This isn’t the way it should have happened. I already had the subject of my next article for IRONMAN planned out: It was going to be ‘How I Won the Natural Olympia Again.’ Instead, here I am sitting at my computer with my right arm in a heavy, cumbersome cast that’s propped up on a pillow so my fingers can reach the keyboard without the plaster that covers my hand getting in the way. I had surgery less than a week ago to reattach my right biceps tendon, which ripped away from the bone in a freak accident while I was at work. To make matters worse, it all happened one week before my contest.
I realize that life is full of ups and downs. I realize that dark, gloomy days are necessary in order to appreciate the sunny ones. I also realize that accidents sometimes happen. The problem is, you never really think that it’s actually going to happen to you.
I’d been planning all year to compete in the November 2000 Natural Olympia contest. I’d won the professional division of that competition two years earlier, and I was looking forward to defending my title. The contest was going to be held in Melbourne, Australia, and the promoter, Wayne McDonald, promised to hold the event at a huge auditorium with an equally huge audience.
To make the event even more exciting, an additional contest was being held one week earlier in the neighboring country of New Zealand. The Natural World Cup would take place in the beautiful city of Auckland, and the prospect of going Down Under for two weeks to compete in two countries that I’ve always wanted to visit really got my competitive juices flowing.
Speaking of competitive juices, I have to admit that I also had revenge on my mind. One week following the Natural Olympia in 1998, I competed in the professional division of the Natural Universe. In a close decision I was defeated by Keith Bullock, an impressive bodybuilder from Australia who’d also won the amateur division at the Natural Olympia a week earlier.
The thought of beating Keith in his home country was very exciting indeed. Of course, I knew I would need to make some improvements to my physique before I would be ready to step on the victor’s platform again.
After reviewing photos and the videotape of the contest, I realized that I’d been a little flat at the Natural Universe. I only weighed 201 pounds, compared to the ripped and full look I displayed when I competed at 204 pounds a week earlier at the Natural Olympia. Whenever bodybuilders begin to flatten out, they usually lose size or fullness in their weakest bodyparts first. For me that area was my quads.
To make matters worse, Keith has huge, full quadriceps that are especially impressive on a 6′ man. Most bodybuilders his height have thin legs. So my game plan was to show up at least six pounds heavier’at 207 to 210 pounds’with bigger quadriceps and to be just as ripped as I was at the Natural Olympia in ’98. I planned on training hard for one full year and getting up to 235 pounds in the off-season before dieting slowly for 18 weeks.
I began my preparation by traveling to the Natural Olympia contest in November ’99. I handed out trophies at the event, but my real reason for attending was to check out the competition for the following year, when I would be onstage.
When I got back home, I began training with a sense of purpose. I continually pushed the poundages and trained as heavy as possible in order to get as big as I could in the off-season. By June 2000 my bodyweight had reached my goal of 235 pounds. Granted, I was pretty bulked up at that weight, but I knew I had added several pounds of quality muscle tissue that would reveal itself after I stripped off the bodyfat.
I began dieting for my contest 18 weeks out, as planned, in order to slowly lose the bodyfat and maintain all my muscle tissue. Just as I began dieting, I also stepped up the intensity of my training so I could show the judges and the audience my hardcore muscle mass.
I can honestly state that my training intensity for this competition was at an all-time high for me. I kept visualizing that Keith Bullock was as huge and overpowering as Ronnie Coleman. That kept me energized and excited before each and every workout during my 18 weeks of contest preparation. I approached each workout as if it were a life-or-death situation. I was fighting for my competitive life every time I entered the gym. It was awesome to be able to feel so alive during that period of self-sacrifice and pain!
One week before the contest I was scheduled to go to Las Vegas to watch the Mr. Olympia contest. I had my tickets waiting for me at the will-call booth, and I was really excited about going. Not only was I going to get the chance to see bodybuilding’s premier event live, but I was also looking forward to attending the Olympia Expo to make some valuable contacts in the industry. I even bought some Gummi Bears for fitness competitor and fellow Muscle-Link representative Brenda Kelly, and, of course, I was anxiously waiting to see what outfit Leigh Anna Ross would be wearing. At a sliced and diced 208 pounds, I was looking forward to showing off the physique that I had worked so hard for all year.
The day before I was scheduled to fly out to Las Vegas, I was working at my part-time job at Delta Airlines. I only had 30 minutes left in my shift, when one of my co-workers pulled a freight cart loaded with four German shepherds in kennels. We had to take the kennels out of the freight cart and carry them over to the Commando loader so the canines could be loaded onto the plane.
As we edged the first kennel out of the cart, I could feel that it was going to be a heavy load. I had my hands underneath my side of the kennel, and I was ready to load it and get out of there. When the second kennel finally came out of the freight cart, it crashed to the ground and yanked my arms down with it. I heard a sickening sound that was like a wet towel tearing. Although I felt no pain, I’ve been in bodybuilding long enough and heard enough stories to know what had just happened. I saw my right bicep retract a couple inches and stared in disbelief as I comprehended that one year of contest preparation had just gone down the drain. I had ripped my biceps tendon off the bone.
I grabbed my arm in disbelief and screamed out loud’mostly from shock and not as a result of any pain I was suffering. My co-workers looked at me like I was crazy as I walked away from everyone.
One of the airline employees called an ambulance, and I was rushed to a hospital. Since this accident happened on a Friday evening, the emergency room attendees couldn’t do much more than wrap up my arm and give me the name and number of a doctor I could call on Monday morning to schedule surgery for my ruptured biceps tendon.
I wish I could tell you that I immediately started to think about all the good things that will happen because of this accident. After all, I’ve read many articles over the years written by very positive-thinking individuals who state that it’s not what happens to us but how we handle it that matters. I wish I could tell you that I handled this devasting period of my life with grace and serenity.
I would be lying if I did. The truth is that I was not the most positive or happy person for the first 72 hours after my injury. I said, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ about 100 times during that long, lonely weekend. I’ve been training for more than 20 years and have competed in more than 30 contests and have never suffered such a serious injury, especially this close to a competition.
After meeting with the doctor on Monday morning, however, I resolved to change my attitude. It made no sense to focus on all I had lost. I could not possibly change the outcome no matter how angry or sad I was over it. I would have given anything to go back in time to that moment I began to take the kennel out of the freight cart, but I couldn’t. I had to deal with the reality of my injury by looking forward, not backward.
Now that the surgery is completed, I’m focused on doing everything I can to heal the tendon and get it back to normal. In the meantime, my muscles, tendons and joints are going to get a long-deserved rest.
I’m also beginning to focus on the positive aspects of the injury. The long, forced layoff that I will be required to take may result in greater growth over the long run. After all, I have never taken more than two weeks off from training in 20 years. By the time my cast is removed and I’ve finished physical therapy, a full 12 weeks will have elapsed. I know the size and strength I lose will come back quickly due to muscle memory, but I also anticipate the possibility of exceeding my previous best because of the extended break from the weights. The thought is exciting indeed.
I certainly have many role models in bodybuilding who have faced a similar injury. Vince Taylor, you will remember, tore his biceps while warming up for a posing exhibition, and it definitely didn’t affect his development or career. Kevin Levrone tore his pectoral muscle in 1993 and came back to win the Arnold Classic one year later. Alq Gurley tore both of his quadriceps tendons off the bone simultaneously, and he eventually returned to competition.
The bottom line is that this type of thing can happen to anyone at any time. It can also happen right before a competition. Ronnie Coleman could get hit by a car one week before the Olympia. Shawn Ray could accidentally rip his biceps one week before competing. Flex Wheeler could get car-jacked only a few weeks before his contest (whoops, that already happened!). No one is immune to accident or injury.
I’m just grateful that this injury happened to me when I’m older and more mature. It’s amazing how we’re able to handle adversity and setbacks better as we age, compared to when we’re young and invincible. Ten or 15 years ago I might not have had the knowledge or experience to deal with such a setback.
Of course, setbacks should always be put into perspective. A few weeks ago here in Chicago a young high school football player was hit at a weird angle during practice. The boy is now paralyzed from the neck down. In every interview I’ve seen with ‘Rocky’ (his nickname), he has shown incredible strength and bravery in dealing with his personal tragedy. I’ll be able to come back from this small setback, but Rocky may never be able to walk again. Despite the life-changing tragedy, Rocky refuses to think negatively or to give up. He is a real inspiration!
I’m happy to know that the desire to get back in the gym and, eventually, onstage, is still very strong inside me. For reasons that only God knows, the opportunity to compete was snatched away from me on this occasion, but my will and desire have grown even stronger. I’ve got too much heart and spirit to let a little ruptured biceps tendon get me down. I will endure whatever I have to endure in order to get back to where I was and then exceed that condition. Remember that great adage: That which does not kill you makes you stronger? Or, as another bodybuilder I know and admire once said, ‘I’ll be back!’
Editor’s note: John Hansen is the ’98 Natural Mr. Olympia and a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Visit his Web site at www.naturalolympia.com. You can send correspondence to P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561, or call toll-free 1-800-900-UNIV (8648). IM
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