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 child shine like a star. As it turns out, their wishes came true, as their son became the child sensation, Little Hercules.
Sandrak dedicated his entire childhood to his parents’ passion and exceled 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 in Ukraine in 1992, Richard would not stay in the Eastern European country long enough to call this place home.
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 and settled down in Pennsylvania, where they began shaping their new life as well as their son’s.
Richard’s parents, both so entrenched in the world of fitness, began guiding and helping him exercise while still in his adolescence.
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 weights, 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 displayed during this time period is no coincidence.
At age 2, 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 3, when many children begin copying adults, Richard takes after his parents’ love for fitness with some weightlifting of his own.
The rate at which Richard picked up on the stretches and exercises he was given was undeniable.
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 parents 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.
In 1997, Pavel decided that the Sandraks were packing up again, heading westward to Los Angeles.
With their new home now near Hollywood, Pavel was 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 the 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, 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 at all or, at least, he thought he had. Having taken on everyone from Mike Tyson to 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. His strength progressed to the point that he was maxing out on the bench press at 180 pounds!
Still only 6-years-old, it was time to introduce Little Hercules to the world.
Star in the Making
It didn’t take Richard’s reputation as “Little Hercules” long to spread across the nation.
The public was enamored by his mere presence. Described 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
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 provide the financial backing as his sponsor while touring the bodybuilding circuit.
Sherry’s experience as Miss Fitness USA also translated to 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 spectacle that might come off gaudy or amateurish.
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 little time he had outside of developing his Little Hercules persona, Richard remained plenty busy with homeschooling under his mother’s supervision.
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 was far more than the talk of the town. He was touring and performing in front of hundreds, even thousands of people.
He was booked on 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.
Awestruck at The Arnold Classic
At 6, Little Hercules was already benching 180 pounds and by age 8, 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
Having 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 be like Schwarzenegger and transform Little Hercules into the next 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
On the surface, everything appeared to be a straightforward, uphill climb for Richard and his family.
However, life was far from perfect. Every bit of praise offered towards Richard and his parents, the Sandraks, understandably, were met with just as much scrutiny.
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, drowning away his sorrows, which then turned into lashing out at her.
Though he was apparently never 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 threatened 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 shelf his Little Hercules routine for a bit and enjoy a slice of the normal life.
The 11-year-old boy wonder indulged in 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, Richard saw his dream come to fruition in 2009 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, 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 realizing his wildest fantasies, he disappeared from the acting scene.
Well, he didn’t quite entirely step away from the action world and entertainment industry, just out of the red-carpeted limelight.
A Happier Place
In 2015, an interview with Inside Edition caught the world up on where Richard had gone and what he was up to since last appearing on the big screen.
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 was a few feet tacked on to his height, but the excessively tanned bodybuilder image 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. The reason? He grew bored with it, simple as that. 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
Just because Richard Sandrak has laid his Little Hercules persona to rest doesn’t mean he isn’t still living out his childhood dream.
Today, Richard is actually right in the heart of Hollywood as an action star, though now it’s in a live action role.
Working out of Universal Studios Hollywood, Richard has been 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.