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Head Coach and Next Level founder Christian Matyi – a/k/a "XN" – gives notoriously complex answers to even the most simple of questions. He'd always rather you "think more" than "know more." So you can only imagine what'll happen when there wasn't any question even asked . . .
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I originally had no interest in bodybuilding. Absolutely none.
When I discovered lifting, I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the process. I fell in love with the results. (Duh.) I was fascinated by the culture. I admired the practices of physique athletes. But even with all that love, I had none for the competitive sport. In fact, I never really understood the sport, and so beyond just disinterest I also had a bit of revulsion.
Scratch that; I had a lot of revulsion towards it. Bodybuilding, to me, seemed weird. And I'm weird. So if a thing seems weird to me, it seems ESPECIALLY weird.
And still does.
And yet I am now a competitive bodybuilder. I guess I am a bit of a hypocrite. So shame the fuck on me, right?
But "normal folks" have to interest in the sport of bodybuilding either. It is fringe. It is quirky. It is esoteric. So my shame is mitigated; I was in the majority; my take was the common take. And while many people admire the look of a sculpted, muscular physique, only a few find the pursuit of it to be much beyond a frivolity; certainly not important for the "big concerns" of life.
This morning, I discovered my attitude has not much changed in the over two decades that I have become a competitor, a coach, a reference in the sport. it was proven to me win I learned that an icon of the sport's American history had passed away. And I thought: "Holy crap, XN! You didn't know? Shame the fuck on you!"
Now, again in my defense, the name Larry Scott is not hardly a household one. Th average person on the street will more than likely not know the name, and if they do it is just random trivia – certainly not known for some relevant place Mr. Scott holds in the cultural fabric. And, if we really push the issue, he wasn't super-relevant unto himself.
Larry Scott was a footnote in a much larger and more complex cultural history. He was the first to ever have the title which is now at the center of a media propaganda empire: Mr. Olympia. And while endless discussions and accounts can uphold muscle culture and bodybuilding as a major cultural shaper (pun intended) in the American pop landscape, The Mr. Olympia itself is merely a detail; it is a "proof of concept," but not the concept itself. And thus Mr. Scott will forever be a name on a list rather than character of heritage; he was a player of the game but not nearly the rulemaker.
But this is not to say he was not important to many pool in his career in the sport. Since the 1965 Olympia title he won, he has been idolized by many who admire muscle, and even more by those who seek to craft their own. He was "The Golden Boy." He was a legend within a sport's culture. He was a hero. And I am force to admit this because that is how I learned of his passing. I am not someone who spends much time groping about the internet and newsstands for the lats bodybuilding news. However, being in a central spot of a big community, I learn fast when big news goes down.
The death of Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia, is try big news. If you are in any way connected to muscle culture, it is like the loss of a star; like the passing of a rock star for music fans or the passing of an actor for movie buffs.
And so with such passings, the culture that praises the star pours out with eulogies of solace. Countless posts about "what this great athlete meant to me." (Such posts on social networks were how I learned of his death, actually – not to mention was reminded of who he was in the first place. I know, I know: shame the fuck on me.)
That was where I paused.
So often when there is the passing of a significant person in culture, the eulogaic commentary waxes slightly hypocritical. Folks want to exult their response to the death, and really prove that their sadness is not only valid but significant to the loss. Everyone takes to comments of what the person's work meant to them. And often these comments are beautiful. Yet they are also too often hollow. Too often, people claim a sadness for the loss, and yet indicate no interest in learning from what the deceased offered in the form of gain.
Let me get more specific: being amidst strength athletes, I am seeing many comments about what a loss the death of larry Scott is, and how much he was admired. And yet so few of these admirers have stepped up to compete, as Mr. Scott did. They admire his drive and passion, and yet emulate none of his resolve. They sing his praises as an important influence, and yet have not taken his example and stepped up to compete. And I am speaking here of strength athletes and lifters with a long personal history of muscle-building and the basic equipment to take on a bodybuilding challenge with high rewards. The guys who seem dented have rarely been competitors, yet have often been loyal, hard-working and driven athletes. See the hypocrisy? How can we learn what Mr. Scott had to teach us if we do not at least dabble in his example? Shame the fuck on you!
Now, this is not to say his influence is strictly across a parameter of competitive bodybuilding. Of course he was also iconic, and his imagery held profound encouragement, motivation and positivity towards many exceptional pursuits far beyond bodybuilding. These aforementioned lifters certainly did validate the examples of Mr. Scott in many ways. I am really just questioning why they wouldn't also validate his work by walking in his shoes?
Many of them have great explanations. Life and family and business are valid. A time-consuming desire to accomplish more in the sports they already engage is solid. Disinterest in the sport's details – the trunks, the posing, the diet, the dye – certainly has merit. Heck, they sound like what I used to sound like. I didn't want the added burden either. I was happy with what I was doing. In fact, i was beyond happy; my practice was rewarding and peaceful and I wanted for nothing within it. Compete in bodybuilding? Why bother? I was fine without that addd pressure, thank you. Who needs the added burden of the weight of something they may be cut out for, but just have no interest in pursuing?
The answer is found in the try practice lifters engage week in and week out. The very quality of the work they love holds the answer to: "why add the pressure of something on doesn't like?" It is the try quality of their hands on the iron that tells the truth: has any great endeavor in physique sports been accomplished by aggressively de-loading the pressure of added weight? Dos lifting less improve a strength athlete? Does obeying the excuses of preference and heeding the avoidance of inconvenience make someone powerful and strong?
As Chris Corey once told me: "shame the fuck on you?"
Oh, did I mention Chris Corey yet? No? Well, Chris Corey is a man whom I consider my own, personal Larry Scott. It was nothing short of the brief influence of this man who got me started and everything and – I mean everything I have ever accomplished since, in bodybuilding and beyond – has been influenced by the lessons he taught me. The Next Level, The PhysiQademy, The PhysiQulture Collaborative, The Big Inside, even my branding & design business Scorpio Creative have all been touched, indirectly or specifically, but the lesson that Chris taught me which put me into a bodybuilding contest.
Now most people don't know my origin story. That is partly strategic – as a coach it is good to play one's cards close to the cuff, pulling aces only when needed – and partly respectful – I some parts are only understood after other parts are completely comprehended prior. And fewer that have heard my origin stories know who Chris Corey was. He was the man who was the single most resonating influence on my work, and to whom every single athlete I have assisted, peer I have collaborated with and dreamer I have inspired owes a huge debt of gratitude. Similar, I guess, to how people hold gratitude for Mr. Scott. While Mr. Scott was not the main hero, his influence certainly helped inspire those who would act heroically in his legacy.
But Chris was no levitating demigod; he was merely a peer. He was someone whom I went to college with at Carnegie Mellon University, and knew at first mainly through artistic endeavors rather than athletic ones. Chris was bright. Chris was whipsmart. Chris was funny and highly intelligent and creative. He was many remarkable things, but his stature in people's opinion was always elevated by what Chris possessed not only from the neck up, but also from the neck down. You see, Chris was built. I mean crazy built. Like, "how the heck did that guy get such an awesome roll of the genetic dice?!" built. Of course he had an incredible work ethic, and attacked the gym with a passion and playfulness that only made his exceptional genetics shine all the brighter. He was a military man as well, which added to his disciplinary abilities and expanded his physical talents.
The guy was pretty incredible. Yet to those unaware of his soulful heart and heightened intelligence, Mr. Corey was, by anyone's concept, the epitome of a bodybuilder. It worked against him often, obviously, because you could to "see through" his exceptional mass and shape try easily; the muscle was unavoidable. The very ways he moved and presented himself declared physical confidence, an enviable aesthetic and a fascinating self-awareness of the influence of his own image.
It came as no surprise to anyone that, after laving the service, he took on his first bodybuilding contest. It was even less surprising that he loved it. Well, less surprising to everyone but me. I was still skeptical, remember? I still didn't see the point; to me it was just added pressure towards something I cared little for. And I challenged him (as I am now known for doing) on his point; I wanted to see and comprehend just what was really in it that such an artistic, creative and influential young man would go for it. And in response to my questions, Chris had many answers. But the one that really stood out was the one he concluded with:
"If you had the ability to do something," he told me. "But don't do that thing, well, shame the fuck on you."
Wow. That one hit me. I had reasons for not doing it, and they were good ones. I had explanations why I wasn't going to, and they were well-conceived and sensible. And I had opinions why I was not interested, and they were logical and rational. But I also had the ability. There was no doubt I possessed the ability; there was really nothing stopping me. All the reasons, explanations and opinions could be recreated as easily as they had ben originally create. The only thing stopping me was thoughts and ideas. In other words, the only things stopping me weren't real at all, in spite of how I treated them that way.
"I am an artist," is what I roughly recall of all the things he told me on so many occasions. "I have the heart of an artist, and I personally believe everyone does. We just forget that when we start thinking and planning and explaining our world to ourselves. The art goes away, and we become monotonous and stuck. It's a risk to let that all go, but when we do we are following our heart, so the risk always pays off. Which is why, when we can do a thing, we should just risk it and get going. Those who don't and get stuck in their thinking are the problems in this world. And this world needs less problems. So shame the fuck on them!"
And it made sense. A lot of sense. And then Chris had an opportunity to go on a trip to Bali. Just an excursion to explore the Far East. And it was a dream come true, and his artist's heart sure as hell wasn't going to be unable to do it. And so he planned to prep for his next contest after he got back from the trip; day one on his return from Bali was all bodybuilding contest-prep mode.
And he got on the plane to come home from Bali and the plane crashed and he died.
And that was the end of Chris Corey's bodybuilding career. The end of one of the most perfect physiques I have ever seen. Now all just a memory. Just an inspiration. He could never compete again. And here I was – alive and well and with all the ability in the world to arrange it – still dismissing it.
Shame the fuck on who, now?
The lesson only sunk in after his death. Which is what has made it so poignant to me. Even after two decades, it still feels like fresh lesson. I suppose that is because it is true. If you have the ability to do a thing, but don't it is rather shameful. It's entitled, self-indulgent and wasteful. It gains you only temporary comfort, but ultimately helps almost no one. And it was how I was regarding bodybuilding.
Mere months after Chris dies, I was in my first contest, and I was very much thinking of him in thankful prayers the whole event. In fact, when I execute the pose "abs and quads" pose, Chris' name is invoked, with gratitude. The pose requires an athlete to exhale completely and hold – literally without breathing. It is like being underwater; you are literally trying not to suffocate to execute it properly. It is a moment in competition where you need as much strength as you can muster. And when I execute it, many have seen me mutter something – just my lips moving – right before I breathe out. I am saying a quick "Thanks, Chris; stay with me." Literally, over scores of contests, I still thank him every single time. It reminds me of the lesson: I have the ability and will not shame myself by ignoring it or doubting it. My role model no longer has the ability; I do. So forward I go.
Which is why the passing of Mr. Scott, the Mr. Olympia, reminds me so much of Mr. Corey. The lesson, in a nutshell, was simple yet clear: "You are alive and well, and have the ability, so if you turn away from your callings, then shame the fuck on you!" We all have talents, and just because our talents don't match our interests does not mean we should therefore squander our talents. Of course we can not do everything at once, but that does not mean a pursuit of a talent does not make it to the to-do list, the bucket-list, or the long-term-planner. It is not the same as saying "maybe one day"; the goal needs to be an absolute agenda. This is what truly shows that a hero influenced us; when we elect to not only learn their lessons, but walk the path on which they learned them.
So many of the people mourning the passing of Mr. Scott have no specific plan to compete in Larry Scott's sport of choice. Sure, many of them say "maybe one day," but no gains were ever retrieved through maybes. No one puts on strength by saying "maybe I'll lift heavy things." No one gets faster by saying "maybe I'll sprint some day." No one gets wiser by saying "maybe I'll look into it." Maybe is useless. Mr. Olympia knows no maybes, so Mr. Scott knew no maybes. And neither did Mr. Corey. Because maybes are a little shameful. And stack too many maybes up, and you got a big ol' shame-the-fuck-on-you headed your way.
So when you look at the death of Inaugural Mr. Olympia Larry Scott, also meanwhile look at your well-crafted rationals for not competing in Larry Scott's sport. Look closely at your explanations, and even closer at your opinions. Because I guarantee you will find you totally – absolutely – possess the ability; no explanation you offer will diminish that fact. You possess the ability.
So don't just honor your heroes in words; learn their lessons in deeds. Nurture your talents as they did, not just with eloquent rhetoric but also by agenda'ed action.
You possess the ability to compete. And if you turn away, "just because," well, on behalf of Mr. Olympia, Mr. Scott and my beloved Mr. Corey: shame the fuck on you.
Please post thoughts, opinions, reactions, responses and any thing else below, or hit me up, as always, via email.
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We need more role models in bodybuilding and strength sports. More men and women who don't just win, but who also stand for greater ideals. it is one thing to admire the winners of competitions, but quite another to laud an athlete as a legitimate hero among his or her peers.
This is not only an issue in these sports, of course. All the sports are brought with the same dual identity crisis; athletes so admired for their abilities yet who do not have the personal moral fiber and ethics to really be revered beyond their sport.
Where are the real heroes in sport? Where are those athletes who son't just merely excel in their chosen arena, but who also live lives which are admirable even scrutiny?
When the public eye is upon you, you have an opportunity. You can seize that moment as the one to deliver a message, or you can ignore the social responsibilities privileged to you. it is arguable that the heroes of sport, then, are those who look upon the admiring crowds and don't just thank them for the praise, but speak to them with purpose. Just basking in the post-victory spotlight is vain and pathetic. Using that spotlight to illuminate those who look up to you is noble. it is they that do this who may be considered true sports heroes.
Which is why I am admiring University of Missouri's star defense player Michael Sam this week. Sure, we have the drama and pathos of the Winter Olympics in Sochi delivering melodramatic tails of victory against odds, but it is Sam's revelation that he is gay that captures my awe and admiration. Being a top round potential draft, he has a small spotlight shine upon him. Rather than "play the role," he showed his true fabric of bravery against prejudice.
Now, football is only tenuously connected to the strength and physique sports in the mind of the public. The non-competitive training methods often overlap in content, yet this is where many presume the similarities end. But for me, the culture of the two sports has always overlapped, and I understand Sam's choice very well.
Football is a "man's man" world. Bravado, macho and iconic of a version of the American male idiom, it's hyper-masculine excess stands in stark contrast to a quality that many still ignorantly presume to be anti-masculine. We live in a culture that holds to an idiotic and reptilian presumption that men who love other men are innately less than their women-loving peers. The world of football is one spaces where this idea is not only prevalent, but perhaps extolled as a virtue – as clearly evidenced by the backwards-minded reactions to Sam's simple self-identification.
The world of competitive bodybuilding and competitive strength share a similar hyper-masculine attitude. Heterosexuality is not only presumed of the athletes, it is celebrated with chauvinism and bravado. So I know too well what Michael Sam risked when he did not hide his minority. I risk it too. My stakes are not nearly as high as Michael Sam; not even close. But i relate to his situation deeply.
Being queer in bodybuilding and strength sports is awkward at best and downright threatening at it's worst. These are sports where participants are intimately observant of each other's bodies. In strength, the diligent attention to method and form requires an attentiveness to the body's movement. In bodybuilding the need to look with unflinching gaze is constant. being a man on the receiving end of my eyes can be awkward for many; a few have even refused being around me because they do not trust that I can remain as neutral as any participant in the sport. Which hurts. And sucks. But it is their prerogative, and placating the concerns of others is not what I stand for. So I muddle forward, keeping close to the allies who have found my gaze is no more sexualized than any other man in the sport.
But the real trouble is not among peers. I am not just a gay strength and bodybuilding athlete – I am a gay coach. Which means heterosexual men are entrusting me for guidance. This idea is fine for some, but many just can't handle it. To be led through the masculine arenas of these sports by a man whose sexuality is inappropriately symbolic of non-masculinity is just not cool for some. Which is a bummer.
But I do not hide who I am. Those who are uncomfortable I need not deal with. (That is the polite way to put it; the actual thought has a bit more kick behind it – but as the topic concerns tolerance, I'll stick to the more diplomatic phrasing.) I have even had people suggest I hide it or mask it; that I actually dodge the idea. "Guys may not want to work with you, XN," I have been told by people who disingenuously claim to be concerned for my well-being. "It makes dudes comfortable to have a gay guy looking at their body. Just keep it quiet. They don't need to know."
Yeah, it's been suggested. And not just a few times.
And the sad thing is I have been told directly that the only reason some people chose not to work with me is because I date guys.
I have even been told that there is no way a gay man could ever possibly coach without the ulterior motive of being predatory. I have had more than a few men tell me that they are certain I am only involved in coaching to try and get laid; that it is impossible for me to have any other motive. I like guys; and I like good looking guys. So in their minds my coaching must therefore all be a ruse; a trap to ensure sexual favors.
When I hear this, my stomach always turns. It is always shocking the fear people are willing to spit out as cruelty.
I have been belittled at contests and even occasionally introduces as "the gay bodybuilder." And I mean to crowds. As if it must be mentioned. No one else is identified as "the heterosexual bodybuilder," yet somehow my classification is deemed important to announce. It is frustrating.
I have lost opportunities because I am a gay coach. I have been insulted because I am a gay coach. And I have been painted as a predator because I am a gay coach. Yet my faith in humanity is not swayed; I know there are intelligent people out there. I am fortunate to have found many, many of them. Yet the overwhelming acceptance I have experienced on an individual level does not change the big picture fact that this sport still has quite a bit of ignorant immaturity regarding masculinity and sexual identity.
So I get Michael Sam. I get what he is risking by just being himself. He has far more to lose than me, and I am far longer into my career than he is. Yet I admire his simple strength; and admire that he sees it as important to be known for who he is. I do too.
Only by remaining public about who I am can I hope for the climate to change. To my queer sisters and brothers in these sports, I want to be a present ally, not a secret lurking in shadow. Michael Sam does too. I am grateful that he is in far better a position than myself to inspire discussion and thought on the issues.
It is always remarkable when someone has fortitude and morality behind their athletic ability. It is men and women like Michael Sam that feel heroic to me. I often remind athletes that "it is not enough to just strive to win a sport; one should always strive to change how the game is played forever."
Don't just be victorious, be impacting. It is what Michael Sam is doing with his moment in the spotlight. And it makes me so grateful that he is doing so with such dignity. He is not looking for special treatment – nor am I. But he is likewise eager to have everyone's differences not just recognized but celebrated.
And so I celebrate him. From one out gay athlete whose public identity has resulted in consequence, to another who is currently experiencing the same, I applaud Michael Sam. And I thank him. We need more role models; I am grateful one more just got added to my list.