Montreal weightlifting coach strives to pass on 60-year passion

John Margolis is now a 76-year-old weightlifting coach who has, after decades of competing, dedicated his life to passing his passion on to not just youth, but people of all ages no matter their gender, fitness level or background.

John Margolis wants to help others discover weightlifting, but finding a place to do it isn't easy

John Margolis founded an Olympic-style weightlifting club in Montreal that is open to anybody who wants to train, no matter their age, gender or fitness level. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Rigardi Saint-Jean was 29 when he developed an interest in competitive weightlifting, but he soon discovered it wouldn't be as easy as he thought to jump into the sport.

"I called around to see if I could get coaching and they would first ask me my age and if I had done weightlifting before," said Saint-Jean.

Montreal clubs, he found, were more interested in training younger or more experienced athletes.

But then he met John Margolis — a now 76-year-old weightlifting coach.

"Right off the bat, John was like, 'OK, I'll take you under my wing and show you all that you need to know,'" recounted Saint-Jean.

That was three years ago and Saint-Jean is still a member of the non-profit Concordia-International Weightlifting Club that Margolis founded in 2002.

Rigardi Saint-Jean, left, was 29 years old when Coach John Margolis, right, offered to teach him all he knows about competitive weightlifting. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Margolis says he's dedicated his life to passing his passion on to not just youth, but people of all ages no matter their gender, fitness level or background.

The club has fallen on tough times in recent years as Margolis has struggled to find his club a permanent home, but members like Saint-Jean refuse to give up on their coach just as he refuses to give up on them.

"That's what this sport teaches you — to never give up," said Margolis. "There's no way I'm going to give up."

For more than a decade, the club, which was once 50 members strong, used different facilities in Côte-des-Neiges–​Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

With the borough supporting his effort, Margolis was able to offer low-cost memberships and train people of all ages to compete provincially, nationally and internationally.

That all changed in the spring of 2015 when the borough decided to make room for the NDG Soccer Association — evicting the weightlifting club from the Kent Park chalet.

Since then, the club has been bouncing between gyms as Margolis, who volunteers his time, searches high and low for an affordable place to rent. It's important to keep expenses down, he explained, so he doesn't have to pass costs onto his members.

Recently, Margolis moved the club into the basement gym of a Côte Saint-Luc apartment building, converting an old racquetball court into a place for his athletes to train four days a week.

Marcus Léandre prepares for the clean and jerk weightlifting manoeuvre. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

But residents above began complaining about the noise on the first day.

Despite platforms and rubber padding, the clean and jerk or snatch manoeuvres involve first lifting the heavy weights high and then dropping them.

The noise reverberates up through the building and now the club has to move once again.

Every move is expensive as the club has thousands of kilos in equipment and about half of its members have quit over the past few years because they can't afford interruptions in their training.

Margolis is back to the drawing board, but he stays positive as works to keep his mission alive — a mission that's 60 years in the making.

Fereshteh Dinaz Bulsara trains hard under the watchful eye of Montreal-based weightlifting coach John Margolis. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

From refugee to weightlifter

Margolis's family fled Nazi-occupied France to Spain in 1943 when he was just 18 months old, traversing the Pyrenees mountain range to what they hoped would be a better life.

Injuries earned in the escape sent his father to an early grave. He died just 10 years after his family settled in Montreal as Jewish refugees.

Margolis, with two younger siblings at home, went to work at age 12 to help support them while his older brother did the same — dropping out of McGill University to earn a living.

From the snatch to the clean and jerk manoeuvres, competitive weightlifting involves full-body movements. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

By his mid-teens, Margolis said he could have easily fallen into a troubled life as did many of his peers but, instead, he discovered Olympic-style weightlifting and fell in love.

He began competing by age 16 and continued into adulthood, weightlifting whenever he could as he raised his own family in Montreal's west end, working odd jobs and earning money on the side as a metal sculptor.

He competed up until last year when a back injury slowed him down athletically, but he keeps coaching and training and trying to keep the sport relevant in a time when public funding is shifting more toward large-scale team sports.

Not everybody loves team sports

Paul Obé is the president of the Quebec Weightlifting Federation, which has about 900 members and roughly 35 clubs in the province.

Clubs are usually run as a small businesses, he said, but Margolis is a "one-man show" who manages to persevere despite the setbacks.

Though it is an individual sport where athletes push themselves, there is a strong sense commendatory among members of the Concordia-International Weightlifting Club. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

One of those setbacks, Margolis said, is that public funding is increasingly funnelled into big-name team sports that not every parent can afford.

"There are not many kids from working class areas playing hockey anymore and if you have two kids, forget it," he said, "but weightlifters just need a pair of pants, a tee-shirt and some sneakers."

Attractive to immigrants and those from low-income backgrounds, he said it keeps kids active and, like it did for him so many years ago, out of trouble.

Raphaël Lafond, 17, says he's not interested in team sports, but he loves Olympic-style weightlifting because it allows him to push himself on his own. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Weightlifting is individual rather than team-oriented and that's something, Margolis said, that teens like 17-year-old Raphaël Lafond come to love.

"This allows me to be alone in my bubble," said Lafond, who has trained with Margolis about three times a week for six years.

"Each person lifts against himself. We are a team, but everybody lifts for themselves."

Rigardi Saint-Jean, left, and Afiqah Yusuf are both proud members of the Montreal-based Concordia-International Weightlifting Club. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Afiqah Yusuf, 29, said, after Margolis welcomed her into the club four years ago, she was surprised to see how many women were involved.

"I find it refreshing to be around women where it's not considered weird to be showing off your strength and confidence," she said.

"It's really empowered me. It's given me a lot of confidence. It's something I can develop and it's given me a safe place to show my strength."

John Margolis converted an old racquetball court into a place for his athletes to train in early December, but residents above are already complaining about the noise. (Isaac Olson/CBC)


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