‘The Tommy Kono Story’ to Air on Public TV

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A young Tommy Kono lifts during a competition at the Sacramento YMCA. (Courtesy Center for Sacramento History, Sacramento Bee Archive)

A young Tommy Kono lifts during a competition at the Sacramento YMCA. (Courtesy Center for Sacramento History, Sacramento Bee Archive)

SACRAMENTO — A new documentary of triumph over adversity is coming to public television just in time for the Olympics in August.

“Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story,” which presents the amazing accomplishments of one of America’s greatest Olympic champions, will air on the following California stations:

KVIE (Sacramento) — Saturday, July 30, at 5:30 a.m.; Wednesday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 5, at 4 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 7, at 6 p.m.

KOCE (Los Angeles) — Monday, Aug. 1, at 7:30 p.m.

KPBS (San Diego) — Tuesday, Aug. 2, at 10 p.m.

KVPT (Fresno) — Tuesday, Aug. 2, at 11:30 p.m.

Tommy Kono poses with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at Sacramento High School in August 2010. (Courtesy Hassle Free Barbell Club)

Tommy Kono poses with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at Sacramento High School in August 2010. (Courtesy Hassle Free Barbell Club)

Kono, who grew up slight and asthmatic in downtown Sacramento’s vibrant Japanese American community, inspired two generations of weightlifters and body builders, including changing the life of one of the world’s biggest movie stars.

Ryan Yamamoto is the director of the documentary. Suzanne Phan is producer and David Hosley the executive producer. The production was a collaboration with the Center for Sacramento History and is being presented to the public television system by KVIE-TV.

Kono and his family were incarcerated in the Tule Lake camp, located just south of the Oregon-California border, during World War II. The desert mountain air cleared up his health problems and a group of older boys got him interested in weightlifting. When he came home after the war, Tommy became passionate about the sport and started to win local competitions.

But he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and was destined to be a cook overseas until he had the chance to train for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Surprisingly, he won gold, did it again in 1956 in Melbourne, and then competed in the 1960 Olympics in Rome an extraordinary third time, where he earned a silver medal.

Kono also won gold in six World Weightlifting Championships in the 1950s and excelled in body building competitions. He won the Mr. Universe title three times and Ironman Mr. World once.

Along the way, a young teen named Arnold Schwarzenegger watched Kono compete in Europe. Kono became an inspiration to the future actor and California governor, who would later become the youngest to ever win the Mr. Universe crown at the age of 20.

Tommy Kono and "Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story" filmmaker Ryan Yamamoto pose for a picture at Kono's home in Hawaii on Sept. 30, 2015. (Courtesy Ryan Yamamoto)

Tommy Kono and “Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story” filmmaker Ryan Yamamoto pose for a picture at Kono’s home in Hawaii on Sept. 30, 2015. (Courtesy Ryan Yamamoto)

Yamamoto marvels that the subject of the documentary — who died in Honolulu earlier this year at the age of 85 — isn’t also household name. “He was one of the greatest Olympians to ever to have ‘USA’ on his back. He’s by far the greatest American weightlifter, arguably the greatest lifter in the world. No one knows his story, and his story needs to be told.”

For Phan, getting to dive deeply into Kono’s life was inspiring. “Many of us have family who have come face to face with adversity,” she says. “I believe we can become more compassionate and more understanding individuals if we learn about those lessons and remember them.”

Yamamoto agrees. “I’m always surprised about how many people don’t know about the Japanese American experience. And sometimes, maybe, it’s a hard story to tell. But when you can tell that story through a guy like Tommy Kono, I think people will listen. I think people will learn about Tule Lake, they’ll learn about the Japanese internment as they’re learning about this great athlete named Tommy Kono.”

Kono’s legacy includes coaching Olympic athletes abroad and at home. Sacramento hosts a Tommy Kono competition annually and his several books on technique continue to provide guidance to today’s generation of weightlifters.

Tommy Kono shows his strength by lifting a grown man over his head on May 18, 1963. (Courtesy Center for Sacramento History, Sacramento Bee Archive)

Tommy Kono shows his strength by lifting a grown man over his head on May 18, 1963. (Courtesy Center for Sacramento History, Sacramento Bee Archive)

Yamamoto brings his versatile range of skills as a reporter, anchor and multimedia journalists to the “Tommy Kono Story” project. He has won two regional Emmy Awards, and has also been recognized by the Associated Press (APTRA), Radio and TV News Directors Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. He is currently a weekend anchor and reporter for KOMO-TV in Seattle, and has previously worked in Sacramento, where he was president of the local Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) chapter, and San Diego.

Phan has 20 years of experience as a television news reporter and multimedia journalist and is also a skilled photographer and editor. She is a former president of the AAJA Sacramento chapter and a graduate of the AAJA Executive Leadership Program and the Catalyst Leadership Program of the Sacramento Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce. She is currently a reporter for KOMO-TV and has previously worked in the Sacramento and Santa Maria markets.

Hosley has four decades of experience in broadcasting, including roles overseeing more than a dozen nationally broadcast public television documentaries about the history of communities of color in America. He is an award-winning reporter and anchor and a member of the Silver Circle of the Northern California chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. His work in public television production has been recognized by the Japanese American Citizens League, Organization of Chinese Americans and Punjabi American Heritage Society.

The official repository of the archives of the City and County of Sacramento, the Center for Sacramento History helped identify footage and photos used in the production from the Sacramento Bee Collection, the Eugene Hepting Collection and the Mary Schnoz Collection.

KVIE serves 28 counties in Northern and Central California. “Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story” is being broadcast by KVIE as part of the Viewfinder series, which has regularly won Emmy Awards for programs about the region’s history, people and places. Special thanks to President and General Manager David Lowe, Vice President for Content Michael Sanford, and Editor Chris Canote.

For more information, visit www.tommykonostory.com.

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