Weightlifting coach builds foundation of success | Inquirer Sports

Weightlifting coach builds foundation of success

/ 02:13 PM July 22, 2018

In this June 26, 2018, photo, Leo Totten, right, coaches Casey Rohrbaugh as she lifts during a workout session at Westminster Strength and Conditioning in Westminster, Md. Totten has coached six different world teams, two Olympic teams and three Pan American teams. Rohrbaugh, a former Penn State gymnast from Hanover, trains with Totten twice a week. (Dan Rainville/The Evening Sun via AP)

LITTLESTOWN, Pa. — In his formative years as a competitive weightlifter, Leo Totten trained in “some really bizarre little places.”

Holes-in-the-wall, unheated garages in the winter — you name it, he said.

What Totten, the 66-year-old CEO and head coach of a national weightlifting team, experienced as a competitor shaped his coaching philosophy, which has bred considerable success.


Totten of Littlestown coached six different world teams, two Olympic teams and three Pan American teams. In 1992, he helped start the East Coast Gold weightlifting team, which has gone on to win 11 men’s national titles and eight women’s titles with the most recent sweep coming at the 2018 National Championships held in Kansas City in May.

“The joke is we’re shooting for world domination,” Totten said.

Totten’s accomplishments and dedication to the sport were honored when he was inducted into the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame during nationals this year.

“I just like to think that I’m giving back a little bit and creating other opportunities for kids that probably have it a lot better than I do, but just trying to help them the best I can,” Totten said.


A self-taught learner

Growing up in Westminster, Maryland, Totten was “the little guy.”


Wanting to get bigger and stronger, he got his first set of weights from York Barbell as a teenager.

Totten, who went to Westminster High School, played soccer, wrestled and did gymnastics.

As Totten began lifting in the gym, he felt he got better at his sports.

“I think probably the best part of it is that just from the whole psychological standpoint, just building confidence and assuredness in what I could do,” he said.

Inspired by the world champions and Olympians who trained at York Barbell, “the mecca of weightlifting at the time,” Totten decided to enter his first competition when he was in 10th grade.

“It was a little scary because I was basically by myself,” Totten said. “I had no coach and pretty much coached myself, just learned out of magazines and watching those guys and just kind of learned by trial and error.”

Those experiences taught Totten important skills, like perseverance and attention to detail, that he later applied in his coaching career.

“The things that took me a while, now I can pinpoint that on other people and fix it pretty well,” he said.

Totten used his arduous beginnings in the sport to provide for weightlifters what he never had as a young competitor.

“What I found that there were athletes kind of out there on their own that didn’t have a coach, didn’t have a facility,” he said. “They just kind of were in the same boat I was growing up where, just kind of doing it on their own, so I really had a connection with these lifters.”

Managing Olympic teams

Totten’s weightlifting career brought him to two Olympic trials in 1980 and 1984.

“I guess I’m really showing my age now,” he joked.

Although he didn’t make it to the Olympics as an athlete, Totten would later get the opportunity to manage and coach teams at the Olympics in 1996 and 2004.

At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Totten described entering the opening ceremonies, a moment in his life he will never forget as he recounted the camera’s flash bulbs and the raucous crowd.

“I literally floated down the ramp,” he said. “I mean it was just unbelievable.”

No U.S. athletes won medals during those games, but Totten believes American weightlifting has come a long way since then.

“It’s still the ultimate to be able to say that you competed in the Olympics, so, and people don’t realize that, hey, if you even if you get in the top 10, that’s a really big deal,” he said.

The opportunity to coach was natural to Totten, who spent his career as a physical education teacher and high school coach of several sports in Carroll County.

Today, East Coast Gold has about 15 active centers and almost 300 athletes.

“We kind of have the motto, it’s like, we’re trying to do the right things for the right reasons for the right people, and it seems to work,” Totten said. “We try to do things the right way.”

How East Coast Gold approaches competition

East Coast Gold’s main goal is to take care of its athletes so they can perform their best. They can accommodate them with hotel rooms for competitions and a medical staff.

“We take care of all their competition needs (so) once they’re there, pretty much they don’t have to do anything besides just put the weight over their head,” Totten said.

Without support like that, outside factors can cause stress and take away from performances in competition, he added.

“We feel that if we can take care of all that stuff for them, then they’re going to be more relaxed, perform better, and I think it shows,” Totten said.

East Coast Gold has several satellite centers, including the main one in Virginia Beach, with the intention of developing more coaches, who can in turn develop more athletes.

“We just try to individualize because everybody’s different, and there’s a lot of generic programs out there on the Internet and a lot of Internet geniuses, I understand,” Totten said. “But the bottom line is you have to be able to communicate and have the relationship, and I think that’s one of the things that we do really well, and the athletes know that. I think that’s why they kind of migrate toward us.”

Casey Rohrbaugh, a former Penn State gymnast from Hanover, trains with Totten twice a week in Westminster and attested to his value as a coach.

“He definitely makes you want to work harder,” she said. “It’s a great quality that I always look for.”

A coach herself in gymnastics, Rohrbaugh explained that Totten is constantly asking how an athlete can improve and do better to motivate them.

Newer to weightlifting, Rohrbaugh already improved upon her initial appearance at nationals by taking sixth place and helping the women’s title performance this year.

With Totten doing the programming for the competition, Rohrbaugh and a teammate began using a phrase that they now like to hashtag on social media.

“In Leo We Trust.”

Totten says Hall of Fame induction ‘humbling’

During nationals, Totten juggled several roles, tending to both his male and female athletes as they competed.

Then he heard his name over the announcements that he had to report somewhere.

“I thought, ‘Uh oh. What did I do now?’” he said.

Totten was informed of his Hall of Fame induction, which took him by complete surprise. He described the honor as humbling.

“The appreciation I think is the thing that — you don’t do it for that,” he said. “You don’t even consider that. That’s just kind of the icing on the cake.”

Totten has accumulated a lot of trophies over the years, but the hardware doesn’t mean much to him.

Once, when moving, Totten threw out four boxes full of trophies, only keeping a few that were significant to him, like the first one he won.

Totten’s interest isn’t in the achievements but with his athletes, whom, he joked, can give back to him in a different way.

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“Hanging out with young weightlifters keeps me young,” he said.

TAGS: Weightlifting

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