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Book, film will recall trials and triumphs of UL’s championship weightlifters

Ken Stickney, Acadiana Advocate, Nov. 25, 2021

Scroll down to links below of videos taken at Cajun Field on  Saturday.

University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s weightlifting champions from 1959-72 have been captured in a documentary and a locally published companion book, the latter which will be released this week.

Lafayette attorney and author Warren Perrin wrote the book, published as “The University of Louisiana’s National Weightlifting Teams,” and raised funds for the documentary, which is to be reviewed by a private group Friday. Perrin also competed as a UL Lafayette weightlifter in the 1960s.

Perrin said the book takes a chronological approach, detailing the challenges and triumphs of the 45 lifters who competed for UL Lafayette — for most of those years, it was known as the University of Southwestern Louisiana — before the team disbanded for lack of support from outside sources. During those years, Perrin said, the team operated without a formal coach and with little institutional support, although lifters traveled — oftentimes at their own expense and in their own cars — to distant meets and championship competitions.

And — oh, those championships. The first one came in 1957, after Mike Stansbury, who had moved from Abbeville to Lafayette to attend college, assembled a team at then Southwestern Louisiana Institute in 1956; with additional lifters added to the team in 1957, the SLI team won the National Collegiate Weightlifting Championship in New Orleans. It would be the first of eight national championships.

Stansbury created Mike’s Gym in Lafayette and trained and recruited excellent athletes who competed in Olympic weightlifting; he continued to recruit and train college weightlifters even after he became the city of Lafayette’s recreational supervisor.

Red Lerille, owner of Red Lerille’s Health and Raquet Club and Mr. America in 1960, said most of the interest in weightlifting in and around Lafayette in those days was due to Stansbury’s efforts. He said U.S. weightlifting enjoyed a heyday nationally in the 1940s and ‘50s but that premier American lifters were better known outside the country than in their own homeland.

Lerille lifted weights at Mike’s Gym on Jefferson Street in the 1950s and opened his own gym after Stansbury left the health and fitness business for the recreation job. But he said what interest there was here in weightlifting was due to Stansbury.

Perrin developed his interest in weightlifting during his teen years in Vermilion Parish largely because of his brother, Terry, five years his senior, who was one of the program’s pioneers. But he got some of his inspiration from another USL weightlifting pioneer, Walter Imahara.

Imahara, Perrin writes, was a child when his Japanese-American family was moved from their farm in California to an internment camp in Arkansas, Camp Jerome, where they stayed for the rest of World War II. The family moved to Baton Rouge after the war and Imahara started college at LSU, where he found bitterness from other students because of his Japanese background. He later transferred to the University of Southwestern Louisiana because Cajuns in Louisiana had a reputation for being friendly.

Smiley Anders, columnist at The Advocate, was Imahara’s friend at Istrouma High in Baton Rouge, where Imahara was popular with other students.

At LSU, though, Anders saw less of Imahara because they were in different schools. "The school was all-white at that time and I can imagine he might have encountered some bigots … we had a lot of them," he said.

Anders said he saw Imahara compete at a lifting event at the Baton Rouge YMCA. After the meet, Anders went with Imahara and some of the lifters to the old Carousel Bar, a music, beer and fighting joint in Port Allen. Sugar Boy Crawford, of "Jockamo" fame, played there often.

"There was usually a fight in the parking lot. But with Walter and his heavyweight lifting buddies, I felt safe…very safe. There were some huge dudes among those lifters, and even the toughest guys there left us alone. One of the lifters had a trick where he would bend a metal beer bottlecap between his fingers … he did it several times, and drew a crowd … fun times … ."

At USL, Imahara was approached by fellow students and coaxed into joining the weightlifting team. Perrin said he was not only a respected lifter but won three national collegiate championships, several national senior championships, enjoyed success at world masters championships and the Pan American Games.

“Walter was one of the best weightlifters who came to Louisiana,” said Lerille, who said if not for Isaac Berger, who dominated Imahara’s weight division in the same era, Imahara might have won additional honors. Berger represented the U.S. in three consecutive Olympics – 1956, 1960 and 1964.

Imahara’s story of hardship and discrimination also resonated with Perrin, who compares the life that Imahara led to the lives of Cajuns at various times in Louisiana.

The companion documentary to the book, The Ragin’ 13, will be shown to a private audience Friday night. Nick Campbell, who earned degrees from UL Lafayette in 2004 and 2007, created the 67-minute documentary from in-depth interviews with Perrin, Imahara and Joe Murry, a UL Lafayette lifter who later served as an NFL trainer.

Campbell said the documentary should be of interest to “anyone with an interest in sports.” He said it might also play well to audiences in Asia. He was uncertain when the documentary will be released.

He said it was important, too, for local people to learn or remember the weightlifting teams and the success they enjoyed.

Perrin said the UL Lafayette weightlifters will be introduced at Cajun Field  during Saturday’s football game vs. ULM.

To pre-order The University of Louisiana’s National Championship Weightlifting Teams, call 337-456-7729, or visit darylinb@plddo.com or perrin@plddo.com.

Athletic Network footnote by Ed Dugas – link provided by Warren Perrin.

Click below for the videos from Cajun Field on Saturday 11/27/2021