Former bodybuilding superstar Franco Columbu’s death was a tragedy and came as a major surprise considering he led a healthy lifestyle, said long-time friend Ric Drasin.

Speaking on his YouTube Channel podcast Ric’s Corner, the former professional bodybuilder, stuntman, author and ex-professional wrestler said he was still coming to terms with the death of his friend, who reportedly drowned in the ocean off the coast of Sardinia, Italy, last week.

Like many in the bodybuilding fraternity, Drasin built a long-term friendship with the two-time Mr Olympia and was shocked like millions more were when he first heard the bad news.

“Never in a million years would I thought that would have happened. It was such a surprise and I’m still in shock,” said the 75-year-old Drasin, who won amateur bodybuilding titles in his youth.

“I went to the gym and told a few people … I couldn’t work out. Apparently, he was in Italy, Sardinia with his family, his wife [Debbie] and daughter [Maria] and his publicist. His wife left the day before and he and his publicist decided to go swimming in the ocean [on the tragic day].

I will always miss you Franco: Arnold Schwarzenegger writes heartfelt tribute to his ‘partner in crime’ Franco Columbu who dies at 78

“Apparently he [Columbu] jumped in, went down and didn’t come up. His publicist had to pull him up and tried to revive him and called the paramedics and they rushed him in hospital but he was already gone from drowning.”

Drasin first met Columbu in the early 1970s and can attest that the Sardinia-born strongman had no health issues for a 78-year-old man.

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Franco, You’ve heard me say that I don’t like when people call me a self-made man. You’ve even heard me say that you’re part of the reason I could never accept that label. But I wanted you to know why. From the minute we met in Munich, you were my partner in crime. We pushed each other, we competed with each other, and we laughed at every moment along the way. When I finally got to America, I was alone. I’d left my family, my country, my whole life behind. So when I asked Joe Weider to bring you to train with me, it was because I knew I wasn’t the same without my best friend. I could thrive without money, without my parents, but I couldn’t thrive without you. I am devastated today. But I am also so, so grateful for the 54 years of friendship and joy we shared. The pumps, the chess games, the construction work, the meals, the pranks, the life lessons - we did it all together. We grew and we learned and we loved. My life was more fun, more colorful, and more complete because of you. I will always miss you. But I’ll also know that a part of you lives on in me, in Debbie, in Maria, and in the millions of people you inspired every day you lived. And I will be there for Maria and Debbie, so you can rest now with no worries. I love you Franco. I will always remember the joy you brought to my life, the advices you gave me, and the twinkle in your eye that never disappeared. You were my best friend. Love always, Arnold

A post shared by Arnold Schwarzenegger (@schwarzenegger) on

“This is sad. Franco was in good shape and he was a good guy and he always took care of himself and he always had a smile. He was good to people. He had no physical problems that I knew of. He was just healthy. But to drown is a tragedy. I was like ‘who would expect a thing like that?’”

“I met Franco in the early 70s when I was training at the gym [Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, California] and he came in and he would train with us and we would hang out and we would do stuff. Franco was a very giving, nice person.

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“He always had a lot of fun in the gym and he had a lot of fun with all of us and we would all go out to eat and he would just be one of the guys. Just like Arnold [Schwarzenegger] they were all great, good people.”

Drasin will not only remember Columbu as a kind and generous person but for his legendary strength.

“He was strong, he was the strongest person I’ve seen in my life. He was only five [foot] four, but he had the upper body of a full-sized man,” said his long-time friend.

Drasin also recalls the time when the two appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records on TV in the 70s where Columbu famously blew up a hot-water bottle by blowing air into it – a feat never before seen on TV.

“He said he wanted me to blow another one [hot-water bottle] next to him like it was a competition and I said ‘oh man, I don’t know how to do that. Hey, it’s 700 dollars and I’ll help you with it.

“So I drove up over there [Norfolk film studios] and he sat on stage with Gavin MacLeod [of Love Boat fame]. He stretched mine out and I blew mine about halfway and he went all the way and popped it with his thumb nail. Not only did we get paid but it made the inside [pages] of Look magazine and then over the past few years that it [TV show] ran, I made about US$7,000 for just doing the show,” said Drasin.

The American, who was awarded the Joe Gold Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, will forever be grateful for Columbu’s advice and he will remember him for providing inspiration to so many people.

“He taught me a lot about training. He knew how to work out and how to gain and he knew exactly what he was doing and he was very strong. Come to eating, he was very clean and it was always high protein, low carbs and he always stayed in pretty good shape. This guy was strong and he could have lifted anything. It was just amazing the strength that he had. He had the mental ability to force himself do anything.

“I’m sad that this whole thing happened. He was such a good guy and how this happened is just tragic. His publisher called me and said Franco wanted to do a book about how to live up to 110 years, well … obviously he didn’t. It’s very sad that the healthy people that I know when they go, they go through an accident.

“I think Franco will always be remembered as a legend because he is a legend – the way he trained and the way he treated people, he never had one bad thing to say about anybody. He’s just a good guy and I feel such a loss.”