TOUGH, DETERMINED : Arlys Kovach Has Come Back From a Shattering Accident to Become One of Top Female Weightlifters in the World

Times Staff Writer

There was a time when people became strong from shoveling snow, hefting hay bales or wielding pick-axes in the mines, not from Nautilus machines, or steroids. They were cut from the land, products of their environment.

They came from hard-working farms and hard-working towns. One of those towns is International Falls, Minn., known to some as the home of Bronko Nagurski, a man whose very name is a synonym for football.

On the Canadian border, International Falls is about 320 miles north of the Twin Cities and two hours away from any other township of more than 100 souls. The gold that led to the creation of International Falls in the late 1800s has long since played out and the main industry in the city of about 5,600 is a paper mill.


“This is wooded area,” Nagurski, 77, said the other day from his house on Rainy Lake. “We got a lot of lakes here. We don’t have the variety of Los Angeles; there’s no mountains, no deserts and all that. It’s just level area. We got about 10,000 lakes. There’s a lot of good fishing in this town.”

Nagurski may be International Falls’ most-famous athlete, but he certainly isn’t the only one. International Falls was also the childhood home of Arlys Kovach, who has a cup testifying to her status as the world’s best woman weightlifter.

“I remember as a child sneaking up and sitting next to (Nagurski) in the stands,” said Kovach, whose brother played hockey with Nagurski’s grandson. “He’s a big man, and a nice man. I expected him to growl.

“I really felt like I was something special because I sat next to Bronko Nagurski.”

For every athletically inclined kid who grew up in International Falls in the last half-century, Nagurski seemed to represent what each wanted to be. A fullback and linebacker for the Chicago Bears during the Depression, he was a 60-minute player, the living symbol of power and ruggedness.

One day, however, the townspeople may also celebrate Kovach, because if International Falls has ever produced a more durable athlete, someone isn’t telling.

Six years after leaving International Falls, Kovach, 24, and now a resident of Walnut, is the 1986 national Olympic-style weightlifting champion in the 149-pound class. And at the first women’s international championships in Budapest, Hungary, March 23, Kovach was so far superior to any of the 39 other competitors that she was awarded the Pannonia Cup, given to the top woman weightlifter regardless of weight class.


She snatched 176.4 pounds and clean-and-jerked 209.4 for a total of 385.8, an overwhelming 99 pounds more than runner-up Karen Spencer of Great Britain could lift. .

Kovach, who has out-lifted men in competitions, will compete Saturday and Sunday in the open division of the American Weightlifting Assn.’s national meet at the Pacifica Hotel in Culver City.

That Kovach ever reached the top of her sport is remarkable.

The area above her right ankle is a mass of scars and indentations, looking as if it might have been crushed by an oversized sledgehammer. Kovach remembers the day, May 18, 1982. In Phoenix, riding alone down a three-lane road on a motorcycle, she was heading from one job to another. Dusk approached, and Kovach turned her headlight on.

But not soon enough.

From a parking lot on the right came a heavy truck at full throttle. Even if she had had time to react, it might not have mattered. The truck plowed into her motorcycle at 40 m.p.h., the bumper gouging her lower right leg, nearly severing it.

She flew nearly 15 feet, one witness said, gathering dirt as she rolled. The bathing suit, shorts and T-shirt she was wearing offered scant protection.

In the first of seven operations over a six-week period, doctors spent five hours picking glass and debris out of her leg.


Her shinbone was crushed, broken in 12 places, doctors told her. They put steel rods through her leg and ankle that stuck out three inches on each side. “(The leg) looked like an erector set,” Kovach said. “It had all the screws and bolts.”

Her parents and her boyfriend, John Kovach, now her husband, chose not to tell her that the leg might have to be amputated. The morning after the accident, she awoke in the hospital and saw John and a cast on her leg, and assumed it was simply broken.

“I can’t wait to get out of this and start training again,” she said. A sophomore on the Arizona State track and field team, she had been working on the heptathlon.

“I don’t think you’re going to go back to work in a couple weeks,” he told her.

That part of her leg swelled nearly to the size her thighs, and union between the bones did not occur until 10 months later. For five weeks, John, an NCAA weightlifting champion in 1970 at Ohio State, took her to school and dropped her off as close to class as possible.

To understand her comeback, however, is to understand the environment that nourished Kovach. The daughter of a man who worked at the paper mill for 35 years, she is from a durable family in a town that assumes durability.

Tough was never a macho thing. It was simply what worked best in a place where winters were hard and six months long.


“I didn’t even have a question in my mind that everything was going to be OK,” she said. “I think that’s instilled in your nature, and a great deal of that comes from the family and how you grew up. I was always encouraged to keep trying, not to quit.”

With track out of the picture, Kovach began pursuing weightlifting again. As a training exercise for track and field, she had been runner-up in the women’s national powerlifting meet in 1981, the same year she set the world record of 446 pounds in the dead lift.

“At first, I couldn’t (lift) because my leg wasn’t joined,” she said. So Kovach took to swimming, then tried walking, biking and eventually jogging.

Within ten months after the bones had first showed signs of union, Kovach was running three to four miles a day and had already lifted in a meet.

The leg is healed now, although it is 1 inches shorter than her left. To compensate, her coach, Bob Hise, has helped fit her with an extra layer of rubber on her right lifting shoe. There is also a limited range of extension, which tends to make her right foot more sluggish than the left.

“I have to think a lot harder about moving fast as the weight gets heavier, as you’re thrusting and snapping that weight,” she said, going through the motion.


“At that point, you’re extended all the way on your toes, and then boom, you fly under the bar. As you’re doing that, your feet pop. You fly for one second. It doesn’t fly naturally.”

Kovach said she is proud, too, that she has achieved success in weightlifting without having resorted to steroids, whose use is common in the sport. She says she is drug-free--that she passed a test at UCLA in March to prove it--and that she would like to become an ambassador of sorts for women’s weightlifting.

She wears dresses whenever she can, and hopes that her feminine manner will dispel the throaty-voiced, hairy-back image of woman weightlifters.

“I think a good spokesperson is needed, someone who cares what happens to women in sports and someone who is dedicated and presents a good image,” she said. “I think the public and the sponsors want to see someone who has a good attitude, instead of someone who has a big scowl on her face and looks really mean.”

Where she comes from, mean gets you nowhere. Bronko Nagurski was not mean. He was tough, and knew that it was determination that scored touchdowns. A small town on the Canadian border was built on that idea.

“No matter what, they never close down the schools,” she said. “They never shut down the buses. People continue to work there, vigorously. We learn to overcome the elements.”


And other obstacles.

“I don’t know how many people would come back after an injury like that,” Kovach said softly.