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Pecs appeal: the rise of disabled bodybuilding

Mark Smith is a former soldier who lost his leg in develop. Now hes won the right to become involved in “the member states national” bodybuilding championships. Can he take the title?

Mention the word bodybuilding to most people and it conjures up a certain image: big men in small underpants, a comic world of pose, protein shakes and pumping iron. And in Pudsey Civic Hall, where the International Bodybuilding& Fitness Association( IBFA) s Mr England championships are being held, that stereotypical view is out in force. First, Wakefields Steve Johnson, a former Mr Britain and a name on the bodybuilding scene, steps on stage; a human mountain in small Speedos, he flexes his muscles in the spotlight. From there, the flesh parade continues, all popping veins and rippling muscles, treading a fine line between deathly seriousness and cartoonish parody, as the junior category, followed by the over-4 0s, the over-5 0s and the three men first-timers, all take to the stage in slivers of Lycra and fake tans the colour of Victorian sideboards.

The challengers, magistrates and the 200 -strong audience, most of whom are bodybuilding obsessives, take it all very seriously. Then the next group of men step on stage: the government had the same deep tans, muscles big enough and clothing small enough to make the average person wilt with shame. But theres something different about these four men that causes the applause to resound a bit more aloud. This is the disability class of the Mr England competitor, the first time this section of the competition has been held.

Standing at the far left of the stage is Mark Smith, a 30 -year-old former Grenadier Guard who has muscles as prominent as the bright white smile he flashes where reference is contorts his body into a pose that showcases his biceps. Appear below the waist and youll find one well-defined leg. On the other side, stretching from underneath his green trunks, a glistening metal leg is affixed near the hip.

Smith was a career soldier, having joined the army aged 18. Six months basic training at Catterick in North Yorkshire was followed by six months in London, completing ceremonial responsibilities. As a 19 -year-old based in the West End, Smith had his fun, guarding the royal palaces and participating in trooping the colouring.


Smith has his final layer of fake tan applied. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith for the Guardian

His first tour was to Bosnia, in September 2004, and he spent Christmas away from home. He didnt mind much: It was all new to me, Smith tells. I was enjoying it, and the freedom. Two year later “hes in” Baghdad and Basra, the Falklands and Kenya. In 2009, he went to Afghanistan to serve on the frontline. After that, he was sent to Canada for pre-deployment training.

In 2011, he was acting as a security staff member for a live-fire exert with the Yorkshire Regiment in Canada. He was standing behind the wooden wall of a building where soldiers were practising clearing out a village of adversary fighters, when seven bullets made his leg and shoulder. Smith had been in the wrong place at the incorrect hour. One bullet passed through an artery.

He was rushed to intensive care in a Calgary hospital, where he was resurrected six days in a week, underwent a number of operations and had his right leg amputated above the knee. Stabilised, he was flown back to the UK, where his weight fallen to 60 kg( 9st 6lb) as he underwent more than 20 activities in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, watched over by his wife, Natalie, a schoolteacher, and his eldest son, Ellis, then merely six months old.

It was during Smiths 10 -week stay in hospital that reality kicked in. I was overly optimistic and naive when I had to have my leg amputated, he tells. At that time, he had just one aim in his head: to stay in the army, get back to where he was before, then climb up the promotional ladder, and even go back on tour. Id joined from school, so the army was almost all Id truly known, Smith tells. Now, he realised, things had changed. Once my rehabilitation was done, that was my time in the army done.

Smith had spent a decade in the military and had the drive and competitive spirit that come with a career spent dodging bullets. Physical activity had been a major part of his life, and abruptly he was faced with a life that seemed solely sedentary.

Smith with his eldest son during his recuperation. Photo: courtesy Mark Smith

According to Ian Waller, operations director of Blesma, a charity for limbless veterans, Smiths was a common experience. To have doing well in the military, soldiers will have had to have been competitive, Waller tells. Theyre fit young men and women, used to running, swimming, playing athletic. Thats what you do in your downtime in the military. They want to continue with their life.

Wallers team have assured a huge increase in the numbers of soldiers needing supporting since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Weve had 340 new injured veterans[ since 2001 ], and supporting 3,600 in all, he tells. The increasing potency of weapons, including improvised explosive devices, coupled with medical advances, means 97 of that 340 are doubled amputees; a further 19 have lost three limbs.

Most of the veterans Waller works with go into cycling, rowing or swimming, but although Smith tried all these, it was bodybuilding that stuck. I tried disabled athletics, he tells, and they werent quite filling that void. Bodybuilding was the one thing. Smith has a theory about this: army life devoted him routine and discipline particularly in the Grenadier Guards. Going from quite a disciplined regiment, where everythings about your turnout, your appearance, theres a lot of routine, youre physically fit. Bodybuilding is quite a similar lifestyle.

There was another reason he took up the athletic: the family photographs taken during his recovery, when he was gaunt and pale. I wanted to get as far away as is practicable from appearing as ill as I did when I was in hospital, he tells. So he started training hours each day, straining and constructing small improvements. Over the course of a year, he developed day and night, and aimed up with a physique that could hold its own in the hypercompetitive ranks of bodybuilding. Developing is intense, with 5am starts for 16 weeks before a competition, but Natalie has been an important source of support. She just likes the fact that Ive found something Im passionate about now.

There have been moments of doubt. Backstage at his first competitor, in November 2014, Smith tells, I was thinking, Do I truly want to do this? Am I prepared to stand up in front of all these people? Everyones an armchair expert, he tells, and their comments arent always discreetly built: they stand in the crowd, nitpicking over challengers muscle mass, picking up on the slightest flaws. Still, he went through with it, and the reception was enliven. He stepped off stage asking himself one question: when was the next one?

Since then, Smith has taken part in nine events, winning five separate competitions. He is the only veteran competing in the disability category at the Mr England championship.


Smith relaxes before the present, draining excess water from his leg. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith for the Guardian

The main stumbling block to his success in so far? The strict diet. Its not just counting calories: the food requirements to get a bodybuilders body is infuriatingly bland, all turkey and brown rice. It builds challengers crave something sweet, tasty and salty. Smith dreams of chocolate and peanut butter now, and will wolf down around PS40 of Dominos pizza when he gets home after a competition. But as he sits mutely in a dressing room with a dozen other bodybuilders, many lying on the floor with their legs up on chairs in an attempt to drain the water that gatherings in their calves, hes operating a fork through a Tupperware box full of dry chicken and couscous.

Sitting next to him is Josh Goodfellow, a rangy, outgoing 23 -year-old who is busy engaging the others in conversation. Goodfellow has cerebral palsy, and is not walking well, in big part due to the torn hip flexor he sustained while competing in a Tough Mudder competitor six weeks earlier. Hes been unable to work out since, and has lost nearly 9kg( 19 lb) in five weeks as a result. But hes happy to be here, and pleased that today person will be crowned Mr Disability England. Fifteen months ago, this wasnt a athletic; it didnt exist, he tells. He and Smith have taken it upon themselves to call British bodybuilding promoters there are at least 10 in this factionalised world and ask them to consider setting aside a section of each of their events for disabled bodybuilders. Some said yes, some told no. From no competitor, there was one. Then last year, there were 20 events with disabled representation.

Were looking at it, tells Martyn Yates Brown, UK president of the IBFA. Barrel-chested and wearing a branded tie-in, he says there are challenges in acknowledging disabled athletes. How do you compare and how do you compete? How do you make the criteria fair? The rules have to be written up: where do you set amputees, where do you set cystic fibrosis sufferers? There are practical considerations, too: an extra category necessitates more hour put aside during competitions. But its worthwhile, Yates Brown tells. We want to encourage people to compete. Theres nothing like get people up on stage, get that reception.


One person about to experience that reception for the first time is Peter Copsey, a mountain of a human with a bushy beard, dark tan and prominent veins, who is stretching out with Smith and Goodfellow in an empty changing room. A former powerlifter, Copsey has been working out for decades hes 51 and has four children but this is his first competitor. He had never told anyone at the gym about his disability, spina bifida, until he read about Smith and Goodfellow on social media. Then something in him changed. Its taken all these years of hiding be recognised that I had nothing to hide, he tells. And thats because I watched Josh and Mark.


Josh Goodfellow( left) and Smith prepare for the competition. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith for the Guardian

He started develop, asked his wife to apply the requisite layers of fake tan, and entered the competition. Nows a good time for me to say, Look, this is me. Here we are, Copsey tells, after completing a series of push-ups. And its nice that there are guys like this who I can talk to freely about my disability. Its not the same for able-bodied bodybuilders. Dont get me wrong they go through the same quantity of pain and prep but with us theres added bits.

The two men who inspired him are now swigging booze from bottles( every challenger is given a goody bag that contains a miniature bottle of Irish whiskey: it helps dehydrate the body, bringing out muscle definition, but it also devotes much-needed dutch courage to men about to step onstage in bathing suit in front of a few hundred people ).

Cardio is difficult for Smith. He cant run around the roads near his home, so he walks before his children wake every weekday morning.( His second son, Ethan, was born in 2012.) Yet he cant do two lots of cardio a day, a standard routine for bodybuilders: the sweat such exert causes worsens an exit meander near his groin. One summertime, after overdoing the exert, he aimed up with a pit in his body through which you could see the tendons.

A man pokes his head around the changing room door as Smith, Goodfellow and Copsey pump up their muscles in the final moments before going on stage, holding their noses inches above the ground in press-up stance. Lined up with a fourth challenger, Matthew Leake, the members of the disability category making such a route on stage. There, they run through a series of mandatory poses, called out by a monotone voice. Straining, gurning and visibly sweating, the men turn their backs to the audience. Tattooed across Smiths back is the closing couplet of William Ernest Henleys lyric Invictus: I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

Bodybuilding involves months of dieting, weeks of preparation, hours of sitting around before a competition, and mere minutes of posing. The magistrates bestow and their decision is surprising. The winner today isnt Josh Goodfellow, and it isnt Mark Smith: Peter Copsey is Mr Disability England, at his first competitor. Backstage, the lose challengers are gallant, shaking Copseys hand and chatting as they pack up their pouches, praising him for the muscle definition he has sharpened over decades of work.


The challengers pose after the competitor( from left ): winner Peter Copsey, Matthew Leake, Mark Smith and Josh Goodfellow. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith for the Guardian

After Smith has glugged down a bottle of water and towelled himself down, he moves into the audience and spends the next half-hour talking to a former is part of the Royal Engineer and a doubled leg amputee with whom he struck up a friendship at Headley Court, the Surrey hospital for the rehabilitation of injured veterans. The baby-faced doubled amputee is toying with the idea of competing next year, and is one of several ex-servicemen with whom Smith is in touch. Some send him photographs and videos of their work-outs, updating him on their progress towards peak physical fitness.

Smith is keen to see his two children, to let them play with the heavy Adonis trophy he got for coming second, and to tell them about the competitor. But as he walks to his VW Touareg, ready for the long drive home to Milton Keynes, he pauses to sum up his day.

To have inspired Peter not to conceal his disability, to say proudly, Im a disabled bodybuilder, thats an achievement in itself. Obviously Im frustrated, but to consider Peter here today is just as much of a success. Hopefully more people will come out like that.

For Smith, the goal is twofold: first, to establish disabled bodybuilding as a professional category, rather than an amateur one. That would in turn fulfil his second aim: to make a new career out of bodybuilding. Within five years, I think well be a professional category, and then youre looking at an income, he tells, squinting into the sun.

Theres a hard road ahead, full of long drives, physical exertion and discipline. But compared with the journey that Mark Smith has already built since 2011, it doesnt seem insurmountable.

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