By Mario Strong

On Thanksgiving Day 1976, I went to the premier of the movie Rocky. While the film itself was unique, it would be Bill Conte’s theme song, Gonna Fly Now, that would inspire and energize me for many years. The song has magic! Its tune grasps deep within my heart and lights a fire that cannot be extinguished. Gonna Fly Now is an original theme that has not only exhilarated me but millions of others to take up the challenge and Go For It.

During the mid 1970s, I had an 8-track player at my Staten Island Bodybuilding Club that was there to play only one tape. That tape was the soundtrack from the movie Rocky, and it continuously played throughout the day to inspire the muscle builders to train hard and heavy. (I still have that original tape and have stored it in the Strong Archives). The gym contained a multi-level sound system and as you may have guessed, Gonna Fly Now, as well as other great hits from the Rocky movies would continuously blast off its walls to motivate everyone. Never has there been a more inspiring song than Gonna Fly Now! So many years after I first heard its electrifying tune, I can still sense the song’s energy deep within my blood and feel the strength it brings me as my mind and body energize for any challenge that may cross my path. Here are the words:

       “Trying hard now, It’s so hard now, Trying hard now, Getting strong now, Won’t be long now, Getting strong now, Gonna fly now, Flying high now, Gonna fly, fly, fly.”

Although not a bodybuilder in the truest sense, Sylvester Stallone’s character, Rocky, has captured the essence of what every athlete experiences through time. Deep within Rocky’s heart is the will to overcome the harshest of obstacles and the burning desire to rise to the challenge on every occasion. I can relate to Rocky as many other athletes can. In the sport of bodybuilding, you get knocked down with time. You experience injuries and setbacks that sometimes last for months or even years. It’s those with the same type of drive, fortitude, desire, and heart of Rocky Balboa that not only find the strength within themselves to get back on their feet but to also go further than ever before.
In the thirty-plus years of the Rocky franchise, I never had a reason to visit Philadelphia and run up the nostalgic Rocky Steps. The Rocky Steps is the nickname given to the front steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They are well-known for the role they played in the film Rocky and several of its sequels in which the bigger-than-life character runs up the steps to the accompaniment of the inspirational song Gonna Fly Now.

That all changed on Sunday, September 9, 2007, when I got the itch to create another online video and wanted to include the Rocky Steps in it. It was my 52nd birthday and I took the ride to Philadelphia with Aida, to first visit Liberty Square and then the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Liberty Square was full of American history and pride. We first took the tour of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and then visited the Liberty Bell itself as well as the Betsy Ross house, which were a few blocks from the square. After spending several hours at Liberty Square, both Aida and I felt a renewed sense of patriotism and respect for our country, which offers so much to those that are willing to work hard for the American Dream.

After visiting Liberty Square we drove to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and were in awe at all the commissioned statues and works of art in front of and surrounding its main building. Across the street from the museum’s steps was a monumental bronze statue of George Washington riding a horse with other huge bronze statues of moose, bears, and other wildlife encircling the first Commander in Chief. It must have been at least thirty feet high and seemed wide enough to hold a private jet. The view from the top of the Rocky Steps offers a commanding view of Eakins Oval, the Washington Monument, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and City Hall. One look from its top steps and you instantly realize why Sylvester Stallone chose it as a symbolic place of achievement for his characterRocky.

One special work of art, commissioned by Sylvester Stallone and created by Thomas Schomberg in 1983, stood at the bottom right grassy area of the Museum. It was the two-ton Rocky Statue that welcomes visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After seeing the statue in several Rocky films, I was glad to have finally paid tribute to the character that inspired me so greatly since 1976. The ten-foot tall bronze statue of Rocky Balboa is an awe inspiring sight as it stands there with its arms raised victoriously while greeting the many visitors that come to admire and pose with it.

I also had the good fortune to meet the winner of a national Rocky Balboa look-alike competition, who was dressed in full Balboa fashion, wearing grey sweats, white hand wraps, and the Rock’s trademark black converse sneakers. At first glance I thought he was some crazy dude who believed he was actually Rocky Balboa, but I soon learned that he was a guy named Mike Kunda (see photo) who was hired to portray Rocky to visitors at the steps of the museum. After mixing a few words with Balboa’s younger looking and sounding twin, I became energized to accomplish what I had mainly traveled to Philadelphia for and walked over to the Rocky Steps.

As I looked up to the top of the climb, I saw several huge Roman columns that stood proudly at the entrance of the art museum. The Rocky Steps themselves are no great task to run as dozens of people did so in my two hours there. Visitors to the museum can often be seen mimicking Rocky’s famous run up the steps. The run, which is 72 steps high and has several large, standing levels, symbolically represents the ability of an underdog to rise to the occasion. What I did do that was different from the others that day was to explode up the climb while skipping two, three, and sometimes four steps with every long stride that I took. Every time I ran up those steps I felt a rewarding and gratifying experience as my heart drummed in beat with the tune Gonna Fly Now. I could have ran all day if time would have allowed as I felt at home on the steps while seeing others give their best to make the climb.

Filming me running up the Rocky Steps actually proved more difficult for Aida to record than for me to run up them. Aida was in charge of capturing the action on video and found it extremely challenging to keep the camera’s lens focused on me because of my explosive running speed. It took about forty takes to get enough video for editing and by the time we were finished my legs felt a little wobbly from the tremendous amount of energy they had expelled. Running up the famous steps and hanging out on the grounds of the museum was a heart-warming experience that I will always remember. It was truly a labor of love that I surely will return to enjoy many more times in the many decades to come. Yo, Adrian…I did it!

In November 2006, the sixth installment of the Rocky franchise hit theaters nationwide. It had been thirty years to the month since the first movie of the Rocky saga played on the silver screen. The latest film, Rocky Balboa, had the same dynamics as the original and was widely accepted by fans everywhere. I attended the premiere on Staten Island and was amazed by not only seeing a sold-out theater consisting of an all-new younger generation but also the look of anticipation the now twenty-something crowd had in waiting to see the film. For me, that night felt the same as three decades earlier, when the audience became exhilarated while watching their fighting champ on the big screen, as he fought the odds in much the same manner he had always done. I gave the film two biceps up, my highest rating.