National News

Chuck Vinci, Olympic Champion Weight Lifter, Dies at 85

Posted June 22, 2018 8:53 p.m. EDT

Chuck Vinci, a former shoeshine boy from Cleveland whose gold medals in weight lifting at the 1956 and 1960 Summer Olympics were the last to be won by an American man, died June 13 in Westlake, Ohio. He was 85.

His son Curt said the cause was congestive heart failure.

“I used to dream of just having state records,” Vinci told The Associated Press in 1988. “The will of the Lord came through.”

Vinci (pronounced VIN-see) achieved far more than glory in Ohio. He is considered one of the greatest weightlifters of all time. He was also one of the smallest: At just under 5 feet, he competed in the 123-pound class. One of his nicknames was the Mighty Mite.

He developed his extraordinary chest and biceps muscles through long workouts at a YMCA in Cleveland after World War II and later, as the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne drew near, at a weightlifting club in York, Pennsylvania, sponsored by a barbell manufacturer.

“He was a high-energy guy who trained all day, with no pauses,” said Art Drechsler, a former weight lifter and chairman of USA Weightlifting, the governing body of the sport in the United States. “He trained on everything to build himself up.”

By the time he arrived in Melbourne for the Summer Games, Vinci had won the U.S. national championship three times and the silver medal at the world championships a year earlier. But before the Olympic competition began, he faced a problem: He was 7 ounces overweight.

He ran and did jumping jacks, to no avail. Finally, a haircut lopped off enough of his long, thick hair for him to make weight.

At the Royal Exhibition Building, Vinci faced Vladimir Stogov of the Soviet Union, who had defeated him for the world championship in 1955. But this time Vinci lifted 342.5 kilograms (about 755 pounds) on three lifts (the clean and jerk, snatch and press). Stogov lifted 337.5 kilograms (744 pounds). Vinci won the gold medal.

“I was there to win for my country — no messing around — no running around,” Vinci told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2012. “Go to bed early. Get up early to train. Went to church.”

At the Olympics in Rome four years later, Vinci was the favorite, and he delivered. Lifting 345 kilograms (760 pounds) — a new Olympic record for a bantamweight that also tied a world record — he won the gold medal, defeating Yoshinobu Miyake of Japan and Ismail Elm Khah of Iran.

His hope of winning a third consecutive gold medal, at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo, ended that January when he injured a ligament in his back.

He continued to lift nearly until the end of his life, but he rarely competed.

Charles Thomas Vinci Jr. was born on Feb. 28, 1933, in Cleveland. His father was a janitor and his mother, Marie, was a homemaker.

For several years he shined shoes in Cleveland, battling others for turf on street corners. He followed one of his older brothers, Billy, into weight lifting, and by 15 he was training at the Central YMCA in Cleveland. He did not stay in school beyond the eighth grade.

In 1953, he won a northeastern Ohio Athletic Union championship. The next year, he won the first of his seven national titles.

With his training focused on making the Olympics, Vinci headed to York in 1955 and found a place in the city’s weightlifting haven. Bob Hoffman, a former weight lifter who had founded York Barbell, sponsored many lifters and was the coach of the U.S. team for several Olympics. Vinci trained at the club that Hoffman had established and worked in the barbell company’s foundry.

His former wife, Dolly Vinci, who met him after he won the 1956 Olympics, said he had been obsessed with weightlifting.

Weights were all over their house in Cleveland, she said in a telephone interview, including 10,000 pounds of them in their basement. He brought barbells into the cab of a crane he operated for a steel mill so that he could practice when there was no work to perform.

“Anything to do with strength,” she said. “His whole life was lifting. In Catholic school, he shoveled coal into the furnace.”

He vowed to keep lifting weights after heart surgery in 2012 — “I’m going to do it for the rest of my life,” he told The Plain Dealer — and was doing push-ups and squats in his hospital room as recently as four months ago.

“He couldn’t let up,” his son Curt said in a phone interview.

In addition to Curt, Vinci is survived by two other sons, Carl and Chris; four daughters, Doreen and Sarah Vinci, Jennifer Sheldon and Dawn Cook; four grandchildren; one great-grandchild; his sisters, Felicia Monday, Margie Taylor, Josie Pompigmano, Betty Williams and Mary Deranek, and his brothers, Victor and Angelo. His second wife, Edna, died in 2016.

Vinci’s Olympic performances came at the end of a dominating era for U.S. weightlifters. U.S. men won four gold medals apiece in the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Summer Games. In 1960, he was the only gold medalist among U.S. weightlifters.

Since then, the most successful lifters have been from the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries, Asia and the Middle East, among them Naim Suleymanoglu, the 4-foot-10 ethnic Turk who won three consecutive gold medals from 1988 to 1992 and was known as the Pocket Hercules. (He died last year.)

It would take 40 years for another American to win a gold in weightlifting.

Tara Nott, a flyweight, won at the 2000 Sydney Games — the first Olympics in which women competed in weightlifting.