Bodybuilder powers through pandemic to compete in sport’s ‘Super Bowl’

COVID-19 has closed gyms and cancelled contests, but Ottawa’s Jamie Offrey has powered through the pandemic to ready himself for one of bodybuilding’s pre-eminent events this week.

When the lockdown began, the retired soldier reverted to his military training, doing pushups and sit-ups at home. When gyms finally began reopening, he acquired memberships at five of them so he’d always have access, sometimes ignoring public health advice about travelling to different regions.

“I tell people, you have to find a way to adapt and overcome,” said Offrey, who believes that to compete at the highest levels, you need to train at an appropriate facility.

To keep training during the pandemic, Offrey took out memberships at five different gyms, as well as training in his home gym. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

After winning several competitions this year, including the Canadian nationals and Ottawa championships, Offrey has earned a spot at what’s known as the Super Bowl of bodybuilding.

The Mr. Olympia contest, made famous by its seven-time winner Arnold Schwarzenegger, takes place this year in Orlando, Fla. Despite restrictions on international travel, Offrey couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and will compete in the men’s physique category. 

Offrey completed tours in Aghanistan, Africa and Bosnia during his 23 years with the Canadian military. Now that he’s retired, he’s brought those skills to his new career in bodybuilding. (Submitted by Jamie Offrey)

Uncertainty a challenge

Offrey, 41, got into bodybuilding during his 23 years in the military, during which he completed tours in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Africa. He now trains five days a week and says his military discipline continues to serve him well.

“Even though these have been my first bodybuilding competitions, I’ve been competing for 40 years. Whether it’s a physical or mental health challenge, [or] whether I’m competing on the front lines in Afghanistan, there’s a strong correlation,” said Offrey. 

Nearly all of coach Ricardo Gardener’s clients bowed out of competition this year due to the uncertainty wrought by COVID-19. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

He said the hardest thing about training during COVID-19 has been managing the uncertainty.

“You’re several weeks out from the show, you’re starting to engage in the next level of your diet, and that show gets cancelled. Now you have to reset and start all over again.” 

Despite COVID-19 cancellations, Ottawa bodybuilder Joe Seeman was able to compete in the Chicago Pro show in Atlanta, Ga., this year. (Will Wittmann)

Some bodybuilders stepping back

Offrey’s coach Ricardo Gardener said all his clients but Offrey opted to step back from training this year.

“It’s like rolling the dice. One day you’re not sure, and the next day the gym’s open. It’s very stressful,” said Gardener, who’s been coaching for 33 years after coming to Canada from Trinidad, and has trained a number of Mr. Olympia competitors including Canada’s first.

Joe Seeman was hoping to be up on that stage in Florida for the first time in 2020. The Ottawa bodybuilder and coach got his pro card last year, but didn’t make the cut for the big competition — in part, he said, because COVID-19 forced the cancellation of several qualifying contests.

He said he’s heard from many in the bodybuilding community who felt lost without gyms to go to.

“[That was] the biggest shock for a lot of people in the fitness industry because you don’t know what to do without the gym,” said Seeman. “[The gym] is your sanctuary, in a sense. To me, it’s my favourite part of the day to be able to go train.”

This spring, Joe Seeman put together a gym with dumbells and resistance bands at his Vanier home to keep training during lockdown. ( Mohammed Belhouari)

Seeman was able to compete in his first two pro events, in Atlanta and in Las Vegas, but said the pandemic made those experiences extremely stressful. He had to self-isolate before and after international travel, and struggled to find a gym for last-minute “depletion workouts” to lose water retention.

On stage, he said competition was stiff, and the mandatory mask policy at some events also made competing difficult. 

“It’s hard to pose, you can’t breathe properly. Your body is already in a depleted state. I found that challenging,” Seeman said. He hopes to qualify for Mr. Olympia next year.

Gardener says Offrey’s military training makes him adept at following strict training regimes. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Despite the setbacks, Offrey said he plans to keep drawing on his military background for the strength he’ll need to succeed. 

“I’ve been in isolation many times. I’ve been to Africa sleeping on the ground for six months, completely cut off from the world. You’re telling me I have to quarantine, stay home and watch Netflix? This is nothing. When it comes to a competition and staying on point … there’s no difficulty doing that.”

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