Little Hercules, Big Problem: What Ever Happened to Richard Sandrak?
The story of Little Hercules is a weird and wild one.
Born in Ukraine, but destined for Hollywood, Richard Sandrak’s parents were determined to see their kid shine like a star. Their wish came true, as their son became the child sensation, Little Hercules.
Sandrak dedicated his entire childhood to his parents’ passion and excelled beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. His hard work paid off, as he accomplished unheralded feats of athleticism. The more the world’s strongest boy accomplished, the more his popularity grew.
The question is, was it everything they hoped it would be? Whatever happened to Little Hercules once he was all grown up?
Birthplace to New Beginnings
Long before his rise to stardom in the United States, Richard Sandrak’s humble beginnings trace back overseas and across the world. Born into poverty in the Ukraine in 1992, Richard would not stay in the Eastern European country long enough to call this place home. As Ukraine established its independence from the USSR in the ‘90s, the Sandraks prepared for their own separate life.
His mother, Lena, an aerobics instructor and father, Pavel, a competitive martial arts practitioner, wanted a better life with more opportunities than the small village they lived in could offer.
In 1994, the Sandrak’s left everything behind in hopes of a better life for their son in the United States.
East Coast Origins
The Sandraks reached the States, choosing to settle down in Pennsylvania, where they began shaping their new life as well as their son’s future. Despite still being in his early adolescence, Richard’s parents – both so entrenched in the world of fitness – quickly began to help him exercise, guiding him through routines shortly after settling down.
It started with simple stretches. Richard began with various stretches, becoming more and more limber under the guidance of his parents.
However, always being around his parents, Richard wanted to be like them, which meant lifting and other forms of weight training, as he so often watched them do.
Richard’s parents indulged his curiosity. They crafted a makeshift weightlifting bar for their studious offspring, putting little one-pound weights on either end for him to pick up and walk around with. The stage of early development Richard is at during this time period is no coincidence, his actions and interests align with others his age (just in superhuman form).
At 2 years old, when Richard first came to America, is often a time when children begin to follow simple instructions, which Richard not-so-simply did with his stretches.
Age three, when many children begin copying adults, Richard takes after his parents’ love for fitness with some weightlifting of his own.
The staggering rate at which Richard was able to pick up on the stretches and exercises he was given was as undeniable as it was unbelievable. Pavel began imparting his wisdom regarding martial arts on Richard, whose skill, technique and form progressed at a staggering rate under his masterful instructor.
Between a seemingly inherent knack for fitness and being under the tutelage of his talented father, Richard’s expertise in martial arts and progress in strength training accelerated at an exceptional rate.
By the time Richard turned 5, he looked like a master who’d been honing his craft an entire lifetime.
Westward Once More
Though Richard followed the instruction of both his mother and father from an early age, it was Pavel who took the reins in guiding his son’s future. Realizing how gifted his son was, Pavel determined that Pennsylvania was not the optimal environment for Richard to gain notoriety, but he knew where that would change.
In 1997, Pavel decided it was time for the Sandraks to pack up again and once again head westward to Los Angeles.
After settling into a new home near Hollywood, Pavel was now sure that he could find the perfect person and place to push his son to new heights.
Going for Gold’s
Pavel scoured Los Angeles in search of a place where Richard could continue to build on his already rapid growth. Then he found it, a spot already firmly entrenched in American fitness culture. The world famous Gold’s Gym. All needed to be done now was make the perfect first impression.
As it turned out, the people Pavel set up Richard to impress were the perfect pair. It was the Gold’s Gym owner, Frank Giardina, who also worked as a celebrity trainer for some of the top names in the entertainment industry, and his wife wife, Sherry, a former Miss Fitness America.
These two knew their stuff.
Prepped for Perfect
A high-pressure situation like impressing a renowned trainer might be nerve-wracking for such a young child who had lived a relatively reclused life thus far, but Richard was ready. Lena guiding 6-month-old Richard through stretches had paved the way for Pavel to ramp up an exhaustive fitness regime by the time he was only three, and exhaustive was an understatement.
The result was a case of good genetics and great work ethic. Richard’s daily workout routine was that of an adult in peak shape: 600 pushups, 600 sit ups and 300 squats.
Of course, those three exercises went along with intensive martial-arts training and stretching that molded Richard into a well-oiled mini machine.
Bodybuilding’s New Boy Wonder
Giardina had seen it all or, at least, he thought he had. Having taken on every type of super celebrity from professional boxer Mike Tyson to pop singer Rod Stewart, he knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity — the same way Pavel knew Giardina was the perfect man for the job.
Under new tutelage, Richard saw huge advancements in his weight training. His level of strength progressed to the point that he was maxing out on the bench press at 180 pounds!
Even though he was still only a 6-year-old child, it was time to introduce Little Hercules to the world.
Star in the Making
Richard’s reputation as “Little Hercules” hit the ground running and continued to spread across the nation like wildfire. The public was enamored by his mere presence, a child’s face with athlete’s physique. Billed as the pound-for-pound strongest person in the world, Little Hercules was an unforgettable spectacle from his bodybuilding debut onward.
Little Hercules became an overnight sensation and quickly began touring the nation, as people everywhere wondered in disbelief who this boy wonder was and how it was possible to achieve so much at such a young age.
Under the guidance of Giardina and his wife, Richard’s road into the future was paved for success.
Honing His Craft
Though it may not have appeared so on the surface, the entire process of introducing Little Hercules to the world was an intricate operation. Giardina landed Richard a contract with Pinnacle, a major supplement company, that would help provide the financial backing as his sponsor while touring the bodybuilding circuit.
Sherry’s prior experience winning Miss Fitness USA also translated into a modeling career, which helped make Richard’s Little Hercules routine look professional and pristine.
Her direction was pivotal in helping propel Richard’s charismatic show into the spotlight, while avoiding a gaudy spectacle that might come off as a display of tacky amateurism.
Ready for the Spotlight
Richard had been fully submerged into the fitness world. Like professional bodybuilders, he would tan and apply color to his body to make every muscle pop. A strict schedule balanced time for every aspect of his new career, both on and off-stage. There was time set aside for practicing (flexing) poses, dancing and choreography, weightlifting and training.
In the precious little time that he had outside of developing his Little Hercules persona, Richard remained plenty busy with homeschooling under guidance and supervision of his mother.
Even when out of the public eye, the only priority was preparing for the next time Little Hercules would step back in it.
By 1999, Little Hercules had risen far beyond being the talk of the town. He had begun touring and performing in front of hundreds, even thousands of people. Richard had managed to book some of the biggest stages, performing everywhere from Las Vegas to New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden.
Little Hercules was also gaining notoriety in many mediums more than industry events alone, appearing on television shows, being featured in newspaper and magazine articles, even making it onto talk radio giant The Howard Stern Show.
The Sandraks were cashing in big time, but there was still so much to accomplish…
Awestruck at The Arnold Classic
At six, Little Hercules was already benching 180 pounds and by age eight, thanks to the help of the Giardinas, he could put up 210! All of his hard work was paying off with continually-increasing popularity. But all of the attention Richard had received paled in comparison to when happened when he was nine.
While performing at the Arnold Classic, none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger himself stepped onstage to meet the spectacular young specimen. As Richard realized his dreams, meeting his iconic bodybuilding idol, Schwarzenegger was amazed in his own right that Little Hercules was every bit as amazing as he’d been painted out to be.
Time to Shine
Now that he had met his idol, Richard was ready to realize his dreams and follow the same path as the seven-time Mr. Olympia’s other top pursuit. He was ready to fully embrace his inner (and outer) Schwarzenegger and transform Little Hercules into the next big action hero movie star.
Seeing the new influx of money Richard was hauling in, Pavel also had plans in mind for his son, starting with his own line of supplements. In fact, their starry-eyed dreams found common ground, as Richard served as the face of the new promotion.
But life was not all perfect for the Sandraks.
All That Glitters is Not Gold
From the outside looking in, everything appeared to be a straightforward, uphill climb for Richard and his family. In reality, however, life was far from perfect. With every bit of praise extended towards Richard and his parents, the Sandrak family was met with just as much scrutiny for putting a child through such a bizarre endeavor.
The public did far more than question how a child could sculpt such a fantastic physique. Countless people from all backgrounds threw out accusations that there’s no way Little Hercules could get such incredible result from an “all natural” training regimen.
There were far worse issues the family dealt with than simply judgment from the public eye.
As Giardina spent more time with Richard and his family, he came to some troubling realizations. Over time, Giardina was training Richard so often that he became more a part of the Sandraks’ life. Having visited the family’s home often, it was increasingly clearer that Pavel’s “parenting” was borderline abusive if not flat-out illegal.
Giardina came to realize that Pavel seemed to be of a one-track mind with blinders up to how he was treating his son. There wasn’t so much as one toy to be found around the home for Richard to play with. When he pressed Pavel on this, asking if he would go out and play with his friends, Giardina was shocked to realize Richard didn’t even have any friends to play with. But that was only the tip of the iceberg…
Giardina, growing increasingly uncomfortable with Pavel’s spartan parenting, continued to press for more information. Not only did Pavel bar his son from making friends, he was taking advantage of his son’s innocence and ignorance, pushing him through strenuous workouts (outside of all the work he was already doing) for hours on end.
Richard’s intense diet was a whole other story. Never so much as getting the occasional taste of sweets or junk food, Richard was rumored to be forced to watch his father indulge in unhealthy eating while stuck to healthy foods.
Pavel had made their home into a prison and Richard was too young to see the reality he was living.
The Breaking Point
Numerous accusations led Pavel to put Richard through three separate drug tests to show Richard was not doping. In the 2005 documentary, The World’s Strongest Boy, Giardina even claimed after Richard passed the tests that he wanted Pavel to take a polygraph test to prove an apparent “mystery powder” he was feeding his son was not an illegal substance.
By threatening to leave Little Hercules, Giardina thought he was going to get to the truth. Instead, he claimed that Pavel responded by threatening his life.
Giardina and his wife could no longer support what they weren’t absolutely sure was the safe treatment of a child and stepped away from their managerial roles.
As fast as Little Hercules had built up under their guidance, the brand crumbled in their absence.
Completely reliant on Little Hercules for income, Pavel responded to the family’s suddenly uncertain financial situation in the worst way possible. According to Lena, Pavel turned to alcohol, choosing to drown away his sorrows rather than address the problem at hand, which then further devolved into lashing out at her.
Though he was apparently never much of a drinker prior to this change in luck, Pavel’s alcoholism rapidly worsened, as did his abusive treatment toward his family.
He would lash out at the kids and grew violent with his wife. Then, when Pavel got out of control one night, everything changed.
In April 2003, just two weeks before Richard’s 11th birthday, Pavel went on a tirade, going so far as to threat to kill his family. Richard, quick on his feet, called 911 to inform the police his father was getting violent with his mom, going so far as breaking her nose and wrist.
Aware of how dangerous the situation was, he pleaded that the police not use sirens, so he would not know they were on their way.
Lena openly admitted that Richard’s quick thinking most likely saved his life. Dark as that night was, it at least resulted in his parents’ separation, putting Richard’s abusive father out of his life for good.
With his father out of the picture, Richard was ready to put his Little Hercules routine on the shelf for a bit and enjoy a slice of the normal life. The 11-year-old boy wonder indulged in some of the activities he had missed out on his entire childhood, but his competitive nature was too strong.
Away from the chaos of being Little Hercules and finally out from under his father’s watchful eye, Richard still couldn’t help but have a laugh at his own expense, saying how his toned-down training and unhealthy eating was making him “puffy.”
Enough was enough. Richard was ready conclude his break, especially now that a new opportunity had presented itself, one that had been a dream of his for some time.
Little Hercules Goes Hollywood
At the time of The World’s Strongest Boy documentary reflecting on his meteoric rise to fame, Richard, then 13, had been offered a role to star in a film, Little Tarzan. Once again, it was time to get ripped, and this time it would be in pursuit of his Hollywood action hero dream.
He pulled out all the stops, finding a new fitness trainer to return to peak form and even working with speech therapist to get rid of his Ukrainian accent.
Preparing for this film would end up introducing another harsh reality of the movie industry, as production was eventually shut down, but that didn’t stop him.
Bodybuilding Circuit to Silver Screen
Little Hercules finally came back in a very big and very literal way. After working on another the film for years, as evidenced by a guest appearance on Hulk Hogan’s Hogan Knows Best television show – the wrestling star also acted in the film – Richard saw his dream come to fruition in 2009 with his acting debut.
His first official acting role was a fitting one, starring as none other than Little Hercules in the eponymously named Little Hercules in 3-D.
Though it wasn’t quite a smash hit in the box office, Richard got the special chance to work with WWE legends Hulk Hogan and Paul “The Big Show” Wight, along with some A-list Hollywood celebs.
After landing his first major role on the big screen, Little Hercules found his athletic prowess the subject of more Hollywood heroism, as he took on another action role as Young Nethiah in The Legends of Nethiah. Along with that 2012 feature film, Richard also played a role in an action short.
Just like that, as soon as it seemed like Richard was finally realizing his wildest fantasies, he disappeared entirely from the acting scene.
Well, he may have stepped away from acting, but not entirely from the world of action and entertainment industry, just out of the red carpet silver screen limelight.
A Happier Place
In 2015, an interview with Inside Edition caught the world up on where Richard had gone and what he has been up to since last appearing on the big screen years ago. But before even getting into his occupation, there was a much more glaringly obvious topic to be discussed.
The man standing before the camera was a far cry from the chiseled Little Hercules the world had come to know so well.
There were a few feet tacked on to his height, but the excessively tanned bodybuilder image he was synonymous with was now little more than a distant memory.
A shirtless (and much more relaxed) Richard candidly spoke about his daily routine while walking the beach. His six-pack was a thing of the past, as was his time-consuming fitness routine. Now, Richard’s exercise comes in a wildly different form: occasional chin-ups with some cardio, which often comes in the form of skateboarding.
Weightlifting is essentially nonexistent in Richard’s day to day life. The reason? Simpler that one might expect. He grew bored with it. It’s hard to dismiss the simple rationale, as burnout from over-doing any activity is common, let alone consuming an entire childhood with the pursuit of a perfect body.
Still an Action Hero
Even though Richard Sandrak has laid his Little Hercules persona to rest, he is still living out his childhood dream, just in a re-imagined way. Today, Richard actually still resides right in the heart of Hollywood as a real action star, though it’s in a live action role this time around.
Richard has been working out of Universal Studios Hollywood as a stuntman at the hit attraction Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular.
It’s an adrenaline-fueled job that has Richard doing everything from racing around on jet skis to leaping off buildings and even lighting himself on fire.
Richard has certainly found himself living in a brave new world, but it’s one that brings him joy and fulfillment away from the spotlight he once could not escape.