3 - Confessions of a Tank Driver
But the infantry was based in Salzburg, and this was not consistent with my plan. I wanted to stay in Graz and continue with my training. My mission was to become the world champion in bodybuilding, not to fight wars.
It was so powerful that it could push through a brick wall and you’d hardly realize it if you were inside. It amazed me that someone would actually trust an eighteen-year-old with something this big and expensive.
The other big attraction was that to qualify as a tank driver, you first had to be licensed in driving a motorcycle, a car, a truck, and a tractor-trailer. The army would supply the training for all that, which would have cost thousands and thousands of schillings in the civilian world.
There were only nine hundred tanks in the whole Austrian army, and I wanted to stand out.
I didn’t mind basic training. It taught me that something that seems impossible at the start can be achieved.
Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted to compete for Junior Mr. Europe. I stole every minute I could to hit my practice poses in the latrine.
No chance. The night before the event, I finally decided fuck it and walked out of the gate.
A seven-hour train ride later, I was in Stuttgart, hitting my poses in front of a few hundred fans and soaking up the cheers. I won the title 1965 Best Built Junior Athlete of Europe. It was the first time I’d ever been outside Austria and the biggest audience I’d ever had. I felt like King Kong.
I’d heard of drivers getting discharged early because of family illness or because they were needed back on the farm, but I’d never heard of anybody getting discharged to pursue a dream.
It wasn’t that I disliked the army. In fact, it was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. Being a soldier had done a lot for my self-confidence.
The more the army confronted us with hardship, the more I felt like “Okay, it’s not going to worry me; bring it on.” Above all, I was proud to be trusted at age eighteen with a fifty-ton machine, even if I didn’t always handle the responsibility as well as I might have.
“due to the fact that you are somewhat unsafe around here, we’ll approve your request and let you go early. We can’t have you crashing any more tanks.”
4 - Mr. Universe
Even though Munich was only two hundred miles from Graz, for me it was the first step on the way from Austria to America.
I was selling myself on the mantra “This is going to be my new home.”
Munich was going to be my city, no matter what.
He was sure that I would become the next big thing
I’d learned in the army that I loved helping people train, so that part of the job came easily. Over the course of the day, I would teach small groups and do one-on-one sessions with a wild assortment of guys: cops, construction workers, businessmen, intellectuals, athletes, entertainers, Germans and foreigners, young and old, gay and straight.
I’d signed up for Europe’s biggest bodybuilding event, Mr. Universe, in London. This was a brash thing to do.
Ordinarily, a relative novice like me wouldn’t have dreamed of taking on London. I’d have competed for Mr. Austria first, and then if I won, I’d have aimed for Mr. Europe. But at that rate, being “ready” for London would have taken years. I was too impatient for that. I wanted the toughest competition I could get, and this was the most aggressive career move I could make.
Of course, I wasn’t an idiot about it. I didn’t expect to win in London—not this time. For now, though, I was determined to find out where I stood.
He loved my theory of “shocking the muscle,”
The way to wake up the muscle and make it grow again is to jolt it with the message “You will never know what’s coming. It will always be different from what you expect.
The deltoids were screaming from the unexpected sequence of sets. I’d shown them who was boss. Their only option now was to heal and grow.
I’d give him the shock treatment: I’d rip off my shirt to reveal my tank top underneath and then I’d punch him out. Or sometimes when he saw me he’d just say, “Oh, what the hell. Why don’t we just get a beer?”
He called London again and persuaded the organizers to consider my application, even though the deadline had passed. They agreed.
I remembered seeing a photograph from the contest when I was a kid. The winner stood on a pedestal, trophy in hand, while everyone else stood below him on the stage. Being on that pedestal was always my vision of where I would end up. It was very clear: I knew what it was going to feel like and look like. It would be like heaven to make that real, but I didn’t expect to win this year.
To my amazement, in the technical round that morning, I’d discovered that I’d overestimated my competition.
I simply looked bigger and stronger than the rest.
By showtime, word had gotten around that this monster teenager had shown up from out of nowhere with an unpronounceable name, and he was a goddamn giant. So the crowd was especially noisy and enthusiastic when our group came on. I didn’t win, but I came much closer than I or anyone else would have expected.
I was ecstatic being the surprise runner-up; I felt like I’d won. It threw me into the spotlight, so much so that people started to say, “Next year he’s going to win.” Muscle magazines in English started mentioning me, which was extremely important because I had to become known in England and America to reach my goal.
What if I had gone to London intending to win? Would I have prepared better? Would I have performed better? Would I have won and now be Mr. Universe? Instead, I’d underestimated my chances. I didn’t like the way this made me feel and worked myself into quite a state. It really taught me a lesson.
“Arnold, you don’t do that. These are people who came to see you. They spent their money, and some of them traveled a long way. You can take a few minutes and give them your autograph.” That scolding changed my life. I’d never thought about the fans, only about my competitors. But from then on, I always made time for the fans.
If he had told me the day before, “I’m going to bring you onstage and ask you to say a few words,” I would have been scared to death. But here I was able to practice public speaking without the pressure. I didn’t have to sweat about the audience accepting me or caring what I said. That fear was not there, because the body was the focus. I was lifting, I was posing. I knew they accepted me. This was just extra.
After that, I studied Reg at a bunch of shows. The way he spoke was unbelievable. He could entertain people. He was outgoing. He told stories. And he was Hercules! He was Mr. Universe! He knew about wine, he knew about food, he spoke French, he spoke Italian. He was one of those guys who really had his act together. I watched the way he held the mike, and I said to myself, “That’s what you’ve got to do. You can’t just pose on stage like a robot and then walk off so people never get to know your personality. Reg Park talks to them. He’s the only bodybuilder I’ve seen who talks to people. That’s why they love him. That’s why he’s Reg Park.”
If someone said to me, “Well, I was over at Smolana’s gym, and they have more machines than you,” I would say, “Well, they have one more room than we have, you’re absolutely right. But think about why it is that everyone wants to come here. When any American bodybuilder comes from overseas, they train here. When the military looks for a gymnasium, they train here. When the professional wrestlers come into town, they train here. We even have women wanting to join!” I built it into a whole routine.
I knew I was already the favorite to win the 1967 Mr. Universe competition. But that didn’t feel like enough—I wanted to dominate totally. If I’d wowed them with my size and strength before, my plan now was to show up unbelievably bigger and stronger and really blow their minds.
I would not go into a competition with a disadvantage. “Leave no stone unturned” was my rule.
Steroids made me hungrier and thirstier and helped me gain weight, though it was mostly water weight, which was not ideal because it interfered with definition. I learned to use the drugs in the final six or eight weeks leading up to a major competition. They could help you win, but the advantage they gave was about the same as having a good suntan.
For the first time, I heard people chanting “Arnold! Arnold!” I’d never experienced anything like that before. As I stood on the pedestal, holding my trophy, just the way I’d envisioned, I actually was able to deliver the right words in English to show some class and share the fun. I said into the microphone, “It is my lifetime ambition realized. I am very happy to be Mr. Universe. I say it again, it sounds so good. I am very happy to be Mr. Universe. My thanks to everyone in England who have helped me. They have been very kind to me. Thank you all.”
Reg Park had promised that if I won Mr. Universe, he would invite me to South Africa for exhibitions and promotions. So the morning after the competition, I sent him a telegram saying, “I won. When am I coming?” Reg was as good as his word. He sent a plane ticket, and over the holiday season of 1967, I spent three weeks in Johannesburg with him, his wife Mareon, and their kids Jon Jon and Jeunesse. Reg and I traveled all over South Africa, including Pretoria and Cape Town, giving exhibitions.
As much as I was loving my hard-training, fun-loving, brawling, girl-chasing lifestyle in Munich, living with the Parks reminded me to keep my sights set higher than that.
Reg also taught me a key lesson about psychological limits. I’d worked my way up to three hundred pounds of weight in calf raises, beyond any other bodybuilder I knew. I thought I must be near the limit of human achievement. So I was amazed to see Reg doing calf raises with one thousand pounds.
“The limit is in your mind,” he said. “Think about it: three hundred pounds is less than walking. You weigh two hundred fifty, so you are lifting two hundred fifty pounds with each calf every time you take a step. To really train, you have to go beyond that.” And he was right. The limit I thought existed was purely psychological. Now that I’d seen someone doing a thousand pounds, I started making leaps in my training.
It showed the power of mind over body. In weight lifting, for many years there was a 500-pound barrier in the clean and jerk—kind of like the four-minute barrier in the mile, which wasn’t broken until Roger Bannister did it in 1954. But as soon as the great Russian weight lifter Vasily Alekseyev set a new world record of 501 in 1970, three other guys lifted more than 500 pounds within a year.
“They don’t believe you can squat five hundred pounds.” I knew how much he loved showing off, especially when there were girls around. Sure enough, he said, “I’m gonna show them. Watch this.” He picked up the 500 pounds and did ten reps. He made it look easy. This was the same body that had been too tired ten minutes before. His thighs were probably screaming “What the fuck?” So what had changed? The mind. Sports are so physical that it’s easy to overlook the mind’s power, but I’ve seen it demonstrated again and again.
Instead he had me walk around the city on a freezing day in my posing briefs.
The problem, of course, was that when the training in America ended, I’d have to come back to Austria, and I’d still be in the army.
So I stuck with my original vision: a letter or a telegram would come, calling me to America. It was up to me to perform well and do something extraordinary, because if Reg Park had gotten to go there by doing something extraordinary, then I also would get to go by doing something extraordinary.
When I first became obsessed with bodybuilding, I dreamed that winning Mr. Universe in London would guarantee my fame and immortality. But in reality, the competitive scene had grown much more complex.
Some of the top Americans skipped the Mr. Universe competition in London and competed only in the American version, for instance. So the only real way for a bodybuilder to become the undisputed world champ was to rack up titles in all the federations. Only after he had challenged and defeated all rivals would he be universally acknowledged as the best.
I was anxious not to just beat their records but also to run over them; if somebody could win Mr. Universe three times, I wanted to win it six times. I was young enough to do it, and I felt like I could.
Having won Mr. Universe in the amateur class the year before was a great start. But it automatically elevated me to professional status, opening a whole new field of competitors. That meant that I had to go back and win the professional title even more decisively than I’d won as an amateur. That would make me a two-time Mr. Universe, and I’d really be on my way.
I made sure nothing else interfered. Not recreation, not my job, not travel, not girls, not organizing the Mr. Europe contest. I took time for all those things, of course, but my first priority remained working out a hard four or five hours per day, six days per week.
I was still growing physically, and I wanted to take advantage of my natural gift: a body frame that could handle more mass than the frames of any of the guys I was going to face. My goal was to show up at the Victoria Palace even bigger and stronger than the year before and just blow away the competition.
The day before the contest did not start well. On my way to the airport, I went to the gym expecting Rolf Putziger to hand me my regular pay, which I was counting on as spending money for London. Instead, he presented a piece of paper and a pen. “Sign this, and you’ll get your money,” he said. It was a contract that named him as my agent and guaranteed him a cut of all my future earnings! I got over my shock enough to say no, but I left the gym reeling. I had only the money in my pocket and wasn’t even sure I still had a job. Albert had to lend me five hundred marks so I could go to London. Of course, the trip ended much better than it began, with me winning Mr. Universe for the second time, decisively, the next day. There were photos of me in the muscle magazines hoisting a bikini-clad girl on my left arm while showing off my right biceps. But even better was the telegram I found waiting for me back at the hotel. It was from Joe Weider.
“Congratulations on your victory,” it read. “You are the new young sensation. You are going to become the greatest bodybuilder of all time.” It went on to invite me to come to America the next weekend to compete in his federation’s Mr. Universe contest in Miami. “We will cover expenses,” the telegram said. “Colonel Schuster will provide details.”
I couldn’t wait to call my parents and share the news that I was on my way. I hadn’t expected this, but maybe I could rack up a third Mr. Universe title! That would be incredible, at age twenty-one. I was in competition shape, I had the momentum. I would overwhelm them in Miami.
The minute I set foot on the plane, all the frustration fell away. I had to change flights in New York, and circling over the city and seeing for the first time the skyscrapers, New York Harbor, and the Statue of Liberty was fantastic.
For the first time, I laid eyes on the world bodybuilding champ, Sergio Oliva. Sergio was an immigrant to the United States from Cuba who was the first member of a minority to win Mr. America, Mr. World, Mr. International, Mr. Universe, and Mr. Olympia. He’d just won his second consecutive Mr. Olympia title the previous week. Even though I wasn’t yet in his league, Oliva knew we’d be competing soon. “He’s very, very good,” he told a reporter about me. “Next year will be tough. But that’s okay with me. I do not like to compete with babies.” When I heard about that, I thought, “Already the psych games are beginning.”
It was a blow. I’d finally made it to America, just as I had envisioned. But then I lost Mr. Universe in Miami. To a lighter and shorter man. I thought the competition had been fixed because he was just not big enough to win against me. Even though I lacked the definition, he was a scrawny little guy.
That night, despair came crashing in. My cheerfulness almost never deserts me, but it did then. I was in a foreign country, away from my family, away from my friends, surrounded by strange people in a place where I didn’t speak the language. How had I even made it this far? I was way out of my depth. All of my belongings were in one little gym bag; I’d left behind everything else. My job was probably gone. I had no money. I didn’t know how I’d get home.
Worst of all, I’d lost. The great Joe Weider had brought me across the Atlantic to give me this opportunity, but instead of rising to the occasion, I’d embarrassed myself and failed to perform.
But to get real empathy from a guy was overwhelming. Up till then, I’d thought that only girls cry, but I ended up crying quietly in the dark for hours. It was a great relief.
He asked everything about how I trained. We talked for hours. Even though my English made it slow going, he felt I had more to offer in the way of stories than the rest of the bodybuilders. I told him all about working out in the woods in the gladiator days. He enjoyed listening to all that. He interviewed me in great detail about the techniques I’d developed: the “split routine” method of training two or three times a day, the tricks that Franco and I had come up with to shock the muscles. Meanwhile I had to keep pinching myself. I was thinking, “I wish my friends in Munich and in Graz could see this, me sitting with Mr. Joe Weider, and he is asking me how I train.”
By noon he seemed to make up his mind. “Don’t go back to Europe,” he said finally. “You need to stay here.” He offered to pay my way to California and get me an apartment, a car, and living expenses so that I could concentrate on training for an entire year.
Joe had plenty of opinions about what I needed to do to get to the top. He told me I’d been focusing on the wrong things; that even for a big man, power and bulk weren’t enough. I had to train harder for muscle definition on top of these. And while some of my body parts were fantastic, I was still lacking in back, abs, and legs. And my posing needed more work.
Training schemes were Joe Weider’s specialty, of course, and he couldn’t wait to start coaching me. “You are going to be the greatest,” he said. “Just wait and see.”
I still felt the judging had been unfair, but I discovered this wasn’t the real cause of my pain. It was the fact that I had failed—not my body, but my vision and my drive. Losing to Chet Yorton in London in 1966 hadn’t felt bad because I’d done everything I could to prepare; it was just not my year. But something different had happened here. I was not as ripped as I could have been. I could have dieted the week before and not eaten so much fish and chips. I could have found a way to train more even without access to equipment: for instance, I could have done one thousand reps of abs or something that would have made me feel ready. I could have worked on my posing—nothing had stopped me from doing that. Never mind the judging; I hadn’t done everything in my power to prepare. Instead, I’d thought my momentum from winning in London would carry me. I’d told myself I’d just won Mr. Universe and I could let go. That was nonsense.
Thinking this made me furious. “Even though you won the professional Mr. Universe contest in London, you are still a fucking amateur,” I told myself. “What happened here never should have happened. It only happens to an amateur. You’re an amateur, Arnold.”
Staying in America, I decided, had to mean that I wouldn’t be an amateur ever again. Now the real game would begin. There was a lot of work ahead. And I had to start as a professional. I didn’t ever want to go away from a bodybuilding competition like I had in Miami. If I was going to beat guys like Sergio Oliva, that could never happen again. From now on if I lost, I would be able to walk away with a big smile because I had done everything I could to prepare.
I finally got to meet my idol Reg Park while training at the London gym of Wag Bennett in1966 (the W I’m wearing stands for Wag). Schwarzenegger Archive:
I walked around downtown Munich on a November day in my posing briefs to publicize bodybuilding and attract customers to the gym. Rolf Hayo / Roba Press:
On occasional visits home to Austria, I’d work out in the attic with my dad, a national ice-curling champ. Albert Busek: