Athletes & Celebrities

The Next Myth: Sergio Oliva Jr.

Finding success by following in your father's footsteps is one thing. Doing it when your father is a three-time Mr. Olympia is quite another. In the Oliva clan, the tie that binds is wrought in iron.

The Next Myth: Sergio Oliva Jr.

The 1984 Mr. Olympia contest in New York City was characteristically rife with storylines. Some were talking about the inevitable anointing of a muchimproved Lee Haney. Others discussed the contest's return to New York City after a 10-year, four-continent tour. Three former Olympia winners were set to compete, including Samir Bannout, the previous year's winner, and Chris Dickerson, who earned a Sandow in 1982. But it was Sergio Oliva's return to the Olympia stage after a 12-year hiatus that held the meatiest narrative. Beginning as scattered whispers of anticipation, the resurrection of The Myth—who many rate as the best bodybuilder of all time—eventually crescendoed into a wave of standing ovations that evening. The contest was just the backdrop.

Having fallen off the IFBB radar after his controversial loss to Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1972 Olympia—despite coming in full and immaculately conditioned—people were curious whether Sergio could recapture his form at the age of 43. When the top 10 were announced, the threetime Mr. O was relegated to eighth place, a decision that was protested angrily by the crowd of more than 5,000.

Aware of Sergio's penchant for excited outbursts, especially when it came to less-than-desirable competitive finishes, longtime friend and then-Flex Editor-in-Chief Rick Wayne headed toward the stage, urging Sergio to keep his cool. Encountering Sergio's wife, Arlene, on the way, Wayne asked if he could give 4-week-old Sergio Jr. to his father onstage. Arlene agreed, and soon the father was holding the son aloft for the crowd. Thus it was that Junior's first appearance on the bodybuilding stage was at the sport's ultimate competition. With the crowd awed into silence, Senior headed to the mic and issued a spine-tingling, rousing speech of gratitude. "No matter what happened tonight, eighth, 17th or 20th, I'll forever be The Myth. And I hold in my arms Sergio Jr., the next Myth."

That proclamation would come back to haunt the Olivas years later when Junior, long immersed in the culture of the sport and the legacy of his father, decided to make his own way in bodybuilding. A father first, Senior had hoped his son would don a shirt and tie in a cozy office—not a set of sequined posing trunks onstage. Junior, despite his father's initial objections, is now barreling through the amateur ranks with hopes of earning his pro card in the next few years. He has been training full time for only the past two years, and the gains are coming fast. Although his shape is already impressive and his arms clearly make the case for genetic fortune, young Sergio is still a Myth in the making.

Flashback to 1986
Sergio Sr.'s highly publicized split with Arlene left Sergio Jr. and his sister, Julia, in their father's custody. Sergio Jr. was 2 years old. Although Arlene and Sergio Sr. weren't exactly the best of friends after their break-up, they did their best to raise their young children together, which meant a lot of back and forth traveling between Illinois and Alabama, where Arlene had taken up residence.

As the years passed, familiarity bred contempt between father and son. Sergio Jr. butted heads with his dad more and more—not so much because of differences of opinion or rank-and-file teenage rebellion, but because the two were so similar to each other.

"I don't deal well with authority," Sergio Jr. admits. "He's very independent, just like me," his father adds. The differences were compounded later. When young Sergio Jr. started taking more of an interest in bodybuilding during high school, Sergio Sr. railed against the idea.

The differences were compounded later. When young Sergio Jr. started taking more of an interest in bodybuilding during high school, Sergio Sr. railed against the idea.

"When he was 18, he decided to move out because we disagreed about him training all the time, and it was making him drop off in school," Senior says. "He was born and raised in the greatest nation in the world, and I think he should take advantage of it. I just want what's best for my son. I want him to be educated."

Despite his father's pleas to stay the course with his studies and pursue betterpaying, more archetypal careers such as law or medicine, there was no denying Sergio Jr.'s innate calling. He was born to one of the sport's most revered athletes, had been around some of the most notable bodybuilders of all time and was up to his posing trunks in old copies of flex and muscle & fitness. He also happened to be blessed with amazing genetics. Junior gained nearly 30 pounds in his first four months of serious, regimented training—as with most beginners, everything worked.

"Our relationship got really rough once I got serious about bodybuilding a few years ago," Junior says. "But it's tough to get recognition from him for anything I do. He's not much on praise. He's just that old-school, blue-collar kind of tough. Coming here from Cuba at 20 (Senior and the rest of the Cuban weightlifting team defected to the United States during the 1961 Central American and Caribbean Games in Kingston, Jamaica) and having no friends or family, and building it all on his own, takes someone who's really strong."

Senior indeed took the hard route to the top, working 12-hour days making moldings at a factory, then heading to the gym for 2 to 3 hours to train before grabbing some food and running off to English classes for what was left of his day.

"I'm with him 100%," Senior says. "I just want him to take his time and listen, but he's pretty impatient. A few years ago it was very difficult, but now he's more mellow and mature and is taking advice better."

Part of Senior's lack of enthusiasm came from Junior's constantly shifting interests and career paths. In the past several years, Sergio Jr. has worked as a tour guide, a grocery clerk, a clothing retail clerk, a personal trainer, a valet/bellman at a resort, a security guard and a personal bodyguard. These days, he works in guest services at a Fairfield Resort near his home in Mirimar Beach, Florida, but he sees that as a temporary situation. He is dead-set on earning his daily bread via quarter turns and most-musculars.

And while he has a whole slew of goals he wants to accomplish in bodybuilding, his ultimate ambition is fairly simple: "For him to say he's proud of me."

Sergio Jr. paced anxiously backstage, awaiting the call for the competitors to line up. Occasionally, he'd stop to hit a few shots or pause at the dumbbell rack for some extra preshow pump reps, but it was more a matter of working out the nerves than getting himself stage-ready. There were other rookies in the show, but for Sergio, this was a potentially life-defining moment. He had, after all, staked a great deal on his success in this show. There was no backup plan for him and his fiancé, Halley, in the event of a dismal placing. This was it.

He was also curious how he'd be received by the crowd and judges beyond the curtain. They were already aware of who his father is, so he boasted some name recognition. His sense of autonomy, however, had him flirting with the idea of entering the contest under his mother's maiden name, Garrett. The wording on his sweater read, "The Myth."

When he finally stepped under the lights at the NPC Southern States in the spring of 2006—wide-swept quads and full, detailed arms in tow—young Sergio felt a rush of energy and purpose, as though he was finally doing what he was born to do (and born into). He took his second-place finish as impetus enough to forge a career of battling rep for rep and pose for pose not only with fellow competitors but with the long-cast shadow of his father.

At the start of our photo shoot with father and son in Chicago in February, the awkwardness between the two was palpable. But with each snap of the lens, each exercise shot, each portrait staged, the layers of tension were peeled back by a common bond that the two had never truly explored—the love of training.

The two chatted about bodybuilding, Dad dished out tips, offered spots and, in what will go down as one of the coolest moments ever captured in m&f, Senior schooled Junior on how to execute the perfect "victory" pose, which he immortalized in his days as a competitor.

"It was probably the best father-son thing we've done my whole life," Sergio Jr. said after the shoot. "It's sad that it took 22 years for us to be in the same gym at the same time. But it was worth it."

Asked what it was like to finally see his son tackling the heavy iron for a major publication, Senior said: "As a father, I have to be proud. I didn't realize just how serious he was. He has a great physique with a small waist and arms like mine. He's going to be great. It just takes time." the reconciliation of a father and son. M&F