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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

Remarkable People I have known : GARY KARLSON and SAM FREARS

WARNING: Every now-and-again I write a post that has only the most tenuous of links to bodybuilding — this is one. If you are somewhat interested in me and my life, read on. If not, move on.


Over the course of our lives we will meet many thousands of people, most of whom will come in and out of our lives, and have very little impact on us. Then there is a whole cohort of people who, to a greater or lesser degree, become a part of our lives, leave their mark on us, and help shape who we are now and who we will become. 

Some of these are enforced upon us — family or work colleagues, etc. — but most we choose to have in our lives. For many people, our childhood, school and university friends are often the friends we make and keep for life, these are people we like and have a connection with. Mostly they are much like us, leading similar lives to ours, with dreams and hopes like ours too. 

There is a further — and far smaller — category of friend that is set slightly apart from the “usual”, they may be similar to us in many respects, but there is something about them that makes them remarkable. 

They may have an extraordinary talent, or gift, or may have experienced an incredible event or time in their lives where they show themselves to be remarkable individuals. (My uncle Robert, an ordinary man who once did something extraordinary, is one of these, but that is a story for another time.) Or they may have a disadvantage, something that would make most of us feel despondent and want to give up. Instead of raging at the unfairness of life however, they do the opposite, they live life to the full, and in so doing teach us “normal” people how a life ought to be lived  — and cherished. I have known two such people in my life. 

Growing up in South Africa in the 1980’s was an amazing experience. The weather was always perfect — sunny and warm — and the school holidays lasted for ever as we splashed about in the pool and played “armies.” Always World War Two — British vs the Jerries! You may imagine we wanted to be the British, but no, my brother and I loved the Nazi uniforms and enjoyed shouting out the few choice German words we learnt from the war comics we read, “Achtung! Hande hoch, schweinehund!!!” We played King Stingers (pelting each other with a tennis ball) and, with playing cards pegged in the front forks of our bikes — making a wonderful sound as the wheel spokes strummed the cards — we cycled, carefree, all over Johannesburg. As boys, we spent our days outside, barefoot, charging about, having a fantastic time.

My brother, David, and I were fascinated by the Second World War and spent all our time reading about it, and playing “Armies!”

Writing the above reminds me of a story told to me by aunt Frances (my Mum’s last surviving sister) when visiting her recently  in Bridgend, Wales. We go there to see her twice a year, Suzy, the girls, and me, and she was telling us of the time my Mum had brought my brother David, my younger sister Caroline, and myself, on holiday from South Africa to Wales when we were just children. Aunt Frances worked in a bank and one day we went to meet her at work. We all came in, bustling into this quiet and respectful place — where civilised British people queued in lines and spoke in whispers — and caused quite a stir. She remembered being mortified, seeing the horrified looks on the customers’ and her colleagues’ faces when they realised . . . we were all barefoot! Like urchins! And as one of her colleagues remarked, “running around like a bunch of savages!” Well, that was the South African way. We almost never wore shoes! I remember being forced to wear shoes when I started school — I  was most unimpressed! 

Whenever we visit my Welsh Aunt, we take a photo of the grave where my Mum is buried. She is in the same plot as her father and mother, her sister Margaret, and their baby brother, Frank, who died at the very tender age of three days old. 

When we were a little older, SA life revolved around sport and at school all the popular boys were sporty. Rugby in the winter, swimming and athletics in the summer. Even though academic and cultural activities were important and encouraged at St John’s College — sport was still king! 

Breaking the medley relay record at the St John’s inter-house swimming gala. From left to right: Mark Green, Oliver Macleod-Smith and Laurence Cooke. 


Kind-hearted, intelligent and optimistic. Gary was a lovely man. 

As you can well imagine, being a non-sporty boy, in that country at that time, was tough. And that’s where Gary Karlson comes in. Gary had cystic fibrosis, an inherited condition that causes sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and digestive system, causing lung infections, breathing difficulties and problems with digesting food. Mucus also clogs the pancreas (the organ that helps with digestion), which stops enzymes reaching food in the gut and helping with digestion. Not pleasant. 

Due to his condition, Gary was rather underdeveloped, painfully thin and quite short, with very small bones, etc. He was often in pain, always having to take medication, and had to have daily physio to dislodge the mucus build-up in his lungs. He had many physical disadvantages and also had to cope with the sure knowledge that his life was, without doubt, going to be curtailed. 

As I type these sad words, I’m smiling! I have a huge grin on my face! Because that is what everyone had when Gary was around! He was irrepressible! He was always laughing and was always full of life and excitement! Always ready for a new experience. 

Well aware of his limited time on God’s Earth, Gary never wanted the same experience twice. Never wanted to read the same book or see the same movie. He wanted to get every new experience that he could, to make the most of his time here. 

Gary and his sister Jo. They shared a very close and loving bond. 

In a way, his disease made him the person that he was, although he was always at pains to not let it define who he was — being a “cystic” was not his identity. Of course, this being the very politically incorrect South Africa of that time, we ragged and teased him about his condition mercilessly! Luckily he was a very intelligent and super-articulate guy, who was able to dish out a lot more than he got! 

I have many memories of Gary,  here are two — one happy, one sad. The first is a silly moment on a night out with his university friends. I’m not sure of the build-up or reason why, but I remember in a very busy and noise bar/club, Gary climbing up onto a table and, arms aloft, yelling out (to all the girls), “Who wants me baaad?”  We all roared with laughter! Typical Gary! Actually Gary was super popular with girls as his happy personality and easy-going manner made people want to be around him. In the macho society that was SA in those days, his amazing personality overcame all the obstacles that could have side-lined or marginalised him. He really was a unique guy. 

Gary had a Woolly Willy Warmer that amused him greatly. He had a great sense of humour and loved to laugh!!

The second memory is a more sobering one. Around the age of 19 or 20, due to his continual coughing, and possibly all the mucus-dislodging physio — which was quite aggressive — Gary had to have an operation as his lungs kept collapsing. A collapsed lung, or pneumothorax, refers to a condition in which the space between the wall of the chest cavity and the lung itself fills with air, causing all or a portion of the lung to collapse. 

A pneumothorax is no fun.

To reniflante the lung a small catheter is placed in the chest and the air removed via a suction technique. What that means in reality is that a large needle was pushed into Gary’s chest between his ribs. To make matters worse, Gary’s low bodyweight and general frailty meant that only the minimum of pain-relief could be administered. As Gary’s lungs kept collapsing, the next step was to perform the operation I alluded to earlier. 

Basically, a chemical adhesion of the lung to the chest wall was needed, this is called a pleurodesis. A chemical irritant is introduced through the intercostal drainage tube (the great big needle again!), and over the course of a few hours Gary was slowly turned over allowing the chemical to run down his ribs causing such bad blistering on the lungs that it became stuck to the chest wall. I remember visiting Gary in hospital while this barbaric procedure was taking place, and was amazed at how strong he was. How he coped with such awful pain, and how determined he was to see it through. And of course, it being Gary, he bore it all with utter stoicism.

I should mention that Gary had an inborn sense of right and wrong, and the Apartheid society we grew up in always sat very uneasily with him. Gary had a natural affinity with the disadvantaged and oppressed and always spoke out against the injustices of South African society. 

Towards the end of his life, to keep his lungs clear of mucus, Gary was having physio for up to 12 hours a day. Just weeks before he died I flew out to see him after his dad, John, who was passing through London on business, told me that Gary did not have long to live. Having not seen him for 5 years or so, I was fearful of how he would look and behave. I should have known better because he was the same as he always had been — cheerful, optimistic, funny and calm. Calm — that last quality may seem a strange one to mention, but it is only now, 25 years after Gary’s death, have I recognised that Gary’s calmness (not acceptance) in the face of all the pain and worry and uncertainty in his life, was what made him the exceptional and inspirational man that he was. 

Gary died on the fourth of February 1995 at the age of 27. 


I have a very clear recollection of the day I first met Sam. It was about 18 years ago at the front door of the family house in Primrose Hill. My wife, Suzy, taught yoga to Sam’s mum, Mary-Kay, and she was looking for someone to help Sam be more physically active.  Mary-Kay’s circle is a rather bookish and scholarly one — not many bodybuilders about — so I was the obvious (and only) choice. 

I remember pressing the buzzer and Sam opening the door, looking quite shy and reticent. He smiled at me in a disarming way and invited me in. The rest — as they say — is history. 

I should say something about the genetic condition that Sam has. He has Familial dysautonomia, a disorder with a whole host of difficult physical symptoms. I will list a few here just to show how challenging day-to-day life is for Sam, and to demonstrate that so many of the physical functions we take for granted, (in fact don’t even think about!) he has to monitor and deal with every single day. 

The disorder disturbs cells in the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions such as digestion, breathing, and the regulation of blood pressure and body temperature. It also affects the sensory nervous system, which controls activities related to the senses, such as taste and the perception of pain, heat, and cold. 

Early signs and symptoms include poor muscle tone, feeding difficulties, poor growth, lack of tears, frequent lung infections, and difficulty maintaining body temperature. Developmental milestones, such as walking and speech, are also usually delayed. 

Additional signs and symptoms include episodes of vomiting, reduced sensitivity to temperature changes and pain, poor balance, abnormal curvature of the spine, poor bone quality, increased risk of bone fractures, and kidney and heart problems. Affected individuals also have poor regulation of blood pressure. They may experience a sharp drop in blood pressure upon standing which can cause dizziness, blurred vision, or fainting. They can also have episodes of high blood pressure when nervous or excited, or during vomiting incidents.

What can I say?! That is a formidable list of symptoms and issues and problems! But what do they mean in Sam’s daily life? What is the reality?

First of all, Sam is blind. That is enough of a disadvantage in itself! Never mind the fact his spine is fuzed, he has very little feeling in his extremities, and does not absorb enzymes so is reliant on a gastronomy tube for all his nutrients. Add to this his gait is severely restricted so cannot walk unaided for any reasonable distance. 

I mentioned earlier that as I wrote of Gary’s disabilities, I was in fact smiling as I did so. And so too am I now!! Because in the face of all these difficulties and hardships, Sam is a most resilient and cheerful and happy man!! (Of course he is a human being and has his darker moments, but generally, he is remarkably optimistic!) 

I have mentioned Gary to Sam many times. Their conditions have many overlapping symptoms, and they are similar in appearance due to their physical frailty, but mostly what brings the two of them together in my mind, is the inspirational way they have shrugged off their disadvantages and lived life to the full. 

While Gary did not want the same experience twice, Sam derives great comfort from having a routine. He does enjoy new challenges and with his primary carer, Wayne, they have had many amazing experiences. But ultimately Sam likes a routine, and so do I, which amuses us no end and drives Wayne crazy. After our training sessions the three of us have lunch together ( often joined by Mark, Sam’s best friend) and virtually every time we go to the same place, The Fitzrovia Belle, and order the same meal. We do this partly because we want to, and partly to annoy Wayne. With Sam there is always a lot of banter and repetition of various catchphrases. “You’re cruel to me Sir!” is a favourite of theirs.  Also, “Permission to call Becky, (Wayne’s bird) Sir?” Permission is inevitability denied!!

Wayne and Sam — great friends! There are always plenty of high-jinks, joshing, and larking about!

A scene from “Carry on Sam” where I say, “Sam likes a routine, and so do I!” We are both looking shockingly young!

I mentioned that Mary-Kay’s circle was a literary one. It is a cultural one too and around 2011 she decided that making a small film about Sam and his life would be a nice idea. She asked film-making friends of the family, brothers, Barney and Toby Reisz, to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary. (Their dad, Karel Reisz, was a famous film producer who’s most well-known movie was The French Lieutenant's Woman. For many years Karel was a very close friend and good confidant of Sam’s) As well as being a record of Sam’s daily life, it was a lovely project that kept Sam busy and in great company as Toby and his cameraman trundled about after Sam  for months. It was a really fun time, a poster was printed, and it even had its own premiere! On the strength of Carry on Sam, the BBC commissioned a film about Sam called My Friend Sam, for the Storyville documentary strand. 

“Carry on Sam”, a lovely, gentle look at Sam’s day-to-day life. 

When Sam and I first started training together we would meet at the Primrose Hill house and workout with a few dumbbells, etc. I wanted to do a more thorough job though and told Mark-Kay we needed to join a gym. It just so happened that a friend of mine, Roger Waters, who was a bouncer at The Church, an antipodean nightclub I managed, owned a gym in Belsize Park just a 5 minute drive away. I ended up driving Sam there in The Church’s dilapidated old Ford Convoy hightop, which stuck out a mile in the leafy suburb of Primrose Hill. It was an absolute wreck and the only working gears were first, third and fifth! I always had to plan my route carefully as the van literally could not reverse! The hand-break was a wire protruding from the floor, and as it belonged to The Church it reeked of stale beer, and sawdust was scattered everywhere, not that Sam seemed to mind! Roger was a successful natural bodybuilder and his gym, “The Gym on the Hill” on Haverstock Hill was the sort of old-style place that I loved! It had a great history as it was once the British Board of Boxing Control’s Headquarters and had hosted greats like Ali and Cooper. 

Roger Waters, Natural Mr Olympia and owner of The Gym on the Hill. 

When I told Mary-Kay I wanted to take Sam to a gym, she asked me to justify why we needed a gym and why the dumbbells at the house were insufficient. She was sitting at her desk using her computer at the time, and I (rather cleverly) said it was similar to the uninitiated thinking a typewriter and a computer keyboard were the same thing. They may appear to be similar, but a typewriter (the dumbbells) and the computer keyboard, (the gym) were world’s apart, and the gym would provide the type of equipment that Sam needed. I’m not sure how convinced she was of my analogy — but the gym got paid for — and off we went!

Look at the beautiful old-style feel and equipment in Roger’s gym. Ali in action at the same premises years before. 

In some ways Sam has had a lucky and privileged life. His family are well-off and he has a huge circle of relatives and friends who are very fond of him. Despite this, Sam has still had to come to terms with how his condition has limited the nature of his life. I met Sam in his late 20’s, which was a difficult time in his life. Thirty is the average lifespan for people with his condition and this caused him feel quite down. To his vast credit he has accepted the negatives aspects in his life, and accentuated the positives — and has lived his life to the full!! He has achieved so much! 

Sam spent a few years studying and acting at the Chicken Shed Theatre where he appeared in a number of shows, and he has had numerous parts in various TV productions too. He goes indoor wall-climbing once a week. Sam’s skeletal position, and the way his lower limbs and feet are positioned, should make it an almost impossible task to climb well. But he is actually a very accomplished climber and has performed an abseil raising funds for the MacMillan Charity. 

Sam in action! Conquering that wall!!

Sam goes blind (acoustic) shooting roughly once a month. He gets to use his heightened sense of sound, and through headphones, he hones in on a constant sound which changes to a higher pitch the closer you get to the target.  Once, he even went driving! At an abandoned airstrip he got to go behind the wheel and belt it as fast as he could until he reached the end of the runway, obviously aided by a driving instructor, who helped navigate the car pedals etc. That was an experience he loved! He has given talks to medical students about his condition, Familial dysautonomia, and he is forever flying off to Australia or New York, etc., and once — to Cape Town!!  He called me from the top of Table Mountain to report that he and his companion could see the Molteno Reservoir!!  What a thrill!! Being unable to see, all of these activities pose their own set of obstacles for Sam, but he is undaunted, and presses on, always cheerful and always full of beans. 

Being blind, Sam has had his fair share of scrapes. There is a scene right at the end of Carry on Sam where he confidently strides out of a cafe and straight into a sandwich board, and in the best of slapstick tradition, he goes completely arse over tip! Sam is generally very good-natured about that sort of thing and takes it all in his stride, but he sometimes has more serious falls. 

Went to bed and bumped his head — Sam hit his head on the radiator in his bedroom. Once he was patched up, it was time for a Costa!! No stopping him! I’m fact, he milked the attention he got from the bandage for all it was worth! 

A number of years ago, Sam and I were training at Bloomsury Fitness First. We begin our sessions with a 30 minute walk on the treadmill, and while Sam walks, I read him the sports news in the Mirror. As Sam is a massive West Ham fan we first scour the back pages for some West Ham news, (any snippet will do, and Football Spy, John Cross, who “has his ear to the ground and his finger on the pulse”, often delivers) we then read the rest of the sports section, the highlight of which is On This Day, a column featuring sports news from the past that occurred on that particular day, plus some sporting birthday’s and a Quick Quiz. Invariably our post-workout lunch includes much discussion and Google-assisted info on the subjects raised in On This Day. 

Fun in the gym and on Primrose Hill. Sam shows his competitive side, always wanting to do more Leg Raises than Barney!!

Anyhow, as we were getting off the treadmill Sam slipped and bashed his left eye into the treadmill’s arm. My heart sunk. I sat Sam down in the foyer and to my horror he had some watery blood dripping out of his eye. I nervously dabbed the blood from his eye while assuring him that everything was absolutely fine! I did suggest we call Mark-Kay but Sam was adamant that we should not. We continued with a sensibly curtailed workout and off he went to have lunch with a friend. Phew! Or so I thought! A few hours later I saw Mary-Kay’s number come up on my phone!! Second heart-sink of the day! Apparently, while at lunch, Sam’s right eye had started bleeding profusely! Oh my God! Imagine the scene! Pandemonium! Sam’s lunch companion actually had to be treated for shock, and Sam was taken to hospital. 

When I arrived, Mary-Kay was there with a family friend, Michael Nieve. Michael passed away last year and I would like to briefly pay tribute to what an amazing, crazy and once-in-a-lifetime sort of man he was. He was (literally) like a father to Sam and his brother Will when they were growing up, and had remained a large part of their lives ever since. Michael made an impression wherever he went, sharing his own particular brand of love, and friendliness and eccentric bonhomie with everyone he met. 

Myself, Michael Nieve, Sam and Wayne at the Cote Brasserie at the Barbican. 

So I arrive at the hospital and although Mary-Kay was very nice and understanding, I could see she was pissed off with me. In the end it was sort of ok and Sam had a procedure on his eye the next day, he was reassured and guided by the calm and steady presence of his doctor, the one-and-only Roy McGregor, aka Big Mac! There was a funny moment when I arrived and saw Sam. The medical team had, as is the appropriate protocol in such cases, drawn a huge black arrow pointing to his left eye, indicating to the surgeon which eye needed the operation. The eye in question however, had a massive bandage and pad on it with streaks of dried blood all down Sam’s left cheek. It was blindingly obvious which eye needed the attention and I told Sam he really needed to start panicking if he was to be operated on by a surgeon who needed that arrow to guide him under these circumstances!

Sam is a very sociable man whose daily life revolves around seeing friends and eating out, so the Covid 19 lockdown has been particularly tough for him. After a week or two of uncertainty and anxiety (which is what most of society felt) he has accepted this new status quo, and made the most of it. Which actually sums up how Sam has dealt with every difficult and demanding circumstance all his life  — he has put a smile on his face and just got on with it. As Sam himself likes to say, “This too shall pass!”

FaceTime training fun with Sam and Duncan. "Mind your Tommy-Nutter!"

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