David Sheppard – An Enduring Legend of American and World Weightlifting
© 2001 by Arthur Drechsler
We in the sport of weightlifting love to measure things. We carefully weigh barbells and athletes, recording the results with great precision. We count numbers of records set and numbers of championships won by a given athlete. We compare the results of our measurements in order to determine which athlete is the "best". And that is as it should be, because one of the great virtues of our sport is the ability it provides us to compare performances objectively across the globe, and, to a more limited extent, across time. But in some cases, despite our best efforts, our measurements fall far short of capturing the true performance level or contribution of an athlete. The career of David Sheppard is a case in point. While his "stats" are impressive (e.g., multiple medals and World/Olympics championships and multiple world records), they fail to convey his status as a boy wonder, a pioneer in squat lifting technique, a barrier breaker, a master of versatility and a performer with true charisma. I'll try to convey some of that in the story that follows.
Dave Sheppard was born in NYC on December 12, 1931. He was active in many sports, especially gymnastics, before taking up the sport of weightlifting at approximately age 14. In 1947, at the age of 15, Dave won his junior LWC championships in the 60 kg. class. The following year, he won his first New York State championship. At 17, he placed 2nd in the 67.5 kg category of what was then called the Jr. Nationals (a competition not limited by age, but rather to those who had never won a Jr. or Sr. US Championships), setting a meet record of 106.5 kg. in the snatch. Amazingly, although Dave was to become famous for his brilliant squat style, he made his first national record using the split style.
In 1950, at age 18, Dave won the Jr. Nationals, setting new meet records in the snatch (squat-style this time), C&J and total. He took 3rd place at the U.S. Championships later that year and set his first American record - a 114.5 kg snatch - likely the best in the world that year.
Dave was one of the few squat snatchers in those years, and was undoubtedly the most majestic to watch. Smooth, blindingly fast and remarkably consistent for his day, Dave astonished audiences with his prowess in what had heretofore been considered by most to be an awkward and precarious style. He added to the impression of mastery with a signature smile that he maintained while he lifted (actually a grimace that Dave consciously cultivated to appear as a smile because he viewed the competition platform as a stage as much as an athletic arena). That smile gave observers the surreal impression that Dave, unlike others, was doing what he was doing with consummate ease. The beauty and uniqueness of Dave's style, as much as the records he lifted, was instrumental in convincing world that squat snatching was a viable, if not superior, style.
Late in 1950, Sheppard moved up to the 75 kg. class. The following year, he placed second to the great Pete George (another boy wonder and squat stylist) at the US National Championships. Dave snatched what was believed to be 128 kg., exceeding the world record, but the scale used for the competition was not certified, so the record was not recognized. He and Pete George went on to defeat the defending, and previously undefeated world champion, Touni, at the 1951 World Championships, with Dave placing 2nd by virtue of being the heavier man. At that competition, he equaled world record snatch with a lift of 127.5 kilos.
During 1952, Sheppard increased his bodyweight again and was soon flirting with world records in the 82.5 kilo class. Hampered by cramps from the record-breaking heat, he narrowly missed making the US Team at the 1952 Olympic Tryouts in NYC. The following year, Dave reduced to the 75 kg. category again and placed second at the 1953 World Championships - this time to Tommy Kono (Tommy would eventually win two Olympic and 6 World Championships).
In 1954, Dave increased bodyweight to approximately 86.5 kilos and elected to compete in the 90 kg. class. At that bodyweight, he became the first man in the world under 90.7 kilos (200 pounds) to clean jerk more than 181.5 kilos (400 pounds). Later in the year, he snatched 141.7 kg. and 143.6 kg., both lifts were in excess of the world record. The 181.5 kilo C&J and 141.7 kg. snatch were recognized for a time by the IWF. Later, recognition was withdrawn due to some technical issues. The 143.6 kg snatch was never ratified (though it was performed with an appropriate scale and referees), due to a failure on the part of the officials to file for the record with the IWF (such technicalities occurred with some regularity in the 1950s and 1960s).
With these lifts in hand, Dave reduced back to 82.5 kg. in hopes of a victory at the 1954 World Championships in Vienna. However, when the US team arrived in Vienna, they had two lifters capable of winning the 82.5 kg. category, Sheppard and Kono. In contrast, the US had no one in the 90 kg. category, where it was felt that a win might also be possible. Consequently, Dave was asked to lift at 90 kg.. He weighed only about 84 kg. at the weigh-in for his category (after eating and drinking heavily in an effort to gain weight).
In the competition, Dave snatched 142.5 kg. (which was not weighed because it was believed that Dave's earlier 143.6 had been accepted as the world record) and had a narrow miss with 145 kg.. However, because he had been out pressed by the USSR's Vorobyev by 12.5 kg. and Vorobyev had snatched the same weight as Sheppard, Dave found himself needing to make up a 12.5 kg. deficit in the C&J. After making a 167.5 kg. on his first attempt C&J to secure the silver medal, Dave waited for Vorobyev to complete his C&J's. By the time Vorobyev was done, he had completed a 175 kg. C&J and amassed a 460 kg. total - a new World Record. At this point, most of the observers had concluded that Sheppard would take no more C&J's as he had already locked up 2nd place and there were no medals at stake in the C&J (no medals were awarded for individual lifts at that time). But Dave astonished the crowd by calling for 187.5 kg. on his second attempt in an effort to overtake Vorobyev (tying him in the total and winning by virtue of much lighter bodyweight).
While a 20 kg. jump is always unusual in the sport of weightlifting, the mere size of Dave's jump hardly conveys the enormity of what he was attempting with 187.5 kg.. A few points of reference may help to convey the significance of his attempt.
That October evening in 1954, the world record C&J in the 82.5 kg. category (Dave's probable actual bodyweight by the end of the competition that evening) was 172.5 kilos - set by Tommy Kono the day before, when he won the 82.5 kg. category. The absolute world record (at 90+ kg. - there was only one weight class above 90 kg. at that time) stood at between 182 and 188.5 kg. (depending on the information source we use) and the 90 kg. record stood at 181 kg.. What is certain is that no athlete had ever attempted or succeeded with more than 182.5 kg. in World Championship competition, regardless of his bodyweight. Such attempt would be roughly equivalent to the 94 kg. 2000 Olympic Champion, Kakhiasvilis competing in the 105 kg. while weighing 96.5 kg. and attempting a weight close to the 105+ world record in order to win - simply astounding. Arguably, no more daring or courageous an attempt has ever been made in the history of weightlifting.
And the very knowledgeable audience assembled in Vienna knew it. When the attempt was announced, murmurs and gasps traveled through the audience in a great wave. The American coaching staff gave Dave a final brisk massage and words of encouragement came from every quarter. Then, as Dave mounted the stage, pacing and working himself into a white heat of desire and concentration, silence fell over the arena. When he finally gripped the bar, he pulled this great weight from the platform very slowly, in what seemed a futile effort. Then, in a characteristic flash of Sheppard speed, he was under the bar, elbows high, the bar safely on his shoulders. Suddenly, a shocked crowd, probably in the scores of native languages they spoke, screamed the equivalent of "get up". And Dave struggled to do so. But the load was too great and Dave, though he bounced valiantly, could not fully stand. Undaunted, he called for the same weight on his third attempt. By this time many in the crowd were prepared to believe Dave would succeed. After all, they had nearly seen a miracle already. Alas, it was not to be. Dave's 3rd attempt was like his second. His weary legs were not quite up to the task. Incredibly, had he managed to stand up, it is very possible that Dave would have jerked the bar (a splendid jerker, he'd already performed a 197.5 kg jerk from the rack in training). Although a 187.5 kg. C&J was not actually to be achieved in 82.5 kilo class for more than 9 years, Dave had given that weight a scare that evening (and the audience something to remember for a lifetime).
Before the year was to close, Dave was to break another barrier. He became the first 82.5 kg lifter to officially exceed 136.1 kilos (300 pounds) in the snatch with a great 137.5 effort.
In 1955, a small American contingent led by Bob Hoffman visited the USSR on a trip that was as important diplomatically as it was athletically (because it was viewed by our Dept. of State to be an significant effort to help thaw what was then a very deep Cold War between East and West). The trip marked Paul Anderson's international debut and his amazing performance in the USSR rightfully captured the imagination of the press. In an article in Strength and Health magazine following the trip, Bob Hoffman referred to Dave as the "forgotten man", because Dave had outlifted everyone on the USSR team, regardless of bodyweight, thereby helping the U.S. gain a team victory, yet that outstanding performance was barely noticed.
At the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, Dave took a silver medal, breaking his wrist with a 185 kilo attempt in the C&J - in an effort to overtake Vorobyev for the gold medal. While nursing his wrist, Dave demonstrated his versatility by concentrating on the press, historically his weakest lift, and making world record 146.5 at a body weight of 87.5 kg. in 1957 (a time when presses were done with little body motion and a slight layback).
In 1958, Dave, though hampered by injuries, was back in good form. He participated in a historic 3 part competition with the USSR team in three U.S. cities: Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Dave's antipode, Vorobyev, defeated Sheppard narrowly in the first competition in Chicago. Sheppard reversed the order with American Record 460 kg. total in Detroit. In New York City, a capacity crowd at the legendary Madison Square Garden assembled for the tie breaking match.
Sheppard weighed-in at a lighter bodyweight than Vorobyev, a valuable advantage in what was expected to be an extremely close competition. When they learned what Dave weighed, the worried USSR delegation protested, asking for Vorobyev to be re-weighed. To Dave's dismay, this was agreed to by the US delegation in the interest of "international harmony". After 3 tries Vorobyev managed to weigh the same as Sheppard, at which point the unusual weigh-in ended'.
Ultimately, the lifters tied in the competition and Vorobyev was lighter on the re-weigh – competition and match to the USSR under truly bizarre circumstances.
Later in 1958, Dave won his last U.S. championships (in the newly established and short lived 102.5 kg. class) and took another silver medal at the World Championships at 90 kg.. Five years and many injuries later, in 1963, Dave won his last State Championship, in California (where he lived during much of the mid-50's through mid-60's, after which he relocated to NYC). In 1971, at the age 39, Dave made lifts of 136.1 kg. -113.4 kg. and 145.1 kg. to place third in the New York State championships. That marked the end of Sheppard's career as an athlete - a career that had spanned more a quarter of a century.
But Dave's accomplishments extended far beyond those that are described by competition results. He coached many of his contemporaries (e.g., helping Olympic Champion Issac Berger master the squat snatch and World Record holder Dave Ashman perfect his jerk). He was an extremely inventive technician and trainer who contributed much to the careers of many who had the good fortune to study with Dave. He was a master of virtually all lifts and styles. For example, he was arguably the greatest dual stylist of all time, making 143.6 kg. and 181.5 kg. in the squat snatch and C&J respectively, but succeeding with 142.5 kg. and 180 kg. in the split style in those lifts. Anyone who has tried to lift in more than one style can appreciate how extraordinary such lifts are. Similarly, Dave did a one-arm snatch of 90.7 kg. and a one- finger, one-arm chin, further illustrating his proficiency as an all around strength performer.
Finally, Dave was a great fan of weightlifting, never tiring of watching or talking about the sport. He was an inspiration to everyone who met him, as he was as supportive of a lifter trying 50 kg. as he was of one attempting 250 kg. His infectious enthusiasm and unbridled optimism had a way of making you feel that your next lift was the most important thing in the world and that your potential was unlimited. That is one reason why those of us who were touched by Dave's special gift feel truly fortunate.
It is ironic that Bob Hoffman should have once referred to Dave as the "forgotten man". Dave will never be forgotten - not by anyone who ever knew him, nor by anyone who ever saw him perform. Numbers may be surpassed, and memories may sometimes grow dim with the passage of time - but truly great style, style never loses its luster - great style endures and so will our memories of Dave Sheppard.