Chuck Vinci- America’s Last Great Male Oly Lifter Was a Near-Midget Bodybuilder
If you imagined the little Hobbit from LOTR as a jacked Olympic weightlifter who resembled nothing so much as a Honey I Shrunk the Kids version of Sylvester Stallone in 1982, you’d picture America’s last great male Olympic weightlifter, Chuck Vinci (b. 1933 –d. 2018), correctly. Or perhaps if you pictured a taller Verne Troyer wearing a pelt made of muscle from victims of his vicious, drunken ankle-biting adventures after the bar on Saturday night, you’d have the right idea. Flex Lewis has seven inches and seventy pounds on Vinci at his biggest, though you wouldn’t be able to tell if the two front squatted with one another- Lewis can only get a triple to Vinci’s double with 400lbs.
Chuck Vinci Vital Statistics
Number of World Records: 12
Front Squat: 400lbs x 2 at 123
Deadlift: 600lbs at 123
Bench: 325lbs at 132
StrictCurl: 155lbs at 132
Press: 295lbs at 148; 243 at 123
Though his performance on the platform was truly legendary, it was actually his gym lifts and casual competition numbers that turned peoples’ heads. For instance, at a York Barbell picnic in 1961, Vinci strict pressed 250 pounds, snatched 235, and jerked 300 pounds for a total 25 pounds over the world bantamweight record and a press 7 pounds over his own record in that lift… outdoors, in a downpour, while standing on slippery plywood. And beyond that, Chuck Vinci was an absolute beast when he took his shirt off, which is of course the point of lifting in the first place.
Before you ask, Vinci did compete in bodybuilding a couple of times, though his tiny stature just killed him because he competed in the Open division. After taking a DNP at the 1955 FICH Mr. Universe competition (which was won by his Olympian teammate Tommy Kono), Chuck Vinci took second in his class at the AAU Masters Mr USA in 1980. Not exactly a breathtaking bodybuilding record, but Vinci was competing in a time when definition was definitely a distant second to size when judges compared competitors, and he was standing next to guys who outweighed him by a hundred pounds, much like the diminutive Flavio Baccianini did in the 1990s.
Not that any of that mattered, because Vinci looked like a Greek god and he was one of the strongest men ever to live under 150lbs. The last American male to pull in a gold medal for weightlifting in the Olympics, Chuck’s bonafides were nearly unbeatable, and the man had enough swagger to warrant him mention for being the best candidate to play Mini Me for a Macho Man Randy Savage-style Dr. Evil.
Born in the blue-collar brawler-filled inner city of Cleveland in 1933, Vinci was the son of Italian immigrants at a time in which we were at war with Italy… and the man had a learning disability to boot. By the time he was a teenager, the lilliputian version of Marius Pudzianowski everyone perceived to be dumber than a sack of hairdropped out of eighth grade to become a steelworker, which is an insanely manly job for a 14 year old.
Unlike the vast majority of us, I would think he already had two years of lifting under his belt by the time he was 14. Small for his age but always interested in fitness, at the age of 12 he began to try to lift his brother’s 105lb barbell. Though he couldn’t pull it past waist height, Vinci persisted in trying, and by his fourteenth birthday he could easily put it overhead. I don’t know about you, but I recall the first time I strict pressed 135 with ease, and it was a hell of a lot later in live than 14.
By the age of 15, Chuck Vinci was an apprentice steelworker and began training at the Central YMCA in Cleveland. That’s not to say he was a member of the gym- he didn’t have money for the fee to join, so he scaled the wall into the Y’s property and sneaked in the back door of the weight room every day.
“He soon became a favorite of the weight room denizens, who admired both his emerging strength and phenomenal endurance. While others might perform several exercises and go home. Vinci would train for hours, performing virtually every weight training exercise in the book.
While at the YMCA, Chuck was fortunate to meet Lt. Vince Ardito of the Cleveland police department. Vince taught Chuck how to perform the press, snatch and C&J. The young Vinci took to these lifts immediately and he was soon dreaming of a great career in weightlifting. We are not certain of the exact date of Vinci’s first competition, but he was barely 18 years of age and managed to perform lifts of approximately 150 lb. in the press and snatch and 180 lb. in the C&J, which was enough to garner him a second place.” (Hoffman).
Not two years later, Vinci won the Ohio State AAU Championships with a 555 lb. total. He went on to win the Junior Nationals later than year, then won Nationals the year after that. The kid everyone thought to be a mentally handicapped little person ended up winning seven straight Nationals in weightlifting at the same time he snagged three Olympic golds and two silvers in the World Championships. And yet in spite of the fact that he was one of our best Olympic weightlifters in history, it’s likely that more people knew him as the 123lb weightlifter who beat every non-heavyweight lifter on the team in arm wrestling in a single back-to-back matches.
“During their international trips, the US team would typically retire to a local beer hall after the a competition. The strength of the US team was well known around the world, but there were always some locals who doubted the “real strength” of weightlifters in general. Consequently, these locals often challenged the US team to an arm wrestling competition.
It was a such as moment that Chuck’s prowess as an arm wrestler could be very useful indeed. It was at such a moment that one of the US lifters would say (in a seemingly innocent statement) ‘We are the greatest lifters in the world and have proven our strength in competition. Why should we bother with some local pretenders? But on the other hand, we are sporting men, respectful of the sincerity of our challengers. Therefore, we offer the following counterchallenge. Take our smallest and weakest man – little Chuck here – and see if you can make him work up a sweat. If you can, we will continue, but if not, please let us just enjoy our beers.’
Unaware of Vinci’s ability or endurance in arm wrestling, the locals always accepted this seemingly reasonable, if not boastful, challenge. They were confident they would summarily discharge the “little guy” and then go on to teach the Americans a lesson. Inevitably, one of their champions was brought to the table to wrestle Vinci. To his chagrin, Chuck was able to put him down. Attempts by several others met with the same results and the challengers soon had to admit that these weightlifters were incredibly strong. Little did they know that Chuck could have delivered the same result with most of the US team!” (Hoffman).
Vinci’s ability to pull off that sort of strength endurance and raw power came from two places- his years as a steelworker and his insane training volume. His training volume was similar to that of the modern Chinese weightlifting team, though without the rigid structure. He’d do full body sessions three to four days a week that lasted all day and consisted of the Olympic lifts, their component parts (like the squat), and a shitload of bodybuilding. And all day doesn’t mean a few long hours- it means eight hours or more in the gym at a time, pounding the shit out of the weights like he was a horny centaur at a Roman orgy.
“My confirmation of Chuck’s extraordinary endurance came from one of the very few men ever to have won National Championships in both weightlifting and powerlifting – Larry Mintz. Larry, a huge enthusiast of lifting, decided to take his vacation in York, PA one summer during the late 1950’s. Chuck happened to be training in York that summer. As Larry related the story, he walked into the York Barbell Company’s gym for a training session and saw that Chuck was already under way with his workout. Larry was no slouch when it came to training endurance.
There were occasions when he packed his lunch, and went on to spend much of the day training. But Larry was startled by what he saw from Chuck.
Mintz’s workout lasted about 3 hours that day. During that period he performed the 3 competition lifts, pulls and squats. He finished off with a shower and went to get something to eat.
When Larry left the gym, Chuck was just as he had found him, still training.
Larry found a restaurant, had a meal and then decided to take in a movie before retiring for the day.
After the movie, Larry happened to walk by the Barbell Co. on his way toward his hotel. He noticed that the lights were on and he heard the clang of weights being lifted. Mintz wondered who might be lifting this late in the day. When he entered the gym he saw Chuck still training! A total period of more than 8 hours had expired. By the time he returned to NY, Larry certainly understood why Chuck Vinci was as great and as versatile lifter as he was. Chuck’s long sessions included many bodybuilding exercises, like bench presses and curls” (Hoffman).
And unlike the modern-day lifter, Vinci refused to take advice from anyone about anything. The man did what he wanted, when he wanted, and how he wanted. When the coach of the weightlifting team, legend Bob Hoffman, told him that “if you had two pounds less pectorals, you could add two pounds somewhere else on your body which would make you an even greater lifter” (Hoffman). Chuck Vinci scoffed at Hoffman’s advice- he wasn’t about to let anyone show his ass up on the bench just to put a little extra onto his total for weightlifting. He already dominated that sport and needed to spread his wings to let everyone in the strength world he was the baddest mofo on the block not named John Grimek.
“At a time when there wasn’t much money in weightlifting, [Chuck Vinci] lifted his heart out for the glory of it, I suppose. There was hardly anything else.”
– John Terpak
This even extended to his attempts. For world record attempts at the time, lifters could take as many as they wanted. At the Eastern Olympic Trials in 1956, Vinci made eight attempts on a world record clean and jerk (which meant ten attempts on that lift total) before finally nailing the jerk and locking it out for a new world record. Nor did that destroy him for future competitions, as he competed six days later and hit a new record total. The man’s gym workload was so insane he didn’t mind taking 10 max attempts in fifteen minutes, and his desire to win was so strong he managed to succeed after six failed attempts in a row.
After taking silver at the 1960 Olympics, it looked like Vinci’s run had ended. Embroiled in what was apparently an emotionally devastating and acrimonious divorce (cue the alt-right saddies bemoaning the plight of Papa John), the dude didn’t compete in 1962 or 63. By the time that shit had blown over, Vinci was again ready to attack the platform but suffered a horrible back injury in training. Though he missed the cutoff to make the Olympic team, he still managed a solid total at a trial a couple of weeks later. Though everyone was by then convinced that Vinci’s career had ended, he competed once more, and broke the 800lb total barrier for the first time while setting a new American record in the press (Dreschler).
Nor did he quit lifting after quitting compeition- Vinci was in it for the love of it, not for the fame or the sport itself. He made a halfhearted attempt to make the Olympic team in 1976, and made an easy 198 snatch at that time without regular training and at 43, so he retained a lot of strength. He continued hitting the gym for a few hours a day, three days a week, until heart surgery at the age of 79 slowed him down a bit. Declaring “I’m going to do it for the rest of my life,” after surgery, Vinci continued training in some capacity until his death last year, at age 85 (English).
A beast, by any reckoning. Although he famously protested that he didn’t party or even drink early in his career, the US Olympic weightlifting team in the 50’s was like Mötley Crüe in the 90s- they were inside more women every year than an OBGYN and partied their goddamn asses off. If you’ll recall, two of Vinci’s teammates (and the other lightweight lifters on the team) were involved in the sex scandal that got Muscle Beach shut down, and Bob Hoffman blamed the end of their run of dominance over the Russians entirely on their obsession with women, booze, and weed. In other words, he and two other near midgets were pulling the hottest women in America for a solid decade.
Thus, any idea that a dude can’t get laid or end up with rad chicks due to his height is sheer idiocy- and science agrees.
“In conclusion, we have shown that all previously documented preference patterns for partner height are at least qualitatively realised in actual pairings. We note, however, that compared to random mating the magnitude of these effects was generally low, suggesting that mating preferences were only partially realised. These results are in line with a recent study that showed that traits considered strongly related to attractiveness, such as height, are not necessarily strongly related to actual pairing” (Stulp).