Rewarding careers in strength and conditioning are possible, but they require hard work, flexibility, creativity, determination, patience and – sometimes – even sacrifice.
Gattone shared his wisdom April 3 with Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education students enrolled in instructor Brandon Male’s KNPE 470: High Performance Development class and in instructor Frank Wojan’s KNPE 472: Periodization for Performance Enhancement class.
“Frank and I just wanted to allow our Kinesiology students to see the level of spirit and work that it takes to start a career,” Male said, “and to get established in the world of sport.”
The presentation, which traced the ups and downs of decades in the field and included plenty of time for questions and answers, painted a picture of his perseverance to do what he loved while also allowing him to put food on the table for his family.
“Every job I ever took was a passion play,” Gattone told the students. “And wherever you are, you really need to kick some butt there.”
His story began in his South Side of Chicago childhood, when he started lifting weights as a hobby and eventually competing on a national level.
When he eventually walked on to the University of Arizona track team for shotput, discus and hammer, he also became a fixture at the campus library, where he obsessively read journal articles on strength and conditioning.
After college – he earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago – he began working to train others in the northern suburbs while he was still in training himself, logging two years of long days that spanned from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, Gattone’s understandably nervous but well-intentioned father started clipping newspaper help-wanted ads for physical therapists. The thought was appreciated, but Gattone lacked the aspiration, preparation or credentials for that job.
Before long, however, he was hired to coach weightlifting at an Olympic training center in Peoria. While there, he also became the first-ever strength and conditioning coach at Bradley University after boldly promoting himself and his talents to then-men’s basketball coach Jim Molinari.
During Gattone’s four years in Peoria, he ran four national weightlifting events. And, thanks to his connection to the Olympics, he seized a 1995 offer from the Atlanta Olympic Committee to manage the weightlifting events at the 1996 games.
“I became a sports administrator for two years,” he told the NIU students. “It was an amazing opportunity for me.”
Later, back home in Illinois after the games ended, Gattone met with administrators of the Chicago YMCA with a proposal to create and operate a strength and conditioning program in its facilities. They said “yes,” but after 18 months and frustrated with the direction his project was taking, he left.
Other opportunities presented themselves at a tennis club, where he was hired to provide sports performance, and with the Chicago Bulls, where he became the second assistant strength coach.
Pocketing only $22,000 each year, and receiving no health insurance, his long days continued as he booked personal training “side hustles” in people’s basements. “I did that for four years,” he said. “It was the most amazing learning experience of my life.”
In the years since then, he coached Tara Nott to her 2000 Olympic gold medal for weightlifting.
He moved to Colorado to serve as manager of Coaching Programs for the U.S. Olympic Committee. He worked at Sayre Park Weightlifting Club in Chicago. He’s opened and closed a gym of his own. He’s taught at Lake County College.
Gattone eventually spent seven years employed by Gatorade in marketing, which helped to greatly inflate his Rolodex with countless phone numbers to call when he needs professional references.
“When you want a job, your connections are going to be incredibly important,” Gattone advised the young Huskies. “Once I put in my résumé, I put on a full-court press.”
Two years ago, he returned to USA Weightlifting and took on his current role last April. He’s also serving as president of the Forza Olympic Weightlifting Club at A3 Performance in Chicago.
“I’ve taken a lot of twists and turns to get to the pinnacle,” he said. “It’s been a pretty crazy path to get here.”