HONOLULU (AP) — Tommy Kono, who took up weightlifting in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans and went on to win two Olympic gold medals for the United States, has died. He was 85.
Kono died Sunday in Honolulu, the U.S. Olympic Committee announced. His daughter, JoAnn Sumida, told The New York Times the cause was hepatic encephalopathy caused by cirrhosis of the liver.
He was born Tamio Kono in Sacramento, California in 1930. Kono was a frail, asthmatic 14-year-old when a neighbor first gave him a dumbbell at the Tule Lake internment center in Northern California, where he lived with his family for most of World War II.
He packed on 15 pounds of muscle by the time he left the camp in 1945.
"I didn't want to be a weightlifter," Kono said in 1960, according to the Times. "I just want to be healthy."
Before his weightlifting career, Kono went to high school and college in Sacramento and was drafted into the army.
Kono would become one of the sport's greatest champions, winning golds in Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne in 1956. He also won a silver medal at the 1960 games in Rome and six straight world championships in the 1950s. At various times he held 20 world records, according to the International Weightlifting Federation. That organization named him "Lifter of the Century" on its 100th anniversary in 2005.
In the same period, he competed as a bodybuilder winning the title Mr. Universe three times.
Kono said Arnold Schwarzenegger once cited him as an inspiration.
"He told me he was a 13-year-old boy in the audience that day and was so inspired he ran home and started working out," Kono told the Sacramento Bee in 2005.
Kono later became a coach of Olympic weightlifting teams for three different countries, including the U.S. team that competed in Montreal in 1976.