The Trials of Sergio
Per Bernal

DATELINE: SATURDAY, MAY 20, 2017, WESTCHESTER COUNTY CENTER, WHITE PLAINS, NY

It was 10:20 p.m. as Jon Delarosa and Sergio Oliva Jr. stood waiting as the last two men standing—one of them would be declared winner of the 2017 New York Pro. It was Delarosa’s fifth attempt at the event and Oliva’s first. In fact it was the latter’s pro debut, a status earned when he took the super-heavyweight and overall titles at the 2015 NPC Nationals. Because of the inheritance of one of the most famous and lauded names in bodybuilding (his father, Sergio Senior, was three-time Mr. Olympia, 1967–69, and a leading icon of the sport), his debut was under extreme observation. It was like watching Mickey Mantle Jr. getting into the major leagues. Could the kid handle the burden of one of the most famous names in bodybuilding?

In his stentorian “Live from Burbank” TV announcer voice, emcee Bob Cicherillo rasped out the name “Jon Delarosa!” The runner-up slumped forward in disappointment, the winner sank to his knees and held his head in his hands, his body shaking with emotion.

It should have been one of the happiest moments of Oliva’s life; a dream fulfilled, critics answered. Instead it was the culmination of the most miserable and desperate period of his life. Absorbing the win caused a sense of relief to slowly, slowly envelop him. He digested his present position. At that moment of victory, he had hardly any money to his name. A long-standing sponsor had terminated his contract earlier in the year, and then a prospective new sponsor who seemed ready to make a deal pulled out eight weeks before his Big Apple assignment.

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Courtesy of Sergio Oliva Jr.

A synchronized double biceps with wife Brooke.

That lack of income led to the domino effect of the power and services in his Venice, Southern California, apartment being switched off, and the reality was he was so broke he didn’t have a return flight ticket home to California. It gets worse. He married his Australian wife, Brooke, in December 2016, and a few weeks into his prep, she had to return Down Under for a family emergency. Once there she ran into an immigration dispute in which there was a snafu in approving her visa to the U.S., so she couldn’t return. And it gets even worse: Arriving in New York for the contest a few days before zero hour, Sergio contracted an infection and could literally not get out of a chair for two days. In apportioning nicknames, don’t call him “Lucky.” The bottom line was some relief came with the knowledge that the $12,000 first-place check would fill some of his needs.

The aforementioned is one of the craziest stories I’ve ever heard about battling contest prep hurdles, and Sergio, who is so refreshingly honest, opened up in a drama-laden interview in which he spoke his mind and revealed just what the hell was going on.

 

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Per Bernal

THE BIG LEAP

“Winning the New York Pro was a quantum leap in my career. It was the major step in a journey I had started back in 2003 when, as an 18-year-old, I weighed 140 pounds at 6′ and decided to take up bodybuilding. I won the Nationals weighing 240 pounds, so here I am in New York 18 months later, 20 pounds heavier and the leanest I’ve ever been.

“It took me 14 years to get here, and it’s been a helluva journey with plenty of self-inflicted bumps. Mentally, I’ve always been unsure, sort of like the same little kid I had started out as. I was so nervous. I couldn’t get a pump, could barely eat, and was scared to talk to anyone backstage. I even left the hotel without my posing trunks and had my friends run back to get them since the competitors were already doing their routines onstage. It was simply a train-wreck ride toward victory.”

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Per Bernal

VALIDATION

“I feel this was validation to everyone else that I had not only arrived but that I’m also here to do more than place at shows and be an average pro bodybuilder or someone who is feeding off the notion that I’m only just my dad’s son. I’m here to not only win pro shows but also to win an Olympia one day. While this win was validation to people in general, it is validation as well that I was right to be confident in myself. And in a topsy-turvy way it proved I had the guts to progress, during the worst contest prep of my life, when everything was falling apart.

“I had to hustle to get a flight to New York, and then Brooke having to remain in Australia just about did me in. I needed her next to me as I trained and prepared, but that wasn’t possible. That hit me hard, real hard. But even from 8,000 miles away she kept me going and on track. Then I had the infection, and I thought that torpedoed everything. When I stood alone with Jon onstage I just felt as if I had put every one of my eggs into the basket that was the New York Pro. Didn’t even have a return ticket to L.A. I thought I might have to do a Kai Greene and do some dancing in Times Square to get a ticket back home. I couldn’t have gambled any more on myself. So I’m now proud of what I achieved. All the sacrifices and trauma ended up being worth it.”

 

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Per Bernal

NAVIGATING THE CONTEST

“I’m quite a historian and there are just too many statistics of pros not winning their pro debut, that it’s difficult to ignore—I wanted to win, of course! Don’t get me wrong. It’s crazy I had to win to save my life and be able to afford an immigration lawyer to get my wife back. So it wasn’t until they brought us three [Morel, Delarosa, and himself] out at the end of pre-judging that I knew for sure I was in the hunt. Then at night they brought just Jon and me out for a comparison, and damn, was I ready.

“The Sergio who appeared at pre-judging and the one in the finals were two different men. I knew after pre-judging I was behind, so I wasn’t going to do the standard post-pre-judging thing: Eat a big burger and fill up on Gatorade. Instead, I didn’t eat or drink even a drop of water and had to put ChapStick on my teeth ’cause my lips kept sticking to my teeth. I could literally taste that win and knew after all I went through, I needed to prove to myself and other up-and-coming young bodybuilders that you can still compete against people with lucrative sponsors and fewer obstacles and still win. Everyone I went against had sponsors, a home, their spouses to go home to, while I didn’t have any of those things, and I couldn’t let stuff like that stop me. I just wanted to show everyone I don’t need any special treatment. Because even with my name I still had to swallow bullets like every other regular up-and-coming bodybuilder.”

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Per Bernal

WHY ME?

Don’t say it too loud, but sometimes it’s hard to banish the thought that Sergio maybe thrives on punishment. Like the masochist who loves a cold shower, so he takes a warm one. Hear him.

“Maybe I rise above adversity when things get tough. Maybe my New York experience was just one giant motivator for me. I’ve always been very pessimistic. I always say things like, ‘This always happens to me,’ ‘Bad things only happen to me,’ and ‘Why me?!’ But you know, I’m starting to alter that mindset. One reason is that I had conversations with Flex Lewis, Shawn Rhoden, and Phil Heath. They all told me stories that they’d endured that were way worse than mine. It’s crazy because all three represent what I hope to be one day, so their stories got through to me big time. It was the ultimate light at the end of the tunnel for me: It woke me up. And it’s weird I now am glad all those things happened. It’s like if they didn’t, I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I did. We all lift as if it’s life or death, but this time around I literally trained and did cardio like my life and my wife’s were at stake. So now that I went through that and so many other things people will never know— I’m the most confident I’ve ever been in my life.”

 

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Per Bernal

NEXT STEP: COLUMBUS

“I decided to not do the 2017 Mr. Olympia. Instead, I need to get my wife back, get a sponsor, and get my personal life back together. I would rather work on resetting my future than keep dieting just to get a third callout at the Olympia. I know my place. It would be a historical first for me to step on the same stage as my father, plus it would be a first for my mom: being the only woman to have a husband and child compete on that stage. But to go in not at my best would be a slap in her face and my father’s. I got the invite to the Arnold Classic in Columbus from Arnold himself, so that is my next show. I’m going to clean my body out, let my system heal from this horribly rough prep, get my rock, Brooke, back, and have a good off-season to get even bigger, and even maybe shock myself and a few other pros in Columbus.

“Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to keep mine and Chris Aceto’s [his contest prep coach] winning streak going. We’re two-for-two, but poor Chris needs a break from my emotional breakdowns. I wouldn’t have been even half the man/competitor I was in New York, if it weren’t for him. He’s more than a dietician to me. I have so many anxieties and issues, and he knows how to deal with me and kept me confident and motivated.”

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Courtesy of Weider Health & Fitness

Making his Olympia debut with his dad, Sergio, in 1984.

THE PATIENT IS CURED

“I’ve changed a lot of my thinking since the New York Pro. I keep thinking I got this far with zero help without truly believing 100% in myself. I look at it as if I were on my deathbed for the past 13 years, struggling, not performing at my best, and I still beat guys while I was suffering. And now they found a cure for me. I’m getting out of the hospital a new man. I appreciate life so much more and also now feel unstoppable. I have a winner’s ring on my finger, reminding me I don’t have bad luck. The world isn’t out to get me.

“In fact, I have great luck because not that many people have done what I’ve done. I’m now more grateful for the bad things that happened to me ’cause I see life in a whole new light now and know now that all those horrible things that have happened to me since my first show were all for a reason— and a gateway to a new beginning.”

Postscript: As of Aug. 5, Sergio is sponsored by Old School Labs Supplements, Angry Mills Sinister Labs, Pro Tan, and Body by Eddie Inc. He also has his own clothing line named after his father’s signature pose, VictoryClothing.com. Things are looking up!

 FLEX