|Ken meets Arnold on a 1981 Knoxville visit.|
“Some people fish. Some people collect stamps. I love weightlifting,” said Medaris, a former 135-pound weakling who liked to say that he learned his bodybuilding techniques from a succession of experts who fortune placed in his path, each of whom had studied under one of the biggest names in the field. Under examination, this turned out to be true.
“He was not a bullshitter,” says Mark Hill, a local headhunter who trained with Medaris for several years. “He was such a colorful character and an interesting man.” From connections made training—mostly in the Dungeon—Medaris spent five years on the pro wrestling circuit body-slamming colleagues like the Mongolian Stomper, Klondike Bill, Professor Malenko, the Suicide Blond, and the Iron Sheik. “The best time of my life,” said Medaris. “We were stars. When we went through the Atlanta airport, we’d have to stop and give autographs.” Later, Medaris danced for five years on the Bagwell Communications cable show The Barn Dance. In real life, he worked for 16 years as a Knox County Sheriff’s Department officer and supervisor.
“He came from that old-school era of training,” says Clayton Bryant, former owner of Total Fitness, where Medaris trained clients starting in the mid-90s. “Back then weightlifting was a little more of a cult thing. It wasn’t as popular or widespread as it is now. It was a lot of bodybuilders, basic weightlifters, and wrestlers. For so long, athletes in other sports thought weights would take away flexibility or quickness. Now all athletes do it. Heck, even swimmers do it.” “He was Old School, but he was good old school,” says Hill. “He was smart about training. He knew. He didn’t let you hurt yourself and he was conscientious about form. Many people may not realize that he was a sensitive and deeply caring man.”
Tiny Long Makes a Difference
In the summer of 1960, Ken Medaris was 10 and painfully shy. He was especially embarrassed that his legs looked like pencils. “I was always athletic,” said Medaris, “but I was always small. I was so skinny that it really had an effect on me psychologically. I wouldn’t go to McDonald’s to get a hamburger.” At a Saturday morning class at the Downtown Y, a 21-year-old counselor named David “Tiny” Long gave young Ken some tips.
“He took the time to teach me how to improve,” said Medaris. “He showed me how to sprint and told me to pick a mark on my street and run to it, then go a little further every day. He showed me how to do a lay-up and shoot a basketball, make a softball throw, do a broad jump. He told me to build a pull-up bar and do as many pull-ups as I could twice a day.”
At the end-of-summer decathlon, skinny Ken won top honors for Knoxville. “This is the possession I’m proudest of in the world,” he said, showing off a tiny gold award on a gold chain reading YMCA Athletic Achievement. “It was presented by John Duncan, the mayor. Jimmy Duncan was in my class, even though he was three years older.” “Tiny kindled my interest to build my body,” said Medaris. “He sent me on the road and had more influence than anything in my life.”
Medaris was born on December 30, 1950, in Knoxville, and lived for many years in the house he grew up in, on Lamour Ave., just off Hollywood Rd., near Pond Gap Elementary. His father, Paul, was a KUB lineman for 34 years. His mother, Hazel, worked in the cosmetics department at Miller’s Department Store. Ken moved back in to the family house take care of his dad in the 90s. “I played Midget football,” said Medaris, “but I was a tackling dummy.” His athletic career ended when he took a paper route at 13—but he did wrestle. Mr. Bowman of the Bowman Hat Company would stage impromptu wrestling matches among the kids and give a dime to the winner. “You can say that I did wrestle for a dime!” said Medaris.
An Entrée to the Secrets of Pumping Iron
After graduating from West High School in 1969, Medaris started at Hiwassee College. On Jan. 3, 1970, he walked into the weight room. The barbells were pipes with cans filled with cement at either end. The pulldowns were made of pulley and ropes from the hardware store. There, by what he calls a stroke of luck, the 6’1”, 135-pound string bean met a Brazilian named Evandro Camera who had apparently been carved from marble by Michelangelo. “He was five-eight and 220 pounds of solid muscle,” said Medaris. “I consider this the day I started.”
Back in Recife, Brazil, Camera had read all the magazines and learned about the top names in bodybuilding—especially the great Bill Pearl. Camera had embarked on a pilgrimage to Muscle Beach—Venice Beach, California—and asked, “Where is the home of Bill Pearl?” He moved into Pearl’s basement and learned the secrets of pumping iron, then earned a scholarship to Hiwassee. “We buddied up and he set out to train me and teach me what he knew,” said Medaris. “It started, as it still does, with the six sets of basic exercises: the bench press, squat, bent-over row, lat pulldowns, press behind the neck, biceps curls. I looked at all the magazines. They were baloney, other than Iron Man.”
Medaris trained for a year and a half with Evandro, then moved back to Knoxville and UT for one quarter in 1972. “I took a course in nutrition at UT at the Home Ec school. It was 70 women and me. Before there were protein shakes, there was Carnation Instant Breakfast. Starting then, I ate, slept, drank weightlifting. I became obsessed with only putting things in my body that would make my muscles grow.”
In the Dungeon, Medaris had the good fortune to get to know Bob Simpson, a commercial artist “built like a refrigerator” with a 55-inch chest who was Knoxville’s most famous weightlifter and even wrote for Iron Man. Simpson had trained under Paul Anderson, who once appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson billed as the undisputed strongest man in the world.. In 1974, “Simpson was one of the first men in America to overhead press 500 pounds,” said Medaris. Simpson did it in the YMCA. A lifter named Ken Patera did it in competition, stealing Simpson’s glory, but Medaris saw Simpson do it. He also saw Simpson partially press 820 pounds, bending a York Olympic bar double in the process. “That bent bar stayed in the Y for 20 years as a tribute.”
Sheriff's Deputy and Pro Wrestler
In 1974, Medaris was working part-time in a health food store when a U.S. Marshall came in—and started Medaris thinking about law enforcement. He took the test for the County Sheriff’s office and started out “at the bottom of the pole” as a process server. In a 16-year career, he worked his way up to officer and eventually supervisor. In the later 1970s, Medaris watched Southeast Champion and Smoky Mountain Wrestling legend Archie Gouldie, the Mongolian Stomper, who lived in Maynardville and East Knoxville. “He was the Stomper,” said Medaris. “It was so intimidating. For six months I was afraid to talk to him. One day I asked, ‘Could you tell me how to build my chest?’ I ended up training with him for over a year.”
The Stomper was Medaris’s entrée into professional wrestling, where Medaris was known as an “excellent worker”—meaning that he made the seasoned hands look good—and a “good hand,” meaning that he could handle the basic moves that audiences liked. “On the wrestling tour,” said Medaris, “you gotta be able to get along with people.”
|Medaris (left) trains with Archie Gouldie.|
In 1981 Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had won Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe bodybuilding titles and been featured in the documentary Pumping Iron, came to Knoxville to do a promotion for Larry Jackson’s weightlifting equipment.
Medaris sat next to him at dinner at Jackson’s house. “We were the same height, 6’ 1”, and weighed exactly the same, 215. But my arms looked like spaghetti noodles next to his. I thought, how is that possible? He told me, ‘It’s 50 percent what you do in the gym and 50 percent what you put in your mouth.’ He told everybody he was on his way to Hollywood to make movies. Everybody said, ‘You’re on your way to the poorhouse—that’s where old weightlifters go.’”
Medaris wrestled for five years and was always paid in cash. In 1983, he suffered a serious back injury, rupturing a couple of discs and ending his ring career. “It put me out of business.” Then came The Barn Dance at Bagwell Communications, which was then pioneering the production of shows to fill the vast expanses of cable TV. Medaris danced on 800 shows with Amanda Maples, now marketing director of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. Medaris met and befriended the original three Dixie Chicks (below), especially Laura Lynch, who was Pete Bested in favor of Natalie Maines.
The Accidental Personal Trainer
One day, in 1982, at the Knoxville downtown Y, Dr. Ray Depue said to Medaris, “I’ve been watching you, and you seem to know what you’re doing. I’ll be glad to pay you, but could you teach me how to lift weights?” “There was no such thing as a personal trainer in those days,” says Medaris. He trained Depue, which led to another client and another. He charged them $10 a session. When Depew built the Sports Farm, Medaris started training there.
When I-40/75 ran over the Sports Farm, Medaris moved his operations to other gyms. Around 2006, Mark Hill walked into The Gym, then owned by a former male model named David White, and asked for a trainer. “He looked me and saw that I was old and skinny,” says Hill, “and he shuffled me over to Ken. He sent the dregs to Ken.” Hill turned out to be a dedicated student who quickly doubled his strength. When The Gym ran into money problems, Hill helped Medaris set up shop at the Knoxville Racquet Club, where he trained clients for five years before his declining health led to his retirement.
Medaris died of various complications of heart failure on Thursday, December 3, 2020, a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday. I was lucky enough to win five training sessions with Ken Medaris at an Opera Ball auction. After those five visits to the Racquet Club, I signed up for many more and learned a regimen for the weight room that brings benefits to the present day.
I like to remember Ken quoting the bodybuilder John C. Grimek, known as “The Monarch of Muscledom,” who often said, “What a shame it is for a person to go through his life and not know the joy of a well-developed body.”