Sergio Oliva: July 4, 1941–November 12, 2012
When Rick Wayne first called Sergio Oliva “the Myth” in print, everyone who saw him was, like Rick, grasping for a way to comprehend what was before their eyes. Myth has multiple meanings, and Sergio embodied several of them.
First was his legendary heroic defection from Cuba, which was part of his being a hero to many. A myth can be imaginary, a persona or tale that is pure fiction. “The Myth” perfectly encapsulated the many questions that his very presence created. Sergio Oliva rewrote the possible. Standing next to his competitors, he was both unreal by the existing standards and very real because of his personality. His unmatched physical gifts were matched by a unique combination of fun-loving jokester and unbelievably hardworking bodybuilder and weightlifter.
My experiences with him—first at the Division Street YMCA and then at the Duncan YMCA, both in Chicago—can best be described by the word joy. Sergio carried as much joy with him as he carried muscle, and he wore both with ease. He acted and moved as if he had always been the size that he was in 1964, when I first saw him; he was never the 98-pound weakling who transformed himself with bodybuilding. He told me he could squat 500 pounds as a 185-pound 15-year-old in Cuba. I believe that precociousness was the reason that he was so comfortable with the physical mantle of muscle he wore—he simply was.
Sergio was always the “life of the gym”—when he entered, everything changed. No matter what the tempo was at that moment, everyone’s workout got kicked up a notch. The greatest photography captured only a part of what he was. Yes, he had that incredible torso, unbelievably small waist and matching lower body, but that was just the outline of what made him so special. His strength was awesome, and his quickness was hard to comprehend. To see him do high pulls and squat cleans for reps with 350-plus-pounds as a back exercise—without shoes—was simply mind-boggling. Everyone in the gym stopped to watch: How could this 200-plus-pound guy with such a tiny waist pull weights like that, moving so fast, the weight was a blur?
Graceful is the only way to describe the way Sergio moved. With his grace, speed and musculature, he was like a panther pacing about, springing into full stride in an instant—no photo could catch that. No other athlete I’ve ever seen has come close.
I once said that Sergio was a racehorse in a world of plow horses. There will never be another.
Editor’s note: The March IRON MAN will include a special tribute to the great Sergio Oliva. IM