Franco, Sartre, and The Gym

TAGS: meaning of life, Sartre, obituary, Franco Columbu, death, philosophy, Eric Maroscher, bodybuilding, athlete, powerlifting, Life

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During the time I was finishing up my first master’s degree, I was spending time studying, powerlifting, enjoying the freedoms and experiences of the university, preparing resumes for the ensuing interviews that come post-graduation, and thinking about life outwardly and toward the future. That said, as a young man in his early 20s, I was also thinking about life inward during those years. I had selfishly chosen a minor in philosophy as a way to satisfy my curiosity as to the why with regard to all that life has or might have in store after schooling ends and work life begins.

As my major helped me secure my career in education (my life outside of the gym and powerlifting, I am an assistant principal at a high school), it was ironically my selfishly chosen minor that really opened my thoughts and mind to just that, my thoughts and mind.


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These philosophy classes were my introduction to Thomas Hobbes, Kant, Nietzsche, Socrates, and other amazing, thoughtful, and insightful minds. In particular, for me was Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre was a French political activist, novelist, playwright, and most notably, a highly respected philosopher. Sartre was the author of Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology — in short, a writing about free will, of our ability as humankind to have a direct impact on our own lives, on our own consciousnesses, and on our own existences. Existence, which he stated, precedes our essence. Existence, meaning the mere fact that we exist, and in essence, meaning the why we exist.

Sartre postulates, and I am very liberally paraphrasing, that basically everything living thing in the food chain of life on this planet has a place and a purpose. Everything that is but humankind. He submits that we exist, but what makes us so unique is that we are aware that we are aware; we know that we know; and we are conscious of our consciousness. Because we as members of the human race, we know we have an endpoint, there must be created a meaning, a created purpose for our lives. That we, as members of the human race, must have a reason to be here as we have an inescapable expiration date. An expiration date that is going to arrive for each person who was ever born, every person who ever existed, every individual who has ever taken a breath, everyone who has ever lifted a weight, squatted, pressed, or deadlifted the bar.

Sartre delves into ontology and the categories of being. Crudely simplified, some go through life without a plan, without a mission, without a drive or manufactured purpose. They go through life being selfish and myopic. They are the ones addressed in Roosevelt’s impactful “Man In The Arena” speech.

Others go through life with a goal, with a mission, with a deeply personal and meaningful purpose, and do so while trying to become the best physical, mental, and philosophical versions of themselves. They do so all the while helping others to be better along the way. Dave Tate would call that Live, Learn, and Pass On.

Paraphrasing Sartre, humankind is actually condemned to be free because each individual is responsible for every single choice they make while living their life, and that not making a choice is, in fact, a choice. He postulates that our lives are a culmination, an embodiment of our choices. A well-lived life is one of growth, one where the choices are wise and the hard work one does to achieve a given end is part of the journey that is our essence toward a meaningful existence.

Having one's essence be worthy of the miracle that is our existence is a difficult balance to achieve, and many who exist do just that: merely exist. They never reach the fullness of their potential essence as they spent their lives judging others’ shortcomings rather than building others up while creating their own path toward fulfillment, achievement, success, and value.

Recently while scrolling through my newsfeed, I was saddened to read about the loss of bodybuilding legend, powerlifter, and two-time Mr. Olympia, Dr. Franco Columbu.

As you are a reader of elitefts, I hardly need to go into the impact Dr. Columbu had on bodybuilding. His fingerprints are all over the sport, like chalk marks on your favorite deadlift bar. His influence in the world of weights is palpable, so much, so that just like with the name “Arnold,” when we say “Franco,” in the context of the iron game we all know of whom we are speaking.

franco and arnold chess photo

Photo courtesy of Chess.com

With his gym roots steeped in powerlifting (750-pound deadlift, 655-pound squat, 525-pound bench press under 200 pounds), Franco was a bodybuilder’s bodybuilder.

franco training deadlifts photo

Photo courtesy of zacheven-esh.com

franco bench press photo

Photo courtesy of Muscle and Fitness

At a modest five-foot-five in height, Franco was quite heavily muscled, powerful, and deeply cut and striated for that era in bodybuilding’s history. He was built with the equipment (barbells, dumbbells) of the time and without the technology behind the food supplements or modern isolated hypertrophy equipment of today.

franco barbell curls photo

Photo courtesy of FitnessVolt.com

As a self-diagnosed history nerd of all things weights and muscles and power, I have enjoyed reading a good number of books from that golden era of bodybuilding. By all accounts of those from that era of the sport, Franco was never caught up in drama or controversy. He was caught up in hard work, a love for the gym, and provided a generation of bodybuilders, powerlifters, and those who love iron and steel, a positive entity during that time of the classic physique.

In his life outside of the gym, Franco worked as a chiropractor and authored, among others, the book, The Bodybuilder’s Nutrition Book. For those interested, this is a good read with regard to how nutrients play a role specifically within the world of gaining muscle and losing fat. Beyond his chiropractic work, his books, and the gym, Franco was a husband, father, and enjoyed his life, frequently traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Italy.

It is always a little disheartening when someone who has spent a life taking care of themselves, eating healthy, and lifting weights passes, even when they do so while swimming as that day’s exercise at the age of 78 years old. If you were a follower of his IG page, you saw a spry man for his age, smiling with his chiropractic clients while he provided a few seconds lessons on some aspect of chiropractic care. If you are one of the countless hoisters of iron and steel, you remember Franco from Pumping Iron, strong, powerful, healthy, seemingly indestructible, and living life to its fullest.

It is that living of life that takes us back to where we started, and that is with Sartre. For an entire lifetime, Francesco Maria Columbu lived an authentic life whose essence made worthwhile his existence. A life rich in health, love, happiness, success, wealth, strength, power, and muscle. As you read the stories from those who knew him (maybe the only worthwhile function of social media), you read nothing but story after story of his generosity, humor, humanity, and love as well as muscularity, strength, and power.

Dr. Franco Columbu, by all accounts, old and new, lived a full life that demonstrated that one can rise to the zenith of one’s chosen pursuit, in his case, bodybuilding (twice with Olympia wins in ‘76 and ‘81), while also balancing their education, career, family, friends, kids, and other interests. Keep in mind, Franco finished his chiropractic degree in 1977 at the same time he was training for the Mr. Olympia and part of the filming process of the now-iconic Pumping Iron documentary.

Franco film reels photo

Photo courtesy of francescocolumbu.com

What is so inspiring about Franco’s life is the complete fulfillment of it. Someone who managed to actually live life to its fullest by attaining his education and building a successful chiropractic business that he enjoyed, which served his clients and served to provide for his family, a successful family life full of love and happiness as a husband and father, a successful social life full of friends in both the United States and Italy, and a successful bodybuilding career with a capstone to it of reaching the very top of that sports ultimate achievement, attaining a Mr. Olympia title not once but twice.

Franco Columbu is the embodiment of a life full of health, muscle, strength, power, happiness, fulfillment, and more. He is an inspiration for many, not only for his training prowess and competitive success and accolades in the world of weights and iron but for the completeness of life, as that is the real trick.

A powerlifting acquaintance of mine, Tom Krawiec (top-5 all-time total in the 181-pound class), talks about balance as a Venn Diagram. He talks about how life’s Venn Diagram is comprised of intersecting circles that independently increase or decrease in size depending on what one is going through at that time in their life. For instance, their circle of training is larger during meet prep, whereas the circle representing family is larger during other times.

For there to be balance, no one single circle should ever grow too large or become small. Further, as seen with Franco, his Venn Diagram circles were never compromised, never diluted with negativity nor trivial matters.

venn diagram

Remember the other Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

I submit to you that where you find someone with the time, the energy, and the desire to put another down or cast aspersions on others, you find someone who has a life devoid of essence as they go through existence pointing out how the strong man stumbles. You know someone like this; in fact, you have known many like this throughout your life. Those who put others down, but in doing so, they only illuminate the emptiness of their life essence.

As lifters of iron and steel and makers of muscle and strength and power, many are often looking or in search of the perfect program or regiment. Dr. Franco Columbu has provided an example of a perfect template, a perfect program, a perfect regiment not just for life, but for living that life to its fullest, and that is, in my opinion, Franco Columbu’s true legacy. A legacy of a life rich in giving and receiving and fulfillment. A life where one’s essence is truly and wholly worthy of this gift we have, this gift of our existence.

Wishing you the best in your strength training and life pursuits. Ever onward.

Header image credit: Pumping Iron © HBO Home Video via kolotv.com

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