Phil Heath thought basketball was his destiny.
He was wrong.
Though Heath came to the University of Denver on a basketball scholarship, he ended up finding much more success in the world of bodybuilding. In 2012 he claimed his second consecutive Mr. Olympia title, and in September 2013, he’ll return to Las Vegas to try for his third.
Heath, who grew up in Seattle, came to the University in 1998 to play on DU’s first Division I basketball team. Though he had dreams of going pro, his hoops career came to an end in 2002, when the team was eliminated from the Sun Belt Tournament in the first round.
“Something was just not easy with that. I didn’t like it,” Heath says. “Hearing the buzzer sound and your career is done. I was going to class, and I was still living in the basketball house, so I’m still seeing the guys compete, and it hurt. I despised basketball for a long time. I didn’t go to a game for three years.”
But what Heath thought was an ending turned out to be a beginning. As he was finishing his academic career at DU, he was introduced to bodybuilding by a chance encounter with a classmate in the Daniels College of Business. Intrigued, he started working out at the Coors Fitness Center on campus with a group of aspiring musclemen.
“I start training with these guys, and I realize I’m stronger than most of them who have already been bodybuilding for years,” Heath says. “I end up working a night job with them over at Jackson’s Hole, in the LoDo area, where they’re all bouncers. I thought, ‘This is pretty cool; these guys get paid to stand there looking huge? This is neat.’”
Six months later, Heath competed in his first tournament. In 2006, he won his first two professional events, the Colorado Pro Championships and the New York Pro Championship. He placed fifth at the Arnold Classic in 2007 and competed at his first Mr. Olympia in 2008. He worked his way to second place in 2010, and in 2011defeated reigning champ Jay Cutler. Heath took bodybuilding’s biggest prize for the second time in 2012.
As Mr. Olympia, Heath travels more than 200,000 miles a year for seminars, appearances, competitions and signings in countries all around the world. He also is the star of “Generation Iron,” a new bodybuilding documentary that screened in theaters over the summer.
“I think Phil is definitely one of the best Mr. Olympias that we have had,” says Robin Chang, executive director of the annual contest. “I would say he is the current Arnold Schwarzenegger of bodybuilding. He’s got the personality, the charisma, he’s got the physique to back it up, and he’s a fan favorite.”
Despite all his success, Heath had an additional weight to carry: Competition had taken him away from DU before he had the chance to finish his degree. More than a decade after he first set foot on campus as a freshman basketball player, Heath returned in 2012 to complete his BSBA in information technology — training he uses to run his own website and manage his own merchandising.
“He knew he wouldn’t be complete, no matter what he did on the stage or in the gym, until he had finished this,” says Greg Grauberger (MPS ’12), manager of undergraduate student programs at the Daniels College and Heath’s academic adviser. “There are a lot of guys and gals out there who participated here, whether they were in sports or just academics, who didn’t finish and some of them never think about it. Here’s a guy who has done extremely well; he would never ever need to have a degree with everything that he’s done, but he just felt that he had to do it. I really thought a lot of him for that.”
As he prepares to vie for his third title, Heath is confident he will be Mr. Olympia for a third time. But even if he doesn’t take home the crown, he is happy knowing he reached a pinnacle that few ever even attempted.
“You win the Mr. Olympia, you are the best in the world,” he says. “There is no better than that. Some people will think back prior to the 1950s, where Mr. Universe was the top guy. They say, ‘Are you Mr. Universe?’ ‘No, I’m Mr. Olympia, which is the best of all.’”