Matt Mendenhall: Much More
Than a Physical Body
by Lisa Dunsky Photography by Art Zeller
In a small Cincinnati suburb an electrical engineer sits at a drafting table and perfects designs for a marnmoth turbine power generation set. His skill and expertise make it difficult to imagine him in any other career. But if you take a closer look, you can tell that this particular engineer hasn't spent his entire life with pencils and slide rules: Matt Mendenhall still has the physique of a champion.
During his competition days Mendenhall weighed an amazing 265 pounds and was touted as the only man who could take away Lee Haney's Olympia title. Even Haney himself said as much. Like Tantalus, whom the Greek gods tortured by keeping food and drink just beyond his reach, however, Mendenhall couldn't grasp what he wanted the most—an IFBB pro card. Second to Haney at the '82 Nationals. Second to Berry DeMey at the '85 World Games. Second to Gary Strydom at the '86 Nationals. Then Mendenhall seemed to vanish from the competitive scene.
Everyone has a theory as to why the kid with so much talent never made it to the pro ranks. Now, two years after he last stepped on stage, Mendenhall wants to set the record straight. "No one's heard my story," he explained. "All they've heard are gym rumors. People assumed I was
Matt Mendenhall's tremendous potential had the bodybuilding world gasping.
the fast-lane life of L.A., and that's what was keeping me from getting my act together. But that wasn't it."
So what did keep Mendenhall from grabbing bodybuilding's brass ring? To find the answer, you have to start with his beginnings in the sport and his meteoric rise to the top. At 17 Mendenhall began a serious weight-training program. A year later he entered a local contest, won the Teenage Overall, Men's Overall, Most Muscular and Best Poser. The year after that he entered and won a regional-level national qualifier.
Up to that point Mendenhall remained drug-free. Then, while preparing for his first national contest, he decided to use anabolic steroids. "The '82 Nationals was my first drug program. If I didn't think I could go far in the sport, I wouldn't have taken steroids. But I knew I had the God-given talent."
That year Mendenhall's natural abilities oozed out of every pore. He nearly walked away with the show, losing to Haney by a scant two points. Any concerns he may have had about using steroids were quickly pushed to the back of his mind.
"When I first started taking steroids, I was a basket case," Mendenhall said. "Any time I felt a 'ping' or a 'twang,' I thought, 'Oh, no, I'm falling apart. The drugs are killing me.' Natural testosterone pills are much safer, but after that first cycle it became reckless. I had a taste of sweet success, and I was in the rat race. I thought, 'What can I do to get even better?' "
Shortly after the '82 Nationals Mendenhall received a phone call and job offer from Joe Weider. Before long he was living in Los Angeles and regularly appearing on magazine covers, in feature articles and in advertisements. The bodybuilding public fell in love with Mendenhall's awesome physique and all-American good looks. Guest posing and seminar offers poured in. It was a dream come true, but there was a price to pay.
"I was too marketable for my own good. I was touring all the time and guest posing and had to stay on steroids almost year-round. I always had blood work done every two or three months. I never had any liver or kidney damage, no heart flutters. I
Many thought Mendenhall had the genetics to beat Lee Haney, but his body rebelled and forced him to retire.
never experienced any of the classic side effects, so I thought I was fine."
Yet something was undeniably wrong. Mendenhall was plagued by a persistent sore throat and unrelenting fatigue. "I was always on the run, so as soon as I would start getting a sore throat, I would take some antibiotics. I did as many as five 10-day cycles back to back because I couldn't shake what I had. I couldn't figure out why I was so unhealthy."
At the time Mendenhall didn't relate his health problems to steroid use. "Nobody ever talked about steroids causing immune system damage and endocrine-balance damage with your thyroid and adrenal glands being thrown of The longer I was on the drugs, the more my body started to shut down. My immune system was badly burned out. It went from bad to worse."
His digestive system, too, had been affected by steroids: He had developed candidiasis, a digestive disorder that causes bloating and water retention, especially when car bohydrates are consumed. The condition worsened with continued drug use.
"The water retention problem didn't start getting really bad until '85 or '86 after four years of steroid use," he explained. "My body chemistry was so whacked out that I couldn't prepare for two shows the same because my reference point was always different. Now I know I had a bad case of candidiasis, and any time I would carbohydrate load, it would flood me out."
After finishing second to Strydom in '86, Mendenhall was pegged as the man to beat in '87. But in spite of his all-out efforts and driving desire to win, the drug use and constant touring pushed him to the point of no return. By the time the '87 Nationals rolled around, Mendenhall's body was completely burned out. Everyone was counting on him to win, and he failed to make it to the finals. Mendenhall was devastated.
"I went into the '87 Nationals on the same drug program I had used in the past and ended up missing my peak completely. It was like the world fell in my lap. At that point I
was going through a real crisis in my life. I kept asking myself, 'Now what am I going to do?' "
Mendenhall went home to Cincinnati to sort things out. One point was clear: He no longer wanted to damage his body by taking steroids. Luckily, he found the medical know-how to put him on the road to recovery. Once he learned what had happened to his immune, endocrine and digestive systems, Mendenhall was able to put all the pieces together. "I've learned so much since I stopped taking steroids," he explained. "If I wanted to take the drugs and really go after it, I could be right in there. But I had to take responsibility for my health and my future life."
People still wonder how Matt Mendenhall, the kid with more natural talent in his right calf than many
"I had to take
responsibility for my
health and my future
pro bodybuilders have in their entire bodies, could just up and walk away from it all, but Mendenhall has no regrets. After two years of medical intervention his health is vastly improved and his focus is on the future, not the past.
"I used to have a thorn in my side about not winning the Nationals. It was all I wanted, but it doesn't bother me anymore. The way I look at it is, if I had won, it would have taken that much longer to come to the realizations that I came to about my health and my life. We are much more than a physical body. We all need to realize that getting as big and as ripped as possible isn't nearly as important as reaching for ultimate health. That's the priority." For more info visit the site here.