TAMPA — In 1979, when the movie Pumping Iron had been out two years and health clubs were signing up record numbers of newcomers, a relatively short and very thick man opened a different kind of gym in Tampa.
University Olympic Gym, across the street from the University of Tampa, used weights smelted by steelworker Ed Gillie, the gym's founder. It catered to powerlifters, like the one doing a barbell-bending dead lift in a mural on the gym's outside wall — people trying to push as much weight as possible.
At 37, Mr. Gillie had only started lifting competitively a year or so earlier. He would go on to a world masters championship and more than a dozen state and regional records.
At his gym at Kennedy Boulevard and Hyde Park Avenue, one of the few "powerhouses" targeting weightlifters (as opposed to bodybuilders) in the area, Mr. Gillie kept the drug dealers and vagrants off his corner — which endeared him to Tampa police — and welcomed the elderly and people with Down syndrome.
He would go on to do many things, none of them easy. Mr. Gillie served as a bodyguard for Rod Stewart and at a Super Bowl, hunted down bail jumpers and repossessed cars, lost a battle to drinking and won it back in sobriety.
Mr. Gillie would continue to challenge his own limits, squatting 730 pounds — more than three and a half times his weight — a couple of weeks before his 50th birthday.
Mr. Gillie, whom peers consider one of Florida's powerlifting pioneers, died Saturday, eight years after he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was 69.
"That was a time when there was not a lot of information about powerlifting going around," said Tom Acker, a former devotee at University Olympic. "This was pre-Internet and pre-YouTube and what have you. You had to get your information from the people that knew, and he was a good source of that."
Though he came to powerlifting late, Mr. Gillie was no stranger to weightlifting, or to adversity. Though he listed his height at 5 feet 8, it was probably a couple of inches shorter than that, said Brian Gillie, his son.
"He picked up weight training as a way to get stronger and bigger, giving him the upper hand with some of the bigger kids who liked to fight," Gillie wrote in an online tribute to his father.
After four years in the Air Force, Mr. Gillie took a Greyhound bus to Tampa with his wife, Mary Kay, and their infant son. Over the next several years, he worked as a shop foreman for Southwestern Steel. At night he worked out at the downtown YMCA, where he met a budding fraternity of powerlifters and bodybuilders who worked out in Tampa gyms. Over the early 1980s, that group included bodybuilding luminaries Frank Zane and Franco Columbu; football player Lyle Alzado and wrestler and gym owner Yasuhiro Kojima, better known as Hiro Matsuda.
Mr. Gillie was taken with the sport and opened his own gym. In 1984, at age 42, Mr. Gillie qualified for the World Masters Powerlifting Championship in Perth, Australia. There he was considered such an underdog, one lifter dropped weight and two others gained in order to compete against him.
Mr. Gillie more than proved the doubters wrong. His numbers in the meet — he bench-pressed 405 pounds, squatted 661 and deadlifted 650 — were enough to win the title, though all were well below his personal bests.
As his reputation grew, he mentored others. Anthony Conyers was an All-American wrestler at Plant High when he met Mr. Gillie, who saw potential. Mr. Gillie showed Conyers how to lift, then kept adding plates.
"He'd get right in your ear and scream," said Conyers, 53. "He'd say, 'Come on, man, you can get this! Don't be a pantywaist!' "
Mr. Gillie also bought the boy's supplies and raised money for his competitions.
"He was like the father I never had," said Conyers, now a powerlifting legend and multiple lightweight world record holder.
By the 1990s, Mr. Gillie no longer owned University Olympic Gym. He cycled through jobs as a bouncer, repo man, health club manager and security specialist, his qualifications augmented by a brown belt in karate he had earned while in the Air Force.
By the end of the decade, he decided that drinking had contributed to his divorce, job losses and the revocation of his driver's license. He quit drinking around 1999 and joined other powerlifters, including Conyers, in a program that visited schools and tried to warn young people against chemical dependency.
Mr. Gillie continued to lift weights on the porch of his Carrollwood condominium, where scattered trophies and dusty photos attested to his many triumphs. Cancer and chemotherapy weakened his body, but you would never know it.
Frank Traina, who lives at the Whisper Lake complex, first noticed his beefy neighbor calling out residents who didn't pick up after their dogs.
"There was a parakeet that wouldn't stop chirping," said Traina, a teacher at Armwood High. "I heard him screaming at 5:30 in the morning for the bird to shut up."
The two men struck up a friendship, in which the former steelworker showed his younger neighbor how he had become a weightlifting champion.
"I worked out a couple of times with him," said Traina, 32. "I'm kind of in shape, and I was dead. He just kicked my butt."
Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.