Strength & Health, Page 36, November 1963


The Hard Road to the Top

By Vern Weaver

IT WAS a very hot Friday afternoon in August, 1953. Jules Bacon backed his LaSalle into our driveway to deliver a long awaited York Big 12 Special. He got out of the car, opened the trunk, and dumped a 100-pound box on the ground. Then he handed me the bar and other accessories. As he was getting back into his car, Jules said, "I hope you will win Mr. "A" someday!" From that very day I've had a burning desire to do just that, but little did I dream then that 10 years would pass before Jules' offhand remark became reality.

As the big LaSalle rolled out of sight I was faced with the task of moving the weights into the house. Believe me, it took every bit of strength I had to do that job. As I remember, I weighed about 105 pounds.

I was 16 years of age and extremely determined to improve my physical capabilities. A first set of measurements recorded at about that time shows 12½" neck, 36" chest, 12½" biceps, 25" waist, 19" thigh, and 13" calf.

As a teen-age athlete I was nothing to write home about, except that I did have a lot of speed. One afternoon our high school coach clocked me at 10.3 seconds for the 100-yard dash. But weight training was the only regular physical training I ever practiced.

By 1957 my bodyweight was up to 172 pounds and I began to compete in lifting and physique contests. My best press at that time was about 185 pounds. In other words, it took almost four years of steady training before I could press more than bodyweight.

Strange as it may seem, fear has always been a motivating factor in my iron game career. In competition I was always scared to death of not doing my best, and this fear constantly drove me to try to improve.

From 1956 to 1958 I couldn't gain a single pound of bodyweight. It was frustrating, and I didn't know what to do except to keep on training. Training was the big thing in my life. As soon as I got home from school I would dive into the cellar for a few hours with the weights. My family thought I was crazy: they didn't know why I had to train. I had a reason though--I wanted to become Mr. America. Mentioning this to anyone was out of the question, for at that time I was so far from looking like Mr. America that it was ridiculous. I might as well have said, "I will be a millionaire."

Being from York meant that I was always in the shadows of such greats as Grimek, Stanko, Bacon, and the others who have made Muscletown famous. Some class of athletes to be compared to day after day and year after year! Association with these men was one constant reminder that I had a long road to travel to the top, and a long one it has been.

Just about all of my early training was done in cellars or places where conditions were not the best. I can remember taking turns sweeping water while the other guys did their sets. And I can remember the thermometer in one boiler room reading over 90° in the winter. In the early days I didn't have a squat rack, and so I had to clean all the weights used for squatting. At one time I drove 13 miles one way three times a week in order to train, and I'd be there, rain or shine. There was one 18-month period wherein I did not miss a single workout for any cause whatsoever.

In competition I had some successes and naturally many disappointments as I ran into stiffer opposition as time went on. But after winning several local titles Bob Hoffman decided to encourage me by sending me to compete in the 1958 Mr. America contest. At 175 pounds my body left a lot to be desired. My first impression after setting foot on the sands of Muscle Beach in Santa Monica on that trip was one of awe, for there were all the great musclemen, all sporting great bodies and great suntans. In this company I was again reminded how far I had to go to reach the top.

When we lined up for the Mr. "A" show a few days later, I was next to Tom Sansone, who was to win the title that year. He was in great shape, weighing well over 200 pounds. You can imagine how I looked and felt next to him. But luckily I finished in the top ten. Right then and there I knew I'd better get to work if I was ever going to be Mr. America.

For the next year I trained very hard. My immediate goal was to move up into one of the first five spots. Again I had a weight problem, but finally got my bodyweight up to about 188 pounds by the time of the 1959 Mr. America contest. In that year I had made some fine gains and was very happy about that. And for the first time in my life I had a good suntan. Bill March and I did a lot of sweating that year training outdoors in the sun. It must have helped some, for as the record shows, I placed fifth in 1959.

In the autumn of that year domestic problems led to some very trying times. I lost all interest in training. New goals replaced old goals. By the spring of 1960 my bodyweight was down to 170 pounds. My life was a total wreck. I had no place in life because I had forgotten what I really wanted out of life. I'll never forget the day someone walked up to me and said, "Didn't you used to be Vern Weaver?" My reply to that one was, "I think so."

I spent the summers of 1960 and 1961 in Hollywood trying to convince myself that I wanted to become an actor. What for I'll never know. Each of those winters I returned to New York City, pursuing the same goal. The fact that I studied with star personalities such as Tuesday Weld and Paula Prentiss really didn't improve my acting any.

In time I came to realize that an acting career was not for me. But this did not solve my basic problem, for I had absolutely no idea what I wanted out of life. I worked many jobs with no satisfaction whatsoever. Two years had passed since I had a good workout. Then, in the spring of 1962, I decided to make a comeback in the muscle world.

April saw me resuming training. My bodyweight was about 185 pounds, and I didn't look too good. Just about anybody could have beat me in a physique contest. But I trained three times a week, following a very heavy schedule designed to increase my size considerably. I knew I'd need at least 15 pounds of bodyweight to compare favorably with the big boys. By June I had packed on exactly 19 pounds.

Driving to Detroit from York for the 1962 Nationals I knew I was in the best shape of my life. I had really concentrated on my training and had high hopes. This could possibly be my year, I kept thinking to myself. But the record again shows it was not my year. Only a fourth place. Here I was in the best shape of my life and still not good enough to get in the first three. I was beaten by Hugo Labra, Harold Poole, and that year's Mr. America, Joe Abbenda.

If ever in my life I felt the bitter taste of defeat it was then. Little consolation was afforded as I told myself that I was beaten by the best America had to offer. The thought of giving it all up for a lost cause crossed my mind.

Several months later things didn't seem quite so bad, and I decided to give it one final try. Regardless of the results, I made up my mind that the 1963 Mr. "A" contest would be my last. Needless to say, I am very glad I gave it that final try. Again I trained harder than ever. Last winter I was as heavy as 214. Naturally this helped my size, which has always been my biggest concern. Then, as the '63 "A" approached, I was reminded that muscularity could be the decisive factor. I hated the thought of reducing, for it took me 10 years to attain this bodyweight, and I felt good weighing over 210 pounds. But as time grew nigh I realized that reduce I must.

Several weeks before the contest I began training five to six days a week. Training this way has never agreed with me very well, but I wasn't about to stop and ask questions at this stage of the game. One thing was uppermost in my mind: KEEP TRAINING!

By the time the 1963 Mr. America contest began on June 28th my bodyweight was down to a slender 205. I had hoped to be heavier but 205 was the best I could do. As the contestants lined up on stage for the Most Muscular event there was no doubt in my mind that I faced the greatest competition ever. At least 15 guys looked as though they could win, and I had learned from previous years that anything could happen. As usual the winner of the Most Muscular competition was not announced until the second night. I didn't expect to win the Most Muscular, but I hoped to place high.

The next morning at 9:30 all of the contestants reported to the judges for interviews and prejudging. Four hours elapsed before my turn came. The interview lasted only about three minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime. As far as the outcome is concerned, the contest was over, but of course the one thing that none of us knew at that point was the results. Not until that night would the results be made public.

Saturday evening. Forty contestants paraded before the audience in groups, then each of us posed individually. Next all but 10 were announced as having been eliminated. I was in the remaining 10. Now it was time for the five finalists. We remained rather motionless back stage. First to be called out was the number 5 man, Bill Seno. Next it was John Gourgott. Dr. Craig Whitehead was a notch ahead of his teammate in third place. Then the emcee announced that Harold Poole, who had earlier been named as the Most Muscular winner, was the Mr. America runner-up.

During all this time I sat in a chair back stage watching. Nothing seemed to affect me-I was numb. Even after Poole was on stage I didn't realize that what had happened. I couldn't speak and had to work very hard to smile. I really didn't become aware of the situation until someone (I don't know who) pushed me out on to the stage. At the time I don't think I could have told anyone my own name. The only recollection I have is of noise and flashbulbs.

When the photographers were finished the crowd rushed on stage. Repeatedly I was asked how it felt to be Mr. America '63. The only acknowledgement I could convey was a head shake and a slight smile.

Enthusiasts surrounded me, and I was signing autographs as fast as humanly possible. Some fans reminded me that I should sign my name with the words "Mr. America" included. Somehow or other in the midst of all this excitement I was escorted to the dressing room, where members of my family and some close friends had gathered. Even some of my earliest training partners showed up there. At last I could try to relax.

Then, as now, I certainly feel very proud and privileged to have been chosen as Mr. America 1963.


- 1958 - Seventh Place

- 1959 - Fifth Place

- 1962 - Fourth Place

- 1963 - MR. AMERICA!

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