Death Was His Only Release: A Tribute To Mr. America, Steve Michalik (1948–2012)
"Intensity or Insanity" is the term he coined for his brutal, gruelling training system that sent many an aspiring bodybuilder into early retirement via hospitalization and placed a great many more on the path to bodybuilding excellence.
Steve Michalik's life was a blur of intensity punctuated with moments of insanity. His lifestyle reflected his training methodology and he courted controversy at every turn.
He ardently spread his self-styled brand of high-intensity training, contributing greatly to the modern bodybuilding ethos of extreme muscular development through heart-pounding workouts.
When it comes to summarizing the legacy bodybuilding great Steve Michalik left the sport he devoted much of his life to, one is faced with a task greater than any 100-set in his '70s heydays.
Michalik, a 1972 Mr. America who helped revolutionize the symmetrical look so coveted by bodybuilders of today, gave more of himself to bodybuilding than possibly any other champion.
He pushed the boundaries of human physical accomplishment, set new ones. He owns a great mountain on bodybuilding's controversial landscape.
Those who knew him best mourn the passing of a champion. On May 24, 2012, the man who made famous the expression "death is no excuse," died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He left this world on his own terms, the only way he would have wanted to go.
Michalik was known in iron circles as a hardcore bodybuilding pioneer. He trained so hard, so long in his athletic prime that the only way his system could survive such physical exhaustion was to be plied, regularly and recklessly, with copious quantities of every anabolic substance known to man. Michalik wouldn't stack steroids; he'd cram them in using every imaginable method. At the peak of his usage, he appeared destined for destruction.
While many subscribe to the notion of "body as temple," Michalik treated his like a laboratory, stockpiling it with so many powerful, toxic anabolic drugs that his physique, at its best an impressive 265 rock-hard pounds of mountainous muscle, eventually began to erode.
Serious medical problems prompted his retirement from bodybuilding in the mid 1980s. These problems allegedly included baseball-size liver tumours, heart failure and kidney disease, for which he received a kidney transplant in 2011. In his early 40s, Michalik claimed to have quit all steroid use and began a new life as a healthy-living advocate and anti-performance-enhancing-drug crusader. He continued to train and inspire countless bodybuilders.
Michalik's flaws could not be hidden. This intelligent, extremely articulate commentator was willing to challenge the accepted dogmas which plague conventional bodybuilding thought.
Michalik was also capable of darker deeds. He passed out (to unsuspecting gym customers) bananas mixed with horse manure as the latest anabolic training aid.
He threw other people through the plate-glass windows of his Mr America's Gym in Farmingdale, New York, because they watched him train and thus drained him of his energy. Michalik was, at times, a real bundle of joy. Those who did not pay their gym fees on time attracted his wrath. Just ask the unfortunate soul whose car headlights received the Michalik treatment at the business end of a baseball bat. Still others attracted his venom.
Before his descent into a life of drugs and violence, Michalik began with the best of intentions. From a young age, Michalik battled demons a team of exorcists would run screaming from. The young Michalik played victim of an abusive childhood. He was intelligent and "possessed" with an insatiable drive to succeed in life, but was constantly thwarted by brutal parents who considered him, at best, an annoyance.
He was inspired at age nine by a doctor friend who educated him in studies of anatomy and physiology in relation to muscular development. He was further influenced by an uncle who taught him about energy, matter and atomic physics, and how those concepts might be applied to exercise science.
Michalik, equipped with visions of becoming Mr. America, began his weight-training odyssey, idealistic and charged with energy and enthusiasm that enabled him to transform his skinny physique into America's best. Michalik wanted to be remembered by history. He defied seemingly insurmountable odds.
At age 16, in 1965, Michalik enlisted for military service. He received station in Guam, spent his days flying and servicing B52 Bombers. When the troops were given leave, the young Michalik did not party. He instead chose to read books on base. The one occasion he did venture off base irrevocably changed his life.
He encountered a group of Taoist monks performing unimaginable feats of mental and physical strength. He became friendly with the monks and they gradually taught him how to channel his powers of concentration to achieve similar astonishing feats.
Rather than using powers to pierce his body with metal spikes, lift improbable weights or decrease body temperature, as the Taoists did, Michalik, as he later claimed, used his abilities to cover himself (and countless people he trained to be champions) with obscene amounts of muscle mass. While stationed in Guam, Michalik decided that winning the Mr. America title was his destiny and that he would, if necessary, die trying to realize it. Michalik won his Mr. America title in 1972.
He committed to extensive charity work and went on to become a staunch advocate for less-fortunate people, providing hope in seemingly hopeless situations. He counselled a 16-year-old cancer patient just weeks before he won his America title. Michalik supported the weak.
After winning his third major title, the Mr. Universe in 1975, he found himself weakened. He was at his physical peak and was touted as the next big bodybuilding superstar, a viable challenger to Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Olympia title. Michalik left New York en route to California, where he trained for the 1976 Mr. Olympia. He encountered an obstacle that proved to be the beginning of the end of his bodybuilding career.
En route to LaGuardia Airport, Michalik kicked his Mustang Mach convertible into overdrive. Awaiting him was a flight to his ultimate destiny, California's Mecca: Gold's Gym. Michalik would fulfil his bodybuilding destiny on the much-vaunted pro circuit!
But, it was not to be. He collided with a massive earth-moving truck at full force. He remembers being pulled from the wreckage, passing out, and waking in a hospital. He was told he would never walk again. As the record books show, Michalik regained full use of his legs to achieve fourth place at the 1980 IFBB Florida Grand Prix. He continued to compete until 1984.
Michalik completed the rare triple-crown of bodybuilding championships (Mr. America, Universe and USA). He is regarded by many as one of the greatest bodybuilders of all-time. Michalik now stands on the mountain he built on bodybuilding's vast landscape. He was fond of saying that he, for a brief period of time, was able to sit with the gods. Without his health problems, who knows what further bodybuilding accolades he might have achieved.
As an IFBB professional, he was regarded by his peers as a Mr. Olympia title contender. Mr. Intensity or Mr. Insanity was an original thinker, perhaps on the cusp of something truly great. Michalik will be remembered for his drive and determination, qualities that remained with him until the very end.
May he rest in peace.
Tributes From Steve's Peers
The selection of tributes below from bodybuilding champions and respected insiders underscore the impact Steve Michalik made on his sport of choice.
"The death of Steve brings tears to my eyes. He was a beautiful human being who left us too early. His personal turmoil was just too much for him to handle. All of us from the bodybuilding community mourn his demise. I hope to see you in heaven my friend."
- Leroy Colbert - Bodybuilding legend, First bodybuilder to develop 21-inch biceps, naturally
"I'm very sorry to hear of Steve's passing. He was a great guy with a tremendous passion for this sport. He was honest, up front and most of all didn't care what anyone else thought. I remember everything he used to say about the use of steroids, and he was the only user who had the balls to say they were bad! As with me, he understood the true meaning of bodybuilding. I remember an interview where he said "physiques today are big and ugly, they have no form, no symmetry. I don't care what anyone says, you can't compare the excellence of a Frank Zane to the freakish Ron Coleman. It's like buying a Ferrari and turning it into a Hummer." I couldn't agree more with him! God Bless you, Steve. I know your spirit will live on forever."
- Anthony Catanzaro - Fitness celebrity, Natural bodybuilding champion
"I remember a gruelling chest workout I had at Steve's Farmingdale dungeon back in the mid-80s. Mr. America's wasn't my home gym back then (I competed out of Valencia) and I recall being in awe of the diversity of equipment and the fiery intensity of the atmosphere. Years later, I had the opportunity to do a talk show or two on which Steve was also a guest. We had some great and memorable off-camera talks about his career, about steroid use, and about the future of bodybuilding, and I was surprised by his openness and candor in those private moments. My heartfelt condolences go out to his loved ones. Steve will always have a special place in the history of our sport."
- Rick Collins Esq. - Lawyer, author and lecturer, Nationally Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA-CSCS)
"Steve Michalik is a LEGEND.
Steve Michalik imbued in others the spirit, discipline and knowledge necessary to enable them to become champions. His drive and commitment in helping others was unparalleled. Millions of people exercise daily in hopes of reaching their goals. Few people will ever achieve their goals, because they lack the knowledge and the discipline necessary to become successful.
You wouldn't attempt to travel across the United States for the first time without utilizing a good map or navigation system to reach your destination. Steve Michalik's knowledge has been my map and my navigation system and he was the one who pinpointed my destination and goals in bodybuilding many years ago and allowed me to achieve them. Steve's knowledge and commitment to excellence afforded me the ability to help thousands of others to reach their bodybuilding and fitness goals.
Steve Michalik was a great man, a great friend and will always be remembered as a Legend in bodybuilding and in life! May you Rest in Peace Mr. America Steve Michalik!
With Love and the utmost Respect."
- John Defendis - 1988 Mr USA, http://www.defendis.com/
"Steve Michalik was a man who not only loved but also was totally absorbed by the sport of bodybuilding. He was complex and erratic, compulsive and extreme, most likely caused by the large amounts performance-enhancing drugs he took for the majority of his life.
They made him two different people. The few times I met the man who was not on any drugs, I found him intelligent and thoughtful. The man who was on drugs … you did not want to be around. Unfortunately, for a man to take his own life, in the home of his young children, he had to be in the bottomless depths of depression I hope none of us ever experiences. Rest in Peace, Steve … your torment is over."
- Wayne S. DeMilia - Bodybuilding promoter
"I trained at Steve Michalik's gym in Farmingdale, New York, from the summer of 1979 until around early 1983, but I remained friends with Steve up until the day he died. Steve was one of the most dedicated, serious bodybuilders I have ever had the honor to know. There were many, many times I remember speaking with him about training, nutrition and positive mental approach. He never failed to amaze me with his knowledge. He was like a walking "virtual-library" of information that was not to be found in any book or magazine. Every time I came away enlightened and inspired. The information he gave me was extreme, and sometimes difficult to accept, but it always worked.
I remember in 1992, after a workout one day, I was coming out of the locker room at the Ultimate Gym in Hicksville (Steve sold the original gym, and was doing his training at this nearby gym at that point in time). Steve walked in and he stopped me and said "Buddy, when the hell are you going to win the Mr. USA? You were one of "my guys" from the old gym, (Mr. America's Gym in Farmingdale). I'm talking about the guys I predicted would win a Mr. "A" or "Mr. USA" - get motivated and win a damn national title." Those words were very, very inspiring to me.
I don't think he realized what a positive influence he had, especially the last 20 years, always warning people not to mess around with "bodybuilding drugs." If you look back to an old Iron Man magazine from 1972, you will find he wrote an article about how these drugs would ruin bodybuilding. It was called "The Death of Bodybuilding." He probably saved a lot of kid's lives by warning people to stay away from that stuff. I will forever miss having Steve's straightforward, honest advice, and his encyclopaedic knowledge about exercise and nutrition."
Rest in Peace, Steve. You deserve it after all those "80-set-per-body part" marathon training sessions you endured!
- Buddy Dreimann - 1994 Mr. USA
"I spoke to Steve at the first Ms. Olympia in 1980. He told me about the severe car accident which curtailed his bodybuilding activities, and that he was on the comeback trail. Steve had a wonderful build; he was energetic, had a sparkling personality and was a very likeable young man. I'm so sorry he has departed."
- Kellie Everts - Women's bodybuilding pioneer
"Steve Michalik deserves credit for being one of the first guys to come forward and expose, through his own admissions, exactly how reckless bodybuilding drug use can be. At a time when muscle magazines were still portraying competitors as examples of excellent health, Michalik became a paradigm of what we now call "hardcore" bodybuilding: a lifestyle fueled by a desire to get bigger, regardless of the means, costs or dangers. He later added himself to the growing list of former competitors who not only warn against drug use, but who also sharply criticize bodybuilding in its current form. This will be his legacy."
- Gordon LaVelle - Author, Bodybuilding: Tracing the Evolution of the Ultimate Physique
"Steve will always be a legend! I've known Steve since I was 18, and remember when I first competed with him at the Mr. Wagner contest back in 1971. He was always fun and respectful and one of the most dedicated bodybuilders I have ever met. Steve was a good friend and a no-bullshit guy. Steve, I'll miss you and hope you rest in peace. My condolences go to your family and friends."
- Lou Ferrigno - IFBB pro bodybuilding legend
"I have known Steve Michalik since the late '70s to be one of the hardest, most intense bodybuilders in the industry. As a young, aspiring bodybuilder, I read about his Intensity or Insanity workouts and I couldn't believe the number of sets and reps he did to obtain his physique. I most admired his physique, which was very symmetrical. I met Steve at some of the trade shows and he was a great guy to talk to and was well respected."
- Rich Gaspari - IFBB professional bodybuilder, Arnold Classic winner
"Steve was the very first person to inspire me never to give up or turn to an excuse. He came back from a car accident that left him paralyzed for three years, but then defied all odds with his "Intensity or Insanity" approach to training by standing on stage, yet again, as a professional bodybuilder. His intensity, dedication and direct demeanor may not wash with a lot of people, but for me, it demanded respect. I think everyone knew where they stood with Steve, whether they liked it or not, and that shows courage of focus and the embodiment of completely controlling circumstances. Steve was an inspiration for the aggressive approach needed for those wanting to train with complete intent. He will be missed, but now it's up to us to carry the memory of always doing what you fear, not fearing what you do!"
- Kris Gethin - Writer, author, physical transformation specialist
"As a kid growing up in New York on Long Island, all young aspiring athletes and bodybuilders in the region were always amazed by Steve's remarkable V-shape. He was always quick to lend advice and training tips to others. Another local legend of the iron game lost, but still remembered."
- Dr. Bob Goldman M.D., Ph.D., DO, FAASP - World Chairman - International Medical Commission
"The bodybuilding world has lost one of its greatest legends. I had a chance to speak with [Steve Michalik] a year ago at The Upper State Bodybuilding competition. We laughed and shared our personal opinions about bodybuilding [today's scene and how it was in the past]. Steve, we'll miss you. R.I.P."
- Lee Haney - 8-time Mr. Olympia
"Michalik's greatest strength was his tenacity in the gym and passion for bodybuilding. Probably best known for his torturous training system "Intensity or Insanity" - made famous during his marathon workouts with Mr. USA John Defendis at the then-iconic Mr. Americas Gym - Michalik was both an enigma and an extremely charismatic player in the bodybuilding scene of the '70s and '80s. I don't think there's a single bodybuilder the world over who doubted for a second that the 1972 Mr. America would exit this world in any way other than on his own terms. Steve Michalik will be greatly missed. My prayers go out to his family and close friends."
"It is sad to see the people who inspired and paved the way for so many pass away. Steve left a "footprint" on our sport that will not be forgotten."
- Shawn Ray - IFBB professional bodybuilding legend
"The 1972 Mr. America, Steve Michalik can be summed up quite easily. What Arthur Jones was to intensity in relation to resistance training, Steve Michalik was, and more, to the insanity within extreme bodybuilding of his era."
- Randy Roach - Author of Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors
"Steve Michalik, may your soul rest in peace. You were a true legend of the game."
- Robby Robinson - IFBB pro bodybuilding legend
"I first met Steve at the 1980 Louisiana Grand Prix and he was very nice to me. I read about him over the years and was actually scared of him, because of some of the stories that I'd heard about him and how intense he could be! But, he ALWAYS treated me well. I included him in my Classic Anatomy Gym Bodybuilding Hall of Fame and he even had a featured column in my online magazine "Classic Anatomy Magazine" titled: "The Phantom Speaks" and he was a very popular featured champion. By that time he was very anti-steroid use. I've heard about another "dark side" to Steve from others who have dealt with him, but he always showed me kindness and fairness. I remember asking him: "How many sets do you suggest for a particular body part" and he replied: "It's not about how many sets you should do, but about how many sets you can do." That statement has stuck with me for the rest of my life. Set no limits on yourself, as imposed by others, he would say.
His book Atomic Fitness is a fantastic read and gives insight of where Steve came from and was planning to go. The obstacles he overcame in life as a child and also after his automobile accident are incredible and make one's problems in life seem small by comparison.
What I learned from Steve Michalik was to never give up and to always find another way to keep moving forward."
- Steve Speyrer - Natural bodybuilding champion, Iron Game historian
"Steve was an amazing character. I had the chance as a fellow Long Islander and bodybuilder to train at his Mr. America's Gym a few times and get to know Steve. He was the very first bodybuilder I had the opportunity, as a young aspiring athlete, to see in person. I was 15 and he was being photographed during his workout for one of the magazines. He was HUGE, wearing a torn up old T-shirt and maxing out each set as if his life depended on it. I was awestruck and incurably motivated. He inspired a lot of athletes, including me. Steve was a hell of a coach and might be credited, as a result of his notorious all or nothing/never say die, intensity or insanity workouts for destroying as many potential champions as he developed.
One thing is for sure: Steve gave his all to the sport he loved and will never be forgotten. Thanks Steve for your contribution. Sorry to see you go."
- Tom Terwilliger - 1986 (NPC) Mr. America, IFBB professional bodybuilder
"Steve Michalik was alive with inspiration and was always full of energy. He was an intense trainer, and helped many newcomers to the sport. He will be missed along with his great enthusiasm."
- Casey Viator - AAU Mr. America 1971, IFBB professional bodybuilder
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