Towson bodybuilder thunders toward national fame as a 'Gladiator'

September 17, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

On television, the American Gladiator known as Thunder is 280 pounds of major beefcake, although with considerably less fat on him than a McDonald's McLean burger.

On the telephone, he's Bill Smith, an easygoing Towson guy with a wry sense of humor, who can speak knowledgeably about nutrition, biochemistry and anabolic steroids.

Smith, 27, a graduate of Eastern Vocational-Technical High School in Essex, now lives in Los Angeles, but his parents, William Walter and Jeanette Smith, still live in White Marsh. He will return to his hometown Oct. 16 as part of the Gladiators' national tour. The date just happens to coincide with his father's birthday, which makes it an extra-special homecoming for Smith.

"Basically, it's a dream come true, because when I was growing up, I started out as a real skinny kid, getting picked on all the time," said Smith, who joined the four-year-old syndicated television show last year.

He was never the 98-pound weakling of Charles Atlas fame, however. A natural athlete, Smith excelled at several sports, playing high school football and lacrosse.

But in weightlifting, which Smith started at age 16, he found his niche. He won his first bodybuilding competition at 17 and went on to win several more titles. He also used anabolic steroids, but doesn't any more. In fact, the contract for the Gladiators specifically prohibits their use, Smith says, and the Gladiators have to submit to random testing.

It was while working as a nutritional counselor for Gold's Gym Enterprises, a nationwide chain of gyms, that Smith found out about the Gladiator tryouts at Universal Studios. He was initially hired as an alternate, then another Gladiator's injury catapulted Smith into a full-time gig as "Thunder," whose small-screen persona Smith describes as "the big giant of the Gladiators, crazy and fearless."

Smith isn't kidding about the "big giant" part. At 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds, he is less than 7 percent body fat. For a man his age, anything below 9 percent is considered outstanding; the average man in his 20s is 17 percent fat.

But even for a natural athlete like Smith, the cost of maintenance is high, in time and calories. He works out four to six hours a day, following a routine that includes a lot of endurance work -- treadmill, in-line skating, kick-boxing -- and, of course, weightlifting.

To keep going, he estimates he has to eat at least six meals a day, consuming 7,000-8,000 calories, with no more than 10 percent of the calories from dietary fat. "I eat a lot of egg whites and turkey," he said.

In fact, even taking Smith's word that he sleeps as little as three hours a day, it's hard to see how he can work 120 hours a week at Gold's, spend two hours preparing his meals, follow his workout regimen and be a Gladiator. It adds up to about 27 hours a day.

That schedule, grinding as it is, may seem like a week in the countryafter the nationwide tour in which the Gladiators will take on would-be contestants in several cities, including Baltimore.

"No one's ever done this thing every night for seven months," said Smith, who will travel in a custom-fitted van that will allow him to continue to work on his current project, a sports beverage for Gold's.

"It's a matter of survival for us. I have to stress that: We do have to compete every night, we don't get a break. I broke three bones -- my finger and my wrist and dislocated my left shoulder -- and I had to keep playing. That's the name of the game. Either that or you sit out and they have to get a replacement."

Yet the Gladiators never give it less than their best shot, Smith maintains. They want to win "because when we lose, the whole world sees it and that's kind of disheartening."

Well, not the whole world, perhaps, but a good chunk of the television audience. "American Gladiators" is currently number two among the nation's syndicated programs, despite time slots such as 12:30 a.m. Sunday on WJZ-TV here.

Smith has even begun receiving fan mail. And what kind of wisdom does the world seek from Thunder?

"Most of my fan mail is from people who have questions that pertain to nutrition and exercise, that's primarily what people perceive from watching me," Smith said. "They see a guy who's worked out, who's decently lean."

And not too bad at knocking people down, either.

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