It was 1977. Richard Dreyfuss won the award for best actor, the New York Yankees won the World Series, bread was only thirty five cents a loaf, and little 18 year old John DeFendis was learning the most masochistic style of training in his quest to becoming a champion bodybuilder. You see, I was that teenager who had trained for 8 years and competed on nine separate occasions without ever taking home a trophy. In my determination to excel, I happened to make a decision that would greatly affect the next fifteen years of my life. I chose to train with Mr. America, Steve Michalik.
It all started one day when I decided to take a trip to the gym where all the so-called "champions" trained, Mr. America's Gym. This was not your ordinary family fitness center. The walls were painted jet black and the equipment was red, reminiscent of an old gothic torture chamber. There was a two foot syringe on the wall over the front desk mounted on a plaque that read, "Message Of The Day: Up The Dosage!" The daily sign in sheet was also accompanied by yet another syringe with a pen inserted through it, for sign-in purposes.
I walked in and asked to speak to Mr. America himself. This was my first mistake. Steve Michalik was not your typical gym owner. He didn't care about the business, nor did he care about hurting anyone's feelings. As a matter of fact, Steve Michalik really didn't care about much of anything except training. Now I don't mean training as mere mortals refer it to. No this type of training had a whole new meaning. After all, Steve's motto was "Train beyond the pain... and death is your only release."
The gym attendant pointed towards an area of equipment that was roped off and said, "Steve is over there training but I wouldn't bother him if I were you!" Well, Mr. Gym attendant, you're not me, I thought to myself. After all, I was an aspiring champion who had placed fifth in the recent local teenage contest and I figured that Steve would be happy to talk to me. Well, our meeting went something like this... "Hi Steve, I'm John DeFendis, and I wondered if..."
I didn't even get to finish my sentence when this hulk of a man transformed into something monstrous. I wished that I had brought along a cross or a wooden stake to drive through his heart because that would have been the only way to prevent what was about to happen next. He threw the dumbbells he was curling at my feet and started screaming hysterically, "I'm going to kill you if you don't get the hell out of here. I'll kick your ass. Get the hell out, and don't ever come near me while I'm training!"
Talking To Mr. America
At this point, I kind of got the impression that I might not be welcome here and figured that I should probably make myself scarce. So I left. My enthusiasm to excel in bodybuilding far outweighed my will to live, so later the same evening I journeyed back to the gym for some more abuse. This time I was sneaking around outside and looking in the window when I felt this hand tap me on the shoulder. As I turned around and stood face to face with my worst nightmare, I noticed deltoids that looked like cantaloupes, and biceps that resembled large grapefruits. It was he... Mr. America.
As I stood there waiting to get blasted, he looked straight in my eyes and said, "What is it that you want? And make it fast because I have to catch a meal." I replied, "I want to become a champion, just like you. I want to be Mr. America. I thought that maybe you would train me to make this goal a reality." Steve replied, "Oh you want to become a champion? What makes you think that you possess the qualities that it takes to become a champion?" Before I could reply, Michalik continued, "Okay hotshot, Mr. Champion, you meet me here tomorrow at 5:00 a.m. and we'll see if you have the balls to train like a champion. Don't be late Mr. Champion... Don't be late."
The following day I was like a little kid going to the candy store. I was so excited to be able to train with Mr. America. This was my chance. I came rushing in the gym expecting to see Steve waiting there to explain the fundamentals of his training to me. But instead of waiting for me, he was engrossed in an intense workout. Beads of sweat poured off his brow, and he had this look in his eye that was hypnotic, almost frightening.
When he finished his set, he dropped the weight and slowly turned my way. "It's 5:05 and you're late. Get the hell out of my gym and don't waste my time," he said. "Get the hell out of here! Be here tomorrow at 5:00 sharp and I'll give you another chance." The next day I was there at 5:00 a.m. There was only one problem. No sign of Steve Michalik. I sat on the curb waiting. It was 6:00, then 7:00, and finally 8:00.
Steve ultimately showed up to open the gym at 9:00. As he got out of his car, I said "This is bullshit, where the hell have you been?" Well, that's not exactly what I said, but it was something on the lines of, "I'm sorry Mr. Michalik for showing up 4 hours early for the workout. May we train now?" Steve just unlocked the gym door and mumbled something about today being his rest day and that we could resume training at 5:00 sharp tomorrow if I had the guts to show up.
Once again I left disappointed. That night I didn't get much sleep because I was determined to show Michalik that I was tough and indestructible. The next morning I was at the gym at 4:45 a.m. and Steve showed up shortly thereafter. He asked me if I thought that I trained hard. I chuckled, and with a cocky attitude replied, "I train harder than anybody!" Steve chuckled a little himself and said, "Well good Mr. Champion, then let's get started.
The "Hell On Earth" Workout
Steve started to set up several different exercise stations. After strategically placing dumbbells on a number of benches and machines, he roped off the area with a large thick rope. I later named the roped-off areas in our workout, "Hell On Earth." This was where all the action took place. Michalik made me believe that we were gladiators who were going to battle. The roped-off area represented the battleground and you would only emerge a successful warrior if you could withstand the pain and survive the battle.
On my way to victory I made several journeys to visit the porcelain throne. In other words, I puked my guts up. I was forced to do a series of exercises without any rest, until I had to make a pitstop at the toilet. Instead of doing forced reps, I found myself doing forced sets. I was forced to do them. After a week of these tortuous workouts I found myself lying in a hospital bed trying to recover from a depleted broken down body.
I learned my first lesson. Do not try to keep up with Michalik. He is bionic. As I lay there trying to figure out what went wrong, Michalik was telling all the members of the gym that I was mentally weak and that I should try my hand at badminton or croquet. This infuriated me and I was even more determined to show this cyborg that I had what it would take to become a champion.
Winning The Mr. U.S.A.
So the day after I got out of the hospital I was back at the gym and right in Michalik's face. I boldly said, "What will not kill me will only make me stronger!" We then became a team. We eventually fueled each other to reach for the sky and settle for nothing less than the stars. My ship had come in and I was rocketing towards my goal. I would win the Mr. New York title, then Mr. Eastern America, Mr. Western America and finally the Mr. U.S.A. title.
But in my quest I made every sacrifice along the way. The workouts were brutal and my name became synonymous with the saying "Intensity Or Insanity." People often wondered if my workouts were incredibly intense or if were they considered insane. We never did less than 40 sets for each body part and sometimes as much as 100 sets for a single area.
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