Dan John: Six Decades of Competition

I recently competed in an Olympic lifting meet. I did well and I came home with three trophies.

My goal has been to maintain my levels of strength since Junior College. Actually, at age 60, I still stay pretty close. Considering I graduated from Skyline College in 1977, staying “close” forty years later deserves some credit.

As I was thinking about this, I realized that my FIRST trophy (and unlike many trophies today . . . I earned it) is from 1967. For reference, we hadn’t yet landed on the moon, Vietnam was raging, steroids were merely a whisper and, well, this is awkward, my wife hadn’t yet been born.

In one of my first articles, circa 1996, I told the story of this first trophy. Here is the article:

Two things happened to me recently that got me thinking. In June, at a discus camp, a young man sat down next to me and began asking about diet. Joe, a high school junior, weighed 350 pounds with a 56-inch waistline. Bless him, he never missed a drill, an exercise or a challenge.

The struggles this young man endured in high school endeared me to want to help. High school social life doesn’t always include kids like Joe. We talked for hours, I talked with his folks, and got him started on a different way of eating.

I was talking with two friends in my “gym” this week. For those who don’t usually read my writing, my gym is my garage. Darryl Jarman asked a good question. I had been helping him with his training and a few other things. He said: “You know, most guys with your background in sports are usually really jerks.” He didn’t say “jerk,” but I don’t want to strain the sensitive ears of my readers. I told Darryl that I have to help others. I owe.

In my closet, there is a small trophy that bears a stamp “S.V. 67.” For the record, that stands for “St. Veronica’s, 1967,” the first trophy I ever received and I got it one year before my wife was born. Although I often joke about my funeral, for example having Frank Sinatra’s “One for My Baby, One more for the Road” as a closing song, I am serious when I ask that somebody remember this trophy. It is a lesson in how God works.

You see, I was the world’s worst baseball player. My batting average was three zeroes. I hated sports, while my brothers were getting their pictures in the local sports section on a weekly basis. As the right fielder, I was safe until I batted. Then, I would close my eyes, swing like mad three times and sit down.

As in all great sports stories, we were heading into the championship game. I went to the local high school the night before the game and decided to learn to hit. Throw the ball up, close my eyes and swing. Ball up, close eyes, swing. As I tried to learn to hit, one of the local high school heroes, Dale Kursten, saw me trying and failing, and walked over to give me a few lessons. Keep your eye on the ball, swing level and make contact. A few easy hits later, he said goodbye.

And, of course, like all great stories, this one came down to the last inning. With two outs and a man on third, our captain turned and asked, “Who’s up?”

“Me, Coach.”

“Oh, great. We are going to lose.”

With that pep talk, I walked to the plate, where Dale’s words echoed: “Eye on the ball, swing level, make contact.” And, I did. The ball slid between the fielders and I made it to first base. The guy on third scored and we tied the game. Later, we would win. A few weeks later, I was given that little trophy.

At my sister’s twenty-year high school reunion, she mentioned this story to Dale. It didn’t register. Oh, he had heard about my athletic career, but was stunned to find out he had anything to do with it. Yet, I point to those few minutes of his guidance as the turning point in my athletics.

There are times when God uses us as tools. A minute here, a good word there and perhaps an errand or two bring about the Kingdom of God. What is difficult is that, like Dale, we never really know when we will impact a person’s life. This may be the greatest of the challenges of the Gospel: “Do unto others.”

In essence, we are called to live this message every moment of our waking lives.

I got a call from Joe. His waistline is down to 46, his bodyweight is under 300. Things are getting better socially and athletically in his life. I hope I can help. I owe.

So, that story of my first trophy, now fifty years old, got me thinking about my life in the weightroom, the schoolroom and the athletic field. I have made mistakes, learned lessons from mentors and experiences (usually bad), and I would like to share some of them with you.

Let’s start with the easy ones: my favorite mistakes.

  1. The Cult of the Bench Press. I fell for it too, “Wadiya Bench?” was the question of questions. Luckily, I got addicted to the bench press in 1971 and was “cured” by Dick Notmeyer in 1974. I probably benched more weight as a 162-pound high school senior than most people will ever lift. And . . . it didn’t help that much!
  2. I joke about this all the time: “It worked so good, I stopped doing it.” My ability to ignore what works is now the cornerstone of my lectures. I think we all do it: what works is often so basic, fundamental and, frankly, boring, that we all fall in love with the bright new shiny promise and fancy promotion. It never works . . . focus on what works.
  3. Sadly, even with great mentors, I still often ignored the map. Coach Ralph Maughan told me in 1977: “Lift three days a week, throw four days a week for the next eight years and you will be great.” So, I lifted six days a week and threw twice a day trying to get “there” in four years. Performance, like life, has speed limits.
  4. Of course, that last point leads to my biggest issue: overtraining. I was working with a local guy well established in all the dark arts of performance. He noted that the biggest issue with American athletes is “overtraining.” I asked: “Do I overtrain?” “Dan, you are the poster child of overtraining.” Of course, recovering from overtraining, and the surgeries that go with it, takes more time and effort than appropriate training.
  5. I ignored a lesson from Tommy Kono and all of the great Olympic lifters: balance serious O lifting work with periods of general training . . . what we often call “bodybuilding.” Of course, as usual, I ignored advice about moderation and I would max out the day after Olympic lifting meets to see if I could do more. It worked . . . until it didn’t. Listen to those who have gone before you.
  6. . . . Unless they are druggies. This isn’t a moral theology exam; I am simply pointing out the obvious. If someone took amphetamines before workouts, dope before meals (to get hungry) and used steroids, the training program is going to be different than if you use coffee as your “go to” drug of choice. One friend told me: “At most, I improved ten percent from the drugs.” Ten percent is pretty good for simply popping a pill. If you are clean, listen to the clean.
  7. Of course, instead of drugs, I feel for the tinctures set. Sadly, I have thrown out the collection of failed magic pills I got from the local nutrition store. Once you have bought and tried Horny Goat Weed, it is actually difficult to not laugh out loud at yourself. I fell for “magic dust” over and over in my career. Not one thing outperformed good food and smart training.
  8. Magic dust, tinctures, potions and lotions were just the start. I also fell for the bogus recovery stuff. True: meditation worked for me; sleep tapes, saunas and hot tubs were all fabulous, too. But, I also tried to heal a necrotic hip by looking sideways and wiggling my finger. Stick with the basics.
  9. Nautilus training—I bought into this stuff completely. I had a gym membership and followed the rules exactly. And, in full candor, I made great progress for a few weeks. Then I stalled. My performance in the discus went down, down, down. I still think it has value, but the cost of each machine could buy a complete gym.
  10. Crossfit—I loved (and still respect) the programming back in 2003 and 2004 when Lauren was doing the daily Workout of the Day (WOD). I loved the idea of learning new things and “practicing” as a central tenant of training. Then, it went off into the paramilitary macho stuff that feeds some people’s egos. “Regularly learn and play new sports,” the last point of the famous “Fitness in 100 words” is good advice for everyone. Sadly, as with Nautilus, performance in my sports went down. Really, this number ten sums much of the other nine points.

But, I also did a lot of smart things over these past fifty years, too. I have trophies and medals from six different decades in nine different sports (and probably more if you count things like Flag Football). I have done some things “right.”

  1. Hey: I showed up. I show up. I continue to show up. Workshops, certs, competitions . . . I show up. I still make it point annually to attend a multiple-day certification, sit up front, volunteer for everything and strive to improve. I’ve been lifting weights essentially nonstop since 1965. It’s a lot of showing up.
  2. In 1974, I read an article by Dave Davis that stated that throwers mixed the power lifts and the Olympic lifts. It was good advice that I took then . . . and I have yet to see better!
  3. I cook. I enjoy BBQ and slow cooking. I try new recipes. I enjoy the journey of soup making. I explore other cultures’ foods and I make mistakes sometimes in the kitchen. Some of the mistakes have been good. Others . . . well, I have a big garbage can. The lessons in the kitchen teach the same lessons in sports. Huh? Well, it starts with quality ingredients, appropriate preparation and appropriate timing!
  4. I have always had my own gym AND access to another place. In 1971, I saved literally every quarter and dime to buy my first incline bench. I have bought, sold and traded everything, from massive Nautilus arm machines (the size of small cars) to a collection of 29 kettlebells, to every kind of load you can imagine. My gym is open 24/7, but I can also use another facility for any reason that might pop up.
  5. I competed. I have stepped on the platform, the field, the track and the road for all kinds of events. Competing teaches, with absolute clarity, one insight: it worked . . . or it didn’t. “It,” of course, is this thing we call training. “It” is the preparation. Competition judges preparation.
  6. I have always emphasized community in my training. Yes, I have spent countless hours—this is not a cliché, but the truth—alone in fields throwing and carrying things. But, what makes me keep coming back to the gym and field is that people will be there. Jack Shroeder, the man who took me under his wing as a writer and made me better, used to always say: “People love stories and stories about people.” I love the stories.
  7. I don’t mind tossing things to the side. At clinics, people often ask me about “this.” “This” is an exercise, movement, idea or whatever that I don’t mention much anymore. “Ah . . . oh yeah, “this! Yeah. I don’t do it anymore because of . . .” And, that is the secret: in the constant search for a wee bit better, it’s okay to get rid of things along the way.
  8. I have always realized we can do better. Maybe it is less of this and more of that, but the search for better is always on my mind. Loaded carries were forced on me because of a wrist injury, but they were a career-changing exercise for me and the people around me.
  9. I keep journals. I have a record of every workout since 1971. I can remember my 1970 workouts, too, as they were pretty simple. I have lost one or two on road trips and whatever, but overall, I can tell you my training, for most of you, on the day you born. I would love to be able to brag about all kinds of things in my career, but the truth is in the journal. Sometimes, yes, I look back and wonder, “Wow, I did that?” And, sometimes I look back and wonder, “How dumb was that?”
  10. I never, ever, made athletics, sports, coaching, or training the absolute center of my universe. I always strived to maintain good grades as a student, progress with continuing education in the fields of history and religious studies, and read well outside of the fields of training, nutrition and sports.

Oddly, I think my best insights about sports actually come from these studies in other disciplines.

I was never alone on this journey. Books have been my answer to all of life’s problems.

  1. The Sword in the Stone, first read in 1970, was the foundational book of my life and career.

“The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.” ~ T. H. White

Young Arthur (“Wart”) is given his power from advice from his friends, including:

Power springs from the nape of the neck.
Use those forearms held together by the chest.
Find your tool.
Never let go.
Keep up a steady effort.
Fold your powers together, with the spirit of your mind.

This advice became the cornerstone of my coaching.

  1. Seven Days to Sunday, Eliot Asinof, first read in 1970—from “Wednesday:”

“I worked on my body all the time. I learned from German gymnasts. I did Chinese push-ups, kip-ups, flips. I walked on my hands, studied body balance. Body momentum transfer—that’s where you can move around in the air without hitting the ground. I worked on the trampoline, did rope climbing, lots of tumbling. In my frosh year, I could do only ten push-ups, thirty-five sit-ups, and three chin-ups. A year later, I did a hundred eleven push-ups, five hundred sit-ups and twenty-five chin-ups. I would work out while I watched TV. I would roll out of bed in the morning and do push-ups and the U.S. Marine squat jumps.

“My mother gave me ballet lessons to build up my legs. I learned the second position, the plie. I wanted to build up my groin muscles, the calves, the tights. I could dance pretty well at that. I wanted to be graceful as well as strong. She taught me a lot.

“In my junior year, I made linebacker. I was able to knock down big guys weighing two hundred pounds behind the line of scrimmage. I was quick. I got even quicker. In the spring, I ran the high hurdles, shot put, threw the discus, ran the half-mile.”

  1. Bodybuilding and Self-Defense, Myles Callum, first read in 1970:

“This method [isometrics/tension] is based on a new theory [the book was published in 1962] of muscle growth. German and American scientists and doctors have found that a muscle can grow at only a certain rate. And, according to this theory, it doesn’t take as much work as we used to think. If you flex any muscle to its maximum power and contraction, and hold it there for six seconds, once a day, the scientists say, the muscle will grow in strength just as fast as it can grow [in strength!!!].

“Whether or not this method of muscle tension can ever really replace weight-lifting is still a matter of controversy. Some scientists say it can; endless repeating of strenuous exercise, they say, ‘does not make the strength of a muscle grow any faster.’ Weight-lifting, however, may make the size of the muscle grow faster.”

  1. Tommy Kono’s Weightlifting, Olympic Style—Now, this book came out years after Tommy’s ABCs of Lifting series in Strength and Health; the articles shaped my career, but I love this book. When I saw Dave Turner’s copy at a meet, I considered stealing it. I didn’t.
  2. Frank Herbert’s Dune, in which the opening line is “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” I wasn’t much of a sci-fi guy, but this book is a meditation on patience . . . and a rocking good story!
  3. John Jesse’s Explosive Muscular Power for Championship Football—It was hard to find books on lifting when I first started and, luckily, Jesse’s books were at the Orange Library. I still go back to his work when I need my reality realigned.
  4. Beowulf. I am not sure I can do better than this post from my blog.
  5. Larry Knuth’s The Linear Approach to the Discus Throw—Obviously written by John Powell, this was the first book that described the discus beyond “hold it like this.” I consumed this book.
  6. J. K. Doherty’s Track and Field Omnibook—the original, first edition only (in my mind). Filled with black and white pictures and drawings from “Krazy Kettlebell” stuff to track techniques, this book inspired me to ask Coach Ralph Maughan at Utah State if he was interested in a discus thrower from South San Francisco.
  7. Arnold’s The Education of a Bodybuilder—I bought it the day it came out and was teased for having it. It’s basic, simple and to the point, but Arnold’s insights on the MIND were a turning point in my career.

Books are important to my life, yes, but people are more important. As I review this list of my life’s mentors, I realize so many are left out. I think of my dad sitting in the stands at crazy locations, watching me compete, and my mom telling me to ignore pain as “this is the path you took.”

  1. Dale Kursten—the beginning is so delicate.
  2. Dick Notmeyer—I dedicated Before We Go to him; he changed my life. Here’s more about Dick.
  3. Coach Ralph Maughan—decorated war vet, Detroit Lion, Olympian, the epitome of the basic approach to everything in life.
  4. Dave Turner—The Olympic lifts in Utah would be nothing without him. I can never give him enough credit.
  5. My brother, Gary. In my first football game, he stood on the sidelines in his field jacket, just back from the Army. He was still recovering, and not necessarily well, from Vietnam. He has remained “right there” in my life ever since.
  6. Glenn Passey—Four tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, national champ in the discus and wonderful human being. If you are going to choose a hero, choose well.
  7. Bob Lualhati—my Coach at Skyline College. He visited me the day I graduated from high school and convinced me that the coldest, foggiest place on the planet would be perfect for me. He was right.
  8. My Southwood coaches—I left St. Veronica’s and walked in a public school; the coaching staff was logical, systematic and challenging. I thrived.
  9. Dan Martin—He will make a nasty comment about making this list, but Dan showed up in my life when I needed some guidance. I was barely able to walk twenty feet due to a necrotic hip. Dan reminded me of the journey, the path, the road. We walked it together.
  10. John Powell—I was in my thirties. I had babies at home and I reached out to John for “one last gasp” at my career. I discovered I was a baby myself with years and years ahead of me.

Finally, as I look back on all these years of competition, let me share with you might “Top Ten” highlights:

  1. Winning hit in 1967. Every lesson I know in life, sports and everything else comes from that day.
  2. Winning Caber Throw, Murray Highland Games. I had one attempt left at a nearly impossible Caber. A dad of another competitor told his son, way too loud, “Well, you’ve won . . . no one will turn this.” Jeff Armstrong told me later that he told the dad: “You just gave Dan the victory.” Turned it. Perfect toss.
  3. Baton Rouge, National Weightlifting Meet, last clean and jerk. If I make the lift, I’m National Champ. If I miss, I take fourth. Tiff walks over and, um, “reminds me” to make the lift. I did.
  4. Westmoor Football Game, 1974. “They” were supposed to be the best team in our league’s history. They were at minus seven yards of offense at the end of the first half. We were up 35–0. I memorized their scouting report and knew nearly every play. My last play was a sack for 15 yards, one of 17 tackles that night.
  5. 2005, Fast Action Football League. Time is over. They had just scored to tie it up and we have one “untimed” overtime play. The QB scrambles back and forth, back and forth. When he finally throws . . . BEHIND me. My legs do the impossible as I leap up, punch the ball, and back roll into victory. And, no, I can’t do that now!
  6. My daughter Lindsay’s state championship shot put throw. Last throw and best throw. I only cried a bit.
  7. June 1979, San Jose PCAA Meet. Paul told me to move my feet to the left a bit at the start of the discus throw and I throw my lifetime best with ease.
  8. 2004 Ohio State Twilight Meet. After three weeks of discus camp, my legs were shot. Mike Pokowski comes up and tells me that the local Ohio guys were making fun of me for being old. First throw: 55 meters and I show them! Mike walks over: “I made that up.”
  9. 1982 Softball League. From centerfield, I caught a short fly ball, tagged second on the fly and ran down the guy coming from first, an unassisted Triple Play.
  10. Seattle, 2008, National Championships Discus. I entered the ring on my last throw behind by one inch. I smiled and threw seventeen feet farther to win.

So many memories drifted across me as I wrote this. Many of the people involved in our stories here are no longer with us. Many of the places I competed have been dug up and replaced by other structures.

My memories are the only thing left in some of the stories. But I need to look forward, not backward. I can certainly clean out the dust in the cups of the old awards or seek new ones.

I choose to do both.

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