Lean, mean, muscle machine: 80-year-old bodybuilder continues to defy all odds

Calvyn Fortuin isn’t your average 79-year-old.  (Fani Manhunts)
Calvyn Fortuin isn’t your average 79-year-old. (Fani Manhunts)

He’s been bodybuilding since he was a teen – now Calvyn Fortuin is teaching youngsters the value of his sport

Most men pushing 80 might greet you with a handshake and the offer of a cup of tea, but the man before us is upside-down with both legs in the air, moving his limbs back and forth in a frog-like motion.

Calvyn isn’t your average 79-year-old – in fact, he isn’t your average anything. He may be a great-grandfather but he’s fitter than most men half his age, as wiry as a teenager and an avid participant in bodybuilding competitions. Calvyn, who lives in Heidedal, Bloemfontein, won his first title in 1964 at 25 when he was crowned Mr Free State and intends being a lean, mean, musclebound machine until his last day on Earth.

Even more remarkable is the fact that Calvyn’s gym at the back of his home is filled with equipment he’s mostly made himself. Homemade weights consisting of cement-filled tins lie among the benches and dumbbells, and a punching bag swings from a metal frame. Money is tight, the pensioner says, lying back on one of the benches, a dumbbell in each hand.

'My years are old but I’m not old'

He starts lifting the weights with ease. "It’s nice when you’re fit," he says. "You enjoy life. I always tell the guys, my years are old but I’m not old. I still feel young.'"

Calvyn lives by a set of golden rules. His daily ritual starts every morning at the crack of dawn. "I get up 05:00, go to the bathroom and I pray. I get in the bath, I make a cup of tea, I make up my bed and then I’m in the gym."

He works out five days a week, working on a split system. One day he’ll focus on his lower body and the next his upper.  

When it comes to food, he doesn’t restrict himself. He’s a vegetarian but apart from not eating meat he says, "I eat anything. I believe you burn it when you train." 

The lounge of his home is stacked with some of the 300 trophies and medals he’s won over the years. In one corner is a framed photograph of him as a younger man, oiled muscles glistening, posing in nothing but a pair of red briefs.

"This was when I won the SA title in 1983," he says. "I was 45. I was overwhelmed. The bonus is I got to go to England to take part in the world champs. It was the first time I went overseas – and the last." 

'I was awarded Springbok colours'

He shows us the green blazer he received. "I was awarded Springbok colours but I got the green and gold jacket with only the South African emblem on it," he says. "The Springbok emblem was only for the white man at that time." 

Recently he competed in the National Amateur Body Builders Association’s dual event with the World Fitness Federation at the Bloem Classic and came third. He also came first at the Free State and Northern Cape Provincials in September. "They gave me R1 000. It’s the first time I won money."

Calvyn’s lasting love affair with body-building began when he was growing up in the Karoo town of Noupoort.  

As a scrawny teenager he became fascinated by a power lifter in the area, admiring his muscles and his passion for the discipline.

"My dream was to become strong too. My dad was a builder and he made me some weights with cement in paint tins, then he added a bar," he says. "I picked it up every day and I became strong. I can’t remember how heavy it was but by the time I was 18, I was the strongest man in our community."

Father-and-son pair win the South African Championships

He saved money to buy bodybuilding books so he could educate himself about the sport. Calvyn believes his muscles helped him attract the attention of his late wife, Ethel. "She was very beautiful," he says. They met in 1958, were married for 53 years and had six children, some of whom Calvyn encouraged to get involved in bodybuilding too. "My son, Grimek, competed. We were the first and last father-and-son pair to win the South African Championships back in 1982.

He died at 21 in a motorbike accident. "My other son, Melvyn, was involved as well but had too many other interests so he never became a champion. My daughter, Diana, also competed." 

Calvyn credits Ethel, who died 18 months ago, for a lot of the success he’s enjoyed. "She supported me so much. She always came with me to competitions. The only time she didn’t was when I went to London," he says. "I miss her a lot."

But Ethel also had her concerns and would fret that Calvyn was putting strain on his heart with all the exertion. "One day I had a pain in my chest just under my collarbone and my sister-in- law, who was a nurse, advised me to get checked out at hospital. The doctor stripped me, put monitors on me and told me to run up and down the steps. After half an hour he told me he wished he had my heart!"

The 7 D's

Calvyn loves to spread his passion for bodybuilding and opened his little home gym to the people in his community years ago. He currently trains about 30 youngsters, which he sees as a way to keep them off the street. He teaches them what he calls his  "seven Ds': desperation, determination, dedication, devotion, desire, dream and discipline. These, he says, can help them achieve their goals. "I also tell them if you want to live to a ripe old age, you must always honour your parents and believe in God."

You must stay away from drugs and alcohol and try not to lose your temper. Always be calm and humble. "The guys come every day for about 90 minutes. I charge R5 a day and I save that money to compete."

Calvyn, who used to work as a carpet fitter and tiler before he retired and still does the odd flooring job, says competing is expensive but there’s no way he’ll stop. With the little money he has, he pays for his entrance fees, competition cream to rub on his body and special briefs to wear on stage.

Right now he’s training to compete in the Bloem Show in April next year. He also hopes to represent South Africa again.

Calvyn’s muscles may be big but his faith is even bigger and, after his wife, that’s the most important thing he’s relied on over the years. "If God spares me to 100 [years old], I’ll still compete. I enjoy it very much."   

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