CHICAGO -- When Roger Nielsen went to the Montreal Olympics in 1976, he drove his own car and had to buy tickets from scalpers to see the weightlifting finals in the heavier events.
This year he'll have a better seat at the Barcelona Games, and it won't cost him a thing. Unless you include the countless hours he devoted to the sport until being named head coach of the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team.
Most of his time was spent at Chicago's Sayre Park, where for a dozen years he has been a volunteer coach. He still spends three nights a week at the park on Chicago's Northwest Side, hoping to find and polish more nuggets like the three lifters he helped to develop into 1988 Olympians.
Those three were his ticket to this year's Olympics.
"We select the Olympic coach on the number of athletes they have competing at the higher levels," Nielsen says. "I had more numbers."
When he is coaching at Sayre Park, he is like the ringmaster of a three-ring circus. Over here, there may be some eager youngsters, trying the sport for the first time; over there, older lifters will be working out, men who merely are trying to hold back the ravages of time; and in center ring, his Olympic hopefuls, men who have devoted up to 10 years of grueling nonstop training for their chance at the gold ring.
They will get their chance at the Olympic trials May 30-31 in Peoria, Ill., where the 10-man team will be selected, but Nielsen thinks it might take a minor miracle for any American lifter to win even a bronze medal, let alone a gold, in Barcelona. He has been coaching the U.S. world team for the last three years and in that time, he says, "the highest finish we've had is two eighth places. We're quite a way from a bronze medal yet."
Still, with all the political uncertainties in Eastern Europe, which produces many of the world's top weight lifters, "it's hard to predict how the world ranking lists will change. A lot of those programs have been disbanded."
Those programs traditionally have overwhelmed the United States through sheer numbers.
"We have just over 2,000 lifters in our country," says Nielsen. "Why, wrestlers have tournaments on weekends that draw 2,000. They [Eastern bloc countries] have many thousand more."
Weightlifting has never been a glamor sport in this country. Most Americans are familiar with weightlifting only as it pertains to body building.
Sheer strength, Nielsen says, is no guarantee of success.
"You can take a very strong person and he may not be good at this sport," he notes. "You need balance, flexibility and a sense of timing."
Above all, he adds, you need dedication.
"It's a very difficult sport," says Nielsen, "and the training is grueling." Rich Schutz, a 242-pounder whom Nielsen believes is one of two U.S. lifters with an outside shot at a medal, trains seven days a week.
"Most train four or five days minimum," Nielsen says. "You have to train months to get small bits of progress. Most people nowadays want instant gratification. There's not much chance of overnight success in this sport. The people who will make the Olympic team have worked years to get there."
Nielsen himself never reached that level. He started too late, getting hooked on the sport when he took a weightlifting class at the University of Nebraska and then joined a lifting club. He competed for about 10 years but "I was not that good an athlete. I learned by trial and error. I developed a good sense of how the lifts should be performed.
"I studied a lot, I tried, but I couldn't make it to the highest levels.
"But it gave me an understanding of how difficult it is and a feeling for how to teach someone who's starting out to avoid the mistakes others, like myself, had made. I started too late. The ideal age would be about 12."
Nielsen, an FBI agent, retired as a competitor in about 1980 and began spending time coaching other lifters. He has had many successes and "I've had a lot of failures, too, as far as good prospects that just didn't have the intense drive you need to be successful in this sport. It's difficult to recruit young kids into the sport. There are no big rewards other than the thrill of international competition and the goal of winning a medal."
He knows most of the lifters he will coach on the Olympic team and when he gets to Barcelona, he sees his job as "getting them peaked so when they walk out on the platform they're perfectly prepared. Basically, I want to make sure the guys have the best competition of their lives when they get there that day.
"You're not going to change too much. I want to help them get the most out of what they've got."