We all have those skeletons in our closet, the thoughts and memories of what we shoulda, coulda, woulda done differently, given the chance and given what we know now. We all have that chip on our shoulder, the knapsack full of rocks that we willingly carry on our backs that weighs us down, and the thoughts that keep us from falling asleep at night.
If there’s one thing I can’t stomach, it’s when somebody says they’re going to do something—makes a commitment—and then fails to follow through. I call this “flaking”. I hate flakes. You know, people that make a rational decision, but their neurotic compulsions are so overwhelming that they can’t stick to that decision and bring it to life? Yeah, I hate that. A lot.
And that’s exactly what happened to me in 2012. It still haunts me. But first, some back story.
I qualified for Nationals for the first time in 2010. After discussing it with my friend, we both decided I would be better served by taking one last long offseason, putting on a bit more size and correcting some symmetry issues, and then making a run in 2012.
So I spent the remainder of 2010 and all of 2011 eating and training like my life depended on it.
Every workout was brutal. Every day was about pouring calories down the hatch at an unprecedented rate. Before I knew it, I was tipping the scales at a rather fluffy 315lbs (yes, 80lbs over my stage weight), but hitting numbers in the gym I would have never dreamed possible, like a 405lbs incline bench for a double. I was in true “beast mode”. I had a vision, and I was on a mission, and nothing was going to stop me.
I decided to do a big show early in the 2012 season, with hopes of nabbing a national qualification and heading to Jr. USA’s, the first national show of the season. I knew I didn’t yet have what it took to even think about stepping on stage at USAs or Nationals. I just wanted to see how I would fare at the entry level national show. My hopes were fairly humble: ideally, make top 5, and at minimum, not look like an asshole standing up there.
I chose the 2012 NPC NY Metropolitan as the show I would lay siege upon in my efforts to requalify. It was a big show, so I could see where I really stood in the mix; and, it was very early in the competition season (end of March), which meant I would qualify early, and have the ability to travel down to South Carolina and grace the Jr. USAs stage.
And then, on Saturday, December 3rd, it happened—I completely tore my right biceps off of the bone. Sadly, I wasn’t even being “hardcore” and doing 405lbs underhand barbell rows, ala my idol Dorian Yates.
Nope, it was my gym’s annual Christmas party, for which we clear all of the equipment off of the floor so people can mingle, eat, drink, and be merry. I had to stay until the end of the party so I could help rearrange the equipment. And I couldn’t eat, or drink, or even be all that merry. So when the clock struck 10pm, I was eager to start throwing stuff back into its rightful place. I tried wheeling in a treadmill with another employee, and the wheels weren’t working right. So what did I do? I said, “Screw it”, placed my right hand underneath the motor deck, and lifted the whole damn thing up, while he carried the back end. As I was walking through the door, I had to duck down in order to clear the height, and I stumbled a bit. And I heard the sound of Velcro peeling back. I set the treadmill down, and my boss laughed—“You alright?” “I don’t know”, I said. “I think I just tore my biceps”. He laughed like I was kidding. “No, I’m serious. I’ll be back”.
I went to the locker room and sat down on the bench, waiting for the wave of pain. But there was no wave. It didn’t hurt. Slowly I peeled the sleeve off—and the second I raised my arm, I could tell things weren’t right. Once the shirt was off, I looked down, and sure enough, my right biceps hung there like a sack of meat, no tension, no tautness, just a big ball flopping along the bone.
I called my wife on the ride home and told her what happened. Once home, I sat in my computer chair, in silence, and I cried for five minutes. And then I went to bed.
I cancelled all of my clients the next morning and went to the ER, so I could get into the ortho sooner. When we were done at the hospital, I went to the mall to get a slice of Sbarro’s pizza. My wife, ever in my corner, said, “Baby, don’t start cheating on your diet! If you do, you’ll never get on stage this year!” I told her, “Look, I’m giving myself one day to mope—to eat some junk food and feel sorry for myself. Then I’m going to the ortho tomorrow, getting this thing repaired, getting right back on the diet and cardio, and I’m competing this spring”.
I tore the biceps on a Saturday, went to the ER on Sunday, saw the ortho on Monday, and had the reattachment surgery that Thursday. On Friday morning, I went to the gym in a sling and trained delts—or delt, I suppose—my left side only, standing there doing 60lbs dumbbell lateral raises and 110lbs dumbbell shoulder press. And yes, I have the video to verify how stupid I am.
I knew that the NY Metropolitan was off the table. That show wouldn’t give me sufficient time to heal. But I would be damned if an injury like this was going to stop me from competing that season. I had worked too long and hard, and I had set my mind—and I don’t flake. I hate flakes.
Instead, I decided to do the NPC Pittsburgh show in early May. The week before that was the NPC Max Muscle in Woodbridge, VA, which I thought would make for a good warmup show.
The Max Muscle was exactly 21 weeks after the day I tore my biceps off the bone. And I took my first overall. I went on the following week to place 3rd at the Pitt in the superheavies, then eight weeks later, 2nd in the supers at the Philly, and 4th in the supers at the Maryland State.
And I didn’t flake. Or rather, I kinda’ did. But I persevered. What nobody told me at the time, however, was the price I would have to pay for that perseverance.
See, at the time, I was averaging a 90-hour work week. Our daughter, Raven Storm, was about two-and-a-half years old. I was already stretched to capacity in terms of work load, stress levels, and just burning the candle at both ends. And then, right as I was getting into prep, my wife got accepted into the nursing program early. Getting her through nursing school had been our top priority, and now, she had the opportunity to do it earlier than planned. We agreed that she should do it, and that we would somehow “make it work”.
“Making it work” translated into me literally waking up at 5am and running straight with no breaks until 1am, almost every single day, for the better part of 20 weeks. I was averaging 18 personal training clients per day at my job, working 7 days a week, cramming in an hour of cardio every day, an hour of lifting every day, on top of tanning, posing, and all the other good stuff that comes with what we do.
But I could do it. I’m superman. Or so I told myself. I don’t flake. I hate flakes.
2012 was the first time I ever waffled about a competition. Life was so stressful during that period, that every other hour I decided I could compete, and I could not compete. I couldn’t keep focused and on track, so I just kept going full-speed ahead. I didn’t make the final decision to do the Pitt until I was 6 weeks out—and Woodbridge was the week prior! Those last 6 weeks, I ran off of 6 meals a day consisting of 7oz of tilapia, and asparagus—no carbs, no fats, an hour of intense cardio a day, lifting every day, while working ungodly hours on my feet all day long.
But I could do it. I’m superman. I don’t flake.
When it was all said and done, I looked at my competition season, and I beamed with pride at what I had accomplished. But I also realized, I was not living like the person I wanted to be. I had not been a good husband, and I had not been a good father. I was rushing my young daughter in and out of day-cares, dragging her physically by the hand down the hallway, all just in the name of “making it work”.
After the season ended, we took a family vacation, where I did a lot of soul searching. I came to the conclusion that, with my current workload, I couldn’t simultaneously pursue the three things that mattered to me: family, career, and bodybuilding. Something had to give. So I gave up bodybuilding. I wanted to see if I could retain my identity and self-esteem while it was not pinned to a fifty-inch chest and flaring quads. I wanted to make sure there was still a “me” underneath the suit of muscle I had built.
So I spent the second half of 2012 hardly training, hardly eating, and watching from the sidelines. I still trained competitors, and our teams did amazingly well. Unfortunately, this also made things worse, and I began to spiral into depression. For the first time in my life, I was unsure—unsure of what to do, unsure of how to act, unsure of who I was. I had lost my passion, and a jagged hole remained in the place where it had been ripped from my chest.
Towards mid 2013, I decided that I had had enough, that I could now slow down my business sufficiently to afford me the chance to pursue my passion once again. I started training seriously, with the intentions of stepping on stage in 2014. It would be the first time I competed without having a long and purposeful offseason behind me. I knew I wouldn’t be bigger than years past—I hadn’t trained for nearly a year—so the goal was to come in truly conditioned, better than I had ever achieved in the past.
I contacted my current coach, Matt Porter, and I devised a plan for myself, my wife Nikki, and our friend Rachael to all hit the stage in early 2014. We went to work in July of 2013 focusing on body re-composition, as I had turned into a dough ball during my break. I officially started dieting in November of 2013. And now, I am approached the end of this leg of the journey.
In three days, I will step foot on stage at the 2014 NPC Metropolitan, and it will be my redemption. Yes, I have another show afterwards—the Emerald Cup—and yes, I have plans for next off-season, goals I’d like to achieve to become an even better bodybuilder. But more importantly, I went through hell to get here, and I proved to myself, I don’t flake.
Sometimes, success comes at a great cost. I almost lost my health, my sanity, and my love for the sport because I didn’t know when to reign it in, I didn’t know when to take a break, I didn’t properly prioritize and say, “Maybe now isn’t the best time to compete”. But I had something to prove. And it’s difficult to take somebody with our mentality, and tell them, hey, it’s okay, you don’t have to prove shit.
But people like us will always have something to prove. It might come about two years after initially planned. Sometimes, life gets trickier than the outline we create in our minds. As long as you reach that final destination, that’s all that matters.
The real payoff? This time, I’ll be stepping on that NY Metropolitan stage with my wife by my side, with my friend Rachael who helped me to rediscover my passion, with my daughter cheering me from the stands. I am so incredibly grateful to be surrounded by people who have my same drive and passion for pushing with everything they’ve got.
Realistically, I have no idea how I’ll do. I might get my ass handed to me.
But win, lose or draw, this is my redemption. I will stand on that stage this Saturday, April 12th, 2014. Because I don’t flake. And now, I will prove it. This is my redemption.
-David A. Johnston