Shawn grew up in Jamaica, where soccer, cricket and track are all major sports. He excelled at soccer and nearly had a tryout with D.C. United when he moved to Washington, D.C. at the age of 15. Rhoden was also a competitive swimmer. At 17, there was a break between soccer and the swim team, and he decided to try weight training to strengthen his upper body before that season started up again. As luck would have it, his cousin John Lancaster, who had already competed in a few local teenage bodybuilding shows, offered to take him to his gym and show him how to train.
“It didn’t seem like the workout was anything too tough, but the next day I woke up and everything was in pain! I was sore all over,” Shawn said of that fateful first day. “John showed up to take me to the gym again and I told him to get lost.” But John wouldn’t take no for an answer, and soon Shawn’s body responded and started to change.
Shawn’s competitive career may not have happened were it not for losing his dual college scholarship for soccer and swimming after severing nine tendons in his hand after an accident involving a plate glass window. “After that I figured I might as well keep bodybuilding,” he told us. “My grip was so weak with that hand that I had to strap in for everything – curls, bench presses, even squats. The hand would swell up with fluid every so often and I’d have to go get it drained.”
It wasn’t long before he decided to get up on stage like his cousin. Before he even lefthis teenage years, there was a strong foreshadowing of his immense potential. While on their way to the 1994 Natural Eastern Classic, his cousin dared him to try crossing over into the Open class too, saying he didn’t have the guts. Shawn leftthe venue that night as the Teenage Champion, as well as the Men’s Open Middleweight and Overall Champion. “That’s when I said you know, maybe I could be prettygood at this if I’m 19 and I’m beating guys who have been training as long as I’ve been alive,” said Shawn.
A RISE UP THE RANKS INTERRUPTED
Rhoden continued to compete and win. By 2001, he was on the verge of turning pro, taking second at both the North American and Team Universe as a 198-pound light heavyweight. He worked hard to move up to the heavyweight class for the 2002 NPC Nationals, but came down with food poisoning at two weeks out. The result was a disappointing fourth place, but Shawn’s woes were just beginning. Shortly after that contest, his father Lloyd was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. “I had always been very close to my father, and it devastated me when he died,” Rhoden recalled. “I took over his home remodeling business and I just lost all interest in training, much less competing. I decided that I had been dieting and competing so much that I needed a break anyway.”
Shawn never expected the break to last almost seven years. It may seem incredulous, but the future Mr. Olympia did not train at all in those years and subsisted on unhealthy foods like pizza and snacks. And in the early stages of that “break,” he self-medicated his intense grief with alcohol. “I probably drank more in the six to eight months after my father died than most people do in their entire lives,” he shared. After seeing blood in his urine one morning after having had about 15 drinks the night before, doctors diagnosed him with a liver, kidney and urinary tract infection, which spurred Shawn to give up the booze.
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I just wanna communicate with you guys in a real honest way," Shawn wrote in a follow-up tweet.
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