The Demise of Coffee's Gym

Newcomers to the sport of weightlifting may find it to be a very contemporary activity with an abundance of participants, well attired in the latest lifting garb and colorful shoes from Nike, Adidas and all the big name shoe manufacturers.  Entry fees are high and competitions are held locally at Crossfit gyms and nationally at hotel banquet rooms, convention centers and sports arenas—a far cry from U.S. weightlifting’s meager beginnings.  The popularization of the sport, largely by Crossfit, has created a market for weightlifting related clothing and equipment.  Entrepreneurial coaches can make some money by charging for coaching and the coffers of USA Weightlifting have been bolstered by the funds generated by coaching


It wasn’t long ago, however, when the primary reason for involvement in weightlifting was simply an addiction to the sport.  A few barbell manufacturers made some money, as did a few food supplement providers, but for the most part there wasn’t much money to be made.  Now any American activity without the potential for profit is going to attract, shall we say, unique individuals.  And weightlifting was certainly that—a culture of unique individuals, a subculture of the American mainstream. 

John Coffee—The Self-Creation

Into this subculture came weightlifting coaches.  Prior to the 1970’s the sport had never had what might be considered coaches in the modern sense.  Athletes either trained in solitary or grouped together and trained without any type of instructional or supervisory leadership.  The first generation of U.S. coaches were those who were caught unaware by the elimination of the press in 1972.  This changed the game dramatically and although it might seem like an easy task to figure out how to train on two lifts rather than three, the truth was not the case. 

So a fair number of lifters decided to become coaches without any real role models to follow.  John Coffee of Georgia was one of those, and he created himself.  A weightlifter who dabbled in bodybuilding, John found that coaching others was the most satisfying thing he could do on a consistent basis.  With no role models available, John became the weightlifting coach who would come to stand out as THE women’s weightlifting coach decades later.  The 1980’s dawned with John pursuing his passion and salvation, and about to take on the role of crusader. 

The Dawn of Women in Weightlifting

Up until the 1980’s the only record of women having lifted in weightlifting competition was Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton in the 1940’s, Vera Christensen in the 1960’s and Monette Driscoll in the 1970’s.  I coached a couple of girls in meets in the very late 1970’s, Dede Woodruff and Gretchen Aberg.  Aside from that weightlifting was entirely a Man’s world.  In 1981 Joel Widdell of Waterloo, Iowa decided to hold the first women’s nationals and surprisingly there were 29 competitors.  The big toe had been placed in the water. 

Participation by women gradually increased both in the U.S. and in some nations around the world.  By 1986 the demand was great enough for a world championship to be planned for 1987.  There was a national trials event held to select the team that would represent the USA scheduled for the Sports Palace in San Francisco.

I Got to Witness John’s Magic for the First Time

Although I’d been aware of John’s coaching for most of the ‘80’s, I never got a chance to see his best work until the aforementioned trials in 1987.  I was there to coach Diana Fuhrman, but John was there with Robin Byrd and Sibby Harris, two of the very early stars of USA women’s weightlifting.  They were both remarkably fit looking, and had exceptional platform presences.  They lifted with confidence and precision.  John had envisioned the future of women in weightlifting and manifested it in these two wonderful performers.  Robin and Sibby were not novelty items.  They were competitive athletes lifting weights with great aplomb. 

The Long Run

17 National Team Titles is a long string and it’s only been exceeded by the York Barbell dynasty on the men’s side.  But Coffee’s Gym is not just a tale of team championships, but of stars and record setters.  Robin Byrd was the biggest star with numerous national titles, a world record, a world championship and an Olympic berth.  Sibby Harris, Colleene Colley, Ursula Garza, Stacy Ketchum, Jane Camp, Jane Black, Maro Behakjian, Lynn Stoessel, Jodi Wilhite, Christie Green and Carla Garrett were among those early versions of the Coffee’s Gym team that won national championships and/or qualified for international events.  The string has continued into the 21st century with Kelly Rexroad still winning national titles and qualifying for world teams. 

This string extends back to the days when the women’s nationals were held separately from the men’s.  This set-up allowed some charlatan coaches to enter the sport from the women’s side, many of them claiming to know all the “secrets” to coaching women.  When the two genders were combined in 1989, the pretenders were blown away and John was the lone women’s coach still standing. 

John and I coach at the World’s

John and I were fortunate to team up to coach the women’s team at the world championships in 1990—1992.  We roomed together and spent a lot of time exchanging philosophies and approaches.  I learned to appreciate John’s love of history, especially regarding the Civil War.  I learned how to use the force and be more instinctive.  He would query me about the science behind training, and the best way to time warm-ups. 

We coached some records, some medal winners and took great joy in watching the sport grow and develop.  On many occasions it was extremely rewarding to see so many of our athletes establish personal records.  We made friends.  We had good times. 

Women Can Now Pursue Their Weightlifting Dreams

Through John’s efforts and those of his lifters, women can now pursue their Olympic weightlifting dreams.  Those dreams can now become realities because of a movement that largely took hold in Coffee’s Gym in the 1980’s. 

At the end of this month, that gym will close.  It has long been a shrine.  This is definitely the end of an epoch.  John suffered his second stroke last year and will not be able to pursue the sport he loves so fervently.  Without John’s presence there can just not be a Coffee’s Gym. 

If you are a weightlifting woman or a fan of women weightlifters let John know that you appreciate what he has done.  You can post your sentiments on the Coffee’s Gym Facebook page.  I know he’ll appreciate it.