By Childs Walker
November 2, 2008
Louis Riecke wasn't sure.
But something made him want to believe in John Ziegler, the big scientist with an even bigger ego. Riecke had pumped iron competitively for more than a decade when he met Ziegler in York, Pa., the mecca of American weightlifting for much of the 20th century.
Riecke had always been an excellent lifter but never quite among the world elite. Ziegler said he could change that.
So a few months after their encounter in late 1960, Riecke traveled from his home in New Orleans to Ziegler's office in Olney. In his garage, the doctor laid out a new regimen that would involve pushing against immovable surfaces, hypnotism, an improved diet and some little pink pills.
"I didn't know anything about them," Riecke said of the pills. "I know I sound naive, but I really didn't."
What Riecke couldn't have known was that he was an early test subject for a substance that would irrevocably change athletic competition worldwide. As it would for many others, Dianabol, an anabolic steroid, boosted him to the top of his sport with shocking rapidity.
But the spread of steroids in America did not hatch as a grand conspiracy. It began with a few lifters who wanted to get better and an ambitious Maryland doctor who thought he could expand human potential.
"It all goes back to York and the experiments that Ziegler was doing," said John Fair, a professor at Georgia College and State University who has written extensively on the rise of weight training and steroid use. "Other sports picked up on it, but his experiments were the beginning."
"He was sort of this Dr. Frankenstein, creating a monster that would overwhelm sports," Fair said.
But according to his correspondence and those who knew him, Ziegler was hardly fixated on the little pink pills as a miraculous key to human improvement. Instead, he was a relentlessly creative thinker, always on the lookout for the next method, device or substance that would make men into supermen.
"The steroids were an adjunct," said Dick Smith, a former trainer for six Olympic teams, who was based at the York gym and who befriended Ziegler. "It's not fair to Doc, because he got blasted as the guy who started steroids. Well, he didn't start steroids."
Big personalityFair saw in the doctor a mentality he has glimpsed in elite weightlifters. "They think big," he said. "They are big. They marry big wives, drive big cars, live in big houses. They have that superman mentality."
Riecke, now 82, recalls Ziegler much that way. "He was a very forceful type of person," the former world-record holder said. "He kind of felt he could will anything on you. He was way out there with some of his ideas, but you wanted to follow him anyway."
Ziegler, a strapping 6 feet 4, began studying medicine after he suffered grievous wounds to his shoulder and scalp as a Marine in the Pacific in World War II. His recovery inspired him to learn the craft so he could help other soldiers with rehabilitation.
In the course of rebuilding his own physique, he became interested in weight training. At some point in the early 1950s, Ziegler began injecting himself and fellow trainees with testosterone.
This was not a new idea. Scientists had learned to produce synthetic testosterone almost two decades earlier, and the Nazis researched the substance.
But the initial results did not impress Ziegler. He then met a bodybuilder named John Grimek, who had competed in the 1936 Olympics and was a close associate of Bob Hoffman, who had run the national lifting program for years out of his York gym.
Through his connection to Grimek, Ziegler became physician for a team that traveled to the 1954 world championships in Vienna, Austria.
There, he later told interviewers, he shared drinks with a Russian doctor, who let slip that Soviet athletes were already receiving testosterone injections. Despite that bit of intelligence, Ziegler dropped his experimentation with testosterone for several years.
In the late 1950s, however, Ciba, a New Jersey pharmaceutical company, gave the doctor samples of a new drug. The hope was that the substance would produce strength gains without the added aggression and sexual arousal caused by straight testosterone. It was called Dianabol.
Hoffman and his York lifters showed initial skepticism toward the pills. "What seems obvious is that no one from York was eagerly embracing steroids at first and that they gained experimental use only because of Ziegler's insatiable curiosity," Fair wrote in a 1993 article for the Journal of Sport History.
York lifters Bill March and Tony Garcy showed rapid improvement after taking Dianabol in 1960.
March believed his improvement flowed mostly from isometric training (the exertion of force against an immovable object or surface). Garcy believed better mental preparation accounted for his gains.
About the same time, Ziegler began working with Riecke, an exceptional athlete and the thoughtful product of a liberal, learned New Orleans family.
Until he hooked up with Ziegler, Riecke was no more than a second-tier lifter. In less than a year with the doctor, he added a thick layer of muscle and became a serious threat to win Olympic gold.
"He was doing things that became the talk of the country," Fair said.
Riecke was surprised by the extent of his improvement. Like March and Garcy, he attributed it to the power of hypnosis and isometric training more than steroids. He did not seem to notice his poorer results coincided with periods when he cycled off steroids.
Ziegler told Riecke to keep his new training regimen secret at first. But Hoffman asked him how he had improved so rapidly during a conversation that included Ziegler. "Tell him," the doctor said.
So Riecke described the wonders of isometrics to York's lifting impresario.
"Next thing I knew, Hoffman had a book out about how he had invented isometrics," Riecke recalled with a laugh.
Not scientific In correspondence unearthed by Fair, Ziegler sounds unsure which of his methods led to Riecke's great leaps in performance. He didn't run proper scientific experiments, with control subjects and adequate sample sizes. Instead, he worked with a handful of athletes and bombarded them with everything from hypnosis to isometric training to an electrical device he called the isotron.
"He had a great imagination, and he developed all sorts of possibilities," Fair said. "But I'm not sure the doc ever really knew where his results came from."
Ziegler's fast-and-loose experimentation fit with his outsized personality. He smoked, drank and liked to hit the town in his convertible. He was a John Wayne devotee who dressed in cowboy and Indian costumes with some frequency.
Smith, the former Olympic trainer, remembered stopping for a drink in Westminster on one car trip from Olney to York. "Nothing unusual about that," he said, "except Doc was dressed as an Amish preacher."
Ziegler requested a double shot of whiskey and asked the bartender whether that seemed strange given his outfit. It did, the man replied.
"I'm working on a sermon about the nature of good and ee-vile," Smith remembered the doctor saying. "I know a lot about good, but I need to know more about ee-vile. So give me another belt."
He had a nickname for everyone. Hoffman was BoHo. Smith was Schmidnick. Ziegler's young son was Knee Deep because he was always in trouble.
Ziegler's beagle, Clyde, held place of honor at the family dinner table, often receiving the first serving.
"I've met a lot of big personalities in my time, but Doc was one of the biggest," Smith said. "I can sit on my recliner and laugh out loud at the memories."
Ziegler also gave steroids to Smith, who was never a competitive lifter but wanted to know what it was like to heft serious weight.
The trainer took three pink pills a day on a six-week cycle, then alternated off the drug for five weeks. In 11 months, Smith gained 20 pounds of muscle. His quest climaxed when he raised 1,010 pounds on his shoulders in a squat.
"I had found out all I needed to know," he said.
Smith stopped using steroids.
Eventually, Riecke suspected he needed the pills to maintain success. "I hate to attribute any portion of our success to medicinal factors," he wrote in a 1962 letter obtained by Fair. "But some portions of my improvement coincided with my ingestion of them."
His demands for the pills became more incessant. He acknowledges now that Dianabol was probably the driving force behind his late-career improvement. He set a world record in the snatch in 1964, the year he turned 38, and made the 1964 Olympic team.
"It helped me," he said.
Riecke doesn't look back with regret. He took no more than 10 milligrams of Dianabol a day and never suffered ill effects. He became a strength coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s and said he never suggested steroids to players because "I didn't believe in it."
No qualms When it became apparent that the pink pills had a lot to do with the York lifters' sudden surges in strength, few seemed to find the conclusion ethically troubling.
"That came later, maybe in the late 1960s," Fair said. "At that point, it became a whispering issue. 'How did he get so much stronger?' And, of course, if you're the lifter, you want people to think it's really you."
Even if the drugs had been taboo, Fair suspects that many lifters would have used them.
"If he had told me to eat grass, I would have done so to get strong," Bill March told him in one interview about Ziegler.
Even as lifters gained wisdom about the effects of the pink pills, Ziegler seemed to lose interest and shift his focus to the isotron, a device that supposedly replicated nerve impulses delivered from the brain to the muscles. He believed it would make him wealthy and even bragged to Riecke that John Unitas had shown an interest. He said he had increased muscle mass in foxes and snakes with the device.
But as Ziegler turned away, anabolic steroid use increased exponentially through the mid-1960s. The doctor eventually tried to shove the genie he had unleashed back into its bottle, saying in a 1967 article for Strength & Health that steroids "are categorically condemned for the athlete."
He complained in a 1969 Sports Illustrated article that the York lifters "went crazy about steroids." Two years before his death in 1985, he told lifting historian Terry Todd he regretted his involvement with the drugs.
Smith said the doctor expressed misgivings in the early 1960s. When he found that lifters were doubling their doses by going to a pharmacist in York, he refused to write them any more prescriptions, the trainer recalled. He performed liver function tests every four months to make sure the drugs weren't harming his subjects.
"He really was trying to do it on a clinical basis," Smith said. "And remember, steroids were legal."
"I don't think he ever wanted this to become a negative," Fair said. "What an imagination this guy had. He did lead us forward. He just happened to lead us into a terrifying world."
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