When bodybuilding fans go to the Olympia, there are several people they have become accustomed to seeing every year. Olympia President Dan Solomon always speaks at the beginning of the celebrations, Bob Cicherillo is always at the microphone ready to announce "and new" or "and still." Steve Weinberger and the judges are in their seats ready to make the tough decisions about who will raise 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 ensure the judges are able to do their jobs and protect IFBB Pro League President Jim Manion and Vice President Tyler Manion.
Palumbo is used to working in a protector role as that's all he's known since he was 12 years old. When his family came to the United States in 1972, his father's attorney asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Although young Joe was still learning English, he knew how to answer that question.
"I told him I wanted to be a muscled cop," he said, laughing. "Something just went through my head. That was the first thing that came to my mind, but I've been wanting to do it ever since. I have been chasing that dream.”
Joe Palumbo pursued this goal when he enrolled at the Police Academy in New York in 1990. He remembered 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 police academy, it was like, 'Okay, I finally got it. This is part 1," he said. That moment came in 1994, and he was on foot patrol for the NYPD. Most officers worked at this rate for six months, but Palumbo would be behind the wheel within three months. Later in his career, he joined the Nassau County Police Department and eventually became a member of the SWAT team. Although he had the opportunity to work his way up the ranks, he was happy to do what he did in this role and stayed 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 through and all the bases were covered," Palumbo said. "I was just so happy to be a cop and do what I did."
2001 would be the year that changed Palumbo's life forever, both personally and professionally. Having achieved his goal of becoming a police officer, he now wanted to work on the gold standard of muscle - becoming an IFBB pro. Palumbo competed in the 2001 NPC Masters Nationals and won both the light heavyweight and overall titles. "Joe Swat" was now a professional bodybuilder.
t long after this contest, New York City suffered the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Palumbo's unit had to be on standby for more incidents in the first few hours after the attacks. They would eventually get the green light to go to Ground Zero to help the other first responders. Even though one of the darkest days in American history happened over 20 years ago, Palumbo remembered the scene like it was yesterday.
"The smoke plumes looked so dark and you could take steps and step on a body part," he said solemnly. "I get sick just thinking about it."
Despite the tragedy of that day, Joe Palumbo recalled the sense of unity he felt in everyone around him after the attacks. He will also never forget the prosperity of New York City and the sense of patriotism shared by all Americans.
"It was an honor to serve this country," he said proudly. "The feeling of belonging together as one nation under God, all as brothers and sisters, has been one of the greatest feelings in my life."
At this year's Olympia, Joe, Betty and Ben Weider asked Palumbo to take the stage so they could honor his efforts on 9/11. Though he personally didn't feel worthy of the honor, he shifted his focus to accepting the credit on behalf of everyone who helped at Ground Zero.
"While I was at Ground Zero, Jim Schmaltz of Flex magazine contacted me and said, 'We need you to represent the bodybuilders and the people who were there on 9/11.' I told him I was only down there a couple of times," Palumbo said. "He said they need me to represent the sport. If they felt I was worth it, then I chose it. I don't remember what I said up there, but I do remember accepting it for everyone who helped at Ground Zero.”
Palumbo made several professional appearances over the next decade, including at the 2002 and 2003 Masters Olympia. He finished ninth in both competitions. Off 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 who wanted to be in better shape for work and life. He even helped members of the United States armed forces.
"Because I was in shape, people asked me how they could get in good shape," he shared. “Once I started being in the magazines, other departments would send me emails asking them to keep their team members in shape. Eventually, I became a writer for Tactical Edge and Tactical Response magazines. They trusted me because I understood what they were doing and what their careers were.”
While he was successful in the roles he had, Joe Palumbo faced a lot of stress stemming from his work. That's why the gym was more than just a way for bodybuilding — it was his salvation when he had a long day. He didn't want to take the hassle from work home with him. Lifting weights proved to be a mental health benefit as it served as a liberation.
"The gym was my go-to place to get rid of the stress," he explained. "The main thing that saved me, and I've explained that to others, was making the gym a place to go so you can vent all your anger. The weights are there and you don't have to take that anger home with you.”
Courtesy of Joe Palumbo
After a career that spanned two decades, Palumbo retired in 2018. He now spends more time with family and friends and enjoys life. He never takes his law enforcement career for granted and expresses so much gratitude for being able to do it and for those who still do, as people who know him appreciate what he has done.
"I enjoyed my position and I enjoyed my job. In fact, I still miss it," he admitted. “I saw myself as a proactive police officer rather than a reactive police officer. In other words, I stopped the crime before it happened. I still greet and thank every colleague who still does.”