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He won only one pro show, but what a show it was. In a career that spanned 13 years and 39 contests, Günter Schlierkamp made the top three only three times. It’s been close to two decades since he last competed, and he might have faded into history if not for the fact that his victory hit bodybuilding like a tornado. Somehow, someway, he conquered Ronnie Coleman in the middle of the king’s record run of eight Olympia wins. As Schlierkamp turns 50, we explain how Güntermania won’t be forgotten.
Born Feb. 2, 1970, Günter Schlierkamp grew up on a farm in Germany. When he was 12 and saw Conan the Barbarian, he realized there were physically superior beings among us called bodybuilders. At 16, he was finally allowed to join a gym, and his farm-trained 6’1″ frame filled out quickly. A few years later, he won the heavyweight classes of the German, European, and World Championships.
The G-man finished a shocking second in a show behind only Ronnie Coleman in 1995, his second pro year. Soon thereafter, like his idol, Arnold Schwarzenegger, he moved to Southern California. Then came a lot of nothing. In 24 pro shows from 1996–2001, Schlierkamp finished in the money only three times, and even then just barely. Some years he received a special invite to compete in the Mr. Olympia. Other pros grumbled about it, but in the end it didn’t matter much because he always left on a proverbial slab, gored through the heart.
Bodybuilding’s sacrificial lamb was 15th in the 2001 Olympia. He was huge but not huge enough. He had a fitness-model face, but his blocky physique was likened to a Frigidaire. And his detailing failed to wow. The genial, giant German was perpetually smiling, so we assumed he was content to place low and coast on his Weider contract. There he was again, beaming at us from yet another magazine cover.
In fact, Schlierkamp hated the losses. Eight pro years and not a single title, and all the while he toiled daily in Gold’s Gym in Venice, CA, where Flex Wheeler, Chris Cormier, and other Conan-like conquerors were trained by Charles Glass. They were the cool kids. He was the loner, the foreign exchange student, never invited to the best party. It gnawed at his guts. Had he come so far from that Teutonic farm to go zero for 24? Would he retire never having fulfilled his potential? He was stuck. He needed a change—a big change.
A former collegiate gymnast, Charles Glass won the middleweight class of the 1983 NPC Nationals and IFBB World Championships. Like Schlierkamp, he shuffled through a middling IFBB Pro League career. He was noted for his pec and delt density and razored abs, but he was cursed with narrowness. His highest finish was a fourth in the 1995 Masters Olympia. By then, he was already muscledom’s most celebrated trainer. Glass, a mainstay in Gold’s Venice since 1978, has seen a lot of pro bodybuilders come and go. Few of them had the untapped everything of Schlierkamp.
“When I first met Günter in Gold’s years ago, I thought, ‘Damn, that guy’s got a lot of potential to go places,’ ” Glass says. “But for years he thought I didn’t want to train him, and I thought he didn’t want my help.” After his 15th in the 2001 Olympia, Schlierkamp sheepishly asked Glass if he could train him.
Glass enthusiastically agreed, and after consulting judges, he zeroed in on three areas his new trainee most needed to improve: upper pecs, delts, and back thickness. The duo began a 12-month journey to turn those weaknesses into strengths. Neither man could have predicted how well they would succeed.
During the three weeks between Schlierkamp’s improbable fifth-place finish at the 2002 Olympia—where he received a standing ovation from a crowd that felt he deserved to contend for the title—and his unfathomable victory over the reigning Mr. O at the Show of Strength, I trained with Schlierkamp under Glass’ tutelage. At the time, it didn’t seem momentous.
Yes, the phenomenon known as Güntermania had taken hold of the bodybuilding world, but Mr. Olympia wouldn’t get punked in some new contest in New Orleans. Before and after the workout, I joked with Schlierkamp about beating Coleman in the SOS, but he dismissed the possibility. Not gonna happen. He wouldn’t even allow himself to dream so big. Instead, he was aiming for another loss. But if he could rise to second in a rematch against three of the four men who would beat him at the Olympia, that loss would feel like a victory. So then what would an actual victory feel like?
When the master of ceremonies said, “History is made here tonight,” Schlierkamp’s legs went limp. Almost fainting, he collapsed. He knelt on the stage, striking it with his fist, as if to convince himself it was material and not a dream. He cried. “It just came out of me,” he says. “I didn’t want to stand. I didn’t want to sit. I just wanted to fly up to the ceiling.” Never mind that he never won again or that he never cracked the Olympia top three.
He was in the Olympia top six the ensuing three years. In 2006, he slipped to a still respectable 10th. He never announced his retirement, but don’t expect Schlierkamp to ever pull a Kevin Levrone. He has moved on. Today he and his wife, Kim Lyons, own Bionic Body, a holistic gym in Hermosa Beach, CA. What follows are the biggest changes Glass made in Schlierkamp’s training to transform him from an also-ran in ’01 to the man many thought should have won the Sandow in ’02. Güntermania lives.
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