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. 





The end of a hectic week after traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans and Mandeville and then back again only to leave three days later for Orlando and then Gainesville, Florida.  I’ve hardly had time to get jet-lagged.  I felt that the seminar in Mandeville, LA at Redline Athletics was a great event thanks in large part to the organizational skills of Redline coach Jonathan Teague.  He’s helping to build an active weightlifting community in his club and his efforts are being rewarded by a higher profile at national events.   

This past weekend saw me at the National University and Under 25 Championships at the University of Florida in Gainesville.  It was, as expected, a well run event.  USAW has its shortcomings, but event organization is not one of them.  There were plenty of well intentioned folks present to make sure the trains were running on time.    


Great Sightlines at the National Universities 

It looks like this is the only national event on the USAW calendar that will regularly feature great sightlines.  The event being the national championship for University and College students, it is held at a University.  Universities, unlike most hotels, have facilities dedicated for watching sports events.  They have arenas with a seating rake that provides excellent sightlines for watching a weightlifting event.  This is a vast improvement over hotel banquet rooms with flat floors.   

This year’s event at the University of Florida was no exception.   


The Iconic Vision of Today’s Weightlifting Coaches 

Any spectator at today’s weightlifting event has to come away with an iconic vision of a weightlifting coach as someone standing at the side of the stage shooting video on a cell phone while exhorting, “Let’s go!”  

We have some problems here. 

  • One function of the coach is to see and discern technical errors in an athlete’s performance.  For some reason the timing is slightly distorted when viewing through a video screen as opposed to watching it “raw”.  Although the differences between the two viewing modes are slight, the coach should be able to determine nuance that could potentially become greater on the next attempt.  If a coach needs video to accurately determine what took place, the coach is not watching enough lifting.  Using video is just advertising to the world that the coaching eye is still not developed.  This should not happen at a national event.   

  • If a coach needs to document the event, then get someone else to do it.  This is especially true when the posse emerges at the side of the platform and the coach is doing the videography.  A coach has enough to do managing the performance.   

  • “Let’s go” is not a coaching cue.  The cue should be directed at the aspect of the lift that is most likely to distort during a heavy lift.  That aspect is not the same for each lifter and it can vary from lift to lift for any given lifter.   

At one point in my coaching career I was frequently told that I did not look like a weightlifting coach which meant that I didn’t look like a bodybuilder (I didn’t).  If I were told that today it could well mean that I’m not consistently shooting video. 


 Not Ready for Primetime Equipment 

With some fanfare Rogue was announced as the official barbell of USA Weightlifting in January.  For some reason they were not deemed ready for the spotlight as there were plenty of new Rogue bumpers in the warm-up room, and lots of Rogue signage all over the warm-up room and in the competition field of play, but not on the platform (which was Eleiko).   

The competition weights were Eleiko as were the platforms.  The Eleiko collars were causing difficulties for the loaders.  And instead of providing magnetized collars and change plates, Eleiko provided change plates with an inner compression ring.  Both factors contributed to less than speedy loading.   

Another problem that seemed more frequent than at previous national events was the amount of rear foot slippage in the jerk.  Some of this can be attributed to faulty technique and some to poor shoe design, but the probable cause was the over-finished Eleiko platform.  The finish on the platform, when sprinkled with chalk dust, provided insufficient traction for sure footed jerking. 


Lack of Officials 

If USAW is to continue to produce these multi-platform monstrosities, the demand for national card holding officials will remain high if it doesn’t grow. 

Over the years the number of officials required for competition has increased.  It is easy to imagine that this increase at the international level was due to the increase in participation.  During my involvement the number of member nations of the IWF has grown from less than 100 to over 180.  This meant that more delegations were attending and more officiating roles had to be developed.  Anyway we’ve gone from 3 competition officials to 3 competition officials, a Marshall, a technical controller, an announcer, and a jury of 3.  That’s a total of 9 officials per session.  At this competition the meet director was regularly scrambling to fill those spots.  I ended up officiating one session even though I didn’t bring my blue blazer.   

The hold-up that I often hear from aspiring national card holders is that it is difficult to get tested as testing is normally done by having the candidate take one of the three officiating roles during a session at a national event.  Even though there are more national events with more sessions than ever before, it is still apparently difficult to get tested.  In the past, candidates could merely adjudicate each lift in a given session from the audience without actually sitting in the official’s chair, have the results compared to the actual results and given a score that did or did not meet a certain designated level.   

For all too many years the leaders of the officials committee had a pull up the ladder attitude.  Some of that cultural value still lives among some of the veteran members of that group.  If the sport is to grow, as it has been doing, the officiating body must do likewise.   


One Thing I Liked 

When putting on a large event with self-locking exterior doors, inevitably some people sneak in by holding the door open as someone else leaves.  If you’re charging admission this can be a problem.  The University had this one covered by having attendants at all the exterior doors to the venue.  A small thing, but one that made a difference.  By the way, admission was $10.00.  I remember buying a $10.00 event pass (good for all sessions) to my first National Championships in 1965!  Are we undercharging? 


Again, the Bench Press! 

One item that no one seem to notice is that many lifters have trouble locking out the jerk because they can’t get the humerus overhead perpendicular to the ground.  This inhibits good lockout and probably accommodates unlocking during the jerk, both of which can trigger red lights from the officials.   

A very common cause of this fault is the tightness in the shoulder joint caused by years of bench pressing while failing to maintain full range of movement at the shoulder.  This doesn’t seem to be a problem for most of the women since their identities are not closely tied to bench pressing prowess.   

I have several athletes (all guys) in my gym having to do remedial straight arm pullovers to stretch out the pecs so that they can facilitate locking out in both the snatch and the jerk.   


Can Anyone Coach the Jerk? 

Well, yes, but there are certainly plenty who can’t judging by the performances this past weekend.   

While online wars are regularly taking place over Superman pulls, catapulting, flat-footed pulling and a variety of pulling technique minutiae (mainly to determine who’s right instead of what’s true), nobody cares enough about the jerk to get into an argument about it.   

Yet we get to a national event and see that the majority of lifters can perform a decent if not superb clean, but can make a number of errors performing the jerk, a movement much less complicated than the clean or snatch.   

I regularly saw the following faults: 

  • The jerk dip started from locked knees.  Locked knees means that the first bend is hip flexion and that sends the trajectory of the bar slightly forward. 

  • A shallow dip.  Each lifter has an optimal depth for the jerk drive.  Many are falling short or exceeding it. 

  • The jerk drive is mistimed with either too fast of a dip, a pause at the bottom of the dip, or a lack of speed from the drive. 

  • The jerk drive is not performed with a complete extension of the hips, knees and a plantar flexion of the ankles.  Many also finish the jerk drive on one foot.  The rear leg is leaving prematurely. 

  • The arms are involved prematurely.  This results in pushing the body away from the path of the bar.  For many lifters this is a problem if the arms are pushing before the bar rises above the top of the head. 

  • The lifter is gripping too tightly and inhibits a rapid extension of the elbows. 

  • The feet do not move an equal distance 

  • The rear foot does not contact the platform before the front foot. 

  • The rear foot is turned out in the split 

  • The split is too short 

  • The rear foot recovers first.   

These errors were committed all too frequently in the past weekend’s competition. During the times when I was at the side of the competition platform, I would watch a lifter come down after missing the jerk, and the only comments coming from the coach were platitudes or words of encouragement.  There was not mention of technical faults and what corrections should be made.   

If you are to be considered a weightlifting coach you must coach the snatch and the clean & jerk.  You are not a weightlifting coach if you can only coach the snatch and clean. 


Amusing Moment of the Meet 

I couldn’t stay for the entire event, but while I was there the most interesting moment was when one of the lifters in the 56A session lifted with a baseball cap worn backwards (of course).  Thanks to the hijab rule, this is now acceptable.   

Well, the hat flew off during the clean and landed on the platform.  The lifter recovered with the clean and while jerking appeared to attempt to avoid stepping on the cap.  This ended up leading to a failed jerk.  Definitely a first in my long career of watching weightlifting which dates back to 1962.  Perhaps I should have included this in the previous section on jerking faults.   


Catching Up 

While in Gainesville I had a chance to catch up with my former lifter, Ray Blaha.  He was the first lifter I coached in an Olympic Trials, a national champion and a national snatch record holder at 171 in the 110 class. I had a great time recounting the old days with Ray, the Red Bull, and his wife.  Ray is doing well running several EBay businesses and looking forward to retirement.   

I also had a chance to spend some time with Jonna Ocampo who served as Vice-Chair of the NSCA Weightlifting SIG during my service as Chair.  She’s always one to be up for something new and her latest adventure had her spending 30 days in NASA isolation so that the scientists could study how a group of 5 strangers would deal with the situation.  She stopped by my hotel for coffee as she was on her way to a Miocene paleo dig.    

I also got to hang out with the Stones for a little bit.  No, not those Stones.  I’m talking about Mike and Meg who are doing a great job developing the weightlifting center at East Tennessee State.  Dr. Mike was one of the early leaders of the NSCA, and Meg was a UK Olympian in the discus.  Always a good time conversing with those two as well as Kyle Calhoun Pierce, the coach of weightlifting in Ghana.