The Gift Unwrapped: Phil Heath

September 19, 2012

By Lonnie Teper/Photos by Garry Bartlett Phil Heath’s genetic gifts and work ethic helped him win the Olympia crown. Such accolades haven’t come out of the Windy City since the ’90s when some cat named Jordan soared through the air, leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in an eight-year span. It was June 2005 when I got a call from noted photographer Bill Comstock, singing the praises of a relative newcomer who had just dominated the NPC Junior Nationals stage the way Air Jordan conquered a 94- by 50-foot basketball court. His name was Phil Heath. “Heath is the best amateur bodybuilder I’ve ever seen,” said Comstock. “He’s the next big thing in the sport … a definite Mr. Olympia in the making.” Comstock wasn’t the only person wowed by the 5´9˝, 214-pounder from Arvada, CO. Soon after, I learned that Peter McGough, then editor-in-chief at Flex magazine, was completely enamored with a couple of Heath’s pictures (taken by fellow Colorado resident/photojournalist Isaac Hinds), which had appeared on the website McGough acted quickly, signing Heath to a Weider Publications athlete contract — one of the few amateurs in history to ink a deal with the company. And that was two weeks before he dominated the field in Chicago. Six weeks hence I got my first live look at the 25-year-old wunderkind at the USA Championships prejudging, held annually on the University of Nevada campus. Oh my, what full, round muscle bellies. Spectacular guns. Tiny waist. Great wheels. Terrific calves. Okay, his chest needed more thickness, his clavicles were a bit narrow, and his back width was lacking, but it was easy to see why McGough, Comstock and a slew of other folks (including NPC president Jim Manion and future Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler) were so captivated by this fella’s future. A perfect city for such a bright new luminary to sparkle; about 24 hours later, at the finals, I called his name out as the champion of both the heavyweight class and the overall titles. He’d already won, actually; he told me after the conquest he was going to be on the cover of the next issue of Flex. So, I now wondered, what was the story behind the story of this amazing chap? A young man sprinting up the bodybuilding ladder of success with the same speed that was matched only by Jamaica’s Asafa Powell, who’d set a new world record in the 100-meter dash that year, clocking 9.77 seconds. As I dug deeper I found, ironically, he'd done his damage, like Michael Jordan, on the basketball hardwood. Born and raised in Seattle, WA, Heath was a slick passing, sharp-shooting point guard for Rainier Beach High School’s state championship team in ’98. He even shared the spotlight with longtime NBA vet Jamal Crawford, who went on to star for the University of Michigan before he became the eighth pick in the 2000 NBA draft, eventually landing in Chicago. Heath earned a scholarship to the University of Denver; okay, he wasn’t so Jordan-esque in Colorado: Phil averaged just 1.3 points per game during his four-year career. But, his skills paid for his college education – and, he was soon to be marked a “slam dunk” in the world of bodybuilding. After his playing days were officially over in October 2002, Heath bought Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding and traded in his jump shot for barbell curls, incline dumbbell curls and squats. The Gift Unwrapped: Phil Heath “I bought a digital camera, and took photos of myself, critiquing them to death,” Heath recalls in a Road to the Olympia video. He obviously liked what he saw because the following April the man who eventually became “The Gift” was unveiled. He won the novice heavyweight and overall. “I went home with all that hardware and I was hooked,” he said. That was the night he also met Cutler, then Mr. Olympia runner-up. “I went up to Jay and asked, ‘Sir, can I please get a picture of you?’ He was 290, I was 190.” Even at that point Heath’s arms — arguably the best in the game today — were insane. Heath nabbed the state title in 2004, setting up his breakthrough season in 2005 with overall wins at the Junior Nationals and USAs, the latter propelling him into the pro ranks. But was he big enough to dominate on the flex-for-pay circuit? He’s admitted to me over the years that he was actually a few pounds lighter onstage than the 214 pounds that was displayed at the Thursday night weigh-in at both the Juniors and the USAs. In fact, Heath laughed back in 2006 when he told me he stepped on the scale at relatively light 209 ½ pounds after his victory at the New York Pro in his rookie season, a triumph that followed a win in his pro debut at the Colorado Pro Championships. Size certainly wasn’t a problem, at least at that point. Sure, there were bumps in the road; the guy who’d never finished lower than first in his class fell to fifth in his inaugural attempt at the Arnold Classic in 2007. But, he was great in ’08, dominating the IronMan Pro, placing second at the Arnold Classic to Dexter Jackson and finishing off a spectacular season with a third-place landing in his initial attempt at the Olympia. Slowly but surely Heath was getting better — and bigger. I weighed him in at 232 pounds at the IronMan press conference. Fully clothed, with shoes included, of course. Probably 225–227, at best, onstage. Although talk of the lack of depth in his chest, and width in his shoulders and back, continued, Health was quickly establishing himself as a true contender for the Olympia crown. But a losing battle with food poisoning during prejudging of the 2009 Olympia resulted in a loss of 15 pounds — and an ensuing fifth-place finish. Heath made no excuses, promising to come back better than ever the next year. Amen. Many — yours truly included — felt he was the rightful winner of the 2010 ASC, a contest he led after prejudging before finishing second to Kai Greene. A lot of folks felt the same way at the Olympia the same season, where he gave his best buddy, Cutler, a run for the money ($200,000 worth) before Jay was honored with his fourth Olympia title. Phil’s weak bodyparts had finally caught up with his filthy arms, crazy wheels and hamstrings and nasty calves. Yes, Phil Heath had become complete. The Gift Unwrapped: Phil Heath The narrow losses didn’t embitter Heath, but fueled his furnace for 2011. Hitting the stage at a reported 245 pounds — if you don’t know by now, I’ve insisted for decades that most bodybuilders add 10 pounds to their actual weight — Heath was even better than the year before. With Cutler a bit off because of a torn left biceps, The Gift, now 31 and pumping iron for only nine years, was finally unwrapped at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. If there was a defining moment in the contest, it was when Heath and Cutler faced the back curtain for a rear-double-biceps pose; Heath’s tiny waist, and a back so detailed it looked like a relief map of Brazil, drew gasps from the audience. Game over. He scored a unanimous victory en route to being honored as only the 13th person to head home with Sandow firmly in hand. For good measure, Heath followed up the win with another straight-ones-across-the-board title at the Sheru Classic in India a week later against basically the same field. His ascension to the top was no accident. So, how did it feel not only to finally reach the mountain top, but to defeat his closest pal in the sport as well? In an interview with Flex’s Allan Donnelly one week after his victory, Heath said: “Jay was coaching me the entire weekend, especially after Friday. He had kind of conceded victory after that and started giving me advice on how to handle the situation, saying things like, ‘Are you ready for this? You’re gonna be the champ! How does it feel?’” Heath told Donnelly that what he’d taken the most from his gracious opponent was “How he of all people understands the pressure and the high expectations of being a champion and ambassador for the sport. Whether you’re an amateur or professional, you’re still trying to find somebody who’s already done it. He [Jay] leads by example, by his actions — not just by his words — and that’s helped me tremendously.” In a sit-down with photographer Jason Ellis soon after becoming the new Mr. Olympia, Heath continued to praise Cutler. “Jay gave me the success mindset, and not just onstage,” Heath said. “I may be the new king on the block, but he’s still the king.” The Gift Unwrapped: Phil Heath Heath says in the video that his goal wasn’t to beat Jay, it was to become Mr. Olympia. Although he does readily admit he wanted to defeat Cutler before he hung up the posing trunks. “This is a guy who hasn’t finished worse than second in a contest in the last decade,” he told Ellis. When Heath guest posed in Southern California about a month after his Olympia win, he was confident, although not braggadocios, about his chances of making it back-to-back wins in 2013. I advised against getting much bigger, possibly hurting the aesthetic yet dense look he was able to package last season. He didn’t heed the advice. “I don’t see how I won’t be heavier this year,” he said, in between greeting fans. “I still have fewer than 10 years of training under my belt, so how can I not put on more muscle at this year’s Olympia?” Point well taken. When I walked out of the Orleans Arena last September, a couple of fans approached, predicting Heath would have a run of at least five more Olympia wins. Six Sandows? That sure has a Jordan-esque ring to it?