For 18 years, Flex Wheeler pumped anabolic steroids into a body that became so rippled with muscle that even he described himself as a comic-book character -- a guy with ridiculous round biceps, tiny waist and bulging legs.
To achieve that unworldly physique, he swallowed pills and he gave himself injections. He rarely thought twice about taking steroids because he was a bodybuilder and, well, this is just what they do. At least if they want to make the covers of magazines.
Today, at 38, Wheeler no longer is a champion bodybuilder. But he still takes steroids. Only now, as he recovers from a kidney transplant in September, the catabolic steroids he takes reduce his muscle size.
``It's really sad and ironic,'' said Wheeler, who lives in East San Jose with his wife and their two children. ``I've come to a point in my life where I don't want to take steroids anymore, yet I have to just to live.''
Wheeler said his kidney disease is hereditary. But he also believes his prolonged steroid use probably accelerated its onset. He also thinks the mind-altering effects of steroids -- mood swings with fits of aggression -- were far greater than any physical toll.
And he acknowledges the damage he inflicted upon his body with other ``sports technology drugs,'' including almost dying from overdoses of diuretics.
``Everybody talks about steroids because that's in the news now, but the reality is there are lots of dangerous things that athletes take,'' he said.
Wheeler hopes his story will serve as a cautionary tale for any athlete who seeks better performance through pharmacology, at a time when a federal investigation of Balco Laboratories in Burlingame has resulted in dozens of top athletes being questioned about performance-enhancing drugs. Taking such drugs, Wheeler said, is tantamount to playing Russian roulette.
But ask him what he took and how much, and Wheeler becomes purposely vague.
``I won't discuss that because I'm aware of the power of what I say,'' he said. ``I know kids will go out and try it anyway. I turned a lot of kids on to steroids because they wanted to be just like Flex. I'm not going to be responsible for that now.''
At his peak
In his recently published autobiography, ``Flex Ability,'' Wheeler writes uncompromisingly of a poor kid from Fresno with low self-esteem who was molested as a child, attempted suicide, fathered a daughter at 15 and was heading for a troubled life. Bodybuilding may not have saved Kenny ``Flex'' Wheeler, but the sport gave him direction.
He became, in the words of California's new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, ``one of the best bodybuilders of all time.'' When Wheeler was at his peak, only one competitor -- reigning king Ronnie Coleman -- was better.
But Wheeler wouldn't have developed his larger-than-life body without the help of steroids. He started at 18.
In his book, he discusses the transformation that left him feeling like a magician had waved a wand to give him the body of his dreams. He would stare at himself in the mirror, worried that those muscles in the reflection were someone else's.
Wheeler never felt as if he was doing anything wrong by taking steroids even though they are illegal except with a doctor's prescription. They simply were a necessity.
He even had a nickname at his job as a Fresno jail cop: Officer Steroids.
``Everyone I knew was doing steroids, and no one considered it a big deal,'' he wrote. ``I wasn't taking coke or crank or heroin; I wasn't hanging out in a dark alley doing drug deals.''
Taking a toll
Although he estimates that the cost of enough steroids to prepare for one show is $10,000, he rarely had to pay because he was a star. But there was a different cost -- although Wheeler didn't fully understand that until he stopped taking them.
``You're super aggressive,'' he said. ``You've got a game face for training all day. Unfortunately there's not a switch that you can turn on and off. So if somebody gets in your face, you're going to attack them the way you attack your training. You don't have that much control over it. You get irritated and agitated very easily.''
Competitors in the sport knew, and usually accepted, the physical risks as well.
``One cat told me, `Man, if I was to win a national show and then die right there in the middle of a pose, that would be the happiest day of my life,' '' Wheeler said. ``And he wasn't joking. That was whack. Yet I was a hypocrite because I was willing to cut a few years off my life. That wouldn't have bothered me, which is sad.''
`Caught up in a game'
On several occasions, he ended up in a hospital in excruciating pain after taking too much diuretics, which drain fluid from the body and make bodybuilder's muscles look more pronounced during competition.
Doctors warned him that he was putting his life in jeopardy. By 1997, as his problems with diuretics continued, he wanted to quit taking all drugs. But he didn't.
``I was caught between a rock and a hard place,'' Wheeler said. ``When you stop taking drugs, you can't be competitive and you can't make any money and you're finished. I got caught up in a game.''
But the clock was ticking. In 2000, he was diagnosed with a kidney disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS -- a condition that occurs more frequently in African-American males.
He decided to compete as a clean, or drug-free, athlete.
Help from Conte
Wheeler said he was helped by a friend -- Victor Conte Jr., the Burlingame nutritionist who is currently a target of a federal grand jury probe. Conte also has been accused by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency as the source of a new designer steroid, THG. But Wheeler said Conte helped him to compete without steroids by providing him mineral supplements.
Still, Wheeler became the incredible shrinking bodybuilder. At the Mr. Olympia competition -- perhaps the best-known bodybuilding show -- Wheeler had finished second in 1998 and '99 and third in 2000. But in 2002, after training without steroids, he finished seventh. He weighed 212 pounds, down from 240 at previous competitions.
``When I was on drugs, I was completely energized when I'd train,'' Wheeler said. ``But when I was natural, I'd train for two hours, be exhausted and then still have no results. I would think, `I don't believe. How do people do this?' ''
Facing financial problems that would lead to filing for bankruptcy, Wheeler went back on steroids. He hoped for a big payday that would solve his money woes and then he could walk away for good.
But he regretted going back on the juice and quit after just one more show.
Meanwhile, his kidney condition worsened, requiring a transplant. He feels blessed that a donor from his church was a match.
Kidney failure and tumors are one of the potential side effects of performance-enhancing drug use, said Dr. Linn Goldberg, a steroids expert at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
``But no one has ever studied steroid use at the level these guys take,'' Goldberg added. ``Bodybuilders are changing their hormonal level to points that cannot occur naturally, so you're going to profoundly affect every organ in the body. More than likely, his case is probably related in some way to substances he was taking.''
Wheeler agrees only that steroids made his kidneys more susceptible to a disease that probably would have taken hold in his 40s. Wheeler said his high-protein diet and ingestion of large doses of potassium may have played just as large a role as steroid use. Yet he also knows that some will think he's kidding himself that steroids aren't a more direct cause.
``A lot of people think it's due to sports technology drugs,'' he said. ``But people are going to believe what they want to believe.''
However, he also talks about the dangers of those drugs. Users, he said, are deluding themselves if they think there's no risk.
``There's no way you could be at my level and not have bad things happen to you,'' Wheeler said. ``It only takes one time that you make a mistake. There's plenty of technology drugs where all you have to do is mess up just once, and it's over.''
Five more operations
Although the kidney transplant has been a success, other complications have led to five more operations -- the latest coming two weeks ago to relieve fluid in his leg. He claims to be ``on nine different drugs now that are more deadly than any steroid I ever took.''
He declined to be photographed for this story because the operations and medications have, temporarily, altered his physical appearance. People, though, still recognize him. Well, sort of.
``Some will look at me and say, `Hey, that's Flex's little brother,' '' he said with a chuckle.
Wheeler said he's at peace even though the days of a six-figure income are gone and he's still struggling to get back on his feet financially. He has a supplement store in Venice and is eager to do public speaking when he gets healthy.
``I'm happier now not having to live that life and live that lie by using the drugs,'' he said. ``It's bittersweet. But I'm in a better place and happier with the smaller things I have in life.''