We cheer on the people who make us proud.
The audience rose to its feet as one. It was late in the day, and a great many of us were hoarse from shouting encouragement at the folks who were on stage. Our friends, our family, folks whose journeys we’d been watching.
At this moment, however, we were honoring the journey of Zack Childers, A 31-year-old man with cerebral palsy. As a young man, Zack’s doctor told him he would never walk.
He not only walked across stage, out of the joy of his accomplishments, he ran back. Wobbly, but he ran. That he was even upright on the stage in the first place is a minor miracle. That he is actively competing as a bodybuilder is something else again. That’s what we were cheering.
The Cecil Phillips classic was held yesterday in Eugene, after having been cancelled in 2020 due to Covid. I had arrived early to document some of the preparations for the show. The staging area at Eugene Christian School was busy, the big gym overwhelmed by booths of local show supporters and the spray tanning booth where contestants were being turned berry brown for the day.
For the past three weeks I’ve attended the mid-week posing practices at Genuine Fitness, where I work with a personal trainer once a week. There, I have met and in many cases befriended people of all ages and backgrounds who had chosen the path to strut their stuff on stage.
Zack is one of many, but his story (which I will detail in another article) is among the most impressive.
A little background: the bodybuilding world has multiple segments. Eugene is the heart and soul of the drug-free INBF in this area (the amateur division of the World Natural Blodybuilding Federation), and Genuine Fitness seems to be the heart of the master’s folks, which is for the over-forty crowd. Aaron Orton, the owner and a fellow military veteran, was telling me that his gym seems to draw more of the over-forty crowd than most.
You may or may not be a fan of this sport, and there is a great deal of misunderstanding about it. If I may: the more well-known of the competitions, such as Mr. Olympia, allows steroids, and has given rise to well-known names such as Arnold and people like him. Steroid use is accepted. Unfortunately it’s also very damaging to the body. The WNBF/INBF strictly controls such drug use, ensuring a safe environment for its athletes. You can’t have taken any kind of enhancement drugs for fully ten years prior to the event, and the discovery of drugs in your urine post-win ensures permanent banning and public censure.
What this does, for my competitive dollar, are two very important things: first, it guarantees fair competition. Second, it means that those who choose this route get their muscles the hard way, and they are earned via discipline, hours and hard, hard work.
That is what we were celebrating yesterday.
The people who posed for the judges come from all walks of life. Some have a hard time walking. Others came out with a walker as a joke, and then threw off their senior bathrobe to put on a show. We laughed, we shouted, we cried.
As a lifetime bodybuilder, and one who has never competed, the competitions have been on the periphery of my world for nearly fifty years. Part of the fun of getting more deeply involved has been hearing the personal stories of those who took the plunge and bought the sparkly bikinis, got spray-tanned and tackled the immensely difficult work of sculpting themselves.
While it’s easy to argue that showing up on stage is strictly about ego and bragging rights, I would beg to differ. Zack’s story is one of many. Of the older folks I met, many have been through the wringer in more ways than one. One woman is recovering from incest, another from rape. One man sported the scars of titanium stitches down his chest like a zipper, from multiple surgeries, stents, heart attacks. That he is even standing is amazing. That he is competing is even more remarkable.
Another man in his mid-fifties had been a long-haul trucker for decades. His weight had ballooned to 270. He dropped nearly a hundred pounds, and now he competes, as well has built out a gym in his home to stay healthy.
Another woman in her forties, fed up with her morbidly obese body, dumped 100 lbs. She is anything but perfect. However she put in the work, the discipline not only to brave the stage in a tiny bikini, but to put herself in front of the judges with her peers. That takes guts. The real win for people like this is a combination of body confidence, body autonomy and extraordinary health. The main reason for that is that because this segment of the sport is all natural, the muscles are solid, and unless they stop working out, won’t suddenly atrophy the way steroid-induced muscularity can when the drugs are stopped.
For so many of the people I interviewed during the posing practices and during the intermissions, the journey to the competitive stage was the whole point. From massive weight loss to recovery from sexual assault, what they had done was far more than just find a way to lift weights.
They lifted their spirits, their self-images, their confidence. For example, Charlie, the grey-haired gentleman in the photo just above, lost some forty pounds a few years ago. An amateur, in just his second competition, Charlie walked off with multiple wins, multiple trophies and a whole new idea of who he is as a 66-year-old man.
Oh, and his pro card. Now he can compete in more competitions, and with those wins, he’s no longer an amateur. There’s something to be said for doing that at 66.
The Cecil Phillips Classic isn’t just about showing off the body beautiful. I saw both men and women with the small skin pooches of having been overweight or pregnant or both, people who were carrying the weight of painful personal histories but who had found the courage to learn better body discipline.
One man was 77 years old, a natural bodybuilder for life. I get that this isn’t for everyone, but for my health dollar, I would far rather be inspired by this at nearing 80 than looking forward to a rocking chair, wheel chair or cane:
For those who still scoff at weight training, if I may: not only does research clearly demonstrate the benefits of exercise in general for better overall health and aging, but it also underscores the importance of weight-bearing exercise particularly for aging women. It is one of the best ways to prevent bone loss and thinning. However, even better:
Weight work really does help with fat loss, and it also helps you move around the house, your world and everywhere else with much more confidence.
The folks I met these last few weeks are retired, they’re truck drivers, moms, grandmothers. They come from all walks of life, and every single one of them has a back story. The scars they bear are often invisible but they exist just the same. Yet somehow they summed up the courage to stand in front of a whole lotta people stripped down to a bikini, show off their hard work, and take pride in their accomplishments.
Because it’s not just about the trophy, or the applause. It is far more about having found a sport that supports their goals, gives them options as they evolve and especially as they age, and perhaps most of all, redefine who they are in the world.
They will never be perfect, in that sense that a professional fitness trainer might be deemed to have the perfect physique. That isn’t the point. The journey to reclaim health, which was so often the throughline for the over-forty competitors I spoke with, is the point. They learned how to eat, exercise and take better care of themselves for life.
A trophy, if you will forgive the pun, is a lot better than atrophy. But that’s just my opinion.
The gym isn’t for everyone, although in many ways it is for everyone. Anywhere you and I can build strength, confidence and health is a good place in my book. If you build a community of friends who stand and scream for you when you walk across the stage, that’s the cherry on top.
That is the real trophy: better health, and good friends.
Those are pretty good reasons to get started.