Showing little evidence of old age, Jacinto Arce barely grimaced as he curled an 80-pound barbell over and over to sculpt his arms.
The 5-foot-6 native Filipino paused to inspect his big biceps--and a well-developed chest--in a mirror at the Downtown Long Beach YMCA, then began lifting again.
When at last he took a break, Arce put into words why, at 84, he is a picture of health:
"I was born this way, with a lot of stamina. My strong, healthy body is my personal pride. Wherever I go, people look at me. My friends think I'm 60. But you've got to work hard."
Arce, who took up bodybuilding when he was 63, collected another trophy recently when he won third place in the 60-and-over category of the Orange County Muscle Classic at the Long Beach Convention Center.
"When they announced my age, I got the most noise (from the audience), even though I only got third place," he said, with merriment in his brown eyes. "They expect to see me with a cane, I guess. When they see me looking tough, with the muscles, they can't believe it."
But it is true. Time, which he staves off with long workouts, plenty of sleep and a meatless diet dominated by dry beans, has made few inroads on his 150-pound body or smooth face.
"My friends laughed at me," he went on with a smile that revealed small teeth as white as his hair. "They wanted me to join a club and drink every weekend. They drink beer and whiskey. What happens to them? They get fat and have high blood presure. One after another they're dying. I'm still here."
The bench press was next, and Arce rather easily pushed up 130 pounds. He said he usually benches about 220 but was hampered by a calcium deposit on his wrist.
"Give me 10 days, I can get up there," he promised.
While still in the Philippines, Arce joined the U.S. Navy in 1929. During World War II, he served on a destroyer that fought German U-boats in the Atlantic.
He showed spunk then too, as a wrestler and boxer, but displayed an even greater spirit when he volunteered ("I did it for the world") to stand on the deck of the Mt. McKinley during a nuclear test in the South Pacific in 1955.
"I was a guinea pig, there were eight of us," said Arce, who was a chief petty officer. "We had all this protective clothing on. They wanted to find out, I guess, what the best equipment was to wear. The other guys said, 'Why are you smiling?' I was scared inside but I pretended I wasn't, I guess."
Now, 35 years later, Arce is still affected by that day on which he said "the ocean turned white and all the fish came up." He pointed to his ears and said, "Not too good. I lost 10% of my hearing."
After retiring from the Navy in 1959, Arce worked at construction jobs in Southern California for 10 years. When he was 57, he began to jog.
"I got real skinny," said Arce, who was a jogger for six years. "My arms were like string beans, my ribs showed. I don't want to jog any more after that. I feel sorry for myself, coming out that way, skin and bones."
Then, with Jack La Lanne as an inspiration, he turned to bodybuilding.
"He knows me personally," said Arce of the famous muscle man he met in San Diego. "I asked him if it was too late for me to do this and he said, 'Hell, no.' "
La Lanne was so impressed with Arce's progress that La Lanne later hired him to work at his health clubs in Lakewood and Downey. Although Arce taught all ages, it was senior citizens whom he motivated most.
"I was the favorite of the old ladies," he said.
In the living room of his apartment near downtown Long Beach, Arce keeps barbells and, on a glass table, a display of trophies and color photos from bodybuilding contests.
One picture shows Arce, his body glistening with oil, posing with much-younger men in the 40-and-over class of a contest three years ago in Huntington Beach. That was his first contest.
"They don't have that ripple in their stomach . . . that's the only way I beat them," said Arce, so obsessed with his abdomen that he devotes an hour to it each day at the gym and does hundreds of sit-ups on a board at home.
At the contest in Huntington Beach, Arce received an autographed photo from La Lanne, with the inscription: "To my friend Jacinto, you're the greatest."
Arce has a goal that extends far beyond his next contest in June.
"The oldest man was 120," he said on that morning at the Y. "I want to live to be 120 and six months so I'll be the oldest. Hopefully, at 90, I'll still be here lifting."
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Shigechiyo Izumi of Japan died in 1986 at 120 years, 237 days--the oldest authenticated age. Told of that, Arce revised his calculations: "I'll live to be 120 and eight months."
Arce, who has three sons from his first marriage, remarried five years ago, winning a heart with his youthfulness.
"He told me he was 64," said Julita Arce, 54, as her husband stood grinning next to his trophies.
And like everyone else, she believed it.