Thursday, July 8, 2010

Walter Podolak - Fred Howell

Walter Podolak shaking hands with John Grimek

Wallace Beery in a scene from "Flesh"

Walter Podolak
by Fred Howell (1975)

It was a very lucky coincidence that I received two letters in the same week from friends who mentioned “The Golden Superman” Walter Podolak. In one letter the writer said that in his early days of training his favorite strongman had been Mr. Podolak, but he thought Walter was retired from all physical activity or had long gone from the earth scene by now!

Then Leo Murdock, a longtime barbell lifter from Brooklyn, mentioned that he had just visited the former wrestler Walter Podolak at his gym and found him to be in great shape and doing some fantastic exercise routines.

With a phone call I was able to set up a date to interview this rough-and-tough former wrestler, and to learn his secrets of success for building health, muscle and strength for himself and his pupils in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, New York.

Walter was blessed with good health and was very athletic as a youngster. When he was eight years old he spent much of his time boxing, wrestling, swimming and tumbling rather than just fooling around and hanging out like the other kids his age. As a teenager one day while at the YMCA, his favorite haunt, he saw some guys lifting barbells. Walter asked them what they were doing and they explained how barbells were used to build strength and muscle. Walter then walked over and grabbed a 200 pound barbell and lifted it easily over his head!

Only 17½ years old at the time, Walter started training for fun and power, and as a new hobby to use up his overflowing energy. After only three months training he was deadlifting 400 pounds regularly.

A year later when he was 18½, he did ten repetition deadlifts with 600 pounds. Also, at the same time he was lifting weights, Walter was training with the Syracuse University wrestling team and defeated the best Junior heavyweight wrestlers on the team.

In 1928, when he was only 19½ years old, Walter broke the heavyweight deadlifting record by hoisting 643¾ pounds at Arthur F. Gay’s gym in Rochester. He had sent letters earlier to all the top barbell experts but none believed that he could lift this much at such a young age. Now he had shown them that he was a real strongman.

Still with his eye on professional wrestling and making some big money, Walter wrote a letter to one of his favorite wrestlers, Stanley Zbysko, asking for a tryout. Back came a letter from Zbysko, who was to become his manager and teacher, with a trial invitation asking Walter to come to his gym on Walton Avenue in the Bronx.

It wasn’t long before Walter was wrestling for money and he was to remain a pro wrestler for 26 years. He wrestled from 1928 until 1954 when he retired from the business.

Podolak did not neglect his barbell training during this period, because, unlike many other wrestlers, he did not want to get fat. When he traveled by car to his bouts he would stop along the way and work out in a field. He always carried 25 and 50 pound dumbells in his car on the many long trips. Once he found a good spot where he could stop his car he’d do calisthenics for 45 minute to an hour. This would include pushups, situps, double flexes, side kicks, single flexes and the bicycle exercise done at least 500 times each. He would then use the dumbells to finish his routine. If he was in a large city he would train in a local gym, and handle heavy weights. Also, on weekends he would practice wrestling with such men as Everett Marshall and his pal, Barney Astropovitch. If he was in Columbus he would always train at Al Hafts’ gym where many of the top name wrestlers trained. With all this training, he always stayed in top shape.

Then, on July 13, 1933, at three in the morning while he was driving from a bout in Walla Walla, Washington to Portland, Oregon, Walter was in a bone-crushing auto accident.

The tendons and bones in his left forearm, wrist and hand were cut and crushed. Walter was told by the attending doctors to forget wrestling as his hand and arm were permanently injured.

But Podolak had other ideas. He was determined to rebuild his hand and forearm and get back to work. After one full year of hard work using his injured hand to crumple up countless newspapers, roll up rags, catch dumbells, squeeze rubber balls and all sorts of other exercises to rebuild strength, he was ready to wrestle again. The scars on his arm are the only evidence left to show that Walter was at one time seriously injured.

During November 1934, he went to Europe and became the European Wrestling champion. Later, in a hard-fought bout he lost the championship to Henri Deglane. As a wrestler Walter had over 3,500 matches and lost only 14. Along with the European championship he also held the Southern title and was Texas champ by way of beating Marvin Westinburg in 1937. He also outwrestled Leroy McGuirk in two falls and became the lightheavyweight champion.

After the last World War times changed and Walter Podolak was a little older. He needed a gimmick or selling point to continue in wrestling. It was then that he designed a new outfit and began to wrestle under the name “Golden Superman”. He even used a gold Chrysler Imperial for his transportation from city to city. With this new image he was a favorite or wrestling fans and had all the work he could handle.

Walter was never a run-of-the-mill wrestler. He had a burning drive to win and he stayed in top condition so he could meet all kinds of opponents from his own weight to the oversized 300 plus pound flab buckets. Walter was a tough customer in wrestling and many of his opponents would complain that he was too rough. But as Walter said, “If they were dumb enough to be out of condition I beat them to a pulp.” Many a promoter would slip Podolak some extra cash for teaching a lazy wrestler a “lesson in fitness.”

“But,” Walter went on to say, “being tough is just plain stupid! In the wrestling game you meet all kinds of nuts outside the ring, and you must be ready at all times to defend yourself. For example, once in Buffalo I had just beaten big Willie Davis and went back to my hotel. As I walked through the lobby a giant of a man, very much ‘under the weather’ came up to me and began yelling about how he had seen me wrestle and I was such a little punk in person. He then began calling me all sorts of foul names. I asked the guy to stop. I wasn’t bothering him but he just kept getting more and more aggressive. I had to body-slam him, busting up a table. After he picked himself up and cleared his head, he shook my hand and we became good friends after that.

“If you weren’t tough you couldn’t last in wrestling back then. I enjoyed wrestling in the early years, but not in the later years. I just didn’t like the way it was being put on. I was able to enjoy traveling to Australia, South America and all over America, especially to my favorite state of California where there was plenty of money in wrestling. In fact, I was even in a movie called ‘Flesh’ which was about wrestling and came out in 1932 with Wallace Beery as the star (directed by Sean Aloysius O'Feeney, known as John Ford). Quote from the Coen Brothers movie, ‘Barton Fink’: Look Bart, barring a preference we're going to put you on a wrestling picture, Wallace Beery. I say this because they tell me you know the poetry of the streets, so that would rule out westerns, pirate pictures, screwball, Bible, Roman... look, I'm not one of those guys who thinks poetic has got to be fruity. We're together on that aren't we? I mean I'm from New York myself, well, Minsk if you want to go all the way back. Which we won't, if you don't mind and I ain't asking. Now people are going to say to you, Wallace Beery, wrestling, it's a B picture. You tell them: BULLSHIT! We do NOT make B pictures here at Capitol. Let's put a stop to that rumor RIGHT now! We're only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!”

The Golden Superman never had a serious injury in the ring but in 1946 he did have a bad right knee which he was told by doctors was rheumatism plus calcium deposits. Walter hollered loud and clear at the doctors that he made his living as a wrestler and couldn’t put up with such a problem. They replied that it was impossible to cure and he better look for an easier way to make a living.

“I wasn’t going to give in to this so I used light exercise and Mypone salve made out of Vitamin E. This was at a time when the virtues of vitamin E were little known. Well, within a few months I didn’t have the problem and kept on wrestling until I retired in 1954.

“Again it paid to treat myself and not listen to medical experts. Then in 1957 both legs joints started to pain and swell. Orthopedic doctors wanted to fill me full of pills and cortisone, but I didn’t want just possible relief nor their poison. I had been very careless about my diet and during the last years of my wrestling career had allowed my weight to climb to 250 pounds.

“So I changed my diet, took vitamins and minerals and did a lot of light exercise, both free hand calisthenics and with light weights. Within five months I was without pain or swelling in any of my joints.

“This is how I learned about the great value of a sound diet plus exercise. I have a very different outlook on life now then I had 45 years ago. Today I know just how important diet and exercise are and I want to help people lead a healthy life by teaching them the value of exercise and a proper diet. There it too much wrong teaching in this field.”

With all his wrestling Walter did not neglect to make some very fine lifts as a super strongman. He has pulled six cars with his teeth; lifted over 500 pounds in the teeth lift; one arm military pressed 131¾ pounds with a dumbell; bent pressed 305; one hand deadlifted 500, back somersaults with a 50 pound dumbell in each hand; alternate pressed 100 pound dumbells for 42 reps, and was one of the first men to clean & jerk over 300 pounds.

“I use my own system of exercise and nutrition for myself and my students here at the gym. Too many so-called instructors never follow their own instructions and look in poor condition.

“I am up a 6 a.m. six days a week and do calisthenics for the waistline for an hour. I never do less than 200 reps and have just started using 1,000 reps at times. Then I use light 10 pound dumbells for chest work, doing circles, pullovers and crossovers for 200 or more reps in each exercise.

“In the afternoon or evening, whenever time permits, I do the bench press with 160 pounds for 40 reps; incline presses with 50 pound dumbells for three sets of 60 reps; sitting curls with 35’s for three sets of 40 reps; side laterals with 25’s for four to five sets of 20 reps, then to the lat machine using 20 pounds for three sets of 50 reps and winding up with plenty of thigh and calf work.?

While I had Walter talking and he wasn’t busy with a pupil I asked his views on nutrition. He said, “Before I answer that I must explain that I expect to add more reps and exercises to my routine as I go along. Now as to the question about nutrition I feel everyone should get plenty of protein in the form of chicken, fish, veal, eggs; whole wheat, vitamins and minerals such as B complex, C and E, plus dolomite, magnesium, potassium and all the other essential vitamins and minerals. Remember, I learned the hard way about the importance of a good diet.

“Each day I take 25,000 units of Vitamin A, 1,000 units of D, 1,200 units of E, plus 2,000 units of C with B complex, a multiple vitamin-mineral tablet and great favorite of mine – Ginseng tea. This, plus a good diet, helps give me the energy to exercise hard and work 12 hours a day here ay my health spa and store.

“I try to get all my students to supplement their diet. I have bodybuilders, business men who are both fat and thin, plus the special health cases such as those who have had strokes, heart attacks and all types of accidents to whom I give personal instructions. All of these people need improvement in their diet before they can expect much in the way of rewarding results from exercise.

“As for your question, Fred, about when a man should stop lifting heavy weights, I think it depends on the individual; how he lives and works; his condition, outlook and overall health and background plus his past exercise history. Anyone, no matter what his age, should always warm up before using heavy weights.

“On August 19, 1975, I will be 66 years of age, and plan to be around for a long, long time to come.”

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