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A Tribute to Sergio Oliva

You will read many overlapping stories about Sergio and several threads will be a part of all of them. First and foremost is a genetic heritage that completely rewrote the possible. When I first saw him at an outdoor weightlifting event in 1963-64 at Sayre Park in Chicago he was a part of the audience. He was sitting in the front and as he left his seat, the crowd hushed, the lifter on the platform was motionless and time stood still. Picture the amazingly wide shoulders and impossibly small waist all housed in a custom tailored shirt and pants that accentuated his unbelievable taper and arm size. The white short sleeved shirt was not only tapered to his torso but was also V split up the outside of those short sleeves to accommodate those arms. To top all this off was a wonderful/engaging smile and his signature gold jewelry. Through Bob Gajda and first at the Division St. YMCA and eventually at the Duncan YMCA I met and was a part of the workout atmosphere that Sergio brought to those gyms. You could not be around him and not feel his joy. He was the gentlest of giants, completely at ease with himself, never any posturing, always ready to add a kind word. He loved to train and he made everyone else’s workout better in the gym, just an amazing positive presence.

Contest footage courtesy

Sergio was amazingly graceful, I used to joke that he moved around the gym like an agile panther. His immense size almost floating above the ground surface.

A one of a kind.

John Balik

Sergio Oliva was one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time & a true friend, A fierce competitor w/ a big personality – one of a kind.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

The first time I saw Sergio I thought my eyes were deceiving me. With those hugh shoulders and small waist. I remember someone asking him how he looked for an upcoming contest and it’s stuck with me to this day.

In his famous cuban accent his repy was: " Baby, you gona see, but you ain’t gona believe"

Bobybuilding has lost a true legend.

-Jim Manion
President of the NPC

Today is Wednesday. Sergio Olivia died Monday, the day before yesterday. That’s what day it is. He was not supposed to die, nor was Zabo or Mugsy or Mom and Dad. They’re too important, too special. They’re matchless, priceless and Irreplaceable.

Sergio was more than any other muscleman, any other man of the iron. Muscles stretched his skin and leaped from his body with joy. When he moved they rumbled like thunder in the mountaintops. If you fell over, he bent down and picked you up. Hands of iron, back of steel, heart of gold.

Just over 45 years ago, mid-September of 1967, Sergio, in a white sailcloth robe the size of a circus tent, stood pumping his calves on the first step of a backstage staircase at the Academy of Music in New York. I walked over to greet the heaving mound and share a moment of mutual adrenal madness amid the frenetic din. Shortly after visiting the great man in the large white tent, I left, daring not to unpack my own… tent, that is, a pup tent of my homegrown, handmade variety. Got home before the evening traffic. He won the Mr. O later that night. Some’s got it, some’s ain’t.

-Dave Draper
Mr. America, Mr. World. Mr. Universe

Sergio wore gold chains, rings, necklaces with medals as big as hubcaps. People asked, was he ostentatious?’ No, he chose to wear gold to let everyone know that he was special, but in his own way…not theirs…as if to say, “Let no man write my epitaph” Every time Oliva left and entered his house he made the sign of the cross in front of a small grotto there to the Virgin Mary, a custom of his traditional Catholic faith. So go in peace to meet your Maker. You were a good friend and an immortal bodybuilder. God bless you.

-Bob Gajda
Mr. America 1966

I had every good reason to nickname him “the Myth” shortly after our first meeting in Montreal, Canada: even when you were sitting next to him your mind still could not grasp the reality that Sergio Oliva was a living, breathing phenomenon—but still human.

“The Myth” will live on. If only he could’ve gone on breathing forever!

-Rick Wayne

Sergio Oliva looked photoshopped before photoshop came along! I was stunned to see photos of this amazingly gifted man with the classic overhead pose. I couldn’t imagine anyone carrying that amount of muscle with such a small waist. And those insane calves! His battles with Arnold were classic, of course. Some people still consider Oliva to be the most gifted physique ever to grace a bodybuilding stage; working as a police officer in Chicago was the perfect job–he carried 22″ guns legally year round! Ironically, his son, Sergio Oliva Jr, competed at the NPC Nationals in Atlanta over the weekend, which I emceed. The Myth may be gone, at 71, but will never be forgotten. Thanks for the wonderful memories. RIP

Lonnie Teper
IRON MAN Magazine Editor-At-Large

Christine and I are saddened by the passing of Sergio Oliva. My fondest memory of the ‘Myth’ is the 1967 IFBB Mr. Universe in Montreal. I flew up from Florida to compete and along with other competitors was dropped off at the Paul Sauve arena (a wresting auditorium if I remember right). The contest was being held here and all the competitors were accomodated in a large gym upstars sleeping on cots. As the competitors arrived and claimed their cot, the place began filling up. Rick Wayne was there, he’d probably win, I thought, but then heard that Sergio was on his way.

He arrived late in the evening, clad in bright red blazer, to find no cot available. But as soon as everyone realized Sergio was here one contestant gave Sergio his cot and slept on the floor. Sergio won and after the contest I went out to eat with him (All the guys ate at a little restaurant across the street). We each had a whole chicken and during the meal Sergio confided in me “You will win in future because you know how to do.” He meant posing and I took his advice seriously, trained hard and won the title the following year. Sergio was there too Miami 1968, looking fantastic and gave a posing exhibition. Here are some photos taken by Christine 16 years later at Sergio’s last competition 1984 Mr. Olympia.

Rest in Peace Great Champion.

Frank Zane
Mr. Olympia

Oliva was a blend of friend to all who trained with him while being their idol and guru as well. He was never too busy with his own routine to offer guidance and encouragement, even while he was going through one of his own shock-and-awe routines. I was told there is an Amish saying that goes something like this: “It is blessed to be yappy.” Yappy in this case means “talkative and sociable.”In this way, Sergio Oliva was blessed because he was yappy. I would ask him a question about how to best work abs or chest, and he would answer as he was doing his own sets of leg-raises or dumbbell bench presses. He never asked his fans, and I was one of them, to leave him alone while he was training. He was patient and respectful to just about everyone around him at the gym.

Oliva was a bodybuilding king who walked with other bodybuilding kings, yet he kept the common touch. He never told that 15 year old boy I was or others like me to go find someone else for training advice. He respected us and we respected him. He gave us clear reasons to hold him up as our hero. As I am writing right now, I can recall him doing a strenuous set of dips with weight added yet counseling me as he would finish a rep – all without skipping a beat. He operated like the intensely competitor and trainer he was. His bodybuilding disciples appreciated his care for others and his commitment to physical culture.

Sergio was bigger than life in many ways. I used to think his heart was even bigger than his gargantuan muscles. He modeled excellence in his routines and in coaching others. Above all else, Oliva was a lot of fun. He probably got more pats on the back by fans at the gyms and at competitions than Fidel Castro parading around the streets of Havana. He was fun and funny. He brought an inspirational sense of energy and humor into the gym and into his training. We realized that a workout for Sergio was one of his forms of play. He got us to enjoy working with gym equipment as a child enjoys playing on slides and swings in a playground. His love for health and training has stayed with me to this day.

Richard Fiordo, PhD,
Professor of Communication, UND

Sergio Oliva held a special place in my heart all right. He was the very first superstar i ever met or read about. He was my introduction to the physique world. I had heard detailed stories about The Myth for so many years from my boyfriend and later husband Jeff. When he spoke of him it was honestly as if he were talking about a God, and Jeff didn’t idolize anyone so this was remarkable in itself.

He was the myth, will always be the myth, and will always have a place in my heart where the thought of him will bring me joy. As I wipe away my tears and replace them with memories I will always feel so blessed to have met him and so extremely lucky and honored to have been able to call him my friend. May you always be blessed in your new forever home and may you get all those angels into the best shape for their eternal lives.

Cory Everson
Ms. Olympia

“The Myth” was 50 years ahead of his time and would be considered the Babe Ruth of bodybuilding. I admired him and thought he was unbeatable until Arnold came along. We will all miss you Sergio. But one day we’ll see you again!

“Big Mike” Katz
Mr. Universe
IFBB Pro Judge

I was sadden to learn of the passing of Sergio. I had not seen Sergio in a few years, however I can clearly recall the first time I ever saw Sergio Oliva in person like it was yesterday. It was in May of 1966, the site was San Jose, California, the contest was the AAU Jr. Mr. America. It was the first national contest I had ever competed in. As luck would have it, I had to pose right after Sergio. Just let me say, Sergio was so superior to everyone else, all he really had to do was just walk on stage, never mind posing and he would have won. Upon seeing him the first time, it was more than your mind could accept. Sergio’s genetics were one of a kind, he just did not look real.

In those days, the physique contests always followed the Olympic weight lifting, so there was always hours to kill. I will always remember that some official measured Sergio’s waist – 27″, each of his thighs measured 29″.

In my humble opinion, the two greatest bodybuilding photos ever taken were two photos of Sergio Oliva, taken at the 1972 Mr. Olympia, held in Essen, Germany, these photos were take by Albert Busek. One photo was Sergio’s one of kind victory pose, the other was a front lat spread. To me, those photos never have failed to inspire me.

Aside from Sergio’s unbelievable genetics, he was the first bodybuilder who really dressed in style with his tailor made clothes. Not only did he have a superior physique, but he looked and dressed better than any bodybuilder that I have ever known.

There will only be one and only Sergio Oliva, there will never be another. I was proud to call him my friend.

Boyer Coe
Mr. America

Sergio Oliva was the original genetic freak in bodybuilding. He helped many people in the sport. I first met him when I was 18 in Florida. He inspired me to really train hard, and not forget my goals. Also he was a very kind man , always kept people around him uplifted. We will all miss Sergio Oliva.

Casey Viator
Mr. America

My wife used to own a restaurant. During that time I befriended one of her customers, Jim Alexander, a little Scotsman who had done a stint in the British Royal Navy. Jim was a traffic manager by profession. One day I was reading a copy of Iron Man at the counter when Jim sat next to me and noticed a photo of Sergio in the magazine. He looked at the picture and said, “I know that guy, he worked for me in the early sixties at a meat packing plant where I used to work .”

As it turned out, Jim had given Sergio his first job in Chicago as a laborer loading sides of beef into a truck.

Sergio applied for a job at the meat packing plant when he came to Chicago after defecting from Castro’s Cuba while at an Olympic lifting event in Mexico. Jim was astonished at Sergio’s strength and unbelievable physique even back then. Sergio would heave a side of beef on each shoulder and march them up the ramp into the truck.

Jim’s stint in the Royal Navy gave him deep respect for muscular strength and development. Jim told us he had to find out what Sergio ate to maintain such super human strength and muscular size, so he snuck into the employee’s lunchroom to sneak a peak at Sergio’s lunch fare. To his amazement, Sergio was dining on two packs of Hostess Twinkies and two bottles of Mountain Dew, Jim was stunned. Not exactly a Weider or Hoffman approved diet. No protein drink, nothing.

Four years ago John Hansen honored Sergio for his life’s achievement in the sport at one of John’s sponsored physique contests. We picked Sergio up from his house for the trek to the contest when Sergio announced he wanted to stop at Walgreen’s to pick up a snack.

When he came out of Walgreen’s he was carrying a pack of Hostess Twinkies and a can of Mountain Dew. This broke up everyone in the car. When Sergio got back in the car he wanted to know “what’s so funny?” We told him of his meat packing days and poor Jim Alexander witnessing Sergio’s “muscle building secrets.” In spite of the years gone by, Sergio remembered Jim and what he had done for him. Sergio said, “I always like dat leetle guy.” He thanked Jim for the opportunity to work for him. To the end, Sergio was a class act.

At his peak no one could beat Sergio. He was a world class bodybuilder and a world class Olympic lifter. Name one of the competing physique contestants today that can make that claim. Watching Sergio lift back in the mid sixties at the old YMCA lifting contests run by Bob Gajda just left you shaking your head. He was phenomenal.

The game has lost one of its greatest champions. We will never see anyone like him again (by berry). We were very fortunate to have participated in and witnessed this incredible life.

-Al Jakich
Personal friend of Sergio

It was in 1963, when I first saw Sergio Olivia in the bodybuilding magazines. I always admired his amazing physique. In was in the 1980’s that I attended one of his seminars. This was just prior to his retiring from the police force. He was on stage in an auditorium and told many interesting stories. One thing I truly admired was his candid remarks. He mentioned that he was just shy of retiring, and if someone sped past him doing 90 mph he was not about to risk his life, at this point, attempting to catch them.

Doris Barrilleaux 
“The First Lady of Bodybuilding”

I was never formally introduced to Sergio, but I was within shouting distance on a number of occasions and saw him compete a few times. With his little hat, Cuban heeled shoes, and form fitting clothes he was a sight to behold, sticks in your mind forever. He was also a commanding presence in his policeman’s uniform. He may have been the most genetically gifted bodybuilder of all time, with long, thick muscle bellies everywhere.

He came to this country from Cuba and made his way to the top of the bodybuilding world.  Nevertheless, he seemed to feel that he was never given his due.  Whether or not that was the case, the bodybuilding world is far richer for having had him with us. Like Arnold, there will never another Sergio.

Clarence Bass

1965 Brooklyn Academy of Music. I was 19 years old and was absolutely obsessed with bodybuilding. I had paid 15 bucks to see the 1st Mr. Olympia Contest. I had a great seat 5th row center. Joe Weider was sitting 3 seats down from me in the same row. I was so involved in watching the show that I didn’t notice who was really sitting next to me. I hear this guy with a high pitched voice critique all the guys walking on stage. I finally turned and and saw it was none other than Sergio Oliva and he was talking to me making all these comments. I took a good look at him and the word behemoth does not do justice to the size of this man. He was unassuming ,friendly and outgoing. At the end of the night he shook my hand and thanked ME for listening to him talk all night. Little did he know how excited I was just to meet him. Just one story among many that I’m sure you’re receiving. He was truly a great character.

John Calascione
Former IFBB Judge

There will never be another Sergio….the genetics, the flair, the charisma. Sergio was a personality, a writers dream, an idol to the fans, a champion who helped propel the sport to its best and most popular times. Bodybuilding today needs a Sergio, but unfortunately we just lost the original.

Rest in peace Sergio…… in peace my good friend.

Wayne S. DeMilia
Night of the Champions

In 1974 at Eddie Silvestre’s Mr. International contest I won the International and Sergio was the only competitor in the II Mr. Azteca International. As winner of the International I was eligible to compete against him.

As reported in Iron Man of Jan 1975 vol 34 no 2,

"The II Mr. Azteca International once again saw the mighty Sergio Oliva as The World’s best Developed Mortal, with no visible opposition, and although Jim Morris, overall Mr. International winner was eligible to go against "The Myth’ he announced over the mike
‘The honor of just standing next to Sergio Oliva is a treat in itself and a lifetime memento that will go down in history. I consider him in a class by himself’".

What the article did not include was that after the presentation of the trophies Sergio turned to me and said "I have this exact same trophy at home from last year. If you want I will trade you". The trophy in the picture in Iron Man is the Mr. Azteca.

Over my career what with all the subdivisions I won 185 trophies. All of which I gave away except the Mr. America which stands in my office on the right of my desk and the Mr. Azteca which stands in the living room on the right of the front door

Jim Morris
Mr. America

I had known Sergio for almost 3 decades having attended medical school in Chicago and seeing him at different bodybuilding events and around town. The famous story in the medical community here was when Sergio had that ‘situation’ with his ex-wife and she grabbed his police revolver and shot him, the surgeons were in amazement as he had such massive core torso muscle, the bullet could not get through. This was legend in the medical community here and a testament to his legendary muscle mass. Few men save the ‘Myth” could have their body stop a speeding bullet!

Robert ‘Dr Bob’ Goldman MD, PhD, DO
World Chairman-IFBB International Medical Commission Founder
Chairman-International Sports Hall of Fame

Years ago now, I was asked by Joe Weider to pick up Sergio at the airport ala Arnold and help him settle into the California scene. For some reason I figured that his ego was probably as big as his muscles which would make him quite a jerk. To my surprise I immediately found him to be one of the most charming, fun loving and in many ways humble men I have ever known. I didn’t have a chance to know him as well as others but those who did must feel as I do. The loss isn’t just to bodybuilding, which is considerable, but to those who knew and loved him – immeasurable. As a Christian I know he’s in a better place.

Dick Tyler
Muscle Power Editor in the 60’s

When I first moved here in 1980, I was training at Gold’s and my roommate was training at World Gym with Eddie G and Danny Padilla. He (my roommate) came home one day and said “Sergio Oliva walked into the gym today… every Pro bodybuilder in the place stopped their workouts to watch Sergio.” No one had the ability to accomplish that.

I never had the good fortune to meet Sergio but I remember seeing him, Arnold and Dave Draper compete on television (Wide World of Sports I think.) As a teenager my friends and I trained in our basements and later the Downtown Rochester YMCA. At our home gyms we had various photos posted in the gym of Arnold, Zane, Draper, Franco, Serge and Sergio. I remember the photos of Sergio were taken at the original Gold’s (before the train-part-murals) and they were photos of him doing chins. Of course, that’s where we had them… in from of our chinning bar.

The most stunning photo I ever saw of Sergio was him shaking someone’s hand (I believe it was Wayne Gallasch). I have the photo on a CD. He was standing in a field and looked simply incredible. Of course I will agree with Boyer that the photos of the Olympia in Essen Germany were also amazing. We truly have lost an icon.

David Young
Iron Man Magazine Writer

I first met Sergio when he competed in the 1971 NABBA Universe in London, when he was beaten by Bill Pearl in the Professional class. It was a correct decision as in my opinion, Sergio was still holding fluid and Bill was harder and sharper on the day. A group of us organized by Wag and Dianne Bennett then all traveled to Paris for the 1971 Mr. Olympia one week later. Sad to say Sergio had been banned for doing the NABBA event the week before.

As there was a sellout crowd, and Olympia promoter Serge Nubret did not want to disappoint the huge number of fans who had come to see Sergio do battle with Arnold, the IFBB agreed that Sergio could guest pose. He literally brought the house down, looking much sharper and tighter than he did in London one week before. It was such a pity he could not have been judges side by side with Arnold, but it was not to be.

My next meeting with Sergio was in London, two days after he had lost the 1972 Mr Olympia to Arnold in Essen, Germany. Wag Bennett had set up the film and photo shoot for me, meeting at his gym in East London. I will never forget seeing Sergio coming in through the door, with his huge wide shoulders and great lats narrowing down to this tiny waist, huge triceps handing out of his tank-top. He was in incredible shape. We subsequently had a fantastic shoot at a wetland area nearby, and when it came to doing more photos of Sergio after doing the movie film shooting, he said he had had enough for the day and so that was it. I only regret that I did not get more photos, although I would mention that Sergio was never that keen on doing photography!

Others say this was the best film footage ever recorded of Sergio, and for this fact, I am indebted to the great man. He will always remain as one of the greatest physiques of all time. I am privileged and grateful for the opportunity to have worked with Sergio twice, and to call him a friend. Sergio Oliva, 3-time Mr. Olympia, RIP.

-Wayne Gallasch
GMV Productions

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