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Still Buff At 83

May 15, 2007

By Karen Haymon Long, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

May 15–ST. PETERSBURG — Granted, he doesn’t look as buff as he did in his 50s, when he reigned as Mr. America in bodybuilding championships. But at 83, Claude Rigon is muscular enough and in such great shape, he has been asked to pose June 9 in a bodybuilding competition.

Following in his footsteps, his grandson, J.T. Tapias, who’s 55 years younger, will compete in the same event at Jefferson High School in Tampa.

Weightlifting and staying in top shape is a full-time job for both men. Rigon works out four to five times a week at Gold’s Gym in St. Petersburg. Tapias, a popular personal trainer in south Tampa, gets lots of exercise on the job.

Despite their busy schedules, the two work out together as often as they can.

“This is going to sound strange coming from a man, but he’s the love of my life,” Rigon says of his only grandchild.

Staying in shape is nothing new to Rigon, a retired cardiologist who sang opera before turning to medicine. He got into bodybuilding in 1933 in school in Paris.

“I was small and spindly, so I started physical training. I fell in love with it and stayed in it my whole life,” he says.

Bodybuilding became his passion, and he was very good at it. In 1976 alone, he was Mr. Colonial American, Mr. Eastern Seaboard, Masters Mr. America and Mr. New Jersey.

In 1995, he came in third among 60 and older lightweights in a Southern States Masters competition.

Dressed in sweatpants and a snug tank top, he jokes that he doesn’t look as good as he used to. When asked how he is, he quips: “As fine as anybody can be at this stage of life.” Then, he adds with a grin: “Displaying anything at this age is dismal.”

Yet, he’s dead serious when vowing to fight aging with all his might.

“Mother Nature and Father Time win all the time. But when you make them work hard for it, it’s a good feeling,” he says.

The St. Petersburg resident has never considered retiring from bodybuilding or working out.

“What happens when you take a fish out of water? It is a part of my life — an important part of my life. If I sat in my chair, I would be a very old man very fast.”

For older people at the gym, he says, “I sort of serve as an example of what can be. And for the younger guys, I show them that a life of physical fitness pays off. You age more gracefully and it prolongs the quality of your physical life. It’s much better than those who sit around and eat happily. They end up living in the doctor’s office”

Bob Buchanan, co-owner of the Gold’s Gym where Rigon works out, says frequent exercise is as good for the mind as it is for the body. He has seen amazing changes both psychologically and physically in the older people who work out regularly at his gym.

One man was able to give up the wheelchair he had used for years after regularly working out.

Many take advantage of free gym membership through their Medicare-funded insurance policies. He estimates that 2,000 seniors work out in the five Gold’s Gyms in Pinellas County. Many work out on weight machines, treadmills, exercise bikes and curling machines. More attend low-impact aerobic classes and fall-prevention and strength instruction courses.

Buchanan marvels at men such as Rigon and Henry Wisniewski, the senior of all the seniors at Gold’s. Wisniewski is 95 and works out at the gym every day but Sunday during the six months he lives in the United States. He and his wife, who’s 77, spend the rest of the year in Poland, where they take care of her 107-year-old mother.

Like Rigon, Wisniewski has worked out all his life and can’t imagine giving it up. During World War II, he served in the Polish Army, then in the underground resistance movement. Later, he cut lumber and labored as a steelworker and then a toolmaker for Ford Motor Co., among other jobs.

He has always walked and swum. After heart bypass surgery, he started working out with weights, riding a stationary bike four days a week and taking aerobic classes twice a week.

“It makes me feel good,” he says. “It keeps me alive.”

Reporter Karen Haymon Long can be reached at (813) 259-7619 or klong@tampatrib.com.

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Copyright (c) 2007, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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