Chasing Olympic Weightlifter Ken Patera Part 2

Chasing Olympic Weightlifter Ken Patera Part 2

Here is how close Olympic weightlifter Ken Patera came to being the 1st man in history to lift a 500-pound barbell overhead. This lift was done at a local competition in Portland, a full six months before Alexeev completed the feat. As a consolation prize, Ken Patera became the first man to clean and stand erect with a 500 barbell.

Portland, 1970: I had missed Olympic Weightlifter Ken Patera by mere weeks. I was now living three blocks from the gym Ken trained at – or had trained at until he was excommunicated. Ken Patera, the hottest young lifter in America, had been unceremoniously booted out of the gym he trained at. His offense? Repeatedly dropping barbells weighing between 350 to 500 pounds from nine feet in the air.

This was before the invention of rubber bumper plates and Patera was dropping giant barbells onto wooden weightlifting platforms and hard iron edges were splintering carefully constructed plywood lifting platforms. This did not endear him to management. In Ken’s defense, his droppings were not purposeful, these were close misses in the clean and the snatch.

Sam Loprenzi was the gym owner and lived in an apartment atop the gym. Sam was in his late 50s and single. He was a cool dude, an ex-Mr. America contender and no sissy, he related that Patera’s misses sounded like a stick of dynamite had been set off under his living room.  Sam later said, “Ken’s misses were always at the worst times for me. I would be just drifting off to sleep or sipping wine when a Patera atomic bomb would go off. If he was having a bad night, Ken might miss five times over a three-hour period.” Ken Patera had to stop Olympic weightlifting or be gone.

Ken was gone; I knew not where, but in his Jaws-like wake I heard plenty of “Ken stories” from Portlanders that had witnessed him training. One local monster man told me how he and a buddy had shown up to train at Sam’s gym and the counterman said, “Ken’s here.” My guy continued. “So, my buddy and I walk into the main room and sure enough, Ken is sitting on a weight bench. He has 365-pounds sitting on the squat rack. This was gonna be GREAT! We’d get to see Ken squat; maybe on his heavy set with 800 he’ll ask US to spot!’ So, Ken stands up from the bench for his set of squats with 365. He goes to the Olympic bar, un-racks the barbell, steps back, sets up to squat, takes a deep breath – and then does three perfect reps in the press-behind-the-neck! We lost our shit!’”

Olympic Weightlifter Ken Patera was the very definition of a genetic wonder. He was from a clan of genetic wonders: his older brother Jack Patera, had a long NFL career as a middle linebacker. Jack became truly famous as the longtime head coach for the Seattle Seahawks. Another of the Patera brothers, Dennis, played for the San Francisco 49ers. Ken was a star football player, wrestler, basketball player and track and field athlete. In high school he broke an ankle playing basketball and from that point forward he focused on shot put and discus.

Ken Patera won a track scholarship to Brigham Young University and became one of best shot putters in the country. He took 3rd at the collegiate nationals and eventually tossed the 16-pound ball 64-7 when the world record was 69-2. Leading up to the 1968 Olympic tryouts he decided to peak his power and up his bodyweight. He pushed his bodyweight up to 300-pounds (Ken is 6’ 1") and his raw power soared: he smoked an 820-pound ass-on-heels raw barbell squat and pulled a 725-pound deadlift in a lift he did not practice. He made a 520-pound paused bench press. Not bad for a guy who normally only did incline bench presses.

When he didn’t make the 1968 Olympic Team in the shot put, he turned all his time and attention towards weightlifting. He progress was astounding. The Olympic Trials for track and field were in May of 1968. By December of 1969, seventeen months later, he became the first man to clean and stand erect with 500-pounds. He missed the jerk portion of the lift. A few months later, at the 1970 world championships in Columbus, Ohio, Alexeev became the first man to clean and jerk 500-pounds.

Ken Patera began his competitive weightlifting career at an advanced age. Like Paul Anderson before him, Ken overcompensated for his raw, inefficient technique (a symptom of his late in life start) with ungodly pure power. He “gooned” the weights, technique be damned. It was no coincidence that his best lift, the overhead press, was the least technical. Even here he gave away pounds to the overhead press technical tricksters: Ken’s presses were models of strictness.

On the national level, Ken simply took over. At one time he held all the American records simultaneously: press, snatch and clean and jerk. He eventually pushed his three-lift total to just a few biscuits shy of 1,400 when he posted a 1,397-pound total. This awesome display consisted of a 505-pound press, a 387-pound snatch and a 507-pound clean and jerk. Internationally it was a different story.

Serge Redding and the West German wunderkind, Rudolph Mang, were both excellent lifters, however neither was remotely capable of handling Vassily Alexeev. Ken Patera was capable of beating the Soviet superman. Ken had the power, Ken was stronger than Alexeev. The thinking was, if Ken, late to the game, could refine his techniques he could beat the unbeatable King. He was that strong. His presence pushed Alexeev to incredible levels.

Dropping the press in 1972 allowed Alexeev to concentrate on the snatch and the clean and jerk. Four years of concentrated effort (and an ever-escalating 350-pound bodyweight) propelled him to unimagined heights: in 1976 Alexeev clean and jerked an otherworldly 564-pounds. This lift has only been exceeded by 24-pounds in 43-years. Alexeev also pressed the most weight ever, 521-pounds, using a much looser style and far more advanced technique than Ken’s super-strict 505. When Ken took the barbell out of the squat racks for the overhead press (avoiding the clean) he could ram 550 overhead.

Ken ‘bombed out’ of the 1972 Olympics, he missed three consecutive snatches and was out of the competition. That same week the press was dropped as one of the three competitive lifts by the IOC. Now only snatch and clean and jerk would be contested. Ken bid Olympic weightlifting adieu. He headed into a lucrative, high-profile career as a big time WWF wrestler. Again, because of his innate athletic abilities, because of his raw power, his transition was effortless. How did he train at his peak? Here is Ken Patera in his own words…

Here is a typical workout schedule, one I am using as I am preparing for the 1972 Olympic Games. With these exercises, I strengthen every position and every movement in Olympic lifting.

Monday, July 3rd 1972

  • Overhead squats 135x3, 205x3, 255x3, 295x2, 325x2
  • Front squat 225x3, 315x3, 405x3, 455x2, 520x1
  • Snatch-grip hi-pulls off blocks 225x3, 315x3, 365x3, 405x3
  • Press behind neck 135x3, 205x3, 255x3, 305x3, 345x1

Wednesday, July 5th

  • Front press off the racks 225x3, 295x2, 355x2, 405x1, 440x1, 480x1, 325x5 
  • Clean-grip hi-pulls 255x3, 305x2, 355x2, 405x2, 455x2, 505x2, 555x2
  • Hyper-extensions no weight 3x10, rise up as high as possible on each rep

Friday, July 7th

  • Snatch 135x3, 205x3, 255x2, 295x1, 315x1, 340x1, 360x1
  • 45-degree incline press on bench 225x5, 295x5, 345x3, 405x3, 430x1
  • Good mornings 135x5, 205x5, 255x5, 305

 At the time of the workout, July, 1972, Ken weighed a tight 320. At his peak he posted these lifts: clean and press 505; press with bar taken out of the squat rack (avoids the clean) 550; 45-degree incline 465; standing press behind neck 375; power clean 440; front squat 615; back squat 820; overhead squats with snatch grip 405x5. Had Ken gotten into Olympic lifting as a youngster and been drilled on technique by a topflight coach, he would have ruled the world.

His training template is minimalism personified: we get dazzled and distracted by the poundage he used - strip away the fascination with his feats and he was a minimalist: at his peak he trained three times a week performing four exercises in session 1 and three exercises in sessions 2 and 3. Ken performed a grand total of ten exercises per week and he never repeated an exercise during the course of the training week. This is the epitome of doing fewer things better.

He was athletically talented and perhaps saddled with the curse of too many choices. Olympic weightlifting is the absolute worst, in terms of financial compensation or recognition. For Ken Patera, becoming one of the best weightlifters in the world was just another athletic bus stop. When the elite banned the power lift, the overhead press, Ken’s forte, that was the last straw. Besides, he was going broke as a lifter. Pro wrestling beckoned. Needless to say, he thrived.

I had the good fortune to meet and party with Ken in a surreal, Hunter S. Thompson-esque Fear and Loathing setting. For some bizarre reason, for several years in a row the most prestigious powerlifting competition in America was held at a working-class casino in a godforsaken corner of West-by-God Virginia. This was a race track and casino set in the middle of a seriously ravaged section of West Virginia. The best rooms available were really rough. Having said that, I had some incredible times: I rubbed shoulders with giants.

Power God Ed Coan would lift at these meets. Doug Furnas would attend to coach Ed and on one memorable occasion I got Doug to come to the shabby suite I was sharing with Kirk Karwoski to do a taped interview for Muscle & Fitness magazine. Doug showed up in a great mood; which was good. I had seen Doug in not-so-good moods and that was frightening. He could have a terminator vibe about him that would make an interview difficult if not impossible.

Some serious lifters got wind that power God Doug would be coming to Kirk and Marty’s room at 1PM on Friday. By the time I turned on the tape recorder, Doug and I were sitting in a room with eight beefy lifters, men that had come to sit and listen, all with bowed heads, listening hard, ultimate respect for the uber-alpha male that was Doug.

I am a good interviewer. I have a lot of practice. When I worked for Muscle & Fitness, my job was to interview the world’s best bodybuilders on how they trained and ate. I go by the truism my Irish dad often related, “I never learned a goddamned thing listening to myself talk.” I ask good questions and shut up. Then I ask good follow-up questions and shut up. Furnas was really relaxed and appreciated my serious philosophic training questions. We ebbed and flowed for two hours. We parted company. The boys in the room actually applauded after their alpha leader left.

The next night I partied hard with Ken-freaking-Patera.

The same weekend as the powerlifting competition, the casino was hosting a UFC-style, steel cage octagon event. The headliner was (then still active) UFC hall of fame fighter Dan Severn. Dan was going to fight some highly touted local in the main event. I had interviewed Severn for Muscle & Fitness and knew him. We got on really well. He was smart and savvy. Randy Strossen, the Major Domo of MILO magazine, was at the event and told me Patera was there for the fight. I was instantly intrigued: I had been just missing Ken for decades. I tried to interview him for M&F and we had never connected. I’d heard he didn’t do interviews.

Dan Severn toyed with the local before submitting him in the second round. Afterwards, there was also some sort of ridiculous bench-shirt competition: a bunch of guys that would be hard-put to bench 550-pounds raw (with a pause and no shirt) were trying to bench press 800-pounds. They were wearing “bench shirts” that increased their un-shirted pushing power by 40%.

The bench shirts were so tight and so restrictive that seven out of eleven bench contestants ‘bombed out’ (missed three consecutive bench presses and were out of the competition) because, despite pulling downward with all their might on barbells loaded with 700 + pounds, they could not get the barbell to touch the chest. It was ludicrous.

Randy Strossen kept buying rounds of beer at both the fight and the bench press contest. I was drinking three beers to every one of his; I was getting pretty loose. After the fight and the bench press extravaganza, everyone effortlessly gravitated to the casino bar. It was then I spotted my white whale: Ken was here.

I saw him with my first glance around the bar, he was unmistakable: he wore a massive silver pompadour atop his massive head atop his massive body. He stood out in this smoke-filled bar like a lighthouse. He glowed. He was a comic book hero come to life. I was magnetized and moved towards him. He was standing at the bar talking to some lifters and fighters as Ken had a foot in both worlds.

I introduced myself and past that I did not know what to expect. We shook hands and he said ‘I know who you are! Drink with us!’ He didn’t have to ask me twice. For whatever reason he locked in on me and we proceeded to commence drinking, talking and laughing. We hit it off. Outwardly I was cool, inwardly, I was losing my shit. I was partying with the ghost – the man I had been just missing for decades.

The Silver God was here in the flesh and he’d taken a shine to me. We clicked. He was not introspective or demur, he was looking to have some drinks with some serious athletes and talk about a wide-ranging series of inter-related training topics. Patera was a smart dude. He was open and gregarious and reminded me of some of my hardcore Irish relatives, particularly my vicious cousins in the strip-mined coal town of Wilkes Barre.

We talked alone, we talked with small groups, we talked in large groups, we laughed our asses off. We drank man drinks: whiskey and stout beer. Round after round after round after round after round…it was a surreal setting: a hillbilly casino in Appalachia stuffed with out-of-shape chain smoking locals. To make the absurd more surreal, I was sitting in a small bar stuffed to the gills with cage fighters, world level powerlifters and the Silver God, Ken Freaking Patera, getting hammered and laughing till my guts were ready to explode.

And why not! No one was driving, we were all staying at the hotel, so overindulgence was assumed and expected. No wives or girlfriends in this crowd. I observed through my haze that herculean men tend to have herculean appetites and herculean capacities.  I would love to relate some of Ken’s priceless strength bon mots – he was funnier than Rodney Dangerfield on a good night or alternately, a profound sage when the topic turned to strength training. But relating his profundities is an impossibility since I blacked out.

Somehow, someway I ended up back in my hotel bed. My first awareness was putrid taste; it was as if a red-assed baboon had shit in my mouth. I awoke. I was then horrified to learn that I had amnesia: had I insulted Ken and had he power drilled me into the barroom floor? Was I concussed? I could not remember or recall a single wisdom-nugget that Ken had related. It was if that segment of my mind had been scrubbed, bleached, surgically wiped clean or perhaps more accurately, drowned in a sea of Irish whiskey and an ocean of Irish beer.

It was a night of utter and complete self-destruction: too much fun, too many shots of powerful booze, one toke over the line sweet Jesus. No clear memories other than that I had participated in some sort of strength Mardi Gras: powerlifting, cage fighting, a bench press carnival, culminating in my audience with the Silver God.

And all interspersed with enthusiastic substance over-indulgence and passionate gluttony. Actually, upon reflection, it was more of a strength Valhalla experience: it was the perfect day for the true alpha male: elite strength competition, elite cage fighting, athletics all day long and then at night eating and drinking and partying with the boys, hard and long and loud till they closed down the bar or everyone passed out. And not a woman in sight.

I was later told that Patera was a bit of recluse and public outings were a rarity. It sure didn’t seem so that night. I told Stacy this and called Patera “a gregarious recluse.” She smiled “That phrase could be applied to you, Dumbo. Maybe that’s why you two got on so well.” I don’t know, I can’t remember.

Back to Chasing Ken Patera Part 1 here.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.