* This article is from Flex Magazine back in 1987. Very interesting read.
Edited by Strength Oldschool
What was your childhood in Cuba like?
I was an average kid, and about all i did physically was work on a farm, growing and harvesting sugar cane, tobacco and other crops. I played a lot of baseball - Cuba’s national game - but I really didn’t have much free time with all the farm chores. I was born on July 4, 1941, so we’re talking about the mid 50′s, the last few years Batista was in power in Cuba. At the age of 18 I decided to join the army. There was compulsory service for two years, but I volunteered rather than being drafted. I had basic combat training and then they sent me to fight against Fidel Castro in the mountains, where he was mounting his revolution. Because I knew nothing about Castro, my political sympathies were for Batista. Actually by the time the Cuban people found out about Castro it was too late.
What is your opinion of Castro now?
Oh, forget it. He has completely ruined Cuba. Under Batista there was a little bit of money, housing and food for everyone. But with Fidel, the communist state owns everything. A Cuban today owns nothing not even himself, because he works for the government. My father owned a house when Batista was in power, and now he owns nothing. It took him 20 years to pay for that house. People who have come to the US from Cuba in recent years tell me life is much worse today than it was even under Batista. All the basic things people could buy during the 50′s - small appliances, shampoo and so forth - just aren’t available in stores. The only place they are available is on the black market, and the cost of black market goods is astronomical.
When you were in the Cuban army did you see much combat?
Oh, yes. I fought for about a year against Castro’s rebels. I saw many friends die and was shot twice myself, both minor wounds, fortunately. After the second wound I was sent to hospital in Havana. I was still there when Castro took over.
* Sergio was also shot again later in life by his ex-wife, Arlene Garrett.
As a former loyalist soldier, how were you treated by Castro’s rebels?
They really didn’t do anything to common soldiers like me. They only went after high ranking officers. While I was lying in the hospital, I could see what direction the country was taking and I decided I wanted out. The only means of escape I could think of was to get seriously into a sport and compete internationally so I could escape on one of the trips out of the country. Castro’s navy was sinking every boat that even looked like it was going to Florida and freedom. I tried to be a baseball player, but the competition to make the top grade in Cuba was incredibly rough. Then I tried boxing, but couldn’t make it there either. Finally just by chance, I became interested in weightlifting, the international sport that best suited my physical skills.
How did that happen?
I went to the beach one day and just happened upon a weightlifting gym. I was naturally strong and wiry, but didn’t weigh more than about 155 pounds at 5′11. I met the leader of the group, who had been one of Castro’s top men in the revolution and a man who already knew a lot about me because of my military service. He came up to me and asked me if I’d like to train as a weightlifter. I had no idea what he was talking about so I declined. But he did ask me to come by his gym the next day to talk about it. I had no job, no money, nothing, so I agreed to go. There’s no bodybuilding per se in communist countries like Cuba, but weightlifting is always popular.
So in my early 20′s I started training to make the Cuban weightlifting team. Because I didn’t have a job, the coach gave me one in the gym as an Instructor, even though I knew nothing about lifting weights at first. So he was actually just paying me to train. He also gave me money for food. All I had to do in return was come to the gym every day so he could teach me the three Olympic lifts. The coach predicted I would be able to beat any weightlifter in Cuba in three months which turned out to be true. He also predicted that by the next year I would make the Pan American team and beat Louis Martin (pic below), a Jamaican weightlifter who eventually won several world championships for England. I did make the team but escaped before the competition.
Do you feel you had a natural talent for weightlifting?
Definitely, because I was able to power snatch 135 pounds the first time I touched a barbell. That’s a lift in which you flip a barbell from the floor to straight arms length overhead in one fluid movement. In the next three months my weight went up to about 190 pounds, and I beat everyone in Cuba, even the heavyweights.
So you were essentially a world class weightlifter after less than one year of steady training?
That’s correct. About eight months before the Pan American Games I was sent to Moscow to train with the best weightlifters in the Soviet Union. The preparation there was tremendous. I was overhead pressing 220 pounds when I left Cuba and 340 by the time I came back eight months later. Some of the Russians I trained with were...
Dr. Arkady Vorobyev:
All of them won at least one Olympic gold medal. Vorobyev was lifting in my weight class and he really pushed me to improve. My older brother, Diego, was the best Cuban heavyweight, but he was afraid we’d never get back to Cuba if we went to Moscow. As a result he didn’t go with me to the Soviet Union.
Did you go straight from Moscow to Jamaica, where the Pan Am Games were being held?
No, we all went back to Cuba first. My brother and I both wanted to defect, but because Diego hadn’t gone to train in Moscow, he was left off the Pan Am team. He told me to escape if I could. I said goodbye to my father, who told me to go if I could. In order to fake out the Cuban security guards, I was constantly reading communist books on the trip to Jamaica. But when we arrived in Kingston, I was looking for the American Embassy as soon as I went out to walk around town. The first time I went out, I couldn’t find it and I couldn’t ask about it, because they speak English in Jamaica and I didn’t know a word of English at the time.
Were there security guards watching you on these walks?
Yes, Castro sent a whole army of them and they watched us like hawks. I would have escaped the first day I was there but I couldn’t find the Embassy. The second day I went out again and just by accident I found it. I'd stopped to buy a Mango from one of the street vendors and right next to the fruit stand I saw the American flag flying on the Embassy grounds. I’d have bolted right then, but out of the corner of my eye I saw two security guards. I was sure they’d shoot me if I ran, so I made up my mind to escape the next day. I remember very clearly that I found the Embassy on a Tuesday. On Wednesday they were having the volleyball finals and on Thursday the weightlifting. But on Tuesday, right after the basketball finals, we Cubans were isolated in one building. When I asked to see a friend of mine from the basketball team, no one had seen him. A friendly official told me that none of the teams would be returning to the dorm after competing. The security guards would collect our clothing, meet us at the gym and take us directly to the airport from our competition. I said to myself, " they’ll only get me on that plane back to Cuba if I'm dead! ” I knew I had to escape on Wednesday or never get another chance as good as the one I had.
On Wednesday morning I started off on a long walk. The security guards saw me, but they had no idea I was trying to escape because I had no shoes or shirt with me. I was only wearing shorts. They did stop me and ask where I was going, but I said I was walking around Kingston to prepare myself mentally for the weightlifting competition the next day. "we must win”, I told them. So they walked away and in a few minutes I was sprinting for the American Embassy.
The moment I bolted, 34 other guys also went. The cuban team consisted of 64 athletes and everyone wanted to escape, not just me. No one had talked about it directly. No one had said anything but we all knew everyone else wanted to escape. So as soon as I ran, they all began running after me. I looked back and didn’t recognise anyone. I just saw a big crowd running after me. I thought they might be security guards, so I sprinted at near world record speed all the way through the Embassy gate. There were two marines at the gate and they opened it just as we got there and we all ran into the Embassy. We were all jumping up and down, screaming, " we’re free, we’re free! ” in Spanish. The marines must have thought we were all crazy.
The Embassy officials didn’t know what to do with us after automatically granting us Cuban refugee status, so they consulted with Washington. Finally the state department flew us to Miami but before we left, Castro found out about the mass defection and sent Cuban officials to talk us into going back home. They did everything, including threatening to send assasins after us, but we decided to go to Miami and seek freedom.
Then what happened?
The state department wanted us to tour central America telling the people there about how bad things had become in Cuba. They gave us each a salary to do this for the next few months. They used us to make propaganda against Castro, which we all did willingly. Some of the injustices amazed the central Americans we met. For example, as an athlete I had steak, eggs, chicken, vegetables and vitamin supplements for virtually every meal. But when I went home my parents had only some rice and maybe some beans - not really enough food to keep from being hungry all the time. I had everything and my family had nothing, which made me very angry and if I had tried to give some of my food to my family I’d have gone to jail. It wasn’t fair, but that’s the way the communist system worked.
After the central American tour what opportunities did the state department give you?
We were allowed to pick any state in America to live in, they’d find us a job right there to help get us settled. So everyone split up and I decided to go to Chicago. I didn’t want to stay in Miami, because I felt it was too close to Cuba and I felt Castro was so loony that I’d never be able to feel safe there. Fidel undoubtedly already had plenty of agents working for him in Miami and he could have ordered one of them to cut my throat in the middle of the night.
Did you speak any English at that point?
Not a single word. I actually knew more Russian than English. I’d go into a restaurant and point at what I wanted to eat. I was doing all my talking with my hands but each day I’d go into the restaurant, the waitress would teach me a word here and there. Actually I did almost all of my own cooking in Chicago because I could choose foods in a grocery store according to the pictures on the label.
Was there a spanish speaking population in Chicago at that time?
There are a lot of them in Chicago today, but in the early 60′s there were hardly any latin americans outside of Miami and New York city.
So how did you eventually learn English?
On the street. I came to Chicago and started working in a steel foundry and when Chicago temperatures hit the eighties, it felt like 500 degrees in the foundry. I was working there 10 to 12 hours a day. I’d leave the foundry and go straight to the old Duncan YMCA, where i’d still train 3 to 4 hours.
Were you still olympic lifting at that point, or had you switched over to bodybuilding?
I was doing both at the time. While I was still in Miami, I tried bodybuilding just for the hell of it. I entered the Mr Florida competition and beat everyone without even knowing how to pose. When I started doing direct bodybuilding training, I blew up so fast, it looked like someone was pumping air into me.
I already had strength from the weightlifting, so I could train with heavy weights, while a normal man who went into the gym would have had to start from scratch. I benched more than 400 pounds my first workout, and as soon as I started doing reps, I blew up almost overnight. I came to Chicago in late ‘63 and did both weightlifting and bodybuilding for the first two years. My english gradually improved, but not as fast as it might have if i’d gone to night school. But I had to choose between school and training and working out was much more important to me.
How could you sweat in a foundry, train three or four more hours each day and actually make decent gains?
It was easy for me because I truly loved to work out. The gains I made were not spectacular after a while, but they were 100% muscle mass. Eventually I changed jobs and went to work in a meat packing plant. Instead of roasting all day, I was freezing. I carried sides of beef through a cold room 12 to 14 hours a day but I still worked out at the Duncan YMCA 3 or 4 hours a night. No hardship could keep me out of the gym. I still feel the same way.
Would you say you had great genetics for bodybuilding?
I'm sure I did. I always had the small waist and broad shoulders and gained muscle mass easily. My older brother Diego, might have had even better genetics. Picture my physique when I was in top shape, but bigger and two to three inches taller and you have Diego. He also has the incredibly small waistline that runs in our family and he had tremendous arms.
What other jobs have you held?
I worked in a meat packing factory for a while and put money in the bank because I wanted to save enough to take time off to go in the Mr Olympia and beat Larry Scott. I had enough put away to train for at least 6 months for the Olympia, but after 6 or 7 months of full time training I decided to train during the day and go to school at night to improve my english so I could become a Police Officer.
I had a couple of friends on the Chicago Police force who said i’d have no trouble getting in if I could pass the written exam. I did pass the exam, but the doctor who was conducting the physical exams rejected me for being 40 pounds overweight! Of course I had very little body fat, but according to their charts I was overweight. My friends eventually intervenened for me and I’ve spent the last 13 years as a Chicago Police Officer. I'm a patrolman. I handle the entire range of police duties, from domestic disputes to chasing down speeders. I actually have a pretty good beat and enjoy the job. I love being on the street.
And you’ve always been a pro bodybuilder on the side?
Yes. At times I’ve been tempted to go into full time pro bodybuilding but I have two teenage daughters to educate, a growing son and another baby on the way. The benefits going with my job are the best in the country, so it’s hard to turn my back on it. When I was injured last year, they took care of everything for a full year.
Where are you in your training right now?
I’m following the same type of routine as in the past, except I’m doing fewer sets, using somewhat lighter weights and doing a couple more reps. The only problem I’m having at all is a minor difficulty locking out my arm on one side with heavy benches. My conditioning right now is just like an ordinary guys, I'm so weak and I lack endurance but my enthusiasm is way up there, and I constantly have to hold myself back.
Once you get back into competitive shape, how much longer do you feel you can compete?
With me, bodybuilding is a way of life and I’m going to pursue the sport as long as I can. A lot of bodybuilders take long layoffs or train with low intensity much of the year. I never layoff and always train hard. I’ve always been in shape for posing exhibitions because I train hard year round. When I finish work each day, It’s a habit to go to the gym. It’s the best part of my day. I can only go home after my workout. Training is never boring to me and I’m never too tired to get in a good workout. It doesn’t matter if there are a lot of people in the gym, or no one. Actually, I seem to get in my best workouts when there are a lot people around. I like to talk and joke around between sets, but i’m dead serious during every set.
How did you feel when you were in the hospital and couldn’t workout?
I went crazy. Lying there was the worst time of my life. I had all these doubts about whether or not I'd even be able to workout again. I was actually less afraid of dying than of not being able to train hard again. Bodybuilding makes up such a large part of my life that I was really worried about whether I could regain my previous condition. Now I have a real challenge facing me. I can train again after about a year out of the gym and I’ll soon see for sure if I can get back into shape. Now my days are much better. Actually, I would have started training even sooner if two knee surgeries to remove bone chips hadn’t been needed.
Your relationship with Joe Weider has been rocky over the years. How do you get along with him right now?
The whole world knows we’ve had our disagreements in past years, but he’s always helped me out, particularly right now when I really need it. He’s helped me financially and given me moral support. When I was on my back in the hospital, he told me he would help me and he really has come through. I thank him for that. I was really surprised at his help, given the problems we’ve had in the past. Without Joe’s work in the sport, no one would be making the money a pro can make today and the sport certainly wouldn’t be enjoying it’s current level of popularity. There’s no doubt in my mind that Joe Weider has made bodybuilding into the sport we enjoy today.
Are you definitely planning to enter the Mr Olympia again?
I’m already beginning to prepare myself for it. For me to beat whomever is in the show and take the title back, I have to prepare myself like I did to face Arnold at the ‘72 Olympia. I’ll need to work on improving my posing because that’s much more important now than when I first won the contest. I’m confident I can soon be in my lifetime best condition, which I’m sure will win me a fourth Mr Olympia.
Thanks to all old school bodybuilding fans for taking the time to read this superb article on Sergio Oliva. Check out the following videos on Sergio below...
Keep training hard,