Between the ages of 17 and 25ish, when I wasn’t training as an artist (or just wasting time), I spent the bulk of my time in the gym. At various junctures I worked as a trainer, assistant manager and salesman at a string of clubs the connective tissue being my friend and mentor Mike. Arnold Schwarzenegger entered my life around the same time, not as a movie star, but as the most successful bodybuilder in the world. We’d pour over copies of Muscle Builder (which turned into Muscle & Fitness), engaging in deep discussions about symmetry, deltoid mass and calf development like we were analyzing box scores. I owe two debts to Arnold, one for breaking down barriers related to weight training, the second for showing me that the path to success was the path you chose, period. Think what you will of him, but Arnold is undeniable.
A quick disclaimer – my praise of Schwarzenegger isn’t blind to his excesses or poor judgment, in the same way my love of Fitzgerald isn’t blind to his alcoholism, or MLK’s philandering, or Picasso’s psycho-sexual abuse of women. No, great men tend to have great flaws, it’s our job to use the great as fuel for our own vision, and hold ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to our weaker natures.
Now, back to my hero worship! Many of you don’t remember a time when (particularly in urban centers) gyms didn’t compete with Starbucks for ubiquity. More still don’t remember when professional athletes saw weight training as either optional or simply a bad idea, something that would “bulk them up” and throw off their game. Arnold was the tip of the spear that changed that perception, an outrageous exemplar of what some dumbbells and sheer relentlessness could do to you (even his use of heroic doses of anabolic steroids was boundary pushing). If he had stopped at seven Mr. Olympia titles, I think much of the fitness options we have wouldn’t exist, and we’d be fatter than we are now. It was Arnold’s burning desire to shatter the boundaries of the sub-culture (which had the reputation of the bizarre, similar to circus freaks) he dominated, and pursue the seemingly ridiculous ambition of being a movie star that put him squarely at the center of popular culture, and changed forever what people thought of the heroic figure in film.
His ambition wasn’t unprecedented, his hero Reg Park had parlayed his physique into film roles as Hercules, and he made a good living. What Arnold did was to dream bigger, he didn’t just want in, he wanted to dominate an industry that wanted nothing to do with him. I was never a big fan of his film work, but I was always a fan of the fact that he was in films at all. Like Babe Ruth calling his shot in the World Series, I had read Arnold profesizing his ascendance in those old muscle mags, and to see it happen in my peripheral vision as I went about trying to carve out a life for myself made me feel like anything was possible.
But more than the man himself, I learned far more from the haters who seemed innumerable for such a random target of vitriol. Here was a big-ass, poor boy from Austria who thought his world wasn’t good enough, so he decided bodybuilding (again, at the time, a freak show) was his ticket to the big time. He was the lumbering, voracious, relentless embodiment of the American dream – and almost everybody wanted to make fun of him:
- “It’s gross how big he is, I’d never want to look like that!” As if by existing, Arnold was asking them to become massive. And, in my experience, most people were in no danger of becoming too fit.
- “He talks funny.” People who make fun of how people talk are right up there with people who laugh at somebody falling down. In some ways, they are the most gracious, because they announce their odiousness up front and allow you to distance yourself without a lot of time investment.
- “He’s just big and stupid.” As a big man, I find the conflation of size and ignorance tedious, so I might be a little sensitive on this particular topic. Also, this big, stupid man was clearly kicking ass in arena’s most dream of.
And these were hater’s before the internet, so they had to work at it. Since I worked in the gym, it was the kind of thing I heard all the time, like it was my job to defend bodybuilders turned movie stars. Under all if it, I knew one thing, Arnold didn’t give a shit what they thought, he was just doing his thing. Which made them small, and insignificant as I spoke with them, I could almost see them visibly shrink in my field of vision.
I heard Arnold on the Nerdist podcast this week (a great listen if you’re interested), and for all the shenanigans and boorish behavior that’s come to light about him over the past years, you can hear in his voice the young dreamer, and that capacity for dream hasn’t left him, and he genuinely wants you to have a dream too.
So do I for that matter, get out there and live as the person you want to be, and if you want a role model you can do a lot worse than the Austrian Oak.