Witness to Fitness

Seventy-nine-year-old Miami Beach bodybuilding and weightlifting goddess Dalia Valle will whip you into shape

Adds member Robert Reincke, "[Valle] promises nothing more than blood, sweat, and tears. Her gym is hardwood floors, classical music for concentration, and self-designed equipment. Nothing fancy. [Valle is] the genuine, real thing."

Dalia Valle looks at least two, possibly three decades younger than her 79 years. She has the energy of a teenager, the strength of a woman in her twenties, and her skin is so smooth there would be no Oil of Olay left on supermarket shelves if Valle started pitching it. (Her secret for soft skin? A balanced diet and washing with plain old soap and water.) Her hair has grayed from its natural ebony color, but she wears it long and cinches it with a beaded elastic band. She pads around her gym in bare feet ornamented with beaded ankle-toe bracelets known as slave chains. She covers her four-foot, eleven-inch, 100-pound frame in an iridescent blue leotard and looks the picture of vitality as she stands with hands on hips, back straight, posture impeccable.

Most of the big names in bodybuilding -- especially the sport's stars who came to prominence during the Seventies -- have worked out at Dalia's club at one time or another. Arnold. Franco Columbo. Steve Reeves. Chris Dickerson. Sergio Oliva. ("The biggest bodybuilder I've ever seen," Dalia remembers, referring to Oliva. "Arms bigger than my waist.") Dalia still displays dozens of trophies -- Mr. Florida, Mr. Southern States, Mr. America (40 and over), et cetera -- won by men (and a few, but nowhere nearly as many, women) who trained regularly under her watchful eye.

She recalls Columbo with a special fondness. "Franco was a power-lifter when he came here from Italy in the mid-Sixties," Valle reminisces. "From Sardinia. Couldn't speak a word of English. But Franco always worked harder than anyone to be the best. In 1973 he sent me a ticket to the [Mr. Olympia competition staged at the] Brooklyn Academy of Music. He looked better than Arnold at the time. Always has. But Arnold won that contest and they booed him.

"Arnold's been great for bodybuilding," she continues. "He has a brain and he used it. You can't hold that against him. I've always liked Arnold." She proffers a copy of a brochure titled Massive Arms by "Arnold Strong," an ill-considered stage name Schwarzenegger briefly adopted before claiming his unprecedented seven consecutive Mr. Olympia titles in the Seventies.

While Valle has kind words for most of the lifters who have made her acquaintance, the same cannot be said for a few of the sport of bodybuilding's better-known entrepreneurs. "Arthur Jones invented Nautilus equipment, but you never see him without a coat and tie," she says disdainfully. "He has the skinniest little legs I've ever seen."

Joe Weider, the muscle magazine magnate who claims to have trained both Columbo and Schwarzenegger, rates particular scorn. "He's what you'd call a con artist," Valle deadpans. "He's a promoter, like Don King. He said he trained people he never trained. He waited until they got famous in Europe, brought them over, and claimed he trained them. He hates my guts." Presumably her willingness to debunk publicly Weider's claims of being trainer to the stars has done little to endear Valle to the promoter.

Valle never would stoop to such tactics to make a buck. "I can do anything but make money," she smiles. "And that's because I'm not interested in it. Peace of mind is more important."

At an age when many of her peers motor around retirement communities and shopping centers in little electric carts, Valle projects a youthful vigor. If she has a longevity secret, it can be summed up in one word: moderation. Dalia Valle swears by it. "Diet is a four-letter word," she contends. "I eat everything in moderation. You need balance. Variety. There's vitamins and minerals in food that haven't been discovered yet. I eat three eggs every day with real milk. I don't drink dirty water [i.e., skim milk]. Everything in moderation is good for you, and nothing is good for you if you don't like it."

This no-nonsense approach applies to exercise, too. "You have to work hard to get into shape," she advises. "I tell my members it takes blood, sweat, and tears to stay in shape. Good food. There is no such thing as shortcuts."

Valle's emphasis on nutrition and hard work parallels that of another bodybuilding impresario -- 77-year-old Vince Gironda, who founded the legendary Vince's Gym in Studio City, California, in 1945. Whereas Valle has only disdain for Arthur Jones and Joe Weider, she has nothing but respect for Gironda, who won the Mr. Universe title in London in 1964 -- at the age of 46 -- and earned a reputation as a maverick early in his career for his emphasis on diet and nutrition, as well as for his passionate, holistic, borderline-spiritual approach to fitness. "There's a definite connection between the body and the mind," affirms the affable Gironda when reached by phone at his gym.

Like Valle, the septuagenarian bodybuilder practices what he preaches and has the physique of a person decades younger to show for it. "The scientific community is just starting to acknowledge bodybuilding's contribution to longevity," Gironda explains.

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