The Great Reg Park

By Matthew Haldenby

A formidable figure Every sport has its pioneers, people who through sheer passion for what they do, pushed the envelope of performance, and quantum leaped their sport forward for the benefit of generations to come. Bodybuilding is no exception and when we reflect on the individuals who made the sport what it is today, we think of legends like Eugene Sandow, Steve Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger and my personal idol, Reg Park. Recently I was honored and privileged to get to sit down with the man himself and chat about his extensive career as a bodybuilder, and learn a bit more about this larger than life superstar of yesteryear.
Born in 1928 in England, an only child Reg Park Jnr didn’t seem to show much athletic or genetic prospects of being a world physique champion, until a primary school sprint showed the timid youngster to be more than just a great scholar by leaving his peers in his dust. This ability to run was channelled into soccer and by 16 he was the youngest star player for Leeds City team, and during the same year cleaned up in athletics winning the 100m, 200m, 400m, long jump & anchored the relay team in the school championships, winning him the Victor Le Dorum Best Athlete prize. His soccer career progressed with the Leeds City Club until he was 18 when a knee injury forced his very early retirement from pro soccer. It was during the rehabilitation of his knee the young Reg Park picked up a publication called ” Health & Strength”, & on seeing the physique of the then Mr NYC, realized he had very definitely been bitten by the muscle bug. Starting out with almost no equipment & by means of only archaic movements from a sack on the floor, Reg himself admitted his only real incentive then for coming back was his workout buddy Bernard’s mum, who made cookies they would scoff down after every training session. (Thank you Bernard’s mum!).
At 18 he was called up for his compulsory national service & posted to Singapore. His general athleticism served him well even then, favored by a Sergeant Major he was shot up to the rank of Corporal, then Sergeant Park, in charge of the P.T Training for new intake. At 20 he returned home and realized his destiny in a flash, after being mesmerized by the awesome line up of physiques in London at the 1948 Mr Universe, with guys like John Grimek & Steve Reeves. He made the ambitious spontaneous statement while sitting in the audience that night to all in sundry “I’m going to win this one day!”. September 1948, no time wasted, Reg got himself a second hand set of dumbbells, and with several layers of thermal clothing in minus 5 degrees snow in his parents Yorkshire garden, started applying himself seriously to his Mr Universe ambitions. During that year he moved the weights from the garden to the candle lit garage.
Reg, never a man to sacrifice his brain strength for muscle strength, he during the same year embarked upon his business qualification and trained from 7-10pm every night. His development catapulted forward but he began to experience doubt however prior to his first show in 1949, on realizing he may lack the mass of his Mr Britain competitors. He eliminated all distractions, trained, slept and ate, and packed on 26lbs in 3 weeks, resulting in a convincing 226lb Reg Park Mr Britain 1949 Champion. For his 21st birthday Reg got a trip to the muscle Mecca (California) and was soon snatched up by Ben & Joe Weider as an IFBB athlete, and appeared in publications all over the World. He never lost focus of his ultimate goal, and after only 2 years of training placed 2nd to the phenomenal Steve Reeves at the 1950 Mr Universe. Reg would have several World ranked training partners around America, and duplicate their routines if he perceived them to have a better developed muscle group than him, taking the best of each. This method of training progressed his physique forward to win him the America’s Best Developed Athlete Award the same year. Reg Park, the man, was soon becoming Reg Park, the Brand, and the world seemed to like what they saw. The Reg Park fever had spread, and South Africa was no exception. Selling out appearances all over the Country to the point where even unscheduled repeat shows had sold out. South Africans, it seemed were well and truly bitten by Reg Park mania. Only 3 weeks out from his 1951 Mr Universe he had to decline a never ending request for appearances and get back to the States to take his rightful place as the Worlds 1951 Mr Universe. He did not however, leave South Africa with fond memories alone, as it was during this visit he met his other true love, Marion. A girl who stood out amongst all others, and still today, manages to bring a sparkle to his eye every time he mentions her name.
The convincing 1951 Mr Universe win saw his popularity grow even more. He was jet setting around the world, and on one occasion in France, caused a mass stampede of adoring fans. It was during his second visit to Africa he proposed to his now wife, Marion, for over 50 years. One thing that is evident to all around him is his commitment to his children, Jon-Jon & Jeunesse, and his wife who he openly acknowledges, has always, and still does wear the pants, and a woman who he still clearly loves as much, if not more, than when they first got married. When asked once what it was like for her to live in his shadow, she replied, “I wouldn’t know, I live on his pedestal”. More than a personality and accomplished athlete, he also has a very definite aptitude for business. An asset he put to great use during the span of his career. Launching his own publication in 1952 that grew to an astonishing circulation for the time of 60,000 copies per month. He initiated the concept of the paid appearance in 1949, with a very reluctant promoter having to hand over 5 pounds, and grew it from there, as public demand snowballed to a whapping 50 times that amount. Never satisfied to stand still, the Reg Park brand grew into promotions companies, Reg Park gym facilities, branded signature line equipment and nutritional supplements. His expertise has been contracted by gym chains and he now today still puts in a 12 hour day, sharing his passion and knowledge with others. He maintains his motto of ‘no-one can look after you like yourself’ and has always managed his own business ventures. Although his career outside of body building competition was thriving, the urge to compete never left him, and it was during a guest posing segment in Los Angeles in 1956, at a show hosting all the current greats, that the crowds deafening cheers to his physique and 450lb bench press on the night, motivated him to show every-one once more he was still the true champion body builder of the world. During the span of his 20 year body building career, Reg would claim that Mr Universe title 2 more times and compete on the stage with world greats such as Steve Reeves, Jack Delinger, Dave Draper & John Grimek to name a few, and place a close second to a man over two decades his junior in the 1970 Mr Universe, that man, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He helped pioneer the way for muscle in movies in the 1961 Hercules, and inspired Arnold himself, who he mentored as an incentive for winning the 1970 Mr Universe, and had him live at his home in South Africa for 3 months, while they toured and trained together. A bond between these men that still stands b today. As a strength athlete his accomplishments even by today’s high standards, were nothing short of amazing. Boasting record breaking lifts like the second man ever to bench press 500lb, 405lb front squat, 600lb rear squat and 300lb behind the neck shoulder press, to mention only a few. His unwavering passion and commitment to the sport and lifestyle of body building still lives b with him today, and even as a 75 yr young man, his entire aura, mental sharpness and zest for everything he does lets you know that you are in the company of a great man. He is a product of his lifestyle and an ambassador for the entire physique and fitness industry.
Matthew Haldenby