Tonya Knight has passed away at age 56 from cancer. This is her story.

Tonya Knight bodybuilder
An iconic shot of bodybuilding icon Tonya Knight.

Tonya Knight was an icon for female bodybuilding in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She was born on March 24, 1966, and grew up in the small town of Buckner, Missouri, 20 miles east of Kansas City. An athletic kid, she played volleyball and softball in school. In a 2011 interview, Knight explained how she got into bodybuilding:

“My junior year of high school I started dating an older guy who brought home a Muscle & Fitness magazine, and [1980 and 1982 Ms. Olympia] Rachel McLish graced the cover; and I thought she was so attractive.┬áIt was exactly what I wanted to look like. I was on the drill team at the time and quit to devote time to training. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I did it. So my older brother had a sand weight set, and we started working out on that. From there it blossomed. For my first show [her senior year of high school in 1983], I read a book written by Laura Combs on how to prep for my show. After awhile, I moved to a real gym called TMG Gym. It was an old office building with rusted weights, but it was a great environment; and there were a few other girls, and we fed off of each other.”

Tonya Knight RIP
The Next Ms. Olympia? Tonya Knight on Muscular Development, June 1989.

Tonya Knight turned pro at only 19 by winning an amateur contest in Japan. And in 1988, she moved to Venice, California, where she trained at the mecca of bodybuilding, Gold’s Gym. “It was a fun time for everyone involved in that scene,” she remembered. That same year, Knight began competing in professional bodybuilding contests and appearing on muscle magazine covers. At only 22, she was fourth in the 1988 Ms. Olympia and then first in the 1989 Ms. International, though she was later disqualified from both for a drug-testing violation. Coming back in 1991, she won the Ms. International again and another pro show. Her arms and abs were always strengthes. But Knight competed only twice more before retiring at 26 after a third-place finish in 1993.

In 2017, Tonya Knight remembered:

“I did sense a turn in female bodybuilding. The women were getting extremely large and basically freaky looking. I was glad the year I won [the 1991 Ms. International] that they were still judging a more feminine look. That was when I started considering retirement from competition because I was not going to get any bigger to win a competition.”

Tonya Knight adorns a Flex cover, August 1991.

Tonya Knight had a strikingly beautiful face to go with her fit physique on a 5’8″ frame. Muscle magazine editors loved the blonde beauty with the pun-able “Knight” name. She appeared on more than 15 magazine covers from 1988 to 1994 and was featured in numerous articles. For many, Knight is best remembered as “Gold” on 55 episodes of the action game show American Gladiators from 1990-93. “Everything happened so fast my head was spinning,” she said of those years. “I wish I could have sat back and enjoyed my success and my experience more than I did.”

Tonya Knight married and resettled near Kansas City, Missouri; and, after a divorce, she focused on raising her son, Malachi. She stayed involved in bodybuilding by working as a personal trainer and doing hair and makeup for competitors. And she continued to weight-train and eat clean. Well into her fifth decade, Knight remained an avatar of how to best combine muscularity with femininity.

Tonya Knight strikes a biceps shot at age 54. / Instagram

Today, 8-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney wrote on Instagram: “Sorry to hear about the passing of our dear Tonya. She made muscles a thing of Beauty.” Tonya Knight was a true icon of female bodybuilding and an inspiration to many worldwide. The Barbell staff offers our condolences to her family, friends, and fans.