Bill March: The Chosen One

The Chosen One

by Bill Starr | September 18, 2014

bill march starr

Quite often, the degree of success that a person achieves in any endeavor in life is a result of being in the right place at the right time. Such was the case of Bill March, unquestionably one of the greatest and most popular Olympic lifters in the history of the sport. Had Bill grown up in the South, Midwest, or Northeast, his story would have been much different. But Bill was born and raised in York County, Pennsylvania, and this simple fact afforded him a unique opportunity in the late fifties. For this was the home of Bob Hoffman and the York Barbell Company.

Bob Hoffman believed in promotion and felt that the best way to get people interested in his weight training equipment and nutritional products was to have weightlifters and bodybuilders put on exhibitions. For the last two decades, Hoffman had had at his disposal two legends, John Grimek and Steve Stanko, to use at exhibitions, along with Tony Terlazzo to share in the lifting duties.

But at this point in time, the only athlete available to lift and pose was Vern Weaver, a rapidly rising physique contestant who also happened to be extremely strong. Vern wasn’t all that keen on doing lots of demonstrations since they interfered with his training schedule. Hoffman was so desperate that he began flying Dave Ashman in from California to help out at the shows.

This is where Bill March steps into the picture. Bill had been an outstanding four-sport athlete at Dallastown High School, competing in basketball, football, baseball, and track. After he graduated, he began searching for some sport where he could use his competitive juices and at the same time add some muscle to his frame. Being raised in York County, he was well aware of the reputation of the York Barbell Club, but the thought of going to the gym on Broad Street never entered his mind.

Then he heard that there was a bodybuilder lifting weights at Shaffer’s Flower Shop in York and decided to go there and see what the deal was. That evening, Bill met two people who would have a tremendous influence on his life: Vern Weaver and Dick Smith. Vern was in hard training for the Mr. Western Pennsylvania physique contest. Smitty was there to provide assistance when it was needed. They both welcomed Bill cordially and encouraged him to start training at the modestly-equipped facility. Bill accepted the invitation eagerly and began learning the fundamentals from his two new friends the very next evening.

He was a natural. His athleticism provided him a huge advantage in learning the involved movements of the snatch and clean and jerk. He mastered the form on the press within a matter of weeks. And he loved doing the Olympic lifts and all the other exercises in the program that Smitty and Vern had taught him. Because he was already extremely healthy, having never smoked or indulged in any form of alcohol, ate well, and got plenty of rest, he progressed rapidly. Another reason he made gains so quickly was that he had never picked up any bad habits in regards to form. He was taught how to do every exercise in his routine perfectly from the beginning.

After a couple of months, Bill knew this was the sport he was going to dedicate himself to until he found success. 

Hoffman had contacted Vern and asked him to help put on an exhibition at York Suburban High School the next night. Hoffman went on to say that he had asked Dave Ashman to fly in so that he would have both an Olympic lifter and bodybuilder for the show, but Ashman had just called and told him he would be unable to make the long trip. Vern quickly informed Hoffman that there was a young Olympic lifter training with him and Smitty and suggested he use him to demonstrate the Olympic lifts. Without any hesitation, Hoffman told Vern to bring him along.

Bill was in the right place at the right time.

While Bill didn’t lift anything really heavy that night, Hoffman was very impressed with the young athlete. He already had a pleasing physique and displayed remarkable technique for a beginner. But what impressed Hoffman the most was Bill’s quiet confidence and polite manner. Bill was also quite handsome, like Vern, and Hoffman needed some new faces to use as models for advertising his products in Strength & Health magazine.

Hoffman knew that Bill March was something special and he told him to start training at the York Barbell Club Gym, located on the second floor of the company’s building on Broad Street. While the facility only had the basics: two lifting platforms, stair-case squat rack, flat bench, and plenty of Olympic bars and plates, it was certainly a step up from the small room in the back of Shaffer’s Flower Shop.

While the weight equipment was modest, what the place had that no other in the country could match was history. This is where all the international teams trained before going to the World Championships and Olympics. This is where the many great lifters that represented the YBC worked out regularly: Tony Terlazzo, Grimek, Stanko, Terpak, Frank Spellman, Dick Bachtell, Bill and Walter Good, and Gord Venables. John Davis had trained there and so had Pete and Jim George, Dave Sheppard, Tommy Kono, Norbert Schemansky, Jim Bradford, Issac Berger, Chuck Vinci, and Clyde Emrich. In the world of Olympic weightlifting, this was hallowed ground. 

Weaver and Smitty also started coming to the York Gym and the three new arrivals added a great deal of energy to the place. Bill progressed rapidly, due mostly to his athletic ability, work ethic, determination, and good coaching. He entered and won his first contest, the 1959 Middle Atlantics held at the York YMCA. As a 181er, he totaled 745, which gave indications of things to come since there were very few light heavies who had totaled 800 or more in the country. Within a year, the prodigy had achieved that goal and immediately set his sights on making 825, the total he need to compete in the Olympic Trials.

Now the stage was set for another episode of being in the right place at the right time. Dr. John Ziegler had been associated with the York Barbell for a short time and had told Hoffman about a new method of strength training that he had developed called isometrics. And about a pill that he had formulated and was being produced by CIBA Pharmaceuticals. These would be used primarily to help bedridden patients and those in a degenerative state due to a prolonged illness. Doc’s medical specialty was rehabilitation.

A brief aside. I’ve read several articles on steroids where the authors state that Doc Ziegler brought the concept to CIBA and then they formulated the drug. And that Doc made a bundle off of the sales of the drug. Neither of these contentions are true. CIBA used the exact formula that Doc gave them. The only contributions of the CIBA scientists were to select what binder to use and what-color the pills would be. They were pink in the beginning, then changed to light blue. And they also got to name the drug. They called it Dianabol.

As for the financial end of the deal, Doc didn’t receive a penny from the pharmaceutical company. He gave them the drug because he felt it would be useful in helping those who needed it to rebuild muscles and gain strength. And he never received any royalties from the sales. His was purely a humanitarian gesture. Most do not believe this because it just doesn’t happen in our money-grubbing society, yet in Doc’s case, it’s the gospel truth.

CIBA had already run tests on hospital patients and found the results very positive. But they wanted Doc to see what would happen if healthy individuals took Dianabol. Doc wanted to find that out as well, and knew the subject would be a member of the York Barbell Club. CIBA had given him an unlimited supply of the anabolic steroid, and he gave some to Grimek and Jake Hitchens. Grimek reported no change. Jake, on the other hand, believed it helped him gain size in his arms, the only bodypart he cared about.

But what CIBA wanted Doc Ziegler to do was conduct a well-controlled, long-term study of what changes occurred when the drug was used for an extended period of time. Preferably in an athlete past puberty and already in good health. Vern Weaver fit the category, but he wasn’t interested because he had a job that was making him decent money. Vern was an excellent car salesman.

The athlete that Doc wanted to take part in the experiment was March. He had just turned 23, was in excellent shape, and he lived in York. One of the stipulations was that the test subject had to come to Doc’s residence five days a week to train under his supervision and be given a precise dosage of Dianabol. This meant the athlete had to possess a very high level of dedication and be able to follow Doc’s instructions to the letter. Doc had room in his spacious house to accommodate Bill, but March balked at that idea. He had recently gotten married and wanted to sleep in his own bed at night.

Then there was the drive from York to Olney to consider. A total of 180 miles round trip five days a week. Even though he would be on the York payroll, Bill wasn’t sure he wanted to make that drive over and over, month after month. The whole idea could have come to a halt at this point. There was no other weightlifter who met the criteria that Doc laid out who lived close enough to Olney to go through the experiment. If Bill had turned Hoffman and Ziegler down, Doc would have more than likely just moved on to something else. He never stayed with any idea for very long.

It was Smitty that stepped forward and saved the project. He told Hoffman and Doc that he would drive Bill back and forth from York to Olney so Bill would be rested for the workouts and be able to recover from them more easily. Smitty had already been doing odd jobs around the Barbell, and so was on the payroll. Hoffman gave the go-ahead and the experiment that would alter not only Olympic weightlifting, but every sport under the sun, was set in motion.

It came about because of Hoffman’s financial backing, Ziegler’s genius, March’s dedication and desire to become a more proficient lifter, and last, but certainly not least, Smitty’s willingness. It should be noted that Smitty did much more than just drive to Olney and back to York. He also loaded the weights during the isometric-isotonic workouts, applied muscle rub when it was needed, provided encouragement, plus any other task that came along. To Smitty, no task was insignificant if it helped the lifter in some way.

One of the main reasons Doc needed the test athlete to come to Olney was that he had built the prototype power rack in his gym, a short walk from his house and his office where he treated patients. It was the only one in existence at the beginning of the experiment. Hoffman would be turning them out by the thousands before the end of the year, but that was later and this was now. All the exercises would be done in the rack and Doc didn’t plan on taking it to York because he was using it himself. That’s how he had worked out the program he was going to teach Bill, and Smitty, to do.

And it needs to be noted that this was not the only thing he had to do. In fact, he was a very busy man. He was the Medical Director for the W. R. Grace Company and an Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine at Georgetown Medical School. He also held the position of Medical Officer on the Committee on Civil War Re-enactments, Medical Examiner, and member of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and dealt with as many as eighty patients in his small office every week. There was no way that he could drive to York and back every week day.

While this was all new to Bill, he quickly learned what he needed to do in the power rack. How to maintain absolutely perfect form at each position and how to steadily increase the pressure up into the bar. And one of the most important aspects of the program was how long to hold that isometric contraction. Of course, there was some trial and error because every individual is different in regards to how they respond to a certain form of exercise, so what had worked for Doc when he trained himself didn’t always have the same results for Bill.

Doc was also constantly tweaking Bill’s routine, adding in new positions and eliminating others, while staying with the basic premise that he had created. In a nutshell, Bill would do three positions for the press, three for clean and snatch pulls, and three for squats. At every workout, those positions would be changed slightly. In order to be able to keep an accurate record of each session, all the holes in the power rack were numbered. Doc kept track of all the sets for a while, then he turned the task over to Smitty. As everyone learned quickly when they began doing isometrics, the various positions had to be written down right away. Wait and it was nearly impossible to remember whether it was hole fifteen or sixteen that was used for the second position in the pulls.

After each session, Doc would give Bill his daily allowance of Dianabol. It was just 5 mg for the first two months. While this dosage may seem ludicrous, Doc was by nature, very conservative. Doc eventually doubled the dosage to 10 mg but that was the most he ever gave Bill. And he never gave Bill more than he would need over the weekends either. He fully believed that if an athlete was allowed to self-administer the drug, he would start taking more and more of it and eventually jeopardize his health. This was exactly what happened once steroids became easily obtainable.

In addition to providing Bill with a low dosage of Dianabol, Doc gave Bill physical exams and did liver function tests on a regular basis. And just in case he missed something, he sent Bill to Valley Forge Medical Center for a complete physical exam. Bill passed with flying colors and then some. The doctors who tested him were amazed that he had a resting pulse rate of sixty when Bill wasn’t doing any type of aerobic activity at that time.

On Saturdays, Bill would do the three Olympic lifts and back squats at the new York Gym at Ridge Avenue. It was four times the size of the gym on Broad Street with two elevated platforms and lots of Olympic bars and plates and a long row of dumbbells. Smitty would keep track of Bill’s workout and deliver that information to Doc Ziegler the following Monday. How well Bill performed on the various lifts would determine what program Doc would lay out for him that week.

One of the things that Doc changed about the program early on was for Bill to move the bar a few inches before locking it in an isometric contraction. That altered the exercise from being a pure isometric movement to an isotonic-isometric one. That slight change made a big difference.

Once Bill learned the many nuances of the rack workouts, progress came rapidly. When the 1960 Olympic team came to York to train at the YBC in preparation for the Rome Games, Bill trained with them. He squared off against Jim George and John Pulskamp and often outlifted them. This gave his confidence a tremendous boost and he put even more enthusiasm into his weekly workouts.

His bodyweight had been creeping up, and in early ’61, he packed on more weight so he would be a full-fledged middle heavyweight. Bill could gain weight quickly so by the start of the season, he was a muscular 198 pounds and started making his presence felt in that division.

The Philadelphia Open in mid-January was his first meet as a 198er. He was rusty and didn’t have a great outing, but managed to tie veteran Wallace Underhill with an 880 total and win on bodyweight. Then he stepped it up another notch and posted a 915 total in Schenectady, New York and just a week later, at a contest in Brooklyn, he upped his best total to 930. Then, remarkably, one week after his win at Brooklyn, he won his first YMCA Nationals in Toledo, Ohio, with an impressive 950 total. He also took home the Best Lifter Award.

He was able to compete in more meets than most lifters because of his demanding training regime. He did the isotonic-isometric workouts during the week and would total out on the Olympic lifts on Saturdays. Since he would be going to limit on Saturdays anyway, he simply used the contests as his heavy training days.

He continued to make gains. The week after his YMCA win he pressed 310, snatched 295, and clean and jerked 365 in a training session in the York Gym. He passed up lifting in the Middle Atlantic championships because he wanted to concentrate on honing his form, but urged on by Hoffman, he entered and won the Mr. Middle Atlantic physique title.

The following week found him in Pittsburgh where took the Pennsylvania State title with another personal best 980 total and topped the night off by capturing the Mr. Pennsylvania title as well.

As could be expected, he was the talk of the weightlifting community. He was doing things that had never been achieved before in the sport. Gains normally came gradually. To increase each of the three lifts by 10 or perhaps 15 pounds in a year was considered excellent progress. In four short months, he had improved his total by a whopping 100 pounds.

How was he making those amazing gains? By doing isometics, of course – Hoffman proclaimed in the pages of Strength & Health. In the wake of Bill’s stunning success, the York Barbell Company sold thousands of power racks and isometric training courses. All across the country, aspiring Olympic lifters, including myself, were pushing, pulling, and squatting against stationary bars in rack. If a lifter or training facility didn’t have a power rack, they built one. It wasn’t that complicated. I have zero building skills but I constructed two of them, one at the Park Ridge Y and the other at the Marion Y, where I worked as a Youth Director.

There was no mention of drug usage. This was kept secret. Doc Ziegler wanted it that way because he was fearful of what would occur if word leaked out. Hoffman kept it under wraps because he knew that Dianabol gave his York lifters a huge edge over their opponents.

Yet there were a few other Olympic lifters who found out about the drug. Tony Garcy used them after he relocated to York, but he didn’t get them from Ziegler. Grimek gave him some from the supply Doc had given him. Tony added 100 pounds to his total in a year, but didn’t get as much notice as Bill did, because March was featured in every issue of S&H and often wrote an article on rack training. 

Hoffman himself let the cat out of the bag on a visit to Houston in 1960. He bragged to Nat Heard about the unbelievable progress that March had made using Dianabol. Nat told Tommy Suggs and Terry Todd, and they began taking it. Nat also told Sid Henry, but Sid never bothered to try to find the drug. He thought a person would have to be crazy to mess with his endocrine system.

There was one other lifter who learned about Dianabol and started using it. He’s important to this story because he would eventually do battle with Bill for the right to represent the country at the ‘64 Olympics in Tokyo.

Louis Riecke was a 34-year-old light heavy from New Orleans. He had been competing for over 20 years, had won the Juniors in 1955, but had never quite broken through to the top tier in the sport. When the Olympic team stayed and trained in York prior to going to Rome in 1960, clinics were held for some of the more promising lifters in the country. Riecke was invited. 

During that time he developed a rash on his waist. Doc Ziegler was staying at the Yorktowne Hotel, so Louis went there to see if he could take care of the problem. While Doc wrote out a scrip for some ointment, they visited. When Doc found out that the well-mannered, articulate athlete had a degree in zoology and biochemistry plus two years of medical school, he was very intrigued. Louis took this opportunity to ask Doc about March’s new form of training. He wanted desperately to break out of his rut and move to a higher level.

Doc decided not only to tell Riecke about his method of rack training, but about Dianabol as well. Then Doc invited Louis to come stay at his place for a week so he could personally teach him all the finer points involved in isotonic-isometric training. Gratefully, Louis accepted.

I was living in Dallas at that time, attending SMU and training with Sid Henry at the Downtown Y. I had lifted against Louis several times. He was the number one light heavyweight in the Southwest, but I had progressed enough to where I usually finished in second, right behind him. At a meet in Austin in the spring of ’60, Louis did 260, 260, 320 for a 840 total. This equaled his best total and I had visions of catching him, especially in the clean and jerk.

Two months later, in Houston, he absolutely stunned everyone in attendance by doing 290, 290, 360. No one had ever added 100 pounds to their total in that short span of time, especially someone far past his prime. Of course, Louis had sworn to Doc that he would not mention a word about Dianabol. All the credit for his astounding improvement was attributed to using Ziegler’s isotonic-isometric system in the power rack.

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