Today, we received the sad news that Shawn Rhoden died last night at 46 from a heart attack. He was one of my favorite people in the sport. I met him a decade ago when I was the senior writer for FLEX magazine and he made a surprisingly strong debut of 11th at the 2011 Mr. Olympia (only his third pro contest). As we walked together from the Orleans Arena to the hotel, he was thrilled by his placing and the fact that he made a callout with Phil Heath, Jay Cutler, and Dexter Jackson. I told him he deserved a few spots better. “I really hung with them, huh?” he asked, softly as always, smiling at the memory, as if to confirm that this time he hadn’t dreamed it. “You did and you will,” I answered.
He moved up more than a few spots the next year. He was a shocking third in 2012, one of the best “out of nowhere” placings in Olympia history. Over subsequent years, when we both lived in Southern California, we shared meals at The Firehouse near Gold’s Gym, and I always dug his laid-back Jamaican vibe and perpetually friendly demeanor. He hated the arrogance of some of his peers. He was the rare champ who never failed to ask me about me. That’s just who he was, and always with a smile.
UP, DOWN, AND UP AGAIN
Born in Kingston, Jamaica on April 2, 1975, Shawn Rhoden, one of four brothers, immigrated with his family to Maryland in 1990. Previously a soccer player, he took up bodybuilding at 17 and began entering teenage contests shortly thereafter. Of the first one he said, “I was 153 pounds, felt like I was nothing but a ripped set of abs. But I won, and all of a sudden, I was like, ‘Wow, this is fun. This is great.’ We ended up doing shows every other weekend that summer, and I kept winning.”
Working-out under the tutelage of pro bodybuilder Yohnnie Shambourger, he filled out his skinny frame. “I began to realize how much I enjoyed the gym and the sport. It gives me a rush. Other sports are about teamwork, but bodybuilding, you get exactly as much out of it as you put into it.” He was second in the light-heavy class of the 2001 North American Championships, but dropped to 14th in the heavy class of the 2002 Nationals.
That year, his father, whom he called “my No. 1 fan,” died soon after being diagnosed with cancer. In his grief, Rhoden drank heavily. And then just kept drinking. “In the span of six to eight months, I drank more alcohol than most people drink their entire lives,” he admitted. “I had given up training and was doing kitchen design, working for a flooring company. At night, I was drinking heavily, and then I’d get up, go to work, and that night do it again.” He was hospitalized after urinating blood, and then and there decided to kick his addiction. The detox began. “For days, I had shakes. One minute I was burning up, the next I was freezing cold. It was so difficult, one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. Whenever I see a drink now, I still think of it, and I never want to do that again.”
After recovering, he didn’t return to the gym for six years. He worked, he stayed sober, he ate a lot of junk food, and his former life as a bodybuilder slipped ever further away. But it didn’t concern him. Without his No. 1 fan in his corner, he’d lost his competitive spark. It was the challenge of a bodybuilding cousin that encouraged him to return to the gym. At first, his weakness was humbling. But as the muscle returned, he realized he could make one of the greatest comebacks in bodybuilding history. And he did! All but forgotten by the bodybuilding world, he delivered his first “out of nowhere” shock, winning the heavyweight and overall 2009 North American Championships.
Up and down again, he was 16th in his pro debut in 2010 only to qualify for the aforementioned Olympia the following year. Though he landed out of the posedown in the 2012 Arnold Classic, he went on to win four pro shows that year, including the Arnold Classic Europe; and there was that third in the Olympia behind only Phil Heath and Kai Greene. He had arrived. With his superb legs (sweeping quads, deep separation), wispy waist with sharply etched abs, and his pleasing lines, the 5’10”, 245-lb. man known as Flexatron was celebrated for his shape more than his size. His chest, back, and shoulders lagged a little, hurting him in some poses, but his front double biceps was hard to beat. He sported an aesthetic silhouette reminiscent of his nickname namesake, Flex Wheeler.
Over the next five years, while living in L.A. and training under Charles Glass, he added two more Olympia thirds, a second (in 2016), a fourth, and a fifth. He also collected two more pro titles. Consistently conditioned, he stayed very near the summit of bodybuilding, but he seemed destined to be one of those guys who contends for a Sandow annually but never wins. His Olympia fifth-place finish came in 2017 at the bodybuilder-ancient age of 42, the year Phil Heath won his seventh straight O. He was slipping; The Gift wasn’t. Had his time passed?
Flexatron had one more surprise left. In 2018, he came in in the shape of his life, complete with cross-striated quads and finely etched back details. In one of bodybuilding’s greatest upsets, he defeated Heath by four points for the Olympia title. Shawn Rhoden, at 43, became the 14th and oldest Olympia champ. “It was a long time coming, and I had a lot of doubters, but I knew I could get here if I came in my best,” he said backstage afterwards. He did and he did.
But he never competed again. In July 2019, he was charged with raping a female protégé in Salt Lake City the preceding October. The case never went to trial, but the charges remained, and Rhoden, who maintained the incident was consensual, was banned from the Olympia stage. He continued to train and eat high-protein, continued to promote bodybuilding, if in a suit and tie, hoping for his name to be cleared and his next comeback to begin. He’d been as low as he could go before only to claw his way to the top. He only wanted a chance to do it again. He moved to Las Vegas earlier this year and was working with a new supplement company.
He leaves behind his six-year-old daughter, Cora. He spent Halloween with her in Santa Barbara, and in an Instagram post filled with smiling, costumed photos of father and daughter he quoted Maya Angelou: “Life Is Not Measured By the Number of Breaths We Take, But By the Moments That Take Our Breath Away.” His final post three days before his death rocked the bodybuilding world reads: “Brick by brick and patience it will take. See you on the other side.” Our condolences to Shawn Rhoden’s family, friends, and fans. #14 is gone but will never be forgotten.