Belleville’s Crass twice took the hard road to the Olympics

Derrick Crass knew six weeks prior to the 1984 summer Olympics that something wasn’t quite right.

“I wasn’t strong,” he said. “I was getting weaker even though I was still working hard in the gym.”

But when you’re that close to your dream, a heavy favorite to win an Olympic medal, and an invincible 24 years old, you don’t allow yourself to be detoured by every ache and pain.

Crass discovered weight lifting not even eight years earlier in a two-car garage known as the Belleville Weightlifting Club. He was drawn to the snatch, a lift that takes the weight over head straight from the floor, then forces it upward from a squat position.

Perfecting that lift to the point where he could earn a spot on the U.S. National Team took countless hours in dirty gyms moving untold tonnage of rusty iron. Plus, the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics — retribution for the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games four years earlier — left the field wide open.

It was his time.

So when U.S. weightlifting coach Jim Schmitz asked Crass backstage of the Gersten Pavilion if he was healthy enough to compete, the Belleville native responded the only way he felt he could.

“I said ‘This is the Olympic Games,’” Crass recalled. “This isn’t the time to turn back.”

Crass already had damaged a bone in his back — a spinous process in the fourth lumbar vertebra, to be exact — and had been treating himself with massive doses of prednisone. The powerful anti-inflammatory mellowed the pain in his back, but also made him more prone to other injuries.

When he arrived in Los Angeles eight days prior to the opening of his first Olympic Games, he was administered a cortisone shot, which further weakened the connective tissues that held his muscular frame together.

“I was in my early 20s. What did I know? I thought I’d get to Los Angeles and the medical people would take care of it,” said the Belleville East graduate and former U.S. champion. “They took care of me all right.”

Blow out

Crass, who worked as a police officer in Belleville for six years, had previously lifted 158 kilograms (about 342 pounds) in the snatch, a lift that drew him in with the force generated by the first explosive move.

“It generates the biggest burst of power in any sport that’s been documented and studied,” he said. “To lift weight that fast felt really good the first time I did it. I fell in love with it right away, and it’s all I wanted to do.”

His first Olympic attempt was a comparatively light 286 pounds. Crass got the weight overhead, but when he started the thrust upward from his legs, the weakened patellar tendon blew.

With no foundation beneath him, all the weight came crashing down. The barbell pushed his head forward and his right elbow dislocated, causing further tears to the medial collateral ligament.

“In layman’s terms, all that cortisol makes your tendons brittle and makes your proximal muscles weak,” said Crass, 56, a licensed physical therapist and physician’s assistant. “Then when they injected the muscle with cortisol, it softened the tendon and put it under risk for injury.

“When I put it under stress, it all blew.”

The pain rushed through his body in an instant — “It was excruciating,” he said — but left as fast as it came. In the moment, he thought it was the lifting platform that had cracked and collapsed, not him.

Had Crass been able to finish the competition and match his own personal best, he would have won the silver medal. With just 13 more pounds on the stack, he would have matched Romania’s Petre Beheru for the gold.

Instead, on the day before his 24th birthday, an untimely injury got him written off as an international competitor.

Miracle recovery

Even as he limped through his room at the Olympic Village later that week, his leg braced from ankle to toe, it never occurred to Crass that his best chance had passed him by.

“I didn’t have any notion that it was that serious ... well, when you’re that young like that you feel immortal,” Crass said. “I’m not a cry baby. It wasn’t all ‘wa-wa-wa’ ... No. I just felt like it needed to be fixed — I was like a car that just needed some repair. That was my focus, even though everyone else had counted me out.”

A few years before the ’84 Games, while living and training full time at the Olympic complex in Colorado Springs, Crass came across an English translation of the Soviet Sports Review. An article about electro-stimulation caught his eye.

“They were applying it to their track athletes to increase muscle strength,” he said.

At Washington University, Crass’s physical therapist and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Anthony Delitto, already was experimenting with the so-called “Russian Current” to help adults with muscular dystrophy maintain some strength.

“I had read about electro-stim, had talked about it, and could speak the language,” Crass said. “I asked Tony how it could be used on world class athletes and he said ‘Let’s do a case study.’ That’s what we did.”

Electrodes are adhered to the affected muscles and electrical current is passed into them, forcing them to flex without the strain weight places on ligaments and tendons. The treatment today is very common, especially for chiropractic patients. Portable electro-stim units can even be purchased online for less than $50.

In the late 1980s, though, the current was passed through carbon electrodes with wet sponges used as conductors. There were no protocols to dictate how much electricity was appropriate, where the electrodes should be placed, or how quickly or slowly the current should be increased.

Crass maxed the machine out at 100 milliamps, enough to cause respiratory arrest and extreme pain.

“Let’s just say I learned how to relax,” Crass said. “Some muscles would contract and others would not, so the knee cap would move around weird. That part was pretty uncomfortable. But I became like Pavlov’s dog; the machine they used at the time would beep when it came on. Whenever I heard the beep I just knew to take a deep, relaxing breath.”

Crass underwent four major surgeries to repair the torn tissues. Together with traditional weight training, however, the electricity-induced muscle twitches helped Crass regain his world-class strength.

“This is 1986, two years after the injury, and my goal was to make it back to the 1988 Olympics,” Crass said. “Tony monitored my training and, it’s my recollection, that we showed 15 to 20 percent increases when it was augmented by the electro-stim.

“I worked hard in the gym to get back, but it absolutely helped me get back.”

Another shot

The treatments added eight more years to Crass’s weight lifting career. He was back in the Pan-American Games by 1987, won silver at the Manuel Saurez Cup the same year and was a U.S. National Senior Champion in 1987, 1989 and 1990.

And he made it back to the Seoul Olympics in 1988, finishing in the Top 10.

“I finished right about where I thought I could finish,” Crass said. “I just wanted to lift in the A session, which I did.”

The end of Crass’s career came as he was preparing for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. He had worked his clean and jerk to 473 pounds, just 24 shy of the world record.

But just weeks before the Olympic Trials, Crass was shoveling snow and hit a dense piece of ice. He felt “a little click” in his right elbow.

The buildup of arthritis around the injured ligaments made it suddenly impossible for him to straighten his arm. He couldn’t “lock out” at the end of his lifts.

“It didn’t hurt — it was just a little click — but I knew that was going to be it,” he said. “I had friends and family who were coming up to support me at the trials. I called them and told them I’d love to see them, but don’t waste the trip.”

This time, at age 32, he was finished.

Life after lifting

Crass went on to earn his master’s degree from Washington University in physical therapy and, for a time, owned his own clinic in west Belleville. He now works as a physican’s assistant, a degree he earned from St. Louis University, for the Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation and West County Spine and Sports Medicine in Creve Coeur, Mo. He also has launched his own company, DC Concepts, and developed a brand of interlocking weightlifting blocks that are manufactured from recycled plastic.

Crass sat in the Belleville Weightlifting Club gym, long since moved to the east side of his hometown, just off Lebanon Avenue. A few feet from the same fabricated platform where he learned to lift, he straddled a bench and took a look back on his career.

He admitted his disappointment in the injuries that may have kept him from Olympic hardware, but he says he’s never crossed over that fine line between disappointment and regret.

“If you don’t get a medal you’re looked at as a loser. If you don’t get a gold medal, you’re still looked at as a loser. That part is disappointing,” Crass said. “But there is a reason why the injury happened. I wished it wouldn’t have happened and I could have learned an easier way. From the age of 16, I spent the majority of time during the formative years of my life in a room like this. I learned a lot about myself and my capabilities and how to perform.

“No, I’d never use the word regret.”

Plus, he’s earned something he says he values more than Olympic gold.

In 2002, Crass came out of retirement so that he could join his daughter, Rachel, at the U.S. Senior National Championships. She’s a sports trainer in the Denver area, where she lives with her husband and Crass’s grandchildren.

They are the only father and daughter pair to complete together in both junior and senior world and U.S. championships.

“Of all the things I’ve done or came close to doing,” he said, “that was by far the best.”

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

Career highlights

  • Olympic team member (1984 and 1988)
  • Pan Am Games team member (1987)
  • Senior World Championship team member (1982 and 1989)
  • Junior World Championships team member (1980)
  • Gold Medalist in Oceania Championships (1984)
  • Silver Medalist in Manuel Saurez Cup (1987)
  • Bronze Medalist in Moomba Cup (1990)
  • Senior National Champion (1987, 1989, and 1990)
  • Best Lifter at Senior National Championships (1989)