Mary Perrin and Cheryl Thompson sat side-by-side on a sofa at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Alumni Center and chatted. A few steps away, their husbands, Warren Perrin and Mike Thompson, were time traveling, reliving their glory days as members of one of the nation’s most-successful collegiate weightlifting programs.
Mary and Cheryl know every inch of this particular stretch of Memory Lane. “Oh, yes, we’ve heard all the stories,” Cheryl said with a laugh.
There are many stories to tell. Between 1957 and 1972, the University’s squad won eight national championships.
A forthcoming documentary, “The Ragin’ 13,” will chronicle the University’s improbable domination of the sport.
The title is a reference to the number of first- and second-place finishes the team collected, explained filmmaker Nick Campbell.
“It’s an underdog story. They excel on every level, beating universities that had a lot of support and a lot of money behind them,” said Campbell, who holds bachelor’s degrees in history and media art from UL Lafayette.
Competitive weightlifting requires speed, skill and strength. In the 1950s through the 1970s, judges scored lifters as they hoisted bars loaded with weighted iron plates in three competitions: the clean and press, the snatch, and the clean and jerk. Elevating the weights was only part of the struggle. As a three-judge panel watched, lifters were required to “hold and control” the weight with their arms fully extended overhead for two seconds, then return the weight to the platform in a similarly restrained manner.
Weightlifting at UL Lafayette, then known as Southwestern Louisiana Institute, began in the mid-1950s at an off-campus gym owned by student Mike Stansbury.
Among the students Stansbury introduced to the sport was Walter Imahara, one of the most-decorated student-athletes in UL Lafayette’s history. As a weightlifter at SLI, in the U.S. Army, and after his discharge, Imahara amassed nearly 200 regional, national and international titles between 1957 and 2005.
In 1955, Imahara enrolled at SLI and met Stansbury, whose gym on Jefferson Boulevard in Lafayette welcomed students who wanted to lift. By 1956, a group of them – with the blessing of Dean of Men Glynn Abel – felt confident enough in their skills to represent the school at the National Collegiate Weightlifting Championship. The team placed second.
The following year, the team took the crown decisively, more than doubling the score of its nearest opponent, the University of Hawaii. It was the first national championship in any sport in UL Lafayette’s history.
Seven more titles followed, in 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1971. National competition was cancelled for 1969, because of a lack of a sponsor. It resumed the next year.
The team’s record, which included undefeated seasons, regional team titles and individual records, drew attention from national weightlifting publications and newspaper sportswriters. It was an irresistible story: a small college with no coach and little money that managed to defeat better-equipped and better-funded programs such as Pennsylvania State University and the universities of Michigan, Texas and Maryland.
The squad would return from championships with trophies in tow, and a small group of students and the University’s band would be waiting. The next day, team members would be back in Earl K. Long Gymnasium, where they trained after Stansbury’s downtown gym closed in 1960, preparing for the next meet.
With cameras rolling, the veteran lifters returned to Earl K. Long Gym in July carrying only memories.