I turned 40 last fall and it has now been 18 years since I last competed in bodybuilding. Through friendships I made at that time with the amazing UFE fitness competitor Melissa Hooper Francis and her husband Bryan Francis, I’ve been invited to be a judge at the UFE Fury event in Chicago in 2012 and 2013. Naturally you would expect judges of such an event to have a fair amount of experience in the sport and, for those who don’t know me, it’s not immediately clear that I would have such experience. So, for the benefit of anyone who might be interested, I’ve decided to tell the story of my life as a competitive bodybuilder. It started earlier than you might imagine:
The sixth grade class of my elementary school had 7 kids in it - 4 boys and 7 girls. When I entered 7th grade at Parkside Junior High School, my class had the 11 of us and another 200 strangers. I had grown up in a very sheltered school and that first year of junior high was rough. None of the kids I knew were in any of my classes. I had a smart mouth which got me into a fair amount of trouble. I was a skinny weakling and my mouth was a fist magnet. I got into a lot of fights, most of which I painfully lost.
After one particularly bloody fight with Charlie Casey (so much the worse for him having my same first name), my parents bought me a weight set from Sears - a number of plastic-encased concrete rings and a rickety metal tube bench - but, not knowing what to do with it, it sat unused in its box in a closet.
During summer break before 8th grade, I saw a movie called Commando. At the beginning of the movie there is a scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger is in the woods cutting down a tree. It was the first time I ever saw Arnold. Here is this supremely confident guy carrying a gigantic log back home on his shoulder. He has incredibly muscular shoulders and arms and I remember thinking that if I was as big as this guy, maybe I wouldn’t keep getting into these fights and, better yet, if I did have to fight, maybe I wouldn’t always lose.
So I researched and found that Arnold was a bodybuilder. I read his book “Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder”. I found an old copy of the movie “Pumping Iron”. I bought “Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding” and starting learning the exercises, the routines, the techniques that would eventually transform me from that skinny kid into a successful bodybuilder.
That summer I started off with a bench press of about 60 lbs. and I weighed a whopping 130. I started lifting weights and could barely balance the bar. I had no experience and no workout partner and used to get stuck with the “heavy” bar on my chest and no way to get it off other than by strenuously tipping the bar enough so the weights would slide off the bar onto the floor.
By the end of summer I could bench press 135 lbs. and had gained 10 lbs. of muscle. I looked very different as all of that gain was in my arms, upper back, and chest: I was not yet doing any leg exercises. When 8th grade started in the fall, my appearance change alone ended all of my conflicts. No one ever bothered me again.
I kept meticulous records and by the end of 8th grade I was up to 146 lbs. and could bench 165. I also had started squats and deadlifts, as well as the Olympic clean & jerk lift. In fall 1988, I became a freshman at University High School. It was at this time that I started going to a real gym - Carlton’s Fitness Club in Normal, Illinois. I used to catch a public bus from school over to the gym and my parents would pick me up on their way home from work.
The gym was run by Guy Carlton, weightlifting bronze-medalist in the 1984 Olympic Games. He was an incredible athlete and mentor. He used to have his bronze medal hanging in his office at the gym. At the time my only goal was to “be big” and had not yet decided on bodybuilding. My time at Carlton’s Fitness Club briefly led me on the path to Olympic weightlifting and, to this day, I stil love doing power cleans. Guy’s gym was ideal for that, obviously, as he had all of the equipment for those lifts, including lots of bumper plates and extra-matted areas to practice, where “dropping” a bar loaded with weights was necessary and totally acceptable. The Olympic weightlifting made me a much more explosive athlete. My vertical jump significantly increased to the point that, at a height of 5’ 9”, I could just about dunk a basketball.
Later in my freshman year, I also entered a powerlifting competition. I saw a gigantic bear of a man named John Ware bench press 640 lbs. and squat just short of 1,000 lbs. It was pretty incredible. In one year I was exposed to world-class athletes in Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting. I thought about pursuing each but kept being drawn back to bodybuilding. Something about getting up in front of a crowd was compelling for me. It took me another year of training, though, before I finally entered my first show on March 20th, 1990 as a 16-year-old junior in high school.
Before my first competition, I had never met another bodybuilder and had never seen a bodybuilding competition other than the ones in Pumping Iron. I had never heard of Pro Tan. I brought along a bottle of baby oil. I spent a few sessions in a tanning bed before the show. I dieted pretty well and was in good shape for the show but woefully unprepared. Deservedly, I got last place in my class but it was the ultimate learning experience. And there is nothing like getting dead last to motivate your training.
I kept entering as many shows as I could, and I kept getting last, or close to it. My parents were supportive but I’m sure they were looking forward to the day when I would give up on this futile pursuit. Here I compete against the teenage version of 2011 IFBB North America winner Ko Chandetka:
However, I persevered, honing the definition of my physique with every show, selecting better music and perfecting my routine, choosing only poses which showed my best parts and avoided my weak points, developing a beaming smile and learning how to win the audience over to my side. I slept with the Enyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. I read it over and over again each night. It was the last thing I saw before falling asleep.
I was ruthless in my self-analysis, taking Polaroid after Polaroid of my various poses and annotating each shot with notes on what was weak in the pose and what could be improved. I started taking pictures of all of my competitors and would put the pictures of people who beat me on the dashboard of my car so I would be reminded constantly of my goals. More than one of my girlfriends at the time thought it was pretty weird to see a picture of some hulking, half-naked dude in a Speedo taped above my car’s air conditioning vents.
To make a long story short, it eventually paid off and that summer I won my first show. Eventual IFBB Ms. Olympia Kim Chizevsky was one of the judges who awarded my very first win. Through a dozen shows after, I never again took anything but first place as a teenager. I still mostly competed in NPC but my final show as a teen was a fantastic ANPPC show where I won both the teen middleweight and the open men’s middleweight, and narrowly missed the overall men’s title to a hometown favorite with 10 years on me.
When I turned 20, I had to enter the open men’s division permanently. It was a big change. I was again the youngest competitor in my class. I went straight back to last place. But, by then, I was very good at getting better. I gained a lot of muscle in my early 20s. I was working out at the ISU Rec Center and had incredible workout partners: Bryan Francis, Fred Schuth, Eric Daehn, my brother Randy, and, the guy who drove me the hardest, my good friend Greg Durflinger (Durf), who did his military service as a Navy SEAL and, having moved to the reserves, was finishing up his college degree. Trust me, it’s tough to say no to another rep to a guy who went through Hell Week as a SEAL.
All of these guys were excellent spotters and pushed me to my limit. When Fred and I trained legs at 5am at Four Seasons, I used to throw up between every single set of squats. It was ritual to simply bring the trash can over and set it next to the squat rack before starting. My leg workouts were so brutal that I could only do them once a week and it took 5 days before I could walk without pain. I easily benched in the mid-300s, deadlifts in the 500s, squats in the upper 400s, and did quarter and half squats with 8 plates on a side.
More importantly, I ate a ton of food, 5,000 calories a day or more. I used to go the Old Country Buffet and just pile my plate with whatever meat they were serving, eat until I was totally stuffed, and then go out and lay down in my car because I was too full to drive. And I would lay there in my car, looking at my adversaries taped to the dashboard, and visualize my next posedown with them and how I could dismantle one by one, leaving each in my shadow. It was these extremes that allowed me to put on the muscle as a natural athlete, the suffering in the gym, and the “red mist” pursuit of victory.
Finally, in 1994, I entered my last bodybuilding competition. I destroyed all of my competitors and won my weight class and the men’s overall title. I was in the best shape of my life. And then I retired and went out on top at the grand age of 22.
Why did I retire? There were a lot of reasons. One is that I was as muscular as I wanted to be. When I started, my thighs were 19” around. When I retired, they were almost 29”. It was not possible to wear normal jeans. My upper arms went from 14” to 19” (they are actually 22” now as I kept working my triceps for years after). My chest went from 38” to 52”, all while keeping a 28” waist. That was good enough for me.
Another reason is that bodybuilding can be an all-consuming sport. Everything in your life is a single focus on improving your physique, through diet, exercise, meditation. To win, there is no room for anything else. By 1994 I was starting my first company and was writing medical records software and trying to graduate from ISU. It was time to apply my focus to something else: building a company, which any entrepreneur can tell you takes at least as much dedication. It was simply time to move on.
Since then I’ve done almost a dozen triathlons, lots of indoor rock climbing (which, if left unchecked, can easily become another all-consuming passion), and even briefly took up the Olympic sport of track cycling at the Northbrook and Kenosha velodromes (I placed 3rd at the Wisconsin State Championship in my first race before my 36th birthday). But my passions now are my family - my beautiful wife and precious sons - and building my company (my 4th company, that is).
My physical pursuits now are all oriented around mitigating and undoing the damage I cause myself by sitting in a chair in my office 16 hours a day, 5 days a week, and the convenience eating that comes with that lifestyle. I go for walks when I can and I do as much yoga as I can. I’ve been doing yoga seriously for two years now. I love it and recommend it for everyone. It’s one of the best things in my life and I have an awesome instructor - Kandy Gore at Equilibrium Fitness in Palatine. It’s something that my wife and I can do together. The yoga helps me defuse the stress from my work and has vastly improved my flexibility and overall health.
And so now you know how I became a bodybuilder, how I became successful in the sport, and why I am no longer a competitor. I will always love bodybuilding and every time I see other athletes, I get that “itch” to compete again. I love the energy, the competitiveness, the back stage camaraderie, the culmination of years of work and months of contest preparation for, in the words of Eminem, the “one shot, one opportunity” intensity of the show, the cheering of the audience. But I must be content to limit my participation, if allowed, to judging, mentoring, and watching from the sidelines.
I was the last person to win the Mr. ISU (Illinois State University) competition. The show was permanently canceled (as far as I know) the year after I won. As “Mr. ISU” I became the campus “expert” on bodybuilding. At the time there was this beautiful, somewhat shy, Latina woman at the Rec Center who was on the verge of starting fitness competition. Her then-husband was very much against her doing these competitions. She felt she would do well but he was possessive and insecure and did not want to share her awesomeness with the world. She and I used to do cardio together on the ellipticals and I kept arguing for her to get out there and do a show. We spent time at the Rec Center, finding space in empty group class rooms, working on a routine, talking about the need to smile and command the stage with your presence. She was a great person with a wonderful, optimistic personality, and she eventually became the greatest female fitness athlete ever. She was my friend. Today you know here as the stunning Adela Garcia.