5 - Greetings from Los Angeles
THERE’S A PHOTOGRAPH OF me arriving in Los Angeles. I’m twenty-one years old, it’s 1968, and I’m wearing wrinkled brown pants, clunky shoes, and a cheap long-sleeved shirt. I’m holding a beat-up plastic bag containing just a few things and waiting at the baggage claim to get my gym bag, which holds everything else. I look like a refugee, I can’t speak more than a few phrases of English, and I don’t have any money—but on my face is a big smile.
The new and marvelous life I had dreamed about easily could have ended just a week later.
downshifting the GTO slowed the rear wheels abruptly, breaking their hold on the road.
The car spun wildly around two or three times, completely out of control.
I watched as a Volkswagen Beetle T-boned me on the passenger side. Then some American car hit me, and four or five more vehicles joined the pileup before everything came to a stop.
my right leg felt like it was on fire—the impact had wrecked the console between the two front seats, and when I looked down, a big splinter of plastic was sticking out of my thigh. I pulled it out, and now blood started running down my leg.
I’d been an idiot to cause the wreck, and I wish I had everyone’s names so I could write to them today and apologize.
Not only could I have been arrested but also, as a foreigner, I could very well have ended up in jail or getting deported. The incident definitely would have cost me a lot of money in fines. But the cops in LA took the view that the roads were slick, this was an accident, there were no serious injuries, and the key thing was to get traffic flowing again.
I went to sleep that night feeling optimistic. I still needed to work things out with the crocodile wrestler, but America was a great place to be.
My first view of Los Angeles was a shock. For me, America meant one thing: size. Huge skyscrapers, huge bridges, huge neon signs, huge highways, huge cars.
I felt the same disappointment when I first saw Gold’s Gym, the mecca of American bodybuilding. I’d been studying Weider’s bodybuilding magazines for years without realizing that the whole idea was to make everything seem much bigger than it was. I’d look at scenes of famous bodybuilders working out at Gold’s, and my vision was of a huge sports club that had basketball courts, swimming pools, gymnastics, weight lifting, power lifting, and martial arts, like the giant clubs you see today.
But when I walked in, there was a cement floor, and the whole place was very simple and primitive: a single two-story room about half the size of a basketball court, with cinder-block walls and skylights. Still, the equipment was really interesting, and I saw great power lifters and bodybuilders working out, lifting heavy weights—so the inspiration was there. Also, it was just two blocks from the beach.
It was staggering how different everything was. But I had the big advantage over most newcomers: when you are part of an international sport, you’re never totally alone.
There’s amazing hospitality in the bodybuilding world. No matter where you go, you don’t even have to know people. You always feel you are part of a family. The local bodybuilders will pick you up at the airport. They will greet you. They will take you into their homes. They will feed you. They will take you around.
I said to myself, “I never saw this in Germany or Austria. No one would even think of it.” I knew for a fact that, back home, if I’d seen somebody moving in next door, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to assist them. I felt like an idiot. That day was a growing-up experience.
“When do we get to Hollywood?” I asked.
“This is Hollywood.”
“What happened to all the lights and stuff?” I asked.
He was fascinating because he was self-taught, endlessly reading and absorbing things. Besides being a natural with languages, he was a walking encyclopedia and an expert chess player.
the Democrat, was always going on about welfare and government programs, and I decided he sounded too Austrian. But Nixon’s talk about opportunity and enterprise sounded really American to me.
“What is his party called again?” I asked Artie.
“Then I’m a Republican,” I said. Artie snorted
We have a saying in Austria: “You’re so sweet I could eat you!” But because of the translation problem, when I tried using that to compliment Mrs. Drake, it came out really lewd. The whole family burst out laughing.
I remember going to West Berlin for a bodybuilding exhibition. I’d looked across the Berlin Wall, across the border, and seen how dismal life was on the other side. It was literally like two different weathers. It felt like I was in sunshine and when you looked across the wall at East Berlin, there was rain. It was horrible. Horrible. So I felt very good that America was fighting Communism big-time.
All that laid-back stuff was great, but my mission in America was clear. I was on a path. I needed to train like hell, diet like hell, eat well, and win more major titles the following fall. Weider had promised me a year, and I knew that if I did those things, I’d be on a roll.
Winning a couple of Mr. Universe contests in London didn’t make me anywhere near the best bodybuilder in the world. There were too many overlapping titles, and not everyone was competing in the same place. Being the best would really come down to beating champions like the guys whose pictures I had hanging all over the walls of my room: Reg Park, Dave Draper, Frank Zane, Bill Pearl, Larry Scott, Chuck Sipes, Serge Nubret. They had inspired me, and I said to myself, “These are the kinds of people I have to go through eventually.” My victories had put me in their league, but I was the newcomer with a lot left to prove.
I’d come to America like a hundred-carat diamond that everyone was looking at and saying, “Holy shit.” But the diamond was only rough cut.
But I came on strong, and people were saying, “Look at the size of this young kid. What the hell?
The ideal of bodybuilding is visual perfection, like an ancient Greek statue come to life. You sculpt your body the way an artist chisels stone. Say you need to add bulk and definition to your rear deltoid. You have to choose from an inventory of exercises for that muscle. The weight, the bench, or the machine becomes your chisel, and the sculpting could take a year.
This means you have to be able to see your body honestly and analyze its flaws. The judges in the top competitions scrutinize every detail: muscle size, definition, proportion, and symmetry. They even look at veins, which indicate an absence of fat under the skin.
The challenge was to take the curse off all those weak points. It’s human nature to work on the things that we are good at. If you have big biceps, you want to do an endless number of curls because it’s so satisfying to see this major bicep flex. To be successful, however, you must be brutal with yourself and focus on the flaws. That’s when your eye, your honesty, and your ability to listen to others come in. Bodybuilders who are blind to themselves or deaf to others usually fall behind.
I was proud that I’d worked up to calf raises with three hundred pounds, but Reg had a cable system that let him apply one thousand. I said to myself, “This is what I need to do. I have to train my calves totally differently and not give them even a chance of not growing.”
You would think the owners of the smorgasbord would have charged us more at least. But they treated us no different from any other customer. It was as if God had created a restaurant for bodybuilders.