Most people get a gym membership to work on their bodies and improve their health. But what happens when these same people start falling dead in their hotel rooms, swimming pools, or worse, on stage due to a heart attack?
Well, we do not need to put on our thinking hats for this as this scenario has been playing out in real life in the pro bodybuilding circuit.
The worst part?
Deaths due to heart attacks have been occurring way too frequently, especially since 2019, and cannot be labeled coincidences or pushed under the rug anymore.
- Is Bodybuilding Safe?
- 21 Bodybuilders who Died of Heart Attacks
- 1. Shawn Rhoden
- 2. Dallas McCarver
- 3. George Peterson
- 4. Mike Horn
- 5. Chester Yorton
- 6. Ed Kawak
- 7. Daryl Stafford
- 8. Scott Milne
- 9. Novoa Mendez
- 10. Mariola Sabanovic-Suarez
- 11. Mike Mitchell
- 12. Art Atwood
- 13. Franco Columbu
- 14. Vince Comerford
- 15. Frank Hillebrand
- 16. Hans Hopstaken
- 17. Greg Kovacs
- 18. Charles Durr
- 19. Daniele Seccarecci
- 20. Mike Mentzer
- 21. Mike Matarazzo
Is Bodybuilding Safe?
This is one of the most common and frequent questions critics raise when a tragedy strikes the bodybuilding world.
People who think the dehydrated bodybuilders with 4% body fat on the Olympia stage are “healthy,” probably do not understand the word’s meaning.
But is bodybuilding safe?
Yes, if your goal is to get in shape and you have no intentions of competing or using any drug.
On the other hand, if your goal is to step on a stage and go head to head with the best bodybuilders in the world, things can spiral out of control too fast too soon, especially if you have no idea what you are doing.
Forget bodybuilding, this is true for every other high-stakes sport played at the top level. NASCAR, MotoGP, skiing, polo, rugby all come with an element of risk. Sportsmen effectively put their lives on the line to come out on top.
Bodybuilding and Heart Attacks
While initially, the passings were brushed aside by blaming rookies for their inexplicit drug use, things turned on their heads when pro bodybuilders, people at the top of the food chain (read: Mr. Olympia), started losing their lives to cardiac arrests.
The genie is out of the bottle now, and he is not going back inside until health issues concerning steroid use in bodybuilding are discussed openly, and rules to regulate their use are enforced.
To the credit of the bodybuilding fraternity, these tragic incidents are not going unnoticed. Many pro bodybuilders and gurus have been raising their voices and demanding regular pro bodybuilder health checks.
Should we expect things to change any time soon? We do not know, but it is good to see dialogue happening on this front at the top level.
21 Bodybuilders who Died of Heart Attacks
Here are 21 bodybuilders who lost their lives to a heart attack:
1. Shawn Rhoden
November 6, 2021 – The day the bodybuilding and fitness world was jolted by pro bodybuilder and 2018 Mr. Olympia winner Shawn Rhoden’s sudden passing, reportedly owing to a heart attack.
Rhoden was no ordinary bodybuilder. Apart from his monster shoulders and giant quads, he made history in 2018 by becoming the oldest bodybuilder (at 43 years and five months old) to win the Mr. Olympia crown.
Sadly, Shawn Rhoden was banned from competing at the 2019 Mr. Olympia contest due to a sexual assault accusation. Who knew 2018 would be Shawn’s last time on the Olympia stage?
Unfortunately, Rhoden did not get an opportunity to defend himself or clear his name.
Maybe it was the heart attack that got him, or maybe Sergio Oliva Jr. hit the nail on its head when he said, “Shawn Rhoden died because he couldn’t do what he loved.“
2. Dallas McCarver
The 6’1″ 300 lb mass monster was an upcoming bodybuilding star, and gurus believed that he was destined to be a future Mr. Olympia champ. Dallas McCarver started his career early and earned his pro card at 21.
Contrary to what many people believe, Dallas “Big Country” McCarver’s demise was not so sudden. The first signs of Dallas’ frailing health were on public display when he collapsed while posing at the Arnold Classic in Australia.
Although he had returned to his routine training soon after the incident, he was found unconscious in his home in August 2017.
At the time of his passing, it was reported that he died after choking on food, but his autopsy report pointed elsewhere. Three months after his death, it was found that Dallas’ case was of severe cardiomegaly, meaning – abnormal enlargement of the heart.
Cardiomegaly is common in people who use anabolic steroids and HGH (human growth hormone). McCarver’s heart weighed around 833 gms, almost three times the size of a normal human heart (300 gms).
Dallas McCarver’s autopsy explicitly stated that he passed due to an ‘un-witnessed acute cardiac event‘, putting the food choking theory to rest.
3. George Peterson
George “Da Bull” Peterson passed away days before competing at the 2021 Olympia. The Classic Physique and 212 division veteran expected to return to the big stage at the Olympia weekend, where he hoped to break his streak of landing in third place at each showing.
The 37-year-old bodybuilding star was found in his hotel room, face down after his coach was unable to reach him. Reportedly, George was found with blood around his nose which suggests that his passing could be related to an aneurysm.
His coach, hotel staff, and later the EMTs tried to revive him with CPR, but to no avail, as it appeared that he had been gone for several hours.
According to George’s coach, Justin Miller, he was energetic and on point, both mentally and physically, and hence the tragic news came out of nowhere. George Peterson was a nice guy and a great ambassador for the sport. His passing was mourned by the entire bodybuilding fraternity.
4. Mike Horn
IFBB pro, nutritionist, and a beloved personal trainer, Mike Horn has made a name for himself as a man who cares about others more than himself.
Mike Horn passed away due to a cardiac arrest. It was a tragic loss that his sister, Vicki Gray, believes could have been prevented as there were some symptoms that Mike was experiencing before the heart attack that claimed his life.
According to Vicki, Mike was facing frequent chest and arm pain but refused to see a doctor. Horn brushed these symptoms off as nothing too serious and continued with his normal routine.
Mike Horn would collapse on March 26th, before passing away 13 days later, from a heart attack at the age of 55.
5. Chester Yorton
The “Father of Natural Bodybuilding” passed away from a heart attack in November 2020. Tragically, Chester “Chet” Yorton died at the age of 81, just hours after he found his wife dead (cause unknown).
Chet promoted drug-free training and had an awe-inspiring physique in his prime. He trained regularly and was shredded even at the time of his passing.
Yorton suffered serious injuries and was almost killed in an automobile accident in his youth. He began resistance training as part of rehab and fell in love with it.
Chester won the prestigious Mr. American and Mr. Universe bodybuilding competitions. He was also one of the very few bodybuilders to have defeated Arnold Schwarzenegger. Chet achieved the feat at the 1996 NABBA Mr. Universe (amateur) contest in London, England.
Yorton also beat Frank Zane by one point in a competition. On top of that, Chet had a short stint as an actor in the films, “Muscle Beach Party” and “Don’t Make Waves”.
6. Ed Kawak
Kawak passed away in 2006 at the young age of 47. The mass monster’s passing came as a shock to the bodybuilding community as he was one of the best in business at the time.
Eduardo Kawak won the NABBA Mr. Universe five times in the early and mid-’80s. NABBA Mr. Universe competition was the premiere bodybuilding contest before the Olympia. Until 1971, NABBA Mr. Universe rivaled Mr. Olympia in terms of prestige.
Ed Kawak was a legendary bodybuilder who won the NABBA Mr. Universe for a record five times (tied with Eddy Ellwood). In today’s terms, you could consider Kawak the Phil Heath of NABBA.
7. Daryl Stafford
Daryl Stafford started his bodybuilding journey at age 25 in 1984. He earned his Pro card in 1993. Stafford reportedly passed away at the age of 58 due to a heart attack.
His first show was the 1994 Chicago Pro where he placed 11th. He continued to rise in the ranks and popularity – with his highest placing being the Masters Olympia 2003 where he placed third.
8. Scott Milne
IFBB pro bodybuilder Scott Milne died unexpectedly of a heart attack at his home at the age of 46. The Canadian bodybuilder competed from 1996-2004, earning his pro card in 2002.
Milne struggled with injuries throughout his career and never registered a pro contest win. As a result, Scott stopped competing and instead focused his efforts on helping others train. He also had a few acting gigs in a Canadian TV show.
In a 2010 interview, Scott had expressed that a major influence on his desire to compete in bodybuilding came from none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Scott Milne had some controversial legal issues in his lifetime, with trafficking drugs and steroids, but the 6’3″ 250 lbs big-hearted giant was nonetheless loved by the bodybuilding community.
Dave Palumbo posted the following message about the unfortunate death.
“Sorry to hear that one of the true Super Freaks Scott Milne has passed away from a heart attack. The “Canadian Moose” as he was known will be missed but not forgotten.”
9. Novoa Mendez
Novoa Mendez was a Dominican bodybuilder who succumbed to a heart attack. According to some reports, Mendez had pre-existing health issues and suffered a cardiac arrest at the age of 49 which resulted in his death.
Novoa Mendez was considered one of the strongest men in the Dominican Republic. He was known to dwarf his competition on stage with his incredible size and definition.
Mendez was one of the first DR athletes who made a career out of bodybuilding. He was awarded bodybuilder of the year by the Association of Sports Reporters of Santiago (ACDS) on several occasions.
Mendez belonged to the same town as the IFBB pro bodybuilder, Victor Martinez. The two only competed against and met each other once at the 2013 Toronto Pro show.
Here is an excerpt from what Martinez wrote about Mendez on Instagram following his passing:
“I got the chance to compete with him in the Toronto pro show in 2013 and his physique caught my eyes because he was very impressive.
… I never got to see you again my friend, but one thing I can say for sure is that you were a very kind and good-hearted man that never reached his full potential.”
10. Mariola Sabanovic-Suarez
Mariola Sabanovic-Suarez passed away tragically only days after Tampa Pro. The 43 years old Female Physique competitor died of a heart attack a couple of days after placing 16th at the 2019 Tampa pro show.
Sadly, it was her debut show, and she could not realize her full potential. She suffered a sudden heart attack which took her life.
11. Mike Mitchell
Mike Mitchell is probably the most famous individual on this list. Known for his roles in ‘Braveheart‘ and ‘Gladiator‘, Mitchell passed away from a heart attack in Turkey.
The bodybuilding champ turned actor died on a boat in Turkey at the age of 65.
Mitchell totaled five Masters Mr. World titles and two Mr. Universe titles with the World Fitness Federation. He also competed in many strongman competitions including Britain’s Strongest Man contest.
Mike Mitchell gained attention due to his incredible size that also helped him land some movie roles. He has also appeared in ‘One Day Removals’, ‘City of Hell’, and ‘Skyfall’.
Mitchell suffered his first heart attack after winning his fifth World Fitness Federation title in 2006. It led him to take a break from competing.
12. Art Atwood
Atwood’s first competition was in 2000. He placed first in the super-heavyweight class of the Junior USA. He turned pro when he debuted at the 2001 Toronto Pro, where he took first place.
Atwood met with a tragic end. Atwood was walking through the pool area of his condominium complex when he had a heart attack.
Two residents who were at the pool saw him fall in and immediately pulled him out. Although they were able to revive him and call paramedics, Atwood passed away at a nearby hospital at the age of 37. The coroner’s report showed that Atwood died of a massive heart attack. It also stated that Atwood unknowingly suffered a minor heart attack about a month previous.
13. Franco Columbu
The man needs no introduction. Columbu was a legend and probably the strongest pound-for-pound bodybuilder of all time. He won the Mr. Olympia title in 1976 and 1981 and also starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger (his long-time buddy) in the 1977 documentary, Pumping Iron.
Know as “The Sardinian Strongman,” Columbu was also well-known for his strength, having PRs that included a 750-pound deadlift, 665-pound squat, 525-pound bench press, and 400-pound clean and jerk.
After experiencing a heart attack while swimming off the coast of San Teodoro, Sardinia, Columbu drowned and later died during transportation by helicopter to a hospital. He was 78 years old.
14. Vince Comerford
Vince Comerford burst onto the bodybuilding scene at age 26 by winning the middleweight division at the 1987 NPC Nationals.
Comerford passed away at his local gym at the age of 52. The cause was reportedly a heart attack, and despite CPR being attempted, he was pronounced dead in the gym.
Comerford was infamous for leaving the IFBB for Vince McMahon’s ill-fated World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF). He finished seventh in their inaugural 1991 World Championships.
15. Frank Hillebrand
Known for his aesthetics and conditioning, Frank Hillebrand died of a heart attack at the age of 45 in 2007. His best placing at a pro show was a seventh-place finish at 1990 Mr. Olympia.
Frank is the second guy on the list who died of a cardiac arrest while working out at a gym. Reportedly, Hillebrand was having trouble breathing during his training, so he was taken to the front lobby to relax, but he collapsed to the floor shortly after.
After about 15 minutes of chest compressions by four paramedics, an ambulance took Frank to the hospital, but it was too late.
16. Hans Hopstaken
Hans Hopstaken was known for being an NPC and IFBB master’s competitor. At the IFBB, his most noteworthy placing were two top-five finishes at the Master’s Olympia. Hopstaken passed away at the age of 45 due to a heart attack.
According to the gym owner where Hopstaken worked as a personal trainer, “Hans got real sick about six weeks before he passed away. He was having breathing difficulties and had to go to the emergency room at Santa Teresita Hospital, where he was diagnosed with heart disease. He developed pneumonia and had kidney problems as well at the time of his death.”
17. Greg Kovacs
Greg Kovacs is probably the biggest bodybuilder on this list. He was the first bodybuilder to weigh over 400 lbs and still be ripped. Gregory developed over 27-inch arms in the prime of his career.
Kovacs died of a heart attack in 2013 at the age of 44. Even though he was a pro bodybuilder, he did not place well in any shows. He was known to be the largest bodybuilder in the competitive circuit.
Greg Kovac was not really an aesthetically appealing bodybuilder, especially towards the end of his career. Greg’s muscle imbalances combined with his bodybuilder’s gut hampered his placing in every show.
18. Charles Durr
Charles Durr won the Mr. Central States in 1990, Mr. USA in 1991, Mr. America in 1996, and Mr. North America in 2000. He also took home fifth place in Mr. Universe in 1997.
Durr accomplished a lot before his bodybuilding career. He was invited to the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team in 1980. He also worked for numerous charities and continued to do so while pursuing pro bodybuilding.
Charles Durr reportedly died of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 44.
19. Daniele Seccarecci
Aside from being a top-ranked bodybuilder from Europe, Daniele was also a holder of the Guinness Book of Records as the man with the largest arms in the world (55cm/21.65 inches) and the heaviest competitive male bodybuilder with a competition weight of 135 kg (297.62 lbs.)
Daniele Seccarecci died at the age of 33 from a heart attack in 2013. The 6’2″ Italian bodybuilder reportedly suffered from a heart condition that resulted in a heart attack. According to rumors, Seccarecci collapsed due to a cardiac arrest and struck his head while falling to the floor.
20. Mike Mentzer
According to official reports, Mike Mentzer died of heart complications, but most people consider heart attack to be the cause of his passing. Mentzer was a legendary bodybuilder from the golden era of bodybuilding.
Most people remember Mike Mentzer from the 1980 Olympia where they felt he got an unfair fifth placing. 1980 was the year when the Governator made his comeback and won the Sandow. As a result, Mentzer boycotted the 1981 Olympia and retired soon after at the age of 29. He passed away in 2001 at 49-years-old.
While prepping for the 1980 Olympia, Mike Mentzer started using amphetamines. The warning signs of waning health started showing soon after.
Twice during his prep, Mike awoke to find himself, “at death’s door.” He was so fatigued that he couldn’t even raise his arms, and had to stay in bed for the remainder of the day. It all went downhill from here.
Mike’s younger brother Ray Mentzer (Mr. America 1979) discovered Mike dead in his bed due to a heart attack. The death of his beloved brother was too much to bear for Ray. Ray too died within 48 hours of Mike’s passing.
21. Mike Matarazzo
Mike Matarazzo was a legendary bodybuilder who frequently ended in the top 10 positions in his pro showings. He was a 4X top-five finisher at the Night of Champions.
He died of a heart attack at the age of 47 in 2014. Mike Matarazzo had various health and heart issues leading up to his death. He is also the only bodybuilder on the list who went on record to say that steroids were the cause of his health problems and that he regrets what he did to his body.
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Make no mistake, this article is not about dissing the pro bodybuilders or their choices. Consider this a homage to the athletes who succumbed to heart attacks.
We hope pro bodybuilding federations take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of pro athletes. We’d hate to see promising talent give up on the sport due to health and safety issues.