Glory Days Documentary to chronicle weightlifting team's triumphs

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.

Former members of the University’s weightlifting teams gathered in July 2018 at the Alumni Center for documentary filming.

Jim Reinhardt and Alvin Chustz peered into a storage space where they first trained. It’s beneath the bleachers. They recounted that the low clearance meant lifters had to take care when they hoisted barbells above their heads or else they might hit and damage the bleachers’ underside.

The squad later moved its equipment into a more-spacious former handball court in the gymnasium’s recesses. They called it “the dungeon,” and as the veteran lifters returned to the space during their tour, they greeted the room like an old friend.

The film crew had placed a barbell in the room’s center. Imahara approached the bar and began to explain for the cameras – and to the hushed ex-lifters who stood around him in a semicircle – the importance of foot positioning, gripping the bar properly and breathing on successful lifts.

“OK, I think we got it now, Walter,” teased squad member Gene Hebert. “Now lift it.”

Imahara, now 81, smiled, but declined. “I didn’t bring my belt with me,” he said.

During the summertime, the unairconditioned “dungeon” grew so hot that the walls dripped with humidity. Despite the conditions, “we wanted to be there,” recalled Jay Trahan. “Our bond was weightlifting.”

Team members shared and devoured training publications and replicated stances demonstrated in photographs. They had no coach, but they had each other, recalled Warren Perrin, who approached Campbell with the idea for the documentary.

“We all came from unique backgrounds, but we helped each other gain a positive attitude, that through hard work, you win – and gain pride.”

“It was a shared passion for the sport – man against iron – that forged the team and its successes,” Perrin said.

Weightlifting at the University of Southwestern Louisiana – the school’s name changed from SLI in 1960 – ended after the 1972 season, when the squad’s last two members graduated.

Recreating the 17-year period the sport existed at the University requires scores of primary sources. Training diaries and scrapbooks of photographs and newspaper clippings kept by the competitors are particularly valuable. Many were on display at the Alumni Center on the first day of filming for the documentary.

The material will help corroborate decades-old details recounted by ex-lifters during interviews, Campbell said.

“Walter (Imahara) has an old notebook. It’s yellowed and brownish from age, but it’s got every single competition he ever took part in – every single one.

“Warren (Perrin) did the same exact thing. Every competition they were ever a part of, how much they lifted, what they felt they could have done at that moment to do better. All the guys who were really successful kept one.

“You can’t ask for any better primary sources than that.”

This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Main photo: Jim Reinhardt demonstrates a lift for members of the University’s 1966-67 weightlifting team. Watching him, from left, were John Stelly, John Arceneaux, Warren Perrin, George Weatherford, Randy Peloquin and Eddie Ortego. (L'Acadien)

Group photo by University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Doug Dugas

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