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Amid the chaos of a global pandemic, organizers of Olympia Weekend have remained laser focused on plans to bring the fitness industry back together this December at the Planet Hollywood Resort, the event’s new home at the center of the Las Vegas Strip. Many of the upgrades have garnered the attention of some of the biggest names in the sport.
The latest news involves Phil Heath, a seven-time Mr. Olympia champion. Heath has confirmed plans to compete following two years away from the stage. Just one win shy of the all-time record, the man who dominated the sport from 2011-2017 will look to equal Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman’s coveted record of 8 Mr. Olympia titles.
Muscle & Fitness caught up with Heath moments after his big announcement.
M&F: Why is this the right time for you to return to the stage?
Heath: Last year was my first opportunity to take a step back and look at what I had accomplished. At some point between winning my first Olympia in 2011 and up until I lost in 2018, bodybuilding became a full-time job and I didn’t take time aside to ask myself the important questions about who I was as a person: Why did I start bodybuilding in the first place? Who was Phillip Heath, the kid from Seattle (I wasn’t yet Phil until I broke into bodybuilding)? Who is Phil Heath the man? How do I handle the pressure when things aren’t going his way?
In those years when bodybuilding was my full-time business, I had a lot of wins on stage but incredible losses in real life: divorce, businesses that went under, deaths of loved ones and people I admired in the sport, friends who I fell out with. In the absence of competing I have taken time to explore the rawness of who I really am. I have confronted my past and left the things behind that no longer serve me. Now is the right time to return because I am finally doing it for myself and me alone. Now is the right time because after a tremendous amount of soul searching, I know that this return is about my personal relationship with the sport and recognizing I have unfinished business.
How difficult was it for you to watch last year’s Olympia from home?
I’ll be honest, I felt uneasy watching last year. It was a mix of emotions. As much as I intended to just be a fan that night and tune in like every other fan, once I saw the lineup it was hard not to envision myself being up there. On the other hand, I watched last year from home while sharing a meal with my wife Shurie, enjoying life for the first time in a long time. Industry folks were hitting me up on the side asking me where I was and saying they missed me on the stage. It felt good. Even the fans who criticized me for making what was ultimately the difficult choice to sit last year out started DMing me apologizing for their comments. It’s funny to see those same people are demanding my return. I’m not sure that shift would have taken place had I competed last year.
A win in December would give you eight Olympia titles, equaling the mark set by Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman. What would it mean to you to tie bodybuilding’s most coveted record?
Tying Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman is something I dreamt about but never believed could happen until now. Even when I was going for it in 2018 I was still battling something that prevented me from realizing what was possible. To tie them represents bodybuilding immortality, and the opportunity to take a place among the greatest of all time. I respect and admire both men individually beyond their physiques; for Lee, it’s incredible that he was able to win so many titles at such a young age; for Ronnie, it’s about the connection we share as distant competitors – I was actually in the audience in 2005 when he won his eighth title. Being a fan of his coming into the sport when he was the champion and then seeing what he went through with the love/hate relationship with fans reminds me of my own journey. What makes my return so meaningful is that both Lee and Ronnie have already told me they would be happy to see me come back. I know I am going to make them proud when I join their ranks, because they know I’ve earned it.
What has been the primary source of inspiration in your decision to return?
I am simply in the right place. I have always been emotionally driven but this return is marked by a soulful level that I can’t explain. After I lost in 2018 I finally got a chance to exhale. Over the last 24 months I gave myself the time to explore my identity and chart what I want out of life. I fought hard battles. I cut dead weight. I created a new sense of guiding principles, and that code is what is going to get me that Number Eight title. It’s only right for me to come back. I owe it to myself.
Will there be any changes to your contest prep strategy heading in to this year’s Olympia?
Yes, definitely. I am not going to abandon things that worked in the past as long as they continue to work, but I know how to call an audible and still score. The most obvious impact on the off-season and heading into this Olympia is COVID, and while it’s created a whole new set of challenges around training in gyms, the reality is that I’ve always had to find ways to train alone and at late hours. It’s not about how often I get to the gym, but what I get done when I’m in there. I won four or five Olympias doing just that, training alone in empty gyms at 10PM and 1AM but making sure every workout counted. The best competitors know how to time everything in prep correctly. Mastery of this timing means there is no fear – there is only hard work, intelligence, execution and discipline.
How did your 2018 loss to Shawn Rhoden impact your feelings about bodybuilding?
I have given every ounce of my being to this sport and that dedication is not only evident in the amount of work and craftsmanship I bring to the stage year after year, but also in how seriously I take the title of Mr. Olympia. Deep down I believe fans understand my truth when I say I would never allow my love of bodybuilding – a sport that has given me so much – to compromised by the wins or losses of the journey.
How do you feel about the big changes planned by new Olympia owner Jake Wood and President Dan Solomon for this year’s Olympia Weekend?
I’m happy to see Jake with this opportunity. I’ve also known Dan for some time and am excited to see the organization in such capable hands. I look forward to seeing what they have in production come December.
Olympia Pre-Judging this year is on Friday December 18th, which just so happens to be your 41st birthday. Can you think of a better birthday present than a brand new Sandow Trophy to add to your collection?
I think that’s a birthday present that keeps on giving. The truth is the intensity will certainly be greater than ever, because of what’s at stake and because no one has seen me for two years. I know there is anticipation around what gift “The Gift” will bring on the eve of turning 41. I took this extra pressure into account before I decided to go back. My job on my birthday is simply to dominate that stage. But what’s more important than December 18th is December 19th, because that’s the day I deal with my unfinished business.
For more information about the December 17-20th event, including tickets, visit MrOlympia.com as Trifecta Presents Joe Weider’s Olympia Fitness & Performance Weekend brought to you by Northern Chill and by Wings of Strength.