CARVILLE: Rudi’s recollection |

CARVILLE: Rudi’s recollection

Phil Carville
FItness Columnist

Last month I received a letter from a friend and Nevada City resident, Rudi Petschek. It was in response to an article that I wrote earlier this year about Jack LaLanne who was a pioneer in the fitness and health industry. It was so interesting to me that I asked Rudi for his permission to reprint it here.

By the way, Rudi (85 years old) is a Colorado River legend. If you ever took a guided river trip through the Grand Canyon, your guides likely told you the famous story of how Rudi Petschek, Kenton Grua and Steve Reynolds set a world-record in traversing a 277-mile section of the River in a 17-foot, wooden dory named the ‘Emerald Mile.’ The journey is chronicled in a book, “The Emerald Mile” by Kevin Fedarko.

In June of 1983, they defied common sense and the National Park Service when they set out to break the record for traversing the canyon. That spring followed an epic winter snow fall. The river was at one of its all-time high flows, reaching at one point 92,000 cubic feet per second. How they lived through that is a mystery. But, they set the record traveling the 277 miles in 36 hours — rowing day and night — in historically dangerous high water.

Here is Rudi’s letter to me.

“That was a wonderful article you wrote a while back about Jack LaLanne. I got to know him well when I worked out in his Oakland gym in the early fifties, on the second-floor corner at 17th and Webster. I was 19, Jack was 38.

During the years I knew him, I never saw Jack not chewing gum or driving his Cadillac convertible with the top up — unless it was raining.

Jack had an ongoing challenge ­—­­ $1,000 to anyone who could follow him in a workout. $1,000 was real money back then; more than half the price of a new car, more than three months average salary. He never rescinded the offer, no one ever collected, few even challenged.

You see, Phil, Jack had an unfair advantage: he was very strong for his size. If challenged by someone smaller he would use heavy weights beyond a smaller person’s strength. If challenged by a someone larger, he would perform endless chin-ups, impossible for a large person.

Like other gym owner-operators in those days, Jack kept a watchful eye on everyone’s exercise form. He took measurements monthly in his office, adjusting routines accordingly. Jack relied on half-squats for his quads to protect his football-injured knees. He performed sets of incline bench presses with the heaviest dumb bells on the rack and endless handstands of all sorts.

On one occasion, Jack invited me to be his assistant at a high school in east Oakland where he was invited to perform his ‘balancing act.’ We drove there in his Cadillac, with the top down of course and Jack incessantly chewing his gum.

My role was to help bring in from the Cadillac’s trunk the 20 bricks for Jack’s impressive, finale act. I helped him stack two piles of ten bricks each about 30 inches apart. Jack pressed himself into a handstand on the floor between the two piles of bricks. He rocked his body over to one side into a one- hand handstand. Then with his free hand, he grasped the top brick from the adjacent pile and placed it on the floor just inside the original pile — then he switched his weight for a one-hand handstand atop this brick.

He repeated the operation with his other hand, alternating one-hand handstands back and forth — from side-to-side until he reconstituted the two piles of bricks — handstand atop them — still chewing his gum.

Then still hand-standing on the two piles of bricks, he descended quickly by alternatively flinging backward, in rapid succession, the top brick from each pile until he was again hand-standing on the floor.

The audience was appropriately impressed, and so was I, although I could tell that Jack was past his prime because he failed to point his toes.

Afterwards, I helped place the bricks back into the Cadillac’s trunk and we drove back to the gym — top down — chewing gum.

Reading your account, Phil, brought back those fond memories for which I am grateful to you. Warmly, Rudi.”

Rudi and Jack are just reminders that fitness is what you make it, or as Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” It’s never too late to take the fork.

Phil Carville is a co-owner of the South Yuba Club. He can be reached at He is happy to answer questions or respond to comments.

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