Bruce Wilhelm was the first person to be called “The World’s Strongest Man”. He was born on July 13, 1945 in Watsonville, CA. Back in the day he was quite famous and met some famous strength athletes.
Bruce has always been interested in athletics. His career began in junior high school with wrestling, swimming, and shot-putting. At this time he had no idea or even knew of weight training or weightlifting. It was at Fremont High School when Bruce was a freshman that he was introduced to the weights. He was fascinated!
It was Christmas of 1959 that he got his first 110lb exercise set. He quickly outgrew his beginners set. His father purchased more weight and Bruce got into heavy training. He stood a shade over 6 foot and weighed 180 pounds when he started.
By his senior year he reached his full height – 6′ 3″ and filled out to 240 pounds. He did it all: water polo, shot discus and wrestling. He was All American in both athletics and wrestling. When just a freshman he threw the shot further like a basbeball than via the conventional style. This style hurt his elbow.
Bruce picked Stanford as his collegiate choice. But Uncle Sam interrupted his education and he was stationed at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, outside Indianapolis, IN.
After Army he was following the Olympic Weightlifting but Bruce underwent knee surgery. He was born with Osgood-Slaughter’s Disease, a congenital bone defect. It was removed and they re-attached the patella tendon, but he may have pushed his recovery a bit too fast.
Jon Cole (Powerlifting Legend): “Wilhelm was a highly gifted athlete. He excelled in the shot and Olympic lifting. If it weren’t for his knee problems he would have been an exceptional powerlifter, too.”
Bruce was physically unable to defend his Weightlifting National Title in 1977, reinjuring himself in a tune-up meet. Wilhelm held himself together long enough to earn a high 5th place finish at the Worlds that fall in Stuttgart.
His showing drew attention and he was invited to participate in the Worlds Strongest Man competition. He came out the winner and turned more than a few heads. The event was televised nationwide on CBS’ Sports. Bruce was voted as the “Lifter of the year”.
Bruce retired from active W/L competition due to recurring elbow and knee problems, but defended his WSM title in July 1978. The 2nd competition was even tougher. Bruce was at full strength and big as a house at 326. The final even was the tug-o-war.
He pulled against Sweden’s massive Lars Hedlund. Bruce won and both men required oxygen afterward due to the smog, heat and exhaustion.
Wilhelm faced the ‘Leviathan’ in the final pull. It was Don Reinhoudt, 5 times World Powerlifting Champion. But Bruce won the ’78 WSM.
Don Reinhoudt was the biggest man in the contest (18lb heavier than Bruce). Don trained for the competition like a demon, his mind on revenge for ’79. Bruce had his elbow operated and was not able to participate. Don won the competition.
Life after lifting
Bruce retired around 1985. He had fallen in love with a japanese lady. At this time she was 31 and Bruce was 49. Today they are proud parents of two children: Jennifer and Brian.
Family life has changed his perspective on life. As a competitive lifter he was the center of his own world. Now he revolves around his family.
The Japanese culture refined Bruce. “I’m not the easiest person to live with. Her tolerance made me want to change. I find myself never cussing around the house. I respect my family too much.”
Both his kids, at age 5, were able to do 5 complete pull ups. Both liked soccer. Bruce did not encourage them to take up the weights.
Pictures of his own lifting days graced the living room in full view. Both kids have watched his World’s Strongest Man video tapes numerous times.