Paul Anderson becomes the “Chudo Prirody!”
BY ALEX CAMPBELL
In 1955, America was in the depths of the Cold War and involved in a titanic struggle of ideas with the
Russians and the allied governments that formed the Soviet Union.
This struggle didn’t just play out on political, economic, and military battlefields but extended to the
field of sports as well.
World championships, and specifically the Olympics, did not just represent athletic competition, but
an all-out proxy war between diametrically opposed philosophies.
Every time athletes from these two countries collided, there was more than just sports’ bragging rights
on the line.
The winning or losing of sporting events morphed into a worldwide endorsement for a way of life.
In 1952, the Soviet Union sent a team of athletes to the Olympics for the first time. Stalin, the leader of
Russia and the Soviet Union, would not even consent to send athletes until his coaches guaranteed him
that their representatives could defeat the Americans.
The Soviet athletes had a successful first Olympics by totaling 71 medals to the 76 of the Americans.
In the sport of weightlifting, America barely squeaked out bragging rights by winning four of the seven weight
classes, leaving three for the Soviets.
No other countries were able to win any weight classes. From that year forward, the Russians began to push
the Americans to the brink for every world title.
In 1955, the Americans carefully selected a team of lifters to travel to Russia to compete on the enemy’s
home turf in an epic struggle of not just strength but world bragging rights.
America had deliberately chosen their lifters feeling confident their team had an excellent chance of
victory, however, fate would intervene to create a climactic battle that would change the world, including
the life of a small-town boy from Georgia.
The 1955 weightlifting competition between the two world powers would be the first time these countries
had competed exclusively against one another since the beginning of WWII (and the creation of the
communist Soviet Union).
Despite these lofty stakes, the Americans felt good about the team they had assembled. It was headlined
by their most accomplished lifter, Norbert Schemansky, at heavyweight.
They say that everyone comes to the circus to see the elephants; not the ants. So, in strength sports,
which are separated into individual weight classes, the heavyweights are the most important, because
those are the lifters that push the most weight.
To truly see who is the strongest, all eyes eventually are drawn to the big men which appropriately always
If America headed into the final weight class tied or down one, they were confident Schemansky would
solidify the win or at least a tie.
The confidence of the Americans was not misplaced.
Schemansky was the first weightlifter to ever win four Olympic medals, set 13 official world records,
grabbed 11 unofficial world records, and would eventually be inducted into the International Weightlifting
Federation Hall of Fame.
In an endeavor as fickle as sports, where sure things are hard to come by, Schemansky was the closest
thing to a walking, talking first place trophy.
That is until he got injured.
Schemansky had a back injury and had to withdraw from the event. America scrambled to find a last-
minute replacement, but all they could find was a fat kid from Georgia.
Paul won the Amateur Athletic Union Championships that year, so he was the best replacement they
could secure on such short notice.
We must pause our story to help you understand just how much Russians love strength and strength
In America, they say that baseball is our past-time, soccer is the most played sport, and professional
football has the highest revenue. I
n Russia, you would need to take all of those together and roll them into one to get half of their love
In fact, many of my readers will remember the days where every family who wanted to be considered
well-cultured owned a piano.
Even if no one really played it, it was ever-present in the common area of the home as a reminder that
the family had achieved a certain status.
In Russia, however, it was weights instead of the piano. Every family that could afford it, would purchase
a special type of weight called a kettlebell, which would always be on display in the home.
And it wasn’t just for looks, people were expected to use it: dads sons, daughters, moms, and even
People in America will never be able to fully understand just how much strength was a part of life for
every Russian. Their passion for strength sports, including weightlifting, is unparalleled.
Maybe that will help you understand why people crowded the airport, just to get a look at the American
team as they stepped off the plane in the capital of Moscow.
You could hear the despair in the voices of the Muscovites, as a rumor spread that the world champion
and record holder, Schemansky, was not part of the American entourage.
In fact, because Paul Anderson was a last-minute replacement, he didn’t even have time to get a team
Someone asked Paul how he even expected to be identified as part of the American team to which he
responded, “When they load the barbell, they’ll know who I am.”
To be continued…