE’s “Viewfinder.”
Yamamoto and Phan worked on the documentary for three years, squeezing interviews and research around full-time jobs. They showed the documentary Tuesday night to a full house at KVIE’s Sacramento office, with Kono’s widow, Florence, and daughter Joann Sumida in the audience.
“I thought the timing was just amazing, that my father leaves and now they’re having this,” Sumida said. “I’m just glad he’s not going to be forgotten.”
Yamamoto met Kono about 10 years ago at a Sacramento High School weightlifting tournament, hosted by the former Olympian. Although Kono lived many years in Hawaii and coached world-class athletes in three countries, he often returned to his hometown.
“His story stuck with me,” recalled Yamamoto, now at KOMO-TV in Seattle. “It bothered me that more people didn’t know about him.”
An extremely modest man, Kono let his athletic accomplishments speak for themselves. He dominated world weightlifting during the 1950s. In an astonishing feat, his Olympic medals came in three weight classes at three Games: 1952 gold as a lightweight at Helsinki, Finland; 1956 gold as a light heavyweight at Melbourne, Australia; and 1960 silver as a middleweight at Rome, Italy.
Experts heralded him as “pound for pound, the strongest man in the world.”
But Kono also had a moving personal story before his Olympic glory. A frail asthmatic youth, he grew up in Sacramento’s Japan Town on T Street during the Depression and at Tule Lake.
“He never talked about those times,” Yamamoto said of the internment camp. “He saw himself as an athlete, as an American; that’s how he wanted to be portrayed.”
Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story
What: Documentary on Sacramento’s Tommy Kono, a three-time Olympic medalist in weightlifting and four-time Mr. Universe
TV: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3, Channel 6
Note: This documentary will be repeated at 4 p.m. Aug. 5, and 6 p.m. Aug. 7 on KVIE’s “Viewfinder.”