FLEX: Amazing career, which included a record four wins at the Arnold Classic. With this issue coming out around February, people are going to be curious as to how you see the field shaping up? You like Dennis Wolf repeating? Or do you see someone knocking him off?
FLEX WHEELER: For me it’s still great to see that Arnold is continuing his promise to the bodybuilding world. He made a promise that he’d never leave. Other than Joe Weider, we never had a global presence by one individual. It all starts with Joe. Since him, no one has had that presence other than Arnold.
For Arnold to do what he does gives us an enormous platform. Even when I was competing, it was uncomfortable in that Arnold always struck me as a true bodybuilding fan. When I was still competing, he invited me to come speak to some inner city youth. A few thousand in a room, he got up and said all these great things about me. At that time, there was still that connection from him—from being a child and having nothing at all to being where he is now.
After my third win, I was walking into a Nike store in L.A. when we saw Arnold. I know what it’s like for people to go up to bug you, so I walked around him. As I walked around, he said Flex! What are you doing here? I thought he was just being nice, so I broke off and walked out. When I went up to check out, he was already at the counter. I put my clothes up there. He said “What are you doing? Why are you paying for your clothes?” He turned to the cashier and asked if she knew who he was. He just ripped her a new one. Asked for her manager. Ripped him a new one. He apologized and said the clothes were on the house. I’m happy because I got free clothes, but I’m hightailing it out of there because I’m uncomfortable.
This sport has given this man every opportunity that he’s ever had. But he’s done his due diligence. No matter where I see him, he comes up to me and gives me a big hug. No matter how big he gets and how much money he has, he never forgets where he comes from. I am who I am. I have my strengths and weaknesses. I can be vulnerable but I can also be rough around the edges. I grapple with who I am. It’s been noted that I’ve always worked really hard for the Arnold. In my opinion, it always felt like the best man has the best chance to win. Won it four times and I was grateful for that. I’m incredibly proud of my history with all the shows.
FLEX: Tell me about the events surrounding the discovery of your kidney condition. Did you have strange symptoms?
FLEX WHEELER: Dates back to when I was a teenager. I think I was around 19–21, with a friend of mine at the gym I trained at who was a doctor. This doctor asked if he could do some blood work on me. That was kind of him. I didn’t know. He ran a panel. I remember him coming back and saying that “You’re leaking about a gram of protein in your urine. You know if you were a drinker, I’d tell you to stop drinking, so I don’t really understand it. I’ll just write it off.”
Fast forward a little bit, I didn’t notice anything. In retrospect, there are things that were alarming. In 1997, I started enduring extreme edema after shows. I’d put on 20–30 pounds within 24 hours. So bad my skin would rip around my ankles and feet. I remember after winning one show, I drove up to the bay area from Los Angeles. I got out of the car and I was so swollen—even my privates—that I was about to go to the hospital. I had really bad acid reflux and I didn’t know what it was. Doctors couldn’t figure it out. Me and Madeline would go every week. Extremely painful . . . so much so that I contemplated suicide. I would punch the stucco on the walls of my house outside. If I could make something else hurt more than my stomach and throat hurt, then great.
These docs would tell me that it was steroids or food. I was so messed up about it. I had a Desert Eagle .50 and I had it in my lap. Was gonna put it to my head. Madeline walked in and said “Let’s just try something.” So we went to the emergency room. This was 1997, when I pulled out of the Olympia. I was in great shape. It was the first time that a doctor had said “Let’s get you out of pain first. I don’t want to deal with the other problem yet. I’m not letting you out until we figure out what’s wrong with you.” I was sobbing. At my lowest point. It was the compassion that the doctor had. My esophagus had been eaten through. He also noted that my blood levels were way off.
First they dealt with the acid reflux. Gets us to 1999. Sent to a specialist for more blood work and the next week I came back and they’re just staring at me. They asked me how I feel. “We don’t want to say just yet because this is really rare so we really want to run one more test.” Wanted to run a lymphectomy. “Is there anything else you can do?” Ran another test, taking a chunk out of my spine.
They told me that it was the most aggressive and deadly kidney disease known to man staring at them. Very hard to accept. This is just after 1999 Olympia. I felt normal. So now they ran another test, turned into a staph infection in a few days. Examiner told me that staph infection had gone through my whole leg. Stuffing gauze into the wound. Meanwhile, came back in to give my results.. FSGS [Focal segmented glomerulosclerosis]. I wondered if it was from steroids. I was ready to accept that. It was just like [NBA athlete] Alonzo Mourning, but he hadn’t yet released that info.
What they do know is that you won’t make it out of your 30s without a kidney transplant. Hard for me to grasp. I thought I was the picture of health. They said I was leaking 16 g of protein into my urine per day. When I was a teen it was 1g. Can’t stop it—all we can do is slow it down. They put me on powerful high blood pressure medication. I was having headaches all day. They told me it wasn’t normal. I thought it was normal that I felt like the top of my head was gonna blow off when I was pushing through a rep. “We need to put you on prednisone.” Gnarly side effects, including schizophrenia. It slows the disease down. Because of my weight, 298 pounds, they gave me a quarter of the dose. In two days, I was worse than the Nutty Professor. Underneath my eyes, it was so swollen, it was actually white. Had acne everywhere. Was going crazy with thoughts I had. Darius was just a baby then, just a year old, comes into bed room and saw me and screamed and left. I went back in after a week and the doctor looked at me and said What the F? This is not normal. This is killing you. Best we can do now is get your blood pressure under control. That’s 99. I went back to compete in 2000. Extremely hard for me to get into condition after that. I was criticized a lot for not being able to get in shape. - FLEX
Pick up the March issue of FLEX for the complete Flex Wheeler story, on newsstands now!