Norbert Schemansky: Local Strongman Passes, Aged 92

Norbert Schemansky attained great fame in Europe but never got his due in America. He served in World War II and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. Schemansky died last week in hospice at 92. He is considered the last heavyweight weightlifter to not use performance enhancing drugs.

Schemansky competed across four decades, winning competitions, breaking records and with his 400-pound heaves, leaving spectators in awe. He accomplished breaking 26 world records and winning four Olympic medals.

He competed until the age of 40. Schemansky began his Olympic run in 1948 in London, where he won the silver medal in the super heavyweight class. In 1952, in Helsinki, he won the gold in the middle-heavyweight class. He missed the 1956 Games, in Melbourne, Australia, while recovering from two back operations to repair damaged disks. But the injuries did not deter him. He returned to the Olympics in 1960, in Rome, to win the bronze as a superheavyweight, and then in 1964, in Tokyo, to bring home the bronze again.

Schemansky magazine cover 1962.
Schemansky on the cover of Strength & Health magazine, 1962.

When he competed, he was easily noticed by his signature plastic-framed eyeglasses, as if Superman had shown up still disguised as mild-mannered Clark Kent. A fiery competitor, he had the respect of all his Euro competition. “Norbert Schemansky is the greatest and strongest athlete I have ever seen,” his Cold War rival Yuri Vlasov of Ukraine said in 1964.

Schemansky could be ambivalent about the fame and fortune that never came his way in this country. “I was working at Briggs Manufacturing, and I asked for time off,” Schemansky told The Detroit News in 2002, “and one of the guys from downstairs said: Give him all the time off he wants. Fire him.” Schemansky quit, went to Helsinki and won the gold medal.

When he returned home, a gold medal in his bag, no one was there to greet him. Only an airport porter recognized him. “The bus porter said, Nice going, Semansky,” he recalled. “He mispronounced my name, but he knew who I was.” Schemansky took a bus home alone.

In his younger years, he had worked for Briggs and Strohs Brewery while retiring from the City of Dearborn as a Civil Engineer. They named a park in Dearborn after him. He also operated a small gym on Woodward Avenue, in the 1960s, for serious weightlifters.

The Soviet news agency Tass was quick to recognize Schemansky’s plight as a useful propaganda tool when he and Vlasov met in front of 8,000 fans in Budapest in 1962. It was billed as the “heavyweight match of the century.” After Schemansky beat Vlasov in the press and the snatch but lost the match on total points (his ankle collapsed on the final lift), Tass attempted Cold War propaganda and declared that “the story of Schemansky” illustrated “the attitude toward man in a capitalistic world.”

Schemansky retired from competition in 1972. He was elected to the National Weightlifting Hall of Fame, the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

He was predeceased by his wife Bernice in 1996. They had five children, Paula (Bob) Sperka, Pamela (Steve) Petro, Larry (Lilly), and Laura (Bill) Rowe; 10 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

Raymond Rolak
Raymond Rolak is a veteran sports broadcaster who writes on a range of sporting events, plus automotive and aviation topics of interest.