Two-time Olympic gold medalist and Sacramento native Tommy Kono has died in Honolulu at the age of 85.
Kono, called one of the greatest weightlifters of all time, had been living in Hawaii since the mid-1970s, according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser. The newspaper reported that he died Sunday.
In 2008, Kono visited Sacramento to see family, find a quiet place to finish writing a book on weightlifting and attend the 60th reunion of his Sacramento High graduating class.
He also put on weightlifting clinics while in the city. Then 78 years old, Kono was 2 inches shorter and about 4 pounds lighter than when he retired from competition in the 1960s.
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In addition to winning Olympic gold medals in 1952 in Helsinki and 1956 in Melbourne, Australia – as well as a silver in Rome in 1960 – Kono was a three-time Mr. Universe bodybuilding champion. He established 26 world records in four weight classes, 37 American records and seven Olympic records.
“He’s one of the greatest of all time,” Elk Grove’s Don Weideman, then an official with the Pacific Weightlifting Association, said in a 2008 interview with The Sacramento Bee.
Kono suffered from asthma as a child. Instead of physical education class, he reported to a darkened room to lie down on a cot.
Even into adulthood, he retained a Charles Atlas measurement form filled out when he was 11. At that age, he weighed 74 pounds and stood 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches tall.
During World War II, Kono’s family was sent to the internment camp at Tule Lake.
The government perceived Japanese Americans as a threat to national security and confined thousands in camps. Kono, who was 12 at the start of the internment, said his family made the best of the situation.
Tule Lake internees raised enough money to buy sports equipment, including a barbell set. By the time the family was released in 1945, Kono had filled out.
When his family returned to Sacramento, Kono spent hours lifting iron at the old J Street YMCA. During his senior year at Sacramento High School, he entered his first weightlifting competition.
He went on to what is now Sacramento City College and by 1950 was ready for international competition. He couldn’t afford the trip to New York for a world championship tryout, so the Oak Park Athletic Club raised airfare by selling cakes and holding a dance.
When Kono competed in the 1961 Mr. Universe world finals in Vienna, he inspired a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. The ex-governor has said that Kono is living proof of the value of hard work and self-discipline.
Kono helped start the Honolulu Marathon and retired in 1997 after many years with the Honolulu Parks and Recreation Department.
Kono told The Bee in 2008 that modern athletes were spoiled.
“When you go through hardship, it toughens you,” he said. “It makes you better when you overcome that. This generation is the entitlement generation. They are not willing to work hard.”