The bodybuilding community mourns the loss of one of its legendary female bodybuilders who paved the way for others, Tonya Knight.
Cardio was an event if it was going to be done outside. If she was doing her “serious” cardio, a typical session was on the stationary bike she had in her living room. It had a perfectly square high column table next to it to hold her stuff – water, TV remote, etc. Tonya Knight shopped for days to find that table. She was so proud of her little home cardio arrangement and that she found that odd column table that was high enough for needs; it motivated her to use it, I suppose. The outside cardio was a speed walk. But not any old speed walk mind you.
Like I said, it was an event. A couple of times a week, we’d start at her apartment, just off Lincoln Blvd in Santa Monica, and walk south, down to the plaza in Marina del Rey – three or four miles each way. There was a chicken place there, near the movie theater, that was a known bodybuilder haunt called Kook-A-Roo. We’d stop there for chicken first. Then to Heidi’s for some sugar-free/ fat-free frozen yogurt, then see a movie (in the middle of the afternoon), then walk back. Fast.
At Kook-A-Roo she’d always get the white quarter, but kept the wing instead of omitting it, as did a lot of bodybuilders who went there. She’d scrunch herself down in the seat and bite into the crunchiest most shunned (by bodybuilders) part of the bird, saying it was her “cheat,” with a raspy little mischievous giggle in her voice – like she knew she was doing something bad, just like a little kid.
Those walks were epic. I had such a hard time keeping up with her. “Come on! This is cardio! I’m not slowing down!” This was prior to her 1991 Ms. International win that catapulted her to the stratosphere as far as our little world goes. It was hard to talk and walk at her pace, but we chatted the whole way down Lincoln and back to her place about what was going on in our lives. That girl was so busy in her head. She knew that what she had going on at the moment wasn’t going to last forever, so she milked it for all it was worth.
That girl left the house, even it was to take out the trash, turned out. She always looked like she was doing a photo shoot – hair, makeup, her outfit – everything perfect, all the time. She thought it would be her luck that the one day she ran out for a minute in a ball cap and no makeup would be the day an opportunity would come up. No, that it would have mattered; even in a ball cap and no makeup that girl was stunning.
Those walks down Lincoln were no exception. You ever hear the expression, “That girl could cause a traffic accident?” Well, she nearly did one day. Right in front of us. Dude was staring at her as he was running up on a stopped car and nearly rear-ended it. I say this not to extol her looks, but rather to say that, while it may seem so from the outside, her looks did not define her. How she looked was her job. Tonya – the actual person – was the always smiling, innocent kid from Missouri. She was as “girl next door” as you could get. Unassuming, kind, humble to a fault, and just the sweetest human you could ever talk to. And shy too. She’d talk to me about dating a guy and have to sit on the other side of the room to do it. The first three sentences were total word salad until she worked up some more nerve. You’d look at Tonya and think she wouldn’t have a 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 away. I did too. The years passed and we drifted apart. We had spouses and kids and divorces…. and we got sick and we got better. We reconnected recently, over the last couple of years. When she told me she had cancer, I thought she’d get over this too. I had no idea it was so bad. I don’t think she did either, not until the end, anyway. We talked about it and she never once said “why me?” In fact, she said, “why not me?” A gladiator until the end.
Out of all the things we did together, the trips, the outings, the mischief, the training sessions, being with her when she won the Ms. International… It was those long talks on those long walks down Lincoln that made me realize I had a really cool friendship with a very special person. As far as our industry goes, she’s an undeniable legend. An icon. Someone whose presence was unique and her contribution was so impactful that Tonya Knight will never die. Ever.