When bodybuilding fans go to the Olympia, there are several people that they have gotten used to seeing every year. Olympia President Dan Solomon always speaks at the beginning of the festivities, Bob Cicherillo is always at the mic ready to announce, “and new” or “and still.” Steve Weinberger and the judges are at their seats, ready to make the difficult decisions as to who will hoist the Sandow.
Then, to the left of the stage, in his seat, is Joe Palumbo, IFBB Pro bodybuilder and security for the Olympia. His job is to make sure that the judges are able to do their jobs and protect IFBB Pro League President Jim Manion and Vice President Tyler Manion.
Palumbo’s accustomed to working in a protective role because that is all he has known since he was 12 years old. When his family arrived to the United States in 1972, his father’s lawyer asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Even though young Joe was still learning English, he knew how to answer that question.
“I told him that I wanted to be a cop with muscles,” he said while laughing. “Something just popped in my head. That was the first thing that came to my mind, but ever since I really wanted to do that. I pursued that dream.”
Joe Palumbo followed through on that aspiration when he enrolled in the Police Academy in New York in 1990. He recalled graduating and being sworn in as a police officer as one of the proudest moments of his career and life.
“When I actually graduated from the police academy, it was just like, ‘OK, I finally made it. That’s Part 1,” he said. That moment came in 1994, and he was on Foot Patrol for the NYPD. Most officers worked that beat for six months, but Palumbo would be behind the wheel within three months. He would go on to join the Nassau County Police Department later in his career, and he eventually became a member of the SWAT team. Even though he had the opportunity to work his way up in the ranks, he was pleased to be doing what he did in that role, and he was in that position for the next 12 years.
“It was great for me because I was trained in every possible scenario that could be played out, and all the bases were covered,” said Palumbo. “I was just so happy being a cop and doing what I was doing.”
2001 would be the year that Palumbo’s life changed forever both personally and professionally. Having accomplished the goal of being a police officer, he now wanted to work on the gold standard of muscle – becoming an IFBB Pro. Palumbo entered the 2001 NPC Masters Nationals and won both the light-heavyweight and overall titles. “Joe Swat” was now a professional bodybuilder.
Not long after that contest, New York City suffered the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Palumbo’s unit had to be on standby for the first few hours after the attacks in case other incidents took place. They would eventually get the go-ahead to head to ground zero to help the other first responders. Even though one of the darkest days in America’s history took place over 20 years ago, Palumbo recalled the scene like it was yesterday.
“The clouds of smoke looked so dark, and you could take steps and step on a body part,” he said solemnly. “I get choked up still thinking about it.”
In spite of the tragedy of that day, Joe Palumbo recalled the feeling of unity that he felt from everyone around him in the aftermath of the attacks. The rebound of New York City and the feeling of common patriotism among all Americans is also one that he will never forget.
“Serving this country was an honor,” he said proudly. “The feeling of togetherness as one nation under God all as brothers and sisters was one of the greatest feelings in my life.”
At that year’s Olympia, Joe, Betty, and Ben Weider asked Palumbo to take the stage so they could honor him for his 9/11 efforts. While he didn’t feel he personally was worthy of being honored, he shifted his focus to accepting the recognition on behalf of everyone who helped at ground zero.
“Jim Schmaltz of Flex magazine reached out while I was at Ground Zero, and he said, ‘We need you to represent the bodybuilders and the people that were there on 9/11.’ I told him that I was only down there a few times,” said Palumbo. “He said that they needed me to represent the sport. If they felt I was worthy of it, then I decided to do it. I don’t remember what I said up there, but I remember saying that I accepted it for everyone that helped on Ground Zero.”
Palumbo competed several times as a professional over the next decade, including at the Masters Olympia in 2002 and 2003. He placed ninth in both contests. Away from the stage, he served the fitness industry by writing articles for fitness and law enforcement publications. He also offered training and nutrition insights to law enforcement officers and first responders that wanted to be in better shape for work and life. He even helped members of the United States Armed Forces.
“Since I was in shape, people were asking me how they could get into good shape,” he shared. “Once I started getting exposure in the magazines, other departments were sending me emails asking to help keep their team members in shape. I eventually went on to become a writer for Tactical Edge and Tactical Response magazines. They trusted me because I could relate to what they did and the careers they had.”
While he was thriving in the roles he had, Joe Palumbo faced a lot of stress that came from his work. That’s why the gym was more than an avenue for bodybuilding — it was his release when he had a long day. He didn’t want to take the aggravation from work home. Lifting weights proved to be a mental health benefit because it served as a release.
“The gym was my go-to place to get rid of the stress,” he explained. “The No. 1 thing that saved me, and I explained to others, was to make the gym to place to go to so you can take out all your anger. The weights are there, and you don’t have to take that anger home.”
After a career that spanned over two decades, Palumbo retired in 2018. He now spends more time around family and friends and is enjoying life. He never takes his law enforcement career for granted, and he expresses as much gratitude for being able to do it, and for those that still do it, as people that know him appreciate what he did.
“I enjoyed my position, and I enjoyed my job. As a matter of fact, I still miss it,” he admitted. “I thought of myself as a proactive cop instead of a reactive cop. In other words, I stopped the crime before it happened. I still salute and thank every fellow member that is still doing it.”