At 70, he's a prize-winning bodybuilder

Peter Ciraulo trains at Synergy Fitness in Garden Peter Ciraulo trains at Synergy Fitness in Garden City Park. Ciraulo, 70, is fairly new to bodybuilding. He began training 10 years ago and has entered competitions. (Oct. 29, 2013) Photo Credit: Jeremy Bales

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Clad in little more than a skintight Speedo, 70-year-old Peter Ciraulo stepped onto the stage of the Jeanne Rimsky Theater at the Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington.

In the audience, his daughter, Christina Heath, jumped to her feet and cheered. She had traveled from her home outside Chicago to see her dad compete here, in the 11th annual Long Island Experience bodybuilding show.

Heath, 32, knew that what could appear to be a narcissistic display of Social Securityeligible flesh actually represented something more significant. Her dad, a man who had largely subordinated his life to others, who had remained in the background while his loved ones shined, was now commanding the spotlight -- and loving every minute.

"I'm enjoying seeing my dad happy and doing something he enjoys, for once," she said. And, she added with a laugh, "It's very brave of him to be doing this in a little Speedo in front of an audience."

The Sept. 28 show was the third bodybuilding competition for Ciraulo, a grandfather of three, and he was the oldest of 44 contestants. At the end of the night, his chiseled 5-feet 11-inch, 164-pound physique earned him two trophies -- one gold, one silver.

Ciraulo put on quite a show for the 308 audience members that night. Wearing a fedora and a jacket, he did a mock striptease, disrobing to his swimwear. "When I took the jacket off and swung it around and flung it . . . the girls went crazy," he says.

"He looked really good," said his trainer, Robert Stevens of Synergy Fitness Club in Garden City Park, where Ciraulo works out. "He was supremely confident, not a hint of nervousness."

While sculpted bodies were the order of the day, the show's promoter, Phil Sottile, says the Long Island Experience competitors "are not just muscleheads. We focus on the person's other achievements, as well."

 

The story with the body

Sottile, who owns Intelligent Fitness gym in East Northport, says bulging biceps and cantaloupe-size calf muscles are elements of the contest, but he also seeks competitors with "good stories" that he uses when introducing them to the audience.

He knew he found one when he talked with Ciraulo on the phone for the first time. "I could tell in his voice he was a sensitive person," Sottile says. "And he had used health and fitness to combat and surmount personal inequities in his life that he was trying to make right. And he did."

Sottile is well aware of the notoriously drug-fueled culture that often is associated with bodybuilding and is a strong critic of it. Ciraulo, he says, is the antithesis of all that. "He is the diametric opposite personality of the typical competitive bodybuilder . . . In the self-centered, 'me, me, me' bodybuilding world, he's an exception and a shining light."

Being the center of attention is new to Ciraulo. Years before he started focusing on building his body, his life had been devoted to building a happy home for his family. Growing up in Corona, Queens, Ciraulo followed the rules and stayed out of trouble. "I didn't have a choice," he laughs. "My parents were pretty strict." In 1965, he joined the U.S. Navy, graduated from Officer Candidate School the following year and volunteered for duty in Vietnam. There, he worked in Navy Intelligence and learned to speak fluent Vietnamese.

After Ciraulo returned home, he earned a master's degree in international finance at St. John's University, and started a career in banking. At Chemical Bank, he met his future wife, and they married in 1976. The couple moved from Forest Hills to New Hyde Park three years later, and had three children.

 

Life throws him a curve

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With his wife working a corporate job in Manhattan, Ciraulo opted to stay home with the kids and work part-time at various jobs to supplement the family income. "I gave up my career," he says. "I don't regret it, believe me."

In 1999, it all shattered.

As Ciraulo tells it, his wife of 23 years announced one night that she was leaving him. "Devastated" is how he describes his reaction. "I really was not expecting it at all. I really loved her."

The children remained in his custody and lived with him in New Hyde Park as he struggled to come to terms with the divorce. "I didn't know how I was going to deal with it," he recalls. "I went to bars for a while, drowning my sorrow. But I said, 'This isn't for me.' "

Despite his personal upheaval, he was determined to be there for his kids. "He was so supportive," says Heath, who played violin and French horn in school, and is now a music educator. "He took pride in everything we did."

Then, when his mother, Rosalie, had a stroke in 2004, Ciraulo moved her into his house and became her caregiver. Although he had never been deeply involved in his own physical fitness, he thought exercise might help to release some stress. At night, "I'd put my mom to bed at 9 and then head over to the gym," he says. "I used it as therapy. Anything to occupy my mind." After Rosalie died in 2010, and with the kids grown, Ciraulo, at age 67, decided to get serious about developing his physique.

Bodybuilding is not just a matter of getting bigger and stronger. Diet, posing, cardiovascular exercise to burn subcutaneous fat that can help the muscles appear more "defined," are all part of it. When working out at Synergy in Garden City Park, a gym that has produced a number of successful bodybuilders and powerlifters, "I pushed myself to the max," Ciraulo says.

He got help from others, including Stevens, who altered Ciraulo's training: His workouts became shorter but more intense. He began doing the regimen he still follows: an hour of lifting in the morning and a half-hour of cardio in the evening, five days a week.

"It's a lot of exercise," says Gary Hunter, a former competitive weightlifter and a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "But if you're enjoying it and not overtraining, I don't see any reason why he shouldn't do it." Older adults can benefit by doing just 25 percent of Ciraulo's routine, he says.

One thing Ciraulo says he didn't do as part of his contest preparations: steroids or performance-enhancing drugs. They've been a scourge in bodybuilding for decades, prompting the development of "natural" or drug-free competitions, such as the Long Island Experience.

 

Mother was a ham

He adopted a strict diet, high in protein and rich in fruits and vegetables (see Ciraulo's diet at newsday .com/act 2). He also got advice on posing and his stage routine. That's when everything began to click. "My mother was a singer," he says. "She loved having a microphone in front of her. I think I inherited that."

In May 2011, Ciraulo unveiled himself at his first show, in West Nyack. It was a revelation. "I didn't want to get off the stage," he says. He took second place that night. Thirteen months later, he entered the International Natural Bodybuilding & Fitness association's Hercules Championship in Manhattan, placing fourth among competitors 60 and over.

After another year of hard training and dieting, he was facing the audience at the Long Island Experience competition. When he was announced the winner of the Grand Masters Division for Ages 50-and-over and snagged second place in the Masters Men Over 40 age groups, his daughter and two sons, Michael, 34, of Astoria, and Gregory, 26, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, joyously screamed for their dad and his moment in the sun.

"He's always been focused on other people's accomplishments," Heath says. "He never had many of his own to be proud of. I had told him for years, 'Find something for yourself.' It turned out to be this."

 

It's never too late

Peter Ciraulo started serious bodybuilding at 67, and his experience is a reminder that it's not too late to start getting strong.

"For seniors, it's one of the components of health and fitness that we really need to work on, because we lose muscle mass as we get older," says Hank Williford, an exercise scientist and spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine.

"Body weight exercises are a good place to start," Williford says. "Sit-ups, push-ups, chair squats (where you squat down until your rear hits the chair) and then stand up."

You can even use household items to challenge your muscles. "Senior citizens often use 1- or 2-pound cans as weight," he says. "There're all kinds of things you can do. That's why they don't call it 'weight training' anymore; they call it 'resistance training.' "

As part of its physical activity guidelines, the U.S. Department of Health recommends strengthening exercises two to three times a week for older adults.

For more information, go to 1.usa.gov/1bQ4dJs. The National Institutes of Health's Go4Life program also has information on how to start an exercise program, including resistance training, at go4life.nia.nih.gov.

Peter Ciraulo started serious bodybuilding at 67, and his experience is a reminder that it's not too late to start getting strong.

"For seniors, it's one of the components of health and fitness that we really need to work on, because we lose muscle mass as we get older," says Hank Williford, an exercise scientist and spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine.

"Body weight exercises are a good place to start," Williford says. "Sit-ups, push-ups, chair squats (where you squat down until your rear hits the chair) and then stand up."

You can even use household items to challenge your muscles. "Senior citizens often use 1- or 2-pound cans as weight," he says. "There're all kinds of things you can do. That's why they don't call it 'weight training' anymore; they call it 'resistance training.' "

As part of its physical activity guidelines, the U.S. Department of Health recommends strengthening exercises two to three times a week for older adults.

For more information, go to 1.usa.gov/1bQ4dJs. The National Institutes of Health's Go4Life program also has information on how to start an exercise program, including resistance training, at go4life.nia.nih.gov. -- John Hanc

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