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Bodybuilding’s Brightest Star: The Life and Death of Tonya Knight



Well-known member
May 22, 2015
Tonya Knight was an American professional female bodybuilder who competed from the late 1980s through the early 1990s. Knight's illustrious career spanned the decade from 1988 through 1993. Many people ask what happened to Tonya Knight, bodybuilder–cancer cut her career short.

In the 1980s, she pioneered women lifting weights, leading to her becoming a revered figure among female fitness enthusiasts. Despite leaving the bodybuilding scene for a while due to a scandal, her physique marked the minds of bodybuilding enthusiasts.

She was one of the first women to succeed at the highest levels of competition, making her a trailblazer in the sport of female bodybuilding and a pioneer overall.

Early Life and Introduction to Bodybuilding​

Tonya Knight was born in Buckner, Missouri, in 1966. She grew up in a small town and was active in sports from a young age. She played volleyball, softball, and basketball and was also a cheerleader.

In her junior year of high school, Knight started dating an older guy who brought home a copy of Muscle & Fitness magazine. She was immediately drawn to the images of the female bodybuilders in the magazine and decided she wanted to be one of them.

Knight started training with her older brother, using only a pair of sand weights. She eventually wanted to compete in bodybuilding, so she learned how to get ready for a show. She knew working out at home with sand weights wasn't enough, so she went to the gym to get in better shape.

She quickly made progress and soon began competing in local bodybuilding competitions. In 1987, she won her first major competition, the NPC Junior USA Championships.

Knight's upbringing and introduction to bodybuilding were both atypical. She was not raised in a bodybuilding family and did not start training until she was a teenager. However, her passion for the sport and her dedication to her training allowed her to achieve great success.

Career Highlights and Achievements​

Tonya Knight was a pioneer in the sport of female bodybuilding, and she achieved many significant career achievements during her time at the IFBB. Even though Tonya won her first show, she still considered bodybuilding a sport. She wanted to keep competing but thought it would differ from how she made a living. Here are her most memorable achievements in her career:

  • 1984 NPC USA Championship (11th)
  • 1985 NPC USA Championship (6th)
  • 1986 NPC USA Championship (4th)
  • 1988 Pro World Championship (5th)
  • 1988 IFBB Ms. Olympia (4th, but disqualified later on)
  • 1989 Ms. International (1st, but disqualified later on)
  • 1991 IFBB Grand Prix Italy (1st)
  • 1991 Ms. International (1st)
  • 1992 Ms. International (6th)
  • 1993 Jan Tana Classic (3rd)

People also know her as Gold in American Gladiators, taking Sunny's place in the Gladiator fight and making herself known immediately. She was tough in Powerball, Breakthrough, and Conquer. In Breakthrough, she beat Wendy Brown, one of the biggest women to compete.

Tonya Knight and the IFBB​

IFBB requires athletes to undergo mandatory drug testing for any bodybuilding competition. The identity fraud controversy brought a significant setback for Knight's career. Tonya Knight's suspension from IFBB came in 1989 after she admitted to sending a surrogate to take a mandatory drug test before the Ms. International competition.

The surrogate, who was not a bodybuilder, tested positive for steroids, and Knight was subsequently stripped of her Ms. International title.

Knight was also fined $10,000 and suspended from competition for one year. She appealed the suspension, but the IFBB upheld it. Tonya Knight served her suspension and returned to competition in 1991. She won the Ms. International title again that year and finished fourth at the Ms. Olympia.

Tonya Knight

Tonya's Training Regimes​

Tonya Knight was known for always being slim and in great shape. Because of this, she didn't have to train a lot to get her body fat down for a show. Knight ate a rigorous diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates. She would eat six small meals per day, and she would always include protein in each meal.

Her protein sources included chicken, fish, eggs, and whey protein powder. She would also eat complex carbohydrates like brown rice, oatmeal, and quinoa. She would avoid simple carbohydrates, such as sugar and white bread. In addition to her diet, Knight also took various supplements to help her reach her bodybuilding goals.

Knight's training regimes are six days a week, split into two-a-day workouts. She would train her upper body in the morning and her lower body in the evening. Her upper body workouts focused on compound exercises, such as bench presses, squats, and deadlifts.

She would also do isolation exercises like bicep curls and extensions. Her lower body workouts focused on squats, leg presses, and leg extensions. She would also do isolation exercises like hamstring curls and calf raises.

Personal Struggles and Health Issues​

Knight got married to the late bodybuilder John Poteat. They had a son, Malachi Ray, who was left to Tonya after John Poteat died at 49. They already filed for a divorce before her husband died. Aside from being a bodybuilder, John Poteat was also an actor and producer.

Tonya Knight bodybuilder cancer battle was lengthy. Her passing comes just a few days after the bodybuilding world was shaken by the news of the death of International Federation of BodyBuilding and Fitness Pro bodybuilder Lee Banks on February 5, at 51, following his struggle with cancer. She passed just days after the news of Lee Banks' death rocked the bodybuilding world.

Tonya as a Mentor and Inspiration​

Knight inspired women in sports, both in bodybuilding and the world. She showed women they could be strong, powerful, and successful, regardless of what society might tell them.

For her, the only way to make a goal a reality is to take action toward achieving it. In the beginning, Tonya aimed to have a fantastic figure like the fitness models she saw in magazines. She demonstrated this with years of hard work and dedication to accomplishing her objectives.

With her experience, Tonya Knight taught that individuals will become the architect of their greatness if they have identified their calling and devote themselves daily to working in that field.

The Final Years and Untimely Death​

Tonya's untimely death occurred on February 7, 2023, when she was 56. Although she fought illness for a long time, she ultimately succumbed to the disease, and the circumstances surrounding her passing have not been made public.

Evolution of Bodybuilding shared the news of her passing, a community focused on fostering an appreciation for the sport of bodybuilding.

According to another female bodybuilding legend, Rachel McLish, even when Tonya had cancer, she never failed to reach out to her friends. She constantly updates her circle in the bodybuilding industry by texting or calling, ensuring they all care for themselves.

Legacy and Impact on Bodybuilding​

Tonya's amazing physique and extraordinary sports accomplishments garnered her great attention and accolades throughout her career, securing her position as one of the most accomplished and important figures in the history of bodybuilding.

Not only was she successful as an athlete, but she was also successful as a role model. The legacy that Tonya has left behind will be a constant reminder of the power of the human spirit, strength, and dedication.

She strongly advocated for healthy eating and exercise and showed people that achieving a healthy and fit body was possible without sacrificing femininity. Her work has helped to inspire millions of people to adopt healthier lifestyles.


As one of the first women in the sport, she broke through to the mainstream and altered the public's perception of bodybuilders generally. She encouraged people to eat healthily and exercise, and her example proved that women can accomplish both yet still embrace their sense of femininity. Her story is a reminder that anything is possible if you set your mind to it and never give up on your dreams.

Frequently Asked Questions​

What was Tonya Knight's biggest setback in her career?​

Tonya Knight's biggest career failure was being kicked out of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness in 1989 after she admitted to sending a substitute to take a required drug test before the Ms. International competition. Knight's career was a big hit when IFBB banned her from participating in the Ms. International and Ms. Olympia contests.

How did Tonya Knight die?​

Tonya Knight died on February 7, 2023, at 56, after a long battle with breast cancer. People from the bodybuilding industry mourned her death. Her friends and fans shared their tributes on the internet after the news got public.

How did Tonya Knight become a TV personality?​

In addition to being a bodybuilder, Tonya was known for being on the famous American TV show American Gladiators from 1989 to 1992, where she competed as Gold. She had to leave the show because of a knee injury.