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Former Ambassador faculty member
recalls how a disability led to a career of a lifetime.

 
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Former Ambassador faculty member
recalls how a disability led to a career of a lifetime.

by Darlene Warren
 

Every now and then The Journal comes across a story that is too inspirational to overlook.

Many of you are already acquainted with Harry Sneider, who was employed by Ambassador College on the Pasadena campus for 23 years as head of the weight-lifting area of the physical-fitness department. But you may not know how he came to be there.

The Journal recently spoke with Mr. Sneider about his life, including the interesting events that led up to his employment with AC.

Harry Sneider was born in 1941 in Riga, Latvia, but when the Russians arrived in 1944 he and his family escaped into Poland, then into Czechoslovakia and later Germany.

In Germany he contracted osteomyelitis in his leg and almost died in 1947 at age 6.

"Basically I became handicapped for the rest of my life because the German doctors didn't understand that the disease required penicillin to stop it," he said.

"My parents, who were pretty religious, decided against amputation, and instead the doctors put my leg in a cast, and the bone basically grew together at the hip, and the ball-socket joint was completely ruined."

In 1949 the Sneiders came to the United States and settled in Minneapolis, Minn.

It was there that Harry underwent another surgery, this one requiring a nine-inch plate near his hip joint.

"I was known as Limpalong in grade school. I had a severe limp but a powerful desire to be an athlete. But I was a praying individual at an early age. I believed God would guide me."

 

Unable to participate in many sports because of his handicap, in high school Harry gravitated toward weight lifting, in which he excelled.

"I realized I was close to state records. I was getting stronger and stronger, and God was going to use me to inspire others who were not only handicapped but needed encouragement. I was kind of a pioneer in personal training in Minnesota."

In 1960, while attending the University of Minnesota, Harry Sneider began his career in personal training in a gym he developed in his family's basement.

"I prayed that God would use this particular talent," he said. "I didn't know anything about the Worldwide Church at that time, but I knew there was a God, and I knew there was a Christ, and I knew there was a Bible."

During the time that he was "trying to be the world's greatest crippled weight lifter," his osteomyelitis came back, this time in his knee.

By this time he was reading The Plain Truth, the WCG's flagship magazine, and considering applying to Ambassador College.

After three weeks in a hospital during which he received last rites from his old pastor in the Latvian Orthodox Church, he walked out "looking like a skeleton. I prayed and asked God to heal me. My brother was attending WCG at the time, and he told me God was pulling me out of this world and to come be a part of the church."

During his hospitalization Harry committed to going to Ambassador College, and immediately after that the infection left.

"The goal was to go to Ambassador. I was 23 years old. I remember the first time I applied to Big Sandy and Mr. Torrance said, 'You're really not college material, Harry. You're really not that converted. You need time to season, and your grades are kind of low.'"

Registrar Lynn Torrance further counseled him: "Why don't you go back to Minneapolis and open up a way for God to bring a nice little girl into your life? Get a job, get married, settle down and be a strong church member."

Harry let him know that that wasn't his intention at the time. Mr. Torrance then advised him to study hard and reapply the following year and "maybe God will open the door."

"Well," Mr. Sneider said recently, "He did open the door."

Wait no longer

The young Mr. Sneider took Mr. Torrance's advice, and over the next year his grades did improve.

"I was not a really great student, but I was very motivated in my area of weight lifting," he said.

He was also a member of a Minneapolis Spokesman Club, the WCG-crafted public-speaking opportunities patterned after Toastmasters International.

In August 1967, after AC had turned him down the previous year, three of the Minneapolis church speech clubs had a combined meeting with WCG evangelist Rod Meredith as keynote speaker.

"Rod Meredith happened to be a weight lifter, as well as a champion boxer, at Ambassador College," Mr. Sneider remembers. "He won some weight-lifting competitions. He was small in stature, wore glasses and had a very intense personality, which I admired.

"But I was a fairly well-built guy, 215 pounds, 18-inch arms, bench-pressing over 400 pounds, military pressing 300 pounds.

"I happened to be at the bar where all the guys were getting a drink before dinner and there was Mr. Meredith standing there. I had a crew cut, my suit was bulging, it was a hot August day, I had these biceps, and he said, 'Are you a weight lifter?'

"I said 'Yes, I am.'"

Mr. Meredith continued questioning Mr. Sneider, who said he had applied to AC but had been turned down and had applied a second time and was on a waiting list.

"Wait no longer," Mr. Meredith said. "You're coming to Ambassador College. We need a guy like you out there."

The real reason

"What do you need me for?" Mr. Sneider asked Mr. Meredith. "You can be a trainer. You're a professional trainer, aren't you?"

Mr. Meredith told him the real reason he wanted him at AC.

He said he needed help with some of the "skinny guys" who were AC students and new graduates and said he wanted them to be able to "look more powerful when they're preaching."

One week later Mr. Sneider left for Pasadena to study, train and head up the weight-lifting department.

AC student Victor Kubik met him at the Arroyo Seco Hotel in Pasadena.

One of his new dormmates turned out to be Dean Greer, "who was kind of a superathlete at Ambassador, one of the best athletes Ambassador ever had. He was a great roommate, and he helped me get acquainted with some of the other athletes on campus."

The grand tour

After Harry settled in as an AC student, Mr. Meredith asked him what he thought of the weight room.

He replied that it was "really kind of limited in space as well as equipment. We're going to need some equipment."

Through "much prayer and the generosity of a church member who happened to be an equipment builder for Ironman magazine," Mr. Sneider remembers, AC soon acquired what it needed to supply a real weight room.

Winning moves

After AC with Harry Sneider's help had built up the weight program over many years, a young chess player named Bobby Fischer visited AC to conduct a student assembly about the winning moves he had made against Russian chess master Boris Spassky. This was about 1973.

As Bobby Fischer toured the campus, he walked through the training area while Harry Sneider was training several faculty members and students.

Mr. Fischer came up to Mr. Sneider and asked him, "Are you a Latvian?"

"Yes, I am," responded Harry, then asked the chess champion if he could take his picture.

Mr. Fischer said no, but he asked Mr. Sneider to train him in weight lifting.

After dutifully checking with WCG founder and AC chancellor Herbert W. Armstrong, Harry Sneider "became internationally known as the trainer of the world champion of chess."

As a result of his professional relationship with the chess champion, reporters began calling Mr. Sneider to try to keep track of the elusive Mr. Fischer.

"People wanted to know where is he, what's he doing, where's he hiding, why isn't he coming out to play chess anymore."

The news media's attentions weren't always welcome, but they did help establish Mr. Sneider's reputation as a professional trainer.

"All of a sudden I began to attract athletes in every sport and at every level. We had Olympic athletes, we had movie stars, we had kids from the community that would come to the campus. It was like a magnet."

Mr. Sneider became a track-and-field coach for the 1984 Olympics. He coached and trained 20 Olympic athletes in nine sports. One of his athletes won the gold medal: track cyclist Mark Gorski.

"Of course, I was handicapped and my best high jump was 2 feet. I was training a guy trying to go 8 feet, Dwight Stones," the bronze medalist in high jump.

Faculty challenges

A certain amount of fame for Harry Sneider brought a certain amount of attention from the general public, not only for the trainer but for the church and its college in Pasadena.

The attention wasn't restricted to the media and general public. His fellow AC faculty members noticed the attention he was attracting and decided he was "getting worldly and interested in his own ego."

He asked Mr. Meredith what he should do.

The longtime WCG evangelist, church and college administrator and faculty member advised him that he "could probably be a preacher, but I think you're more of a trainer. Why don't you stay with that and give glory to God and do the best you can?"

Taking Mr. Meredith's advice was easier said than done.

"I got into a lot of challenges there psychologically, spiritually and emotionally with a lot of the faculty members because I was one of the few employees who worked outside with people and inside with students and faculty members, which put a lot of pressure on me."

So Mr. Sneider went to the top. He asked Mr. Armstrong, "What do you want me to do?"

Mr. Armstrong said that, as long as Mr. Sneider's clients and students didn't bring illegal drugs onto campus or begin preaching or give evidence of "personal difficulties that we don't want on this campus," he could carry on.

But Mr. Armstrong added that he wanted Mr. Sneider to keep tabs on the visitors to his department and "tell me who these people are."

As things turned out, some of the "greatest athletes in the United States" trained at Ambassador College and were written up in Sports Illustrated, The Los Angeles Times, The Pasadena Star-News and numerous other publications.

Bob Wieland

While training the famous and near-famous, Mr. Sneider kept in mind his commitment to God and church.

"The athletes that came there had preached to them a message of quality and obedience to God," he said. "As Mr. Armstrong was preaching his message to world leaders his way, I was trying to do it the best way I could by preaching it through sports."

One of Mr. Sneider's memorable trainees was Bob Wieland, who had had his legs blown off from the hip down while serving in the Vietnam War.

"I've done four marathons walking with a legless man," Mr. Sneider said. "He was one of the favorites with the students because he would walk on his knuckles around the Ambassador College track in Pasadena."

Mr. Sneider met Mr. Wieland through a mutual friend, Kermit Nelson, a faculty member at AC Big Sandy (who, along with another Big Sandy WCG member, Ellis Stewart, came up with the original idea for the WCG's program for teens and 12-year-olds, Youth Opportunities United).

Mr. Wieland was banned from bench-pressing competitions because he couldn't put his feet on the floor (one of the rules of the sport) and because the judges didn't know how to score him.

"One day we were talking and he said, 'Harry, do you think there is something we can do to give glory to God and hope to these Vietnam vets who are struggling in these hospitals with missing limbs?"

"I said, 'Let's pray about it. You pray about it, and I'll pray about it.'"

Mr. Wieland came back the next morning and, at Mr. Sneider's suggestion, got out of his wheelchair and "walked" around the AC track, returning to his starting point with bloodied knuckles and stumps.

Mr. Wieland's comment on what he had just done: "I think we found something here."

Mr. Wieland came back the next morning and tried another lap or two.

"And that's how the Walk Across America started on the Ambassador College track in 1978," Mr. Sneider remembers. Mr. Wieland "walked across the United States to the White House, to Reagan's office, and Reagan bawled when he saw him."

Mr. Wieland was the Vietnam vet who walked across America in three years, eight months and six days.

Friends in high places

Mr. Sneider has counted the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a friend since the late 1960s, when the governor visited Ambassador with Franco Columbu, a former Mr. Olympia, and gave a world-class seminar on bodybuilding.

Decades later, in 2007, the governor asked Mr. Sneider to serve on his Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Mr. Sneider might not be a movie star, but he did appear in one of Arnold's movies, the blockbuster hit of 1977 Pumping Iron.

"Brian Knowles and I are in the movie together," Mr. Sneider said.

Brian, a former WCG pastor and writer for the church's periodicals, "was involved with the [short-lived WCG-sponsored magazine] Human Potential," said Mr. Sneider. "He was working on an article about human engineering, how you can actually design your body to any spec like a house or car through the use of weight training, because Brian was a weight lifter and body builder."

Harry told Arnold about Brian, and Arnold said he wanted Brian Knowles to be in the movie too.

"So we're sitting there at a table with the world's greatest bodybuilders eating this wonderful food there on Venice Beach, and he [Mr. Schwarzenegger] says, 'Well, just say something to these bodybuilders, just get up and say something.'"

So, as the cameras rolled, Harry made his debut as a movie actor.

"So I say, 'God has designed the human body. It is a beautiful masterpiece. And we are here with these bodies to do something positive for mankind,' and I tried to kind of HWA it, because I had heard him talk so many times. I just kind of tailored it to the bodybuilder, the weight lifter."

Mr. Schwarzenegger's reaction to Mr. Sneider's speech: "You did good, you did good."

Apparently the movie's director, George Butler, thought otherwise. He told Mr. Sneider that his speech went "a little beyond what we're trying to do here."

The director did leave in a scene with Mr. Sneider and Mr. Knowles sitting at the table and talking with the other men.

Mr. Sneider goes to Washington

Mr. Schwarzenegger said he would compensate him for the experience of having his speaking part deleted from the movie.

Twenty years later, in 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness, was true to his word. Mr. Sneider received an invitation from his friend to come to the White House lawn to participate in The Great American Workout.

"Here we are, the two of us, actually three of us when my son helps, the smallest company" to participate in the event, Mr. Sneider remembers. "We're on the White House lawn with Reebok and Nautilus."

Mr. Sneider and his wife of 40 years, Sarah, operate their own company, Sneider's Family Fitness, out of their home in Arcadia, Calif.

Mr. Sneider was a world-champion bench presser from 1992 to 2005, with his best lift of 450 pounds coming when he was 61 years old.

Today Harry concentrates more on all-around fitness conditioning rather than going for records in the bench press.

"As far as training and staying fit, I would not be able to do it without Sarah. This is a family business. We work together. She's here all the time, 24-7."

Mrs. Sneider is a fitness champion in her own right. This past summer she won four gold medals in the California State Senior Olympics, in rope climb, long jump, bench press and pull-ups.

The Sneiders invite old friends, or new ones for that matter, to visit their Web site at www.drfit.net, or 115 Loralyn Dr., Arcadia, Calif. 91006, U.S.A. Or call (626) 355-8964.

 


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