Phil Heath: From Finishing Fast Breaks to Now ‘Breaking Olympia’

Since his first Olympia title in 2011, fans and followers have admired Phil Heath enough to memorize his Olympia-winning arms workouts or maybe dabble in some of his pre-contest diet prep. But now that his onstage competition days have come to an end, the Gift feels it’s time to explain the mindset that’s helped create the muscle-building machine.

Success opens up many avenues—including his recently released documentary Breaking Olympia.  Cameras followed him around for more than a year during his 2020 preparation for an eighth O victory. Heath used this opportunity to highlight an up-close glimpse of some of the mental stresses that accompanies the struggle to become champion.

The documentary (now on Premium Video on Demand), highlights his bodybuilding battle. However, Heath’s quest for competition began well before he first stepped foot on an Olympia stage. It began an hour north of a different Olympia—Olympia, WA. This time, however, the stages were the hardwoods of the Seattle Metro Basketball League, where Heath excelled as shooting guard for the Rainier Beach Vikings.

“If anyone looks at the City of Seattle, and all the athletes that have come out of there, especially Seattle Public School District, they would be amazed by how many badasses have come out of there,” Heath says.

Basketball and sports helped the Seattle native build a mental toughness needed for legendary onstage battles with rivals Kai Greene and Jay Cutler. He was teammates with former NBA star Jamal Crawford, and also played with other athletes, including another ex-NBA star Nate Robinson, along with former NFL wide receiver and CBS Mornings and NFL Today co-host Nate Burleson.

Like any teenager, Phil Heath had NBA hoops dreams. As a guard, he was talented enough to earn a scholarship to the U of Denver. That was the first step toward fulfilling that goal. However, with limited playing time came the reality of having to make a shift in goals. Looking back, the Gift says that his greatest gift may have been the strength to put one dream to rest and pursue another. It’s one life lesson he hopes people can get out of “Breaking Olympia.”

“I wanted basketball so bad that I almost missed out on an opportunity to become one of the greatest of all time in bodybuilding,” he says. “And I feel like a lot of us hold on to things from our past that do not serve us anymore.”

What made Seattle such a hotbed for sports?

For a lot of us, it was the rain because you’d have to play indoor sports.  And I would say growing up, we were all just highly competitive. You also have to think the ‘80s were very masculine and everything you saw was about athletic performance.

Think about it, from Rambo, to Terminator, to old-school Chuck Norris movies and Jean Claude Van Damme Bloodsport, everything was about fighting and always being in the pursuit of one’s personal best.

It was about being the best. We all remember watching Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isaiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, rivalries like that. I can still remember watching the ’92 Dream Team. I was like, Whoa, this is actually possible. Then you’re watching athletes like Bo Jackson, who was one of my all-time favorites. When he took a bat and just smashed it with their bare hands—that was just unreal. And one of my other favorite athletes Ken Griffey, Jr., he had one of the sweetest swings of all time.

And if anyone looks at the city of Seattle, all the athletes that have come out of there, especially Seattle Public School District, they would be amazed by how many bad asses have come out of there. You had Jason Terry, Corey Dillon, Aaron Brooks, and  Brandon Roy.  Even Kenny G came out of Seattle—he went to Franklin High School, one of our rivals. So there’s a lot of talented people.

Is it true as a kid you would ‘wrestle’ with Nate Burleson at each other’s houses?

Yes! [laughs] We grew up together, me and his brothers—little Al, Kevin, Nate and Lyndale. We used to wrestle and do a lot of funny stuff. We’d go to the bike track—back in the ‘80s and ‘90s that was the cool thing to do. We also shot pop bottle rockets at each other—we just acted like fools, but had great, great times.

The cool thing about Nate was the fact that no one particularly felt like as like a freshman or sophomore in high school that he was going to amount to what he has done today. His work ethic is just tremendous.

You also were also pretty close with another future NBA star, Nate Robinson?

That guy is probably one of the most athletically gifted people I’ve ever met. He’s such a hard worker too, so it didn’t surprise me that he not only played great in high school hoops and football, but he got that scholarship at the University of Washington for football and was able to switch over to basketball.  From there, to win three NBA slam dunk titles, he was literally one of the best leapers I’ve ever seen. He was so gifted in that aspect—he shattered whatever vertical leap record I had in high school. He was phenomenal.

Did you guys think at any point back then that those in your circle would go on and become worldwide superstars in their profession?

Growing up, it was all about competition. You didn’t just have us and Nate Robinson, but there was another high school teammate of mine, Jamal Crawford. He played in the NBA for almost 20 years.  You had a lot of athletes growing up in just a small area in Seattle.

We may have talked about what it would be like going pro and stuff like that. But to think, now in our 40s, what we’ve done more even outside of the sports that we were professionals in is just amazing. When you’re a kid back in the day, you wanted to be on the cover of a Wheaties box.  But from what Nate Burleson has done and now Jamal working in TV and entertainment, it’s just it’s really, really awesome to see that.

Phil-Heath-Fierce-Pose.
Charles Lowthian

What did you learn most about growing up in an era with those types of athletes to look up to?

You realized in that era, we all wanted to be the best at something. I’d say we also pushed each other, not just on the field, but also in the classroom as well. We all recognized that, “Oh, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, meaning go and get a college degree. And to stay away from drugs or gangs or stuff like that, sports for us was everything.

Also, a lot of our parents were heavily involved in our lives, and [pushed us] toward getting good grades. You weren’t rewarded for poor behavior. We were encouraged to do high-level stuff. And I love that because, although some friends who I grew up with went down a different path, the majority of us really amounted to something. And I think it was because it was a hotbed for competition. Still if you mention high school, I went to Rainier Beach, Nate went to O’Dea, and I still hate those guys. [laughs] It’s just those rivalries and that breeds high-level competitiveness. And I loved it.

 

Do you think not having to worry about creating content or gaining ‘likes’ on social media made a difference?

Absolutely. A journalist used to write about people doing high-level stuff. Now it’s [selfie] “Look at me, I’m the greatest.” I don’t I don’t resonate with that quite well. I’ve seen the transition from magazines and newspapers being prominent. People would talk about your performance, your competitiveness, and grit. Now, everybody’s “great.”

We use those terms—legend, GOAT, the man—loosely because of those participation medals we saw later on. The fact is everyone is not a GOAT or a badass.

There’s a low barrier of entry for being an expert nowadays, where no one’s going to fact-check you because everybody’s plagiarizing someone else’s content. I grew up in an era where your proof was in your performance. If you didn’t prove you produced high results, you were looked at as a fraud.

With Breaking Olympia, what’s the allure of laying out your life story—the good, bad, and ugly—on camera?

The benefit for me is to allow people to realize that it wasn’t always easy for myself to achieve those things. So allowing them to see a more vulnerable aspect of like, wow, this is what Phil Heath was going through. We didn’t really know this.

When I was first sponsored by Weider Publications, they didn’t ask me some of those questions. They dove into diet and training—they didn’t dive into my psyche at the time. Now this is an opportunity for me—and I’m probably a lot more mature now than when I was 25—to be able to talk about not just a career, but actually talking about myself as the man within the machine.  What about my mind and spirit?

I had to go to a very vulnerable place and I felt like I was in the best place to illustrate those feelings. That was something more relatable in my opinion with Breaking Olympia than it would be if I was just talking about my daily routine of training, cardio, diet, exercise, those relatable topics. How do you deal with disappointment? You know, how do you deal with death? How do you deal with limiting belief systems and still have to keep going at a very high level, because those are things that every person has to choose. This is a this is a film where people get to see that.

Phil Heath, Breaking Olympia
Universal/Seven Bucks Productions

Was there any part of the doc in which afterward you looked at yourself differently?

There’s a few. One in particular was how I handled the 2020 Olympia. It was very difficult to know that although I wanted to get my title back, that this was going to be the last time I stepped on that stage. And to see how I handled it, I was very happy because I wasn’t pissed off.

It was definitely a prep that was very tough because of COVID, but it was the first time in my entire bodybuilding career where I totally missed my peak for a contest. And I learned a lot during that process. When they called me third, I remember watching it: Wow! All I did was allow them to see me. I allowed them to see me not upset—but I wasn’t elated as well. I was just very like, Okay, this is it. This is what it feels like. But you know what, I’m good with it. And I need to let the fans know. I need to let the spectators know that I’m good.

I know that a lot of people were like, oh, he’ll come back again—it’s just what he does. But then for me to say no, that’s it, and then for me to be at a premiere and watch everybody’s reaction when I said nope, that’s it. As Jay Cutler said: I saw greatness enter and I saw a greatness leave. And I’m so thankful that I worked my butt off to make sure that that was something that came into fruition.

How would explain to a non-bodybuilding fan the relevance of your story?

If you want anything of high standard, you have to know that you’re dealing with the unknown. You’re going to deal with a lot of pain points. And what you’re going to get out of this is that you have to love yourself throughout it all, especially when things don’t go your way.

And you have to recognize that there’s still like the alchemy of life. For me, it was basketball… So we have to learn to kind of realize that you may have gotten to a certain point, but you can no longer continue to force it because there’s probably a new chapter available for you. So I feel like regardless if they like bodybuilding or not, they’re going to realize that you can’t give up on your goals. Then you may have some new goals and aspirations along the way that you can go climb.

 

 

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