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How I Went From Winning Bodybuilder to Death?s Door and Came Through a Better Man

I wasted away my high school years drinking and drugging, skipping in and out of drug-rehabilitation centers and boys homes.

Unlike many aspiring bodybuilders I didn’t spend my youth dreaming of becoming the next Mr. Olympia. I wasted away my high school years drinking and drugging, skipping in and out of drug-rehabilitation centers and boys homes. It wasn’t until years later that I developed the discipline required for a more healthy, productive life.

When I purchased my first club membership, I was 19 years old and a three-pack-a-day smoker. After years of trying to quit, I finally decided to join a health club in hopes that if I physically exhausted myself, I’d lack the desire to smoke. So whenever I got that overwhelming urge, I would hop on my mountain bike, ride down to the club and hammer away in the weight room. After countless unsuccessful attempts at quitting, I was finally able to conquer my addiction to cigarettes. My focus soon changed to bodybuilding.

After spending a great deal of time in different gyms, I grew to appreciate the marvelous physiques I saw in the magazines. I didn’t believe that I had the genetic potential to look like that, but I figured that with enough effort and discipline I could at least enter a local competition and place in the top five.

When I was about 24, a couple of guys from my gym noticed me and offered to train me for the ’99 Alaska Championships, which were about three months away. Of course I jumped at the opportunity, thinking it was my chance to accomplish one of my goals’to compete in a bodybuilding contest.

For the next few months my new training partners beat me into the ground with brutal workouts, helping me learn the poses and develop my first posing routine. All that paid off, as I walked away with a first-place trophy in the novice men’s division.

Eager to continue developing my physique, I returned to working out hard and eating big. My stroke of good fortune came to a halt when I was admitted to the local hospital in Juneau, Alaska, for late-stage ulcerative colitis. I was there for three weeks as doctors tried to control my disease with medication. When they saw that I was getting worse, I was taken to the University of Washington Hospital, where the doctors told me that I needed to have my colon removed in order to survive. My disease had progressed so far that it couldn’t be contained with medication. By the end of that week I had the surgery. I had an ileostomy bag for a couple of months while my body recovered. I’d have to go back into surgery a few weeks down the road to have my small intestine reconnected.

For the first couple of weeks I could barely stand to look at myself even long enough to change or empty the ileostomy bag. At times it would even make me vomit. I didn’t want my then girlfriend, now wife, to see me. Much as I tried to be a strong father figure for my daughter and stepson, my parents and girlfriend had to take over because the recovery and medications left me too drained to deal with even ordinary tasks. Although I desperately needed to eat and sleep to recover enough to undergo another surgery, I had difficulty doing either. My girlfriend suggested we take before and after photos so I could see my progress, but I’d fallen into such depression over my mutilated abdominal region that I refused any pictures. I tried to keep my body well covered to hide how thin I’d become and to hide the bulge in my belly from the ileostomy bag.

I had to reassess who I was. Just a couple of months previously I’d won first place in a bodybuilding show; now I was about 40 pounds underweight with no visible muscle tone. My doctors had instructed me not to lift more than five to 10 pounds. I could walk short distances, so I kept as active as I could. I did what little I could with 10-pound dumbbells and isometric training. I needed the structure and discipline that I received from bodybuilding even though I knew that soon I’d go under the knife again and and lose it all. My focus turned to setting a positive example for my daughter and the children I worked with. My training was no longer to build massive muscle but to preserve it for my next surgery. I started taking supplements, training as often as I was allowed (sometimes slightly more) and eating as much quality high-protein food as I could stand.

My second surgery was supposed to be a bit smoother, since I wasn’t going into it ill from disease. I’d put back on some of the weight I’d lost and was excited to get the surgery done so I could get rid of the ileostomy bag and get on with my life.

Initially, the recovery from the second surgery seemed to go smoothly, and it looked as though I was almost ready to go home. Then on the third day I became very ill. I’d become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria during surgery. It took another three weeks before I was able to leave the hospital. I arrived home weighing about 145 pounds, down from my off-season weight of 190, and I had a much higher percentage of bodyfat. I stepped back into the gym in November 1999. I was still not able to lift much, and I began training with my girlfriend, who weighs 130 pounds with about 25 percent bodyfat at 5’6′. Nothing like being grossly outlifted in every exercise by a woman that size. Still, I trained with whatever intensity I could squeeze out, and by the summer of 2000 I was able to look at myself and think about my next show. I set my sights on the ’00 NPC Anchorage Bodybuilding Championships in October. The show was just what I needed for getting back my self-esteem and my life. ALL I notice that I’m able to do everything in my life better when I’m bodybuilding. My eating plans and workout regimen are very strict and force me to structure other parts of my life as well. I eat, lift, do cardio, sleep and rise at the same times every day for months in preparation for my shows, keeping meticulous journals of my progress. Those habits just naturally started flowing into other areas of my life. As a consequence I’ve become a better student, employee and father.

That October I did make my comeback and claimed the middleweight and overall titles at the Anchorage Championships.

Matt Lowden’s Sample Daily Menu

4:00 a.m. Whey protein shake
4:30 a.m. Morning cardio
6:30 a.m. 1 cup oatmeal, whey-protein shake
9:00 a.m. Meal-replacement shake
11:00 a.m. 1 can tuna, wheat bread, fat-free mayonnaise, lettuce
1:30 p.m. Meal-replacement bar
2:30 p.m. Weight workout
4:00 p.m. Recovery drink
5:00 p.m. Meal replacement shake
6:00 p.m. Mashed potatoes (no butter), whey-protein shake
8:00 p.m.: 1 cup cottage cheese, apple, half cup Fiber One
10:00 p.m.: 1 cup cottage cheese, apple, small salad with taco seasoning and salsa
Daily total: 3,260 calories

Since then I’ve taken three other overall titles, including the ’01 NPC Alaska Championships, and three additional class wins. I was also a finalist at the ’02 NPC Team Universe. I did all that as a natural bodybuilder. Now I’m preparing for the Team Universe, getting my Web site (, soon to be off the ground, finishing up nursing school and working as a personal trainer at the Gold’s Gym in Yakima, Washington. Most important, I’ve become a positive role model for my children. If nothing else, they’ll learn from me that if you really want to succeed at something, you need to work hard to achieve it. No success comes without its price, and if you have the drive and intelligence, you can achieve whatever you’re willing to pay for. IM

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