I grew up in the small town of Sterling, Massachusetts, with three brothers and three sisters, and was not really exposed to bodybuilding until the late 1980s, when one of my sisters’ boyfriends brought a bodybuilding magazine to our home. I was 16, and I remember seeing Chris Dickerson and being amazed, thinking, That’s how I want to look someday. Until that point, I had no idea a person could look like that. So I set my sights on becoming as big as Chris Dickerson — he was my role model until I was about 18.
I really had no idea what bodybuilding was about. I used to pilfer old magazines from the gym and read through them, trying to learn as much as I could about training. I started to learn a little about supplements. The first thing I bought was a big jug of protein, and I remember sitting there, looking at it on the table and thinking, This is the secret to becoming a bodybuilder. I was so excited that I finished it all in three days. I think it cost around $40 at the time, and that $40 was all I had. I was in college and working for $150 a week. My girlfriend (now my wife), Kerry, and I were on our own, just trying to get by the best we could.
The first big-time bodybuilding show I ever attended was the 1993 NPC USA Championships, at which Chris Cormier won the heavyweight and overall titles. Kerry and I were able to fly out to California for that contest because of a misprint in the newspaper. It advertised roundtrip flights from Boston to Los Angeles for $99 when the price was supposed to be $199. We were on the phone trying to get through on the last day of the deal, and we got through just before midnight. When I finally spoke to an agent, I was told it was a misprint, and I said, “But you have to honor this ad, correct?” The agent agreed. So Kerry and I got to go to California for $200, and we watched the 1993 USA. Then we trained at Gold’s Venice and I saw everyone there — that’s when I decided to become a pro bodybuilder. After winning my pro card in 1996 and then winning my first professional show in 2000 — the Night Of Champions in New York City — I finally made it to the top by winning the Mr. Olympia in 2006. It still hasn’t quite sunk in; it’s still surreal to sign photos “Jay Cutler, Mr. Olympia.” Right now I can’t help but think about how all of this is the culmination of a lifelong dream. I look back to where I began, think of all the highs and lows of my career, and realize that none of it could have happened if I hadn’t held on to my dream.
If there’s one message I’d like to leave you with, it’s this: dream big. I realize not everyone is going to be Mr. Olympia; I’m only the 11th guy to win it in more than 40 years. But if I hadn’t imagined that I could one day join those 10 other champs, there’s no way I’d be where I am today.