To hell and back,now what?
I never met Mohammed Benaziza or Andreas Munzer–top IFBB pros in the 1990s, both now dead–and I’ve yet to meet Michael Francois or Don Long or Dennis Newman, all of whom suffered major health problems that dramatically shortened their careers and nearly their lives. I’ve only once spoken to Orville Burke, weeks before he lapsed into a coma, and have exchanged few words with Flex Wheeler–the best bodybuilder to never win the Olympia and now, like Long, a kidney transplant survivor.
Tom Prince is different. Prince is someone I speak with in Gold’s Gym, Venice, nearly every day, and when we talk, it’s rarely about hack squats or carb loading. Prince is the first pro bodybuilder that I considered a true friend. That’s why it crushed me when his kidneys failed in April 2003. That’s why it made me question much about modern bodybuilding. It’s why I was conflicted about the controversial article I wrote on Prince (“To Hell and Back … Now What?,” January 2004) and still more conflicted about writing the article you’re reading now. But whether you see the journey detailed here as courageous or reckless, noble or futile, his tale needs to be told, now more than ever.
RENEWAL Prince’s kidneys failed during his preparations for the 2003 Night Of Champions primarily because of the painkillers and bodybuilding drugs he took in large doses for many years. He overcame critical condition quickly, but he couldn’t recover entirely. After dialysis treatments from April through September, his kidneys healed as much as they would. They now function on their own at 90%. Barring a transplant or advancements in medical science, 34-year-old Prince is jarringly realistic about his future: “It means in all likelihood my kidneys will give out early. I’m not going to live to be 85 years old. I will probably die younger than normal, 65 or something like that, but 65 is better than 35.”
He returned to the gym shortly after returning from the hospital. By August, he had adjusted his workout volume downward. “I started doing that when I noticed there was a difference between being clean [off steroids] and not clean [on steroids],” Prince explains. “I went for a long time and I couldn’t tell anything. I was still over 300 pounds and as strong as ever, but walking around at that weight was getting hard on me, like carrying around 50 pounds of bricks. I did cardio for three weeks and went from 305 to 285. My strength eventually went down about 15%.”
TORMENT The worst part was training without the megadoses of ibuprofen that had partially masked his pain for years. “I didn’t know that I was going to feel every injury I ever had,” Prince remarks. “Both shoulders, my right elbow and both knees were just killing me. Between being clean and not taking any painkillers, I just had to suffer through it. I remember coming home and Beck [his wife, Rebecca] saying, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ I’d ice my shoulders every night, and I’d put a frozen pack on my left knee, just trying to hold it together.”
The left shoulder is the worst; Prince will require surgery this year to replace the crumbling socket. “If I roll over on it in the middle of the night, I wake up screaming. My shoulders are so bad that I was literally whimpering doing warm-up pulldowns with 50 pounds. I couldn’t get my hands above my head. There were days when Bob [Cicherillo, his training partner] would come in 20 minutes late, and I’d still be warming up.”
For the first time since he picked up a barbell at 16, Tom Prince questioned why. “The one thing I thought I’d have till the day I die is my love of training. I love being in the gym so much that I never thought anything could get in the way of that, but when everything hurt like that, that was the first time I questioned why I was going through it.”
THE VOYAGE Prince originally planned to make his comeback at the Night Of Champions, but he later decided on the Ironman Pro Invitational in Pasadena, California, instead. “There are two things I have going at the Ironman,” Prince said 12 days before the contest. “One, I’m at home [he lives in Marina del Rey, California], so if, God forbid, anything happens to me, even at the show, I’m here near my doctor. Two, I honestly don’t know if I could make it to the Night Of Champions with the way my shoulders are. I don’t know if I could train for three more months in this much pain.”
Prince began his diet on November 23, four days before Thanksgiving. The early stages weren’t much different from other contest preps. “All I’ve been telling myself the whole time is I want to diet and get in shape and be good enough to take pictures, and if I happen to look good enough to compete, I will,” Prince said on February 9. “It makes it easier for me mentally if I don’t feel like I’m forcing myself to compete, and I say that in terms of what I’m taking and all that I’m not taking. If I feel I’ve got to be competitively great, then there’s a lot more temptations to take other stuff.”
By “stuff,” he means anabolic steroids and similar drugs that are common in pro bodybuilding. Prince took only 20% of the amount he did when preparing for the 2001 Night Of Champions, where he placed third, and this time he had monthly blood tests to closely monitor his health. “It’s so little, it’s almost comical. It’s less than what girls take. And the thing is, I don’t think I needed to take anything. I kept all my muscle. I definitely could’ve taken a whole lot less over the years than I did. You get into a thing where every year you bump things up a bit. So if you start out taking a little and you bump it up a little every year, it adds up to a lot.” DUSK Throughout January, the diet took its toll. In February, when he had reduced his daily carbohydrates to 350 grams and his calories to 2,700, I frequently encountered Prince slumped over an unpopular machine near the entrance of Gold’s Gym, waiting for Cicherillo to complete his cardio. “My blood sugar has been crashing while I’ve been doing cardio every day. Then all my energy just gets sucked out. It absolutely destroys my wife,” Prince said of his contest preparation. “She hates it now. I had to really talk her into it, basically almost beg her to let me do it. Halfway through the diet, I had to ask her to please be supportive and help me, because I can’t do this one by myself.”
As with other diets, he couldn’t sleep. When he finally fell into slumber, he woke at 3:30 AM and then he could barely force his eyes shut again, so he sat like a zombie watching television, whittling away the hours until Rebecca woke.
FEBRUARY 19 Two days before the Ironman, I watch Cicherillo and Prince pose in a Gold’s Gym mirror. At 270, Prince is massive and his limbs are shredded, even if he still carries a little water in his back. Dramatically reducing water levels is especially dangerous for someone with unhealthy kidneys, as a key kidney function is regulating internal water and electrolyte balance. Unwilling to risk diuretic use, Prince had to dry out the old-school way: restricting water and sodium. This sometimes left him lightheaded.
The night before, he felt so close to fainting that he downed Gatorade and macaroni and cheese to infuse his body with the electrolytes and carbohydrates he needed for consciousness. “It was the third time during this diet that I had to stop everything and do the exact opposite of what I thought I should do. This diet has really been an adventure. It’s been so frustrating, not knowing how my body will react day to day.”
FEBRUARY 20 The day before the contest, Prince weighs in at 276 pounds (clothed)–his heaviest contest weight ever. Walking back to the hotel after the press conference, his lungs start gurgling. The horrible death rattle signifies flash edema. Fluid is in his lungs, which means his kidneys are not regulating his water. Most of the night, while Rebecca comforts him, he kneels on the floor and leans against the bed to take pressure off his abdominals so he can breathe freely. He just wants to hold on. He doesn’t care about placing; he just wants to step onstage one last time.
FEBRUARY 21 Fifteen minutes before prejudging in the crowded pump-up and dressing room at the Pasadena Civic Center auditorium, Prince and Cicherillo oil each other’s backs. Prince’s breathing grows more labored as he pumps up. He tries desperately to hold on. But he can’t stand straight. His lungs are gurgling.
In the final moment, when the competitors are called to the stage, competitor number one can’t go. As the others file out, competitor number one sits in a chair and leans forward against a counter in front of the mirrored wall, struggling for breath. Minutes earlier, the room was writhing with flexing quads and pumping pecs. Now, after a mad dash from the press pit, I find only Prince and Wheeler and 21 gym bags. Wheeler is the one person who can truly commiserate with Prince, having attempted to compete himself with unhealthy kidneys one year prior.
After Wheeler leaves and while an IFBB expediter tries to find Rebecca in the auditorium, it is only competitor number one and me. The air is thick with Pro Tan and posing oil. Over the intercom in the hall, NPC President Jim Manion is calling out competitors for the first comparison: “Dexter Jackson … Lee Priest …”
“I didn’t do anything different, no diuretics or anything, but the closer I get to the show, the more water I hold.” Prince’s voice is sometimes breaking. “It’s just the stress of everything–the stress on my kidneys. Yesterday, I was praying that some of the water would leave so I’d feel better by the show. I just thought I’d wait for the last minute; I’d give it as long as I had to. F–k, I even put the oil on. I don’t think I looked that bad, all things considered.”
When Rebecca arrives, Prince holds her hand. “Go ahead and say it.”
“Say what?” she asks.
“Say, ‘I told you so.’”
She bravely forces a smile. “No. It’s all behind us now.” She strokes his head.
“See why I love her?” Prince says to me, choking back tears.
They leave through a side exit, out into the rain. Water, water, everywhere. “Quarter turn to the right,” says Manion’s voice, now somewhere far away. I watch the doors close behind Tom Prince’s broad shoulders and his bodybuilding career.
DAWN Prince initially thought he would require dialysis treatment, but, back in his hotel room, his breathing calms. The following morning, he feels much improved. For him, the stress of bodybuilding competition is over forever. He will see the doctor soon, but for now the worst has passed.
Prince feels both sad and relieved to retire from competitive bodybuilding. “This whole diet, I learned a lot about myself,” he states. “Basically, I learned I can force myself to do anything. But this isn’t the bodybuilding I grew up loving and wanting to do. Having to make all these ridiculous allowances for your own health, that’s not bodybuilding to me. I don’t know what the f–k that is, but that’s not bodybuilding. I don’t mind the challenge of something being hard. For me, being hard is what makes it fun. Not everyone can be a pro. It’s supposed to be this great challenge, but it’s not supposed to be like torturing yourself.”
Does he regret having tried to compete one final time? “I knew it was going to be nearly impossible for me to do it, but I still had to give it a shot. No matter what happens now, I’ve got an answer. Think of all the things in your life you can say What if? about. Well, I’ve got a conclusion. I have closure on this. I wanted to do another show, and I just couldn’t do it, but at least I know I couldn’t do it, rather than spending the rest of my life wondering what if I could have.” One can’t help but hope Prince doesn’t wonder, on some still sadder day: What if I hadn’t done it? As if realizing this himself, he adds, “Any good athlete thinks he can overcome his body’s limitations. We can’t, but we think we can.”
Prince has given up competing, but not bodybuilding. He will continue helping competitors, writing articles and, of course, training. He looks forward to being a “smaller version” of himself, pegging a lean 240 pounds as a possible target–still a massive tally for someone 5’8″, but significant downsizing for the man known as The Thing. “I want to find a look I can shoot for,” he declares. “You have to always be striving toward something or what are you lifting weights for? It’s like getting in a car and going OK, I want to drive but I have nowhere to go.”
YESTERDAY Looking back over more than a decade in competitive bodybuilding, Prince has many fond memories, mostly about the people he interacted with. Turning professional by winning the 1997 NPC National Championships (his only overall title) was the proverbial dream come true; he says the 2001 Night Of Champions, where he finished third but probably deserved first, was the one show, amateur or pro, where he came in exactly the way he wanted to.
His favorite moment came at the 1995 Nationals. It was only his third competition, following the 1993 amateur Ironman and the 1994 Florida State Championships (at both shows, he won the heavyweight class but not the overall).
“Everyone thought I was out of my mind,” Prince says with a laugh. “You can’t do the Nationals for your third show. Nobody knows who the f–k you are. Then they had the first callout, and I made the top five. It was Don Long, Edgar Fletcher, me, Curtis Leffler and Toney Freeman. They put Don, Edgar and me back [in line], and they ran through the rest of the heavyweights.
“So we’re off to the side leaning on a table, and the expediters tell us we should get back in the lineup. I figured they were just going to line us up and let us all go. Then Jim Manion says we’re going to have one final callout, number 73 and number 93, and that was me and Don Long, and in a flash, it hit me: Holy s–t, you’re gonna be in the top two of this lineup, and that means one day you’re going to turn pro! I’ve got the biggest smile on my face, chewing on my tongue, almost giggling. Me and Don Long–the favorite! Everybody knows who this guy is, but nobody knows about me.
“Don had like a hundred people in the audience, all wearing T-shirts that said ’100% grade-A beef, Don Long.’ I had my wife and two of my friends, and I could hear my wife yelling. She’s got this soft little voice, but I could hear her. We got done with prejudging, and my wife came running up to the stage, and I actually reached down and pulled her up to the stage, and I wouldn’t let her go from my side. I couldn’t actually talk to anyone after that, I was so emotional. All the way back to the hotel, I kept crying. I was so blown away that this was really happening. I went back to the room and lay in bed for like an hour crying with my wife. I saw it all then. My dream had come true.”
TOMORROW When I spoke with Prince 12 days before the Ironman, what he was most excited about was Rebecca’s commercial property management business. The timing for its launch couldn’t have been worse. She quit her real estate job and started the company last April, just after Prince’s return from the hospital. The business was financed by his bodybuilding career and then, suddenly, everything seemed in doubt. Less than a year later, the company is thriving, with Prince looking forward to the day when he and Rebecca run it together.
“Everything she talks about when she comes home is super interesting to me,” Prince effuses. “It’s so great that I don’t use my body at all. It’s all mental. I could be a buck-fifty and do this–not that I want to be a buck-fifty, but it’s just that you don’t have to be physical. I never expected to win the Olympia or the Arnold or make $700,000 a year or whatever Ronnie Coleman or Jay Cutler make. The only thing I ever hoped for from bodybuilding financially was that it would allow me to open up other doors or maybe it would allow me to make enough money so that I could put that into something else. And basically that’s how it’s working out, so I couldn’t be happier.”
THE CHASE Two days before the Ironman, when Cicherillo and I watched him pose, Prince had as much muscle as ever, maybe more, and enough cuts to make the posedown. From ankles to shoulders, front to back, his side chest pose was still the thickest in the world. With that impromptu routine, he scored his final bodybuilding victory.
There comes a time for every athlete to move on. For most of us, the decision is easy. We don’t make the high-school team, or we do but no college comes courting. Or we compete in a couple of bodybuilding shows and realize our talents lie elsewhere. For the elite professional athlete, the decision rarely comes easily. Even when their skills diminish, they’re still among the best in the world. They’re still defined mostly by the game they play, and they still love to play the game.
For better and, in the end, for worse, Prince had to push himself to the limit just to know where the limit was. I ask him again about his regrets. After a pause, Tom Prince, retired pro bodybuilder with both a graduate degree in English literature and a love of 450-pound shoulder presses, answers as only he can.
“I feel like Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick. Eventually, after Moby Dick destroys the ship, Ahab dies never having figured out he can’t win. That’s why it’s the great American tragedy. He doesn’t realize he’s going to die. He thinks he’s going to win the whole time, though you know he’s going to lose the whole time. Thinking back over 18 years and all the injuries and all the painkillers, anti-inflammatories, all that, I was doing everything I could to mask the pain, but eventually something had to break down. Something’s going to go. I’ve been hearing that for eight years now, and they were right. I realize now I’m the star of my own tragedy. I chased the whale …. I chased the whale, and finally the whale attacked. And I basically only figured it out when it was too late.”
Author’s note: Of the top five heavyweights in the 1995 NPC Nationals, only Toney Freeman has not suffered a critical illness. Severely dehydrated, Edgar Fletcher had been rushed unconscious to a hospital during the 1993 USA Championships. Don Long had a kidney transplant in 2002. Curtis Leffler died of a heart attack in 1998; he was 36.
“All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.”