Dual tragedies over a 13-month period tore at the region. UL Lafayette public history students want to preserve residents’ reactions and remembrances.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s weightlifting team was among the best in the nation, bar none.
Between 1957 and 1971, the squad won eight national championships – including five consecutive titles – and established itself as one of the nation’s most-successful collegiate lifting programs.
Research and interviews are underway for a documentary about the squad’s achievements, which filmmaker Nicholas Campbell characterized as improbable.
He’s tentatively titled the film The Ragin’ 13, a reference to the number of first- and second-place finishes the team collected in national championship matches.
“It’s an underdog story. They excel on every level, beating universities that had a lot of support and a lot of money behind them,” said Campbell, who holds bachelor’s degrees in history and media art from UL Lafayette. The Lafayette native also earned a master of fine arts degree from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
Competitive Olympic weightlifting requires speed, skill and strength. In the 1950s through the 1970s, judges scored lifters as the athletes hoisted bars loaded with weighted iron plates in three competitions: the clean and press, the snatch, and the clean and jerk.
Weightlifting at UL Lafayette, then known as Southwestern Louisiana Institute, began in 1955 at an off-campus gym owned by student Mike Stansbury. Among the students Stansbury introduced to the sport was Walter Imahara.
Imahara is a legendary figure in Ragin’ Cajuns athletics history. As a weightlifter at SLI, in the U.S. Army, and after his discharge, Imahara amassed nearly 70 regional, national and international titles.
In 1955, Imahara enrolled at SLI and met Stansbury, whose gym on Jefferson Boulevard in Lafayette was a gathering place for students who wanted to lift. By 1956, a group of them felt confident enough in their skills to represent the school at the National Collegiate Weightlifting Championship. The team placed second.
The following year, the team took the crown decisively, more than doubling the score of its nearest opponent, the University of Hawaii. It was the first national championship in any sport in UL Lafayette’s history.
Seven more titles followed – in 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1971, the streak of consecutive wins broken only when a lack of sponsorship resulted in the competition’s cancellation in 1969.
The team’s record, which included undefeated seasons and innumerable regional titles, drew attention from national weightlifting publications and newspaper sportswriters.
The story enticed Campbell as well. Warren Perrin, who was a member of the 1966, 1967 and 1968 championship teams, approached the filmmaker earlier this year with the idea for the documentary.
“We all came from unique backgrounds,” Perrin said of his teammates in a recent interview, “but we all helped each other gain a positive attitude, that through hard work, you win – and gain pride.
“It was a shared passion for the sport – man against iron – that forged the team and its successes.”
Perrin, an attorney and Acadian activist, worked with Campbell on one of the filmmaker’s previous projects, Forked Island, a fictional story of a Cajun family grappling with cultural changes wrought by the oil industry and the pressure to assimilate in 1950s Vermilion Parish.
Perrin said he envisions the documentary as “an inspiring story of the (UL Lafayette) student-athletes from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – from diverse backgrounds – who came together, without a coach, to organize a weightlifting team that won an amazing eight national championships. Their determination and camaraderie remain to this day.”
Weightlifting at the University of Southwestern Louisiana – the school’s name changed from SLI in 1960 – ended after the 1972 season, when the squad’s last two members graduated.
Recreating the 17-year period the sport existed at the University requires scores of primary sources. Training diaries and scrapbooks of photographs and newspaper clippings kept by the competitors are particularly valuable. They’ll supplement filmed interviews, and corroborate memories of events that took place, in some instances, more than six decades ago.
"Walter (Imahara) has an old notebook. It’s yellowed and brownish from age, but it’s got every single competition he ever took part in – every single one,” Campbell said.
“Warren (Perrin) did the same exact thing,” he continued. “Every competition they were ever a part of, how much they lifted, what they felt they could have done at that moment to do better. All the guys who were really successful kept one.
“You can't ask for any better primary sources than that.”
On Facebook: Click here for additional archival photos of the weightlifting team's glory days.
First photo: Jimmy Reinhardt demonstrates a squat clean for members of the USL weightlifting team, which won the national championship for the second consecutive year in 1966. It was the third time in the previous four years the squad claimed the title. Watching him were, from left, John Stelly, John Arceneaux, Warren Perrin, George Weatherford, Randy Peloquin and Eddie Ortego. Photo from the 1967 L'Acadien yearbook.
Second photo: Mike Stansbury participates in the 1957 National Collegiate Championships, held in Lafayette. Photo from the UL Lafayette Office of Communications and Marketing archival files.
Third photo: Walter Imahara was a member of the first championship weightlifting squad in 1957. Photo from the UL Lafayette Office of Communications and Marketing archival files.
Fourth photo: The USL weightlifting team captured its second national championship in 1963. Its members included, kneeling, Dickie Fleming, Dave Fabacher, Malcolm Stagg and Pat Stuart. Standing were Gene Hebert, Alvin Chustz, Weldon Major and Jesse Shows. Photo from the 1964 L'Acadien yearbook.
Fifth photo: Members of the USL weightlifting team in 1965, the year the squad began its streak of five consecutive national title wins, included, kneeling, Mike Williams, Jimmy Reinhardt, Dickie Fleming, Weldon Major and Alvin Chustz. Standing were Ken Morris, Ed Ortego, Joe Murry, George Weatherford, Charles Jenkins, Pat Stewart and Jay Trahan. Photo from the 1966 L'Acadien yearbook.