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Every bodybuilder in the IFBB Pro League dreams of one day appearing on the Olympia stage. Sergio Oliva Jr. accomplished this feat at just 2 weeks old, when his father, three-time Olympia champion (1967–69) Sergio Oliva Sr., proudly raised him up to the world at the 1984 Olympia. Fast-forward 34 years to Sept. 14, 2018, and Oliva Jr. made history, becoming the first son of an Olympia winner to compete on the O stage. And despite placing 16th in the contest, Oliva Jr. is still regarded as one of the industry’s most promising bodybuilders, thanks in large part to a couple of runner-up finishes in 2018 at the highly competitive Chicago and Tampa pro shows.
The road to the Olympia stage is never an easy one for any competitor, but as you’ll read below, Oliva Jr.’s path has been bumpier than most. In the following Q&A, he shares his heart-wrenching story with brutal honesty, demonstrating, above all else, his determination, resilience, and ability to forgive.
FLEX: What is it like prepping for the Olympia as the son of a bodybuilding legend?
Sergio Oliva Jr.: I had to get ready for that show as two different people. I had to do it as the athlete who needs to do well and suffer, and also as the biggest fan of bodybuilding. I thought it was really cool that older fans of the sport could come up to me and say, “I also saw your dad compete at the Olympia. I saw him hold you up onstage.” It sounds weird, but I think the fact that I knew I wouldn’t win the Olympia kept it from being very stressful. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked and the best I’ve ever looked, but as far as expectations go, it was the least stressful prep I’ve done.
Courtesy of Weider Health & FItness
Did you have a specific goal going into this Olympia?
I just really wanted to finish this year strong. This was the worst year of my entire life, but I got that Olympia qualification, so I just kept telling myself, “If I can step onstage and be one of the 19 best bodybuilders in the world, during the worst year of my life, then next year I’ll automatically be better.”
What made 2018 the worst year of your life?
My wife had an affair. Around the time I won the 2017 New York Pro, she was stuck in Australia due to immigration. When it was almost time for us to get approved, my wife started acting really weird. She was very distant. I thought maybe she was scared and didn’t want to leave her family. So in February 2018, I moved to Australia to be with her until the process was done. Then it got really bad. She kept disappearing. It caused a lot of problems, because I was trying to start my prep for the Chicago Pro. I decided to go back to the States to finish my prep. Then I got a message from a woman in Australia, letting me know that her husband and my wife had been having an affair for at least a year. Her husband had run off with my wife, leaving this woman eight months pregnant. I was devastated. I got off social media and stopped prepping. I needed to get things together.
But you competed at the 2018 Chicago Pro. What changed?
During all of this, the woman in Australia would call me every day. We’d FaceTime, and she’d tell me, “Hey, I’m eight months pregnant, and if I can do this, then you can do it.” I got my heart broken, and I spent a lot of money, but I don’t have this child that I now have to take care of for the rest of my life. She does. It really made me man up. This stranger that I never met got me back on prep, and I competed in Chicago. It was close, too. I only lost by a few points. After the show, one of my old friends suggested we go skydiving. I swear to God, if I had won or none of this had happened with my wife, I would have said, “No way.” But instead I said yes, and I jumped out of a plane a few days later. As I landed on the ground, I looked at my friend and said, “I’m doing the Tampa Pro.” I came in second and got that Olympia qualification, and it made everything else not matter anymore.
You portray your father in the movie Bigger and have expressed mixed emotions about being compared to him on social media. What was it like to play him in a film?
My dad was very unsupportive of my bodybuilding career and pretty much of anything that I did, but I think that he would have gotten a kick out of this. He was a big movie buff. Nothing justifies how my dad treated my mother or me, but I think my dad would be proud and maybe even have hopped onboard with my career. In the movie I look like him, but really I’m not like him at all. My dad was one of the worst people I’ve ever met. A lot of people love my dad, and that’s a big thing that I struggle with in this sport. Sometimes you want to talk about your life, you want to tell the truth, but it kills people’s dreams of their heroes.
What did your dad want you to do for a living?
He’s Cuban—so a baseball player, lawyer, or doctor. And look, I’m older now, so I understand things a little bit differently. When I started out as a bodybuilder, I was 6′ tall and 145 pounds. I looked like the used car lot balloon things. He’s looking at me, going, “Kid, what are you thinking?” My dad escaped from Cuba when he was 18 years old. Castro tried to kill him, and the United States put him in protective services and moved him to Chicago, where he got into bodybuilding and met my mom. He never finished school because he had to work on the farms. And I can’t even imagine what he dealt with in the ‘60s as a black-skinned, Hispanic bodybuilder. He also had this bad falling out with bodybuilding, so he was probably saying to himself, “I went through so much, there’s no way that my son’s gonna struggle and go into this sport that screwed me over.”
So I’m sitting here telling you that I’m not my dad, but here I am. And look how well I’ve done in just two years of being a pro. He didn’t want me to be like him, but I guess I am like him, in a way.
Are you able to forgive him for the way he treated you?
I can forgive my dad for what he did to me, but not for what he did to my mother. [Editor’s Note: According to a 1986 article in the Chicago Tribune, Oliva Sr. struck his wife twice during an explosive altercation.] My mom’s the best person ever, but she’ll be dealing with long-term medical issues, including memory loss, because of him for the rest of her life. My dad was the complete opposite with my sister. It is a Latino thing. The daughter is the princess. I remember that my sister would get gifts on my birthday. But now she still doesn’t have a real job. She’s a deadbeat. Maybe that’s how I would be if he hadn’t been so hard on me. Whether that’s the truth or not, I don’t know, but that’s what I tell myself to be able to forgive him.
So what’s next for you?
It’s crazy because now I’m friends with the wife of the guy who was having an affair with my wife. I am gonna be in her life, and her kid’s life, forever. But not in a romantic way at all. We’re friends, and somehow we got each other through this whole thing from the other side of the world. I’ve gone through stages where I blame myself, and she’s done the same thing, but the baby is so innocent. I know what it feels like to grow up without a father and to have someone who’s just toxic in your life. So now I’m gonna help her raise this kid.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
You know, in bodybuilding, if you open up about something after you place badly at a show, it’s like, “Oh, you’re just using that as an excuse.” Maybe after reading this, though, people will say, “Wait, he went through this whole entire year, didn’t tell anyone about this, and was dealing with all these demons on his own—and he was still top 19 in the world? Wow, what’s gonna happen next year?” I really believe in myself now, a lot more than I did before. Now that this toxicity is out of my life, I’m excited for what’s to come.