PHOTO/DEBBIE ARRINGTON: Jim Arrington, left, after his win at the Legion Sports Fest in Reno in October.

Fitness is key to long life. Need proof? Meet Jim Arrington, my dad and the world’s oldest professional bodybuilding champion.

He’s 89 and still competing. At Reno’s recent Legion Sports Fest, he won another title: IFBB Pro Masters Legion 80+ champion. It was a walkover; the next oldest athlete competing in his division was a mere 70.

“A big part of winning is just showing up,” said Jim, who has competed in masters bodybuilding contests for more than 40 years.

His appearance in Reno at a sanctioned International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness event upped his age record to 89 years and 51 days. He has officially held the Guinness World Records mark for his category since he was “only” 83.

Since then, Jim had one hip replaced, survived a ruptured appendix and endured follow-up surgery to remove a hernia the size of a Butterball turkey. He came back from all that to win the 2019 IFBB Pro Masters Championships in Pittsburgh, PA.

Going viral on YouTube

As a Guinness World Record holder, Jim has had his share of celebratory attention. Since the 2019 win, he’s been featured on television shows in France, Korea and the U.S. (He taught host Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio gym etiquette on NBC’s “1st Look.”) A YouTube video of his 88th birthday workout boasts  more than 600,000 views.

The pandemic convinced Jim to skip taking part in competitions in 2020. As the largest fitness event in the Western states, the 2021 Reno contest was his comeback — and potentially his farewell to the sport. 

Part of a three-day fitness extravaganza, the Legion Sports Fest multi-sport expo attracted more than 2,500 athletes who competed in a wide range of disciplines, from classic fitness, physique and bodybuilding divisions (both pro and amateur) to strongman, power lifting and arm wrestling.

‘Reunion of Incredible Hulks’

Held Oct. 22-24 at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, the event packed the exhibit halls with exceptionally buff bodies.  Like a reunion of Incredible Hulks, the main pro show featured some of the world’s top bodybuilders including Mr. Olympia finalists.

“Everybody has to be a winner just to be here,” said Jim, noting the championship aspect of the event. “There’s so much competition! If I had to face that competition, I wouldn’t do it.”

On the opening day, more than 500 pro masters entries, age 35 and up, posed for judges. Waiting his turn in the spotlights, Jim sat patiently backstage for six hours before the preliminaries – a series of compulsory poses (double biceps, lat spreads and so on) showing off various muscle groups. For the evening’s finals, it was another hours-long wait before performing a two-minute routine to music. (Jim’s theme song: “Endless Love.”)

Overcoming childhood illness

Backstage, Jim is never bored. In Reno, a steady stream of contestants asked to take selfies with him or just shake his hand. Over and over, Jim heard how he had inspired these other fitness competitors, including several new pros.

“Everybody wants a pro card, but where do you go from there?” Jim said. “You can be the top amateur or the bottom pro. It’s like starting over.”

Before finally turning professional in 2015 (at age 83), Jim had been a top amateur competitor for decades. It was never easy.

A sickly child with asthma and food allergies, he got the nickname “Skinny Bones” because of his slight build. Inspired by a Charles Atlas ad on the back of a comic book, he started lifting weights at age 16 – in part to improve his upper body strength for rodeo.

In college, Jim turned his focus to gymnastics and became a serious gym rat. He still works out at the original Gold’s Gym in Venice, Calif., three times a week.

Although he had been serious about fitness since his teens, Jim was in his 40s in the late 1970s when he started competing in bodybuilding at the suggestion of other gym regulars.

A string of victories

His first masters’ victory was in the 1979 Oceanside Muscle Classic. “We had 15 people in the over-40 and I was No. 1,” Jim recalled. “The strange thing? I weighed 146 pounds for that contest; that’s what I weigh now, only it’s distributed a little differently.”

The biggest difference between now and then? “The size of the competitors; they’re much bigger now,” Jim said of the pro bodybuilders. “Also the advancement of training – it’s much more serious – and posing,” he explained. “There used to be one light on stage. You stood on a platform under that light and you could see all the shadows (on a contestant’s body). It really showed (muscle) definition.”

Before the judging, Jim often hinted that Reno might be his last contest. Glistening with spray tan under dozens of stage lights, Jim once again impressed the judges with his fitness as well as longevity. He was awarded another title and a first-place medal the size of a salad plate. But his real reward was the crowd’s boisterous applause.

“This was a lot of fun,” Jim said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it. I’d like to do Reno again next year. I’ll only be 90.”

Debbie Arrington, of the Sacramento News & Review, is an award-winning garden, food and sports writer.

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