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Controversial bodybuilder Steve Michalik has passed away at the age of 63. The exact cause of his death has not been made public at the time this story went to press. This story, by the way, isn't meant to serve as an obituary, so much as it is my personal reflection on the man who was my first mentor in the iron game.
Anyone who has a passing knowledge of the history of my involvement with bodybuilding knows that Steve and his gym, Mr. America's (in Farmingdale on Long Island), were seminal for me. When I first walked through the doors of that utilitarian sweat shop in September of 1982 my senses were instantly assaulted. From the musty odor to the staccatto of clanging weights to the sight of thick-armed men decked out in ragged sweats, heaving and pushing stacks of rusty, dusty metal to the strains of inspirational music hand-picked by Michalik himself, there was nothing I didn't like about that place. I was hooked. And then there was Steve.
I'll never forget walking up to him at the front desk. He was the first bodybuilder I'd ever met, and better still, a featured player in the book "Pumping Iron"—the book that first alerted me to the startling prospect that I could actually transform my body through training and diet. Broad-shouldered, chiseled, with an intense spark to his dark eyes, Steve looked like a living comic book character, and his gnarled grip spoke to years of manual labor in iron asylums like Mr. America's. I shook his hand and signed up immediately, greedily clutching my paper membership card upon receipt. And I remember telling my mom that night that I wouldn't wash my hand until the next day.
I'm not going to sugarcoat things for the sake of this post mortem. I'm not going to tell you how everyone loved Steve and that he was a gentle, benevolent soul. Fact is, Steve was (during the early-mid 80's at least–when I knew him best.) a tough, mercurial, sometimes irrascible, always intense man—at the gym, anyway. But honestly, Steve—the good and the bad of him—was a large part of why Mr. America's had such a devoted following. Back then, before gyms became health clubs and fitness centers, gymgoers were made of sterner stuff, and we appreciated our gym being run by a take-no-prisoners hard-ass. Steve outwardly embodied the chaotic intensity we all worked to channel in our daily workouts, and much to our unspoken delight, embraced it without apology.
I, and all the other Mr. America's members, learned training the hard way. We watched Steve tear up the joint, seemingly with the intention of beating himself into the ground, and we followed his lead. We marveled at his intensity (his training style was dubbed "Intensity or Insanity"), studied his methods assiduously, and savored the thrill of the unexpected that was part and parcel of every day there, even while ducking a weight plate flung across the gym with mal intent. It may have been a lot of things, but Mr. America's was never boring, and neither was Steve.
I could go on—and I have many times over, to anyone who'll listen—with stories of Mr. America's and of its polarizing owner. But not now. Such stories are better told in person, over a protein shake. And while others will write Steve Michalik's obituary, I won't. Mere stats and facts don't tell anything about the man, so far as I'm concerned. What better defines him, I believe, are the myriad stories floating around out there, told by those who actually got to know the man. Not all of them are complimentary to be sure. But all are undoubtedly compelling—nearly as compelling as the man they're about.
Steve, you were absolutely, without question, one of a kind. Your influence on the man I am today has been profound, and I will continue to think of you often.