The bodybuilding community is mourning the loss of one of its legendary female bodybuilders who paved the way for others, Tonya Knight.
Cardio was an event if it had to be done outdoors. If she was doing her “serious” cardio, a typical session was on the stationary bike she had in her living room. There was a perfectly square tall column table next to it to store her things – water, TV remote, etc. Tonya Knight shopped for days to find this table. She was so proud of her little home cardio arrangement and found this weird column table that was tall enough for the purposes; that motivated her to use it, I guess. Outdoor cardio was a brisk walk. But not just any old speedwalk.
As I said, it was an event. Twice a week, we would start at his apartment, just off Lincoln Blvd in Santa Monica, and walk south to Marina del Rey plaza—three or four miles each way. There was a chicken coop there, near the movie theater, which was a known bodybuilder haunt called Kook-A-Roo. We would stop there first for the chicken. Then to Heidi’s for sugar and fat free frozen yogurt, then see a movie (mid afternoon), then walk back. Fast.
At Kook-A-Roo, she still got the white quarter, but kept the wing instead of omitting it, as many bodybuilders who went there did. She crumpled up in the seat and bit into the crustiest part most avoided (by bodybuilders) of the bird, saying it was her “cheater”, with a raspy, mischievous chuckle in her voice – as if she knew she was doing something wrong, like a little child.
These walks were epic. I had such a hard time following her. “Come on! It’s cardio! I’m not slowing down! That was before her 1991 Mrs. International victory that catapulted her into the stratosphere as far as our little world is concerned. It was hard to talk and walk at her pace, but we chatted all the way to Lincoln and back to her house about what was going on in our lives. This girl was so busy in her head. She knew what she had right now wasn’t going to last forever, so she made the most of it.
This girl left the house, even if it was to take out the trash, turned out. She always looked like she was doing a photo shoot – hair, makeup, her outfit – everything was perfect, all the time. She thought it would be her luck that the day she exhausted herself for a minute with a cap without makeup, that would be the day an opportunity presented itself. No, it would have mattered; even with a cap and no makeup, this girl looked gorgeous.
These walks in Lincoln were no exception. Have you ever heard the expression “This girl could cause a traffic accident?” Well, she almost did one day. Right in front of us. The guy was looking at her as he ran over a stopped car and nearly ran her over from behind. I say this not to glorify her appearance, but rather to say that while it may seem that way from the outside, her looks don’t define her. His appearance was his job. Tonya – the real person – was the always smiling, innocent kid from Missouri. She was as “girl next door” as it gets. Unpretentious, kind, humble to a fault, and just the sweetest human you could ever talk to. And shy too. She was talking to me about dating a guy and had to sit across the room to do it. The first three sentences were total word salad until she had a little more nerve. You would look at Tonya and think she would have no problem with anything. But she only played a superhero on TV.
While Tonya was doing Gladiators, I introduced her to my friend John, and they got married. She quit Gladiators and moved on. I did too. Years passed and we separated. We had spouses and children and divorces…. and we got sick and got better. We reconnected recently, within the past two years. When she told me she had cancer, I thought she would get over it too. I didn’t know it was that bad. I don’t think she did either, not until the end, anyway. We talked about it and she never said “why me?” In fact, she said, “why not me?” A gladiator all the way.
Of all the things we did together, the trips, the hangouts, the mischief, the workouts, being with her when she won the Ms. International… It was those long talks about those long walks in Lincoln that made me made me realize that I had a really cool friendship with a very special person. As far as our industry is concerned, she is an undeniable legend. An icon. Someone whose presence was unique and his contribution was so impactful that Tonya Knight will never die. Never.