Many athletes have to confront medical problems in their careers, but Steve Stanko was forced to overcome a leg ailment so severe, it would have sidelined a lesser person. He was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in 1918 to parents of Hungarian extraction. Although Stanko began with a tall, thin physique, his drive and desire gave him the makings of a true champion. Stanko began to lift weights after he saw the legendary John Grimek win the 1936 Senior Nationals. Grimek was also a Perth Amboy native and unquestionably a worthy model for Steve’s youthful enthusiasm. Stanko worked hard at his new sport, and he made such rapid progress that in less than two years it was Stanko who stood on the winner’s platform at the Nationals.
By April 1941 Stanko’s lifting prowess had achieved even greater success. He broke the 1,000-pound total in an official contest. Few realized that despite his impressive performance, Steve had performed his lifts in great pain. He suffered from phlebitis, which caused painful blood clots to form in his legs, and shortly after the contest he was forced to spend many months in bed. It was not until the summer of 1942 that he was finally able to do some exercises for his upper body, but because of the forced bed rest, his weight had dropped from 237 to 176 pounds. Still, the athlete persevered. If he could no longer be a weightlifter, he would switch to bodybuilding. Stanko began to work out once more with ever-increasing intensity. He’d long been known for his marathon workouts—something quite unheard of in the mid-1940s. Grimek told of one extra-long session that started at 12:30 in the afternoon and didn’t stop until 6:30 in the evening. The men were reportedly so pumped that they could hardly get their clothes on.
Thanks to heavy exercise and his boundless determination, Stanko developed a mighty physique once more, and in a couple of years his bodyweight was back up to 210. He even won a number of bodybuilding contests. His competitive career reached its apex in 1944, when he was victorious at the prestigious Mr. America contest; then in 1947 another honor came to him when Stanko won the very first Mr. Universe competition.
Stanko stayed in good shape until the 1960s, but eventually his condition worsened. Clots the size of pancakes formed in his abdomen and big lumps in his arms and legs. Despite everything the doctors could do, the great athlete grew weaker and weaker. Eventually, clots formed in his lungs, and he lost his battle for life. Steve Stanko passed away peacefully on New Year’s Eve, 1978.