By Mario Strong

On Thursday, June 28, 2007, I flew with Aida from the Hawaiian island of Oahu to sunny Sacramento, California to attend the 2007 NGA California Bodybuilding and Figure Championships which were scheduled be held in Folsom that Saturday. The show’s promoter, John Carrero, was a former member of my Staten Island Bodybuilding Club. John had invited me to participate as a judge and to receive an award at the event. I was also looking forward to seeing John’s brother, Joe, who also was a former student of mine and who went on to become a national bodybuilding champion. On the Friday before the show, I happily met with John and Joe at a meeting held for the judges and competitors. It was good to see the brothers again. It had been many years since I saw them last and it felt like no time had passed in our friendship. At the meeting, we reminisced about days past as the competitors looked on with interest. The hungry athletes seemed ready and eager to flex their stuff as the clock ticked closer to the next day’s competition. During the reunion, John planted a seed in my brain by asking me if I would explode a hot water bottle at the show. Having been on vacation in Hawaii and not prepared for this dangerous feat of strength, I was unsure if I should try it and said I would need to think about it.

The following day at the pre-judging, I sat next to the head judge of the show, Joe Carrero. About 25 years earlier Joe and I judged a New Jersey bodybuilding competition together and now, here we were on the West coast in similar roles. One by one, the competitors took to the stage. The competition was fierce and made the judging difficult. To date, this was the highest level of competition the NGA California Championships had ever seen. The mandatory and comparison rounds went off like clockwork and the scores were tallied for the evening’s finals.

The evening show was filled with an enthusiastic audience. The crowd had come to cheer on their favorites, and as the curtains opened to a stage filled with competitors, the audience rose to its feet to salute the Star Spangled Banner. During the competition, the athletes battled in their respectable divisions, in hopes that they would place well for their efforts. Presented to the winners would be bronze Herculean sculptures and to the overall men’s champion a sword created by Neil Andersen. John Carrero acted as MC and helped the show run smoothly with his professionalism. As the evening’s events unfolded, the time came for John to present me with an award for being a mentor to him as well as to many natural athletes throughout America.

John told the audience about how he and his brother, Joe, had started their bodybuilding careers at my Staten Island Bodybuilding Club in the late 70s, and how I had mentored both of them during their early days by setting the correct course for their success in the sport. He then went on to talk about my natural bodybuilding lifestyle, calling me a true Superman. A Superman because I not only stayed away from all drugs in the sport of bodybuilding, but more importantly, because I followed a natural diet, exercised daily, and maintained a positive outlook on life. After the kind words, John announced my name and suddenly I heard the theme from the movie Superman echo loudly off the auditorium’s high walls. Proudly and with some emotion, I took to the stage as John presented me with a plaque in recognition for being a mentor to many natural athletes across America. I thanked him for the recognition and then gave the following speech:

“It’s nice to be here in sunny California. I would like to thank John Carrero for inviting me here tonight to accept this award. I have known John since the mid-1970s, and let me say, he is dedicated to his cause in promoting natural bodybuilding in California. In 1998, John competed in my NGA Eastern Regional Classic and he brought the house down with his symmetrical physique while deservingly winning the best poser trophy that evening. It is because of men like John Carrero, who have the vision and will to take a stand against drugs in our sport that the natural bodybuilding movement continues to grow not only in America but also worldwide.     

Tonight I am receiving an award for being a mentor. A mentor can only be as good as the student he trains. Sure, I am knowledgeable in training, nutrition, and the sport of bodybuilding. I have been pumping iron since 1965 and have learned quite a bit through trial and error, and let me tell you there have been quite a few errors along the way. Throughout my many years as a bodybuilder, I have participated in many facets of the sport. I have been a gym owner, trainer, competitor, fitness author, promoter, judge, and just about everything else related to physical culture. I have learned that bodybuilding is the scientific application of proper nutrition, exercise, rest, and positive mental attitudes, and that each individual is unique with different requirements to achieve his or her ultimate goals. Each athlete you see here onstage tonight is unique. Each has sacrificed time, sweat, and pain to flex their stuff before you. Each has a burning desire to win and deserves your applause for being here.

Tonight I am here in large part because of one of my students. This student joined my Staten Island Bodybuilding Club in 1978 at the young age of fourteen. From the onset, he showed enormous potential and a burning desire to achieve, while displaying a positive attitude and confidence as he listened to the advice I gave him. While other members of my gym made excellent gains in their training, it was nothing next to this up-and-coming muscle wonder. Day by day, this new student would come to my gym straight from school while carrying his textbooks in one hand and a protein drink in the other. It was a pleasure to watch him progress as I carefully planned his diet and training to set him on a path for success. In just five months of training, he gained twenty pounds of solid natural muscle and was on a course to set history. In May of 1979, at the seasoned age of fifteen, he entered Dan Lurie’s Mr. Staten Island competition and shocked the sold-out audience with his flawless symmetry and dense muscularity by placing a close second in what was probably the greatest lineup the Staten Island show ever saw. At the end of the evening, he was also awarded with trophies for Best Back, Chest, and Poser in the overall Mr. New York City competition, which had a field of 78 competitors. Yes, my new student shined that night and caught the eye of Denie, who was the editor of Muscle Training Illustrated. Denie requested I write an article for MTI about this new, up-and-coming bodybuilding star. Happily, I wrote the story and titled it “15-Year-Old Muscle Wonder.” The spark was lit! The day the story hit the newsstands my new superstar’s ego grew faster than the universe. There was no stopping him now! He went on a tear, dominating the bodybuilding stage for a span of fourteen years by flexing his Herculean physique against some of the best bodybuilders in the United States. Today, this former national bodybuilding champion continues with his training; and in 2006, he launched a new Web site in his name that is very informative as well as entertaining. He has also been featured on CNBC as an expert on the California real estate market and in 2007 was the host of an international marketing campaign for a major fitness manufacturer. He is here tonight, as he has been for the past several years helping his brother, John, promote natural bodybuilding in California. He is a long time friend of mine and is the head judge for tonight’s NGA California Bodybuilding & Physique Championships, Mr. Joe Carrero. (Upon hearing his name the audience gave Joe a great applause as he walked onto the stage and said a few words to the crowd about our friendship. After Joe spoke, I continued with my speech).

During the past few decades, the sport of bodybuilding has suffered from the use of anabolic steroids, growth hormones, diuretics, and drugs used for the purpose of building muscle and strength. Many well-known muscle builders have died long before their time. Many live on dialysis and with heart ailments, not knowing what their future may bring. Some sell their bodies to afford these dangerous drugs, which can cost in the thousands of dollars annually. The anabolic drug scene has been a dark cloud that has lasted too long over a sport with such great potential. Today, those dedicated to physical culture have begun to prevail as the sport of natural bodybuilding begins to shine through that dark cloud. It is a good verses evil scenario that can have only one positive outcome. I will do my part in this fight against drugs in our sport by setting an example for others to follow as I continue to promote natural bodybuilding throughout America. I invite each one of you here tonight to join me in this battle by helping to promote natural bodybuilding in your local gyms and communities.

In closing, let me say that natural bodybuilding is the closest thing you will ever get to the fountain of youth. Not only does it bring quality muscle and lots of strength, but also more importantly, it brings lasting health, vitality, and an inner well being not realized by many. There are no guarantees in life, but all of us should continually strive to improve upon our health and fitness each and every day. Like Rocky Balboa once said, “It’s not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward.” Well that same philosophy applies to all of our lives. In time, we all get knocked down along the path of life. It’s those with the inner fortitude to get back up and with the persistence to keep moving forward that will go the distance in this ever changing game of life.”

As I finished speaking, John took the microphone and told the audience that I was going to attempt to blow up a hot water bottle. It was an attempt, since I had been on vacation in Hawaii and not had the time to practice for this dangerous feat of strength. The theme song from the movie Rocky began to play loudly throughout the auditorium as I cautiously walked towards center-stage while putting on goggles to protect my eyes. I felt good inside. This is where I belonged. The music was loud, the crowd was cheering, and the pressure was on. As I began to force air into the hot water bottle, I immediately began to feel the resistance of the thick latex rubber. “This wasn’t going to be easy,” I thought to myself. I had performed this feat of strength so many times before, since the 1970s, and here I was again going at it. I continued forcing air into the hot water bottle and with each mighty breath the resistance grew stronger. At twenty breaths, most hot water bottles would explode, but not this one, this baby was going to make me give it everything I had. As the music continued to play, the audience’s applause grew louder and louder, inspiring me on as my heart beat in tune to their thunderous cheers of Go For It! There was no way I was going to let them, the Carrero brothers, or myself down. With determination and purpose, I forced more and more air in as I battled with this nostalgic moment. At thirty breaths, the impossible began to take shape. Air began to escape from the tremendous pressure and my face felt the pain of its muscles straining. I was in no man’s land and was not about to turn back. It was a test of will as I struggled to keep the air from going down my lungs and ripping them apart. As the audience continued to cheer, I dug deep inside my heart and forced huge breaths into the hot water bottle. It continued to expand as I forced in more and more air. At 35 breaths, I zoned out and completely focused on the task. I could no longer hear the crowd or music, as it was do or die…literally. In a violent rage I forced more air into this seemingly endless void... 36, 37, 38, 39, I raised the beast upwards and from deep within myself forced a large blast of air into the hot water bottle, causing it to explode with a loud thunderous burst that sent pieces of the monster flying all over the stage. Suddenly, I focused to where I was and heard the crowd screaming in awe as the song Gonna Fly Now framed this historic moment for a lifetime. Yes, this was where I belonged I thought to myself, as I smiled and bowed to the audience and thanked them for their cheers and support during my difficult performance.

At the end of the show, every competitor left with a trophy and smile, knowing that they gave it their best. John Carrero had produced another great NGA California competition and after the show invited everyone to a local restaurant to feast. Of course, I brought my own meal: boiled chicken breast, carrots, celery, and tomato salad. At the restaurant, he presented Best Poser awards to the crowd’s favorite competitors. It was a nice time that capped off a great day. Sadly, the night had come to an end, as I said goodbye to my friends, John and Joe Carrero. It had been great seeing them and meeting their sister Margaret, as well as their parents and Joe’s fiancée, Jamie. The Carrero family was wonderful, warm, and loving.

To see Mario Strong explode a hot water bottle at the 2007 NGA California Championships CLICK HERE