My story of overcoming the adversity from of the hardest lockdowns in the world to reach peak physical condition, maintain mental health, and win an Australian Championship.

The world did not anticipate the effects of COVID 19. Early in 2020, the name COVID 19 was a story in another country on the news. What developed, however, at incredible speed was the proliferation of COVID to every country around the world. By March, Australia was beginning to follow similar pathways to others in closing events, venues, and reducing numbers that could attend public venues or households. In Melbourne, Australia, in particular, COVID 19 was having a profound effect.

I have been a single father for the last ten years of two amazing children. I work full time as a global project manager for a large organisation. I study a Ph.D. at Victoria University in Melbourne, I am a competitive athlete having success at national and world level and have been a coach for 35 years for strength and conditioning, diet and nutrition, personal training, and team performance, working globally.

A huge part of my fabric as a person has been health and fitness. I have attended the gym every week for 34 years. It is an essential part of my day to maintain my physical and mental health and provides me with mindfulness and wellbeing that maintains my peace inside. I wake at 3 am, head to the gym, do my weights and run, then return home to begin the rest of my day. There is no doubt I am a person who loves routine and structure, however, this works well for me and fits my personality.

At the end of March, several events as the result of COVID drastically changed my routine and structures. The gyms were closed indefinitely, schools closed to students which meant my children needed to be home-schooled, and the workplace restricted staff to work from home. There is no doubt, this turned my world upside down. Like everyone else, I had to adapt to many things very quickly. People were panicking and the supermarkets, in particular, were barren of many things for weeks.

As an athlete, I had played several sports at a high level, however, in the past five years, I have competed in natural bodybuilding. The sport requires an incredible amount of discipline for optimal training, nutrition, and rest to be the best. The structures, disciplines, in-depth analysis, mental strength, and adherence to plans resonated with me and my passion for the gym. My experience and knowledge in strength and conditioning, diet and nutrition made a terrific case study to use myself as the subject. As a result, in 2017, I was able to win a World Championship in my category in the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF) competing in Boston USA. I had placed 2nd in 2016 competing in the WNBF World Championships in Los Angeles. The WNBF and ICN (I Compete Natural) are considered the two largest natural bodybuilding federations in the world.

The gyms closing in March was very confronting for me initially as this was my place of Zen. Additionally, not competing in 2019 for a few reasons, I had earmarked 2020 to compete in the ICN Australian Championships and World Championships. At 51, I wanted to show people how amazing the human body can be, as well as provide the benefits and inspiration for maintaining both physical and mental health through exercise, particularly as we become older.

My mindset is one of positivity. I have been fortunate to have had a couple of coaches who left an indelible imprint on me. One that deeply resonates is not letting uncontrollable elements affect my performance. This made me evaluate my training plans for the competition. There were two options in front of me: not to compete as I did not have the major tool for training which was the gym or adapt and create a methodology at home to be able to train and compete for the titles. I believed it was an incredible chance to use my experience and knowledge to beat the odds and not let the uncontrollable circumstances COVID has brought stop me from winning the title. It would also show people we can adapt to any circumstance and maintain peak performance, health, and wellbeing.

In June, Melbourne was placed in lockdown with severe restrictions. We were restricted to home and allowed out for four reasons: To buy food, one hour of cardio exercise outside of the home (walk, run, or bike ride), medical attention or work (with a signed permit for travel). Additionally, we were not allowed to travel more than five kilometres away from our home and not permitted out after 8 pm until 5 am the next day. This lasted for 111 days or 15 weeks. Gyms had been closed since March and would not re-open until November 9th. My national competition was on the 6th of December in Adelaide, South Australia.

My gym became my lounge room and the backyard. I had a range of resistance bands, added a chin-up bar that could also be used for pulling motions such as lat. pulldowns and for triceps pushdowns. I had the pergola posts outside for pushing and pulling motions. I also had two pieces of 8 kg steel I could use as dumbbells and an old motor to hold for goblet squats. I devised a plan that mirrored my gym sessions, adjusted the volumes and repetitions up to compensate for the lack of exact gym equipment and went to work on my 21-week preparation.

No matter the conditions, the cold, the rain, or wind, I did not miss a session. No matter the additional responsibilities of home school, study and work from home, I did not miss. These are excuses that people inherently can use. I still woke at 3 am and did my sessions and ran the streets for my cardio. I went for many walks with my children to help with their exercise and to benefit from spending quality time with them to learn from their experiences.

Through all my years’ training in the gym, I am a huge believer in understanding the anatomy of the human body. It is fundamentally important to understand where the muscles attach, which direction the fibres run, and what eccentric and concentric movements will maximise hypertrophy for the muscle group. Additionally, I believe in great form for the exercise being conducted to ensure the targeted muscle(s) is being worked optimally. Too many people want to lift heavy weight with poor form and the recruitment of surrounding muscles to help take the load.

I truly believe the experience to understand what exercises would engage the targeted areas, how they should feel under tension, how the muscles attach, and where the fibres run was a huge key to my training. I would often close my eyes during sets and create the mind/muscle connection to see and feel what should be working and how it should be feeling. Bodybuilding to me is an art form. An expression of beauty for what the human body can become and achieve.

Nutritionally, I aimed to slowly lose the required weight to reach my optimal look. Approx. 500 g per week was the plan until I could reach maintenance, while maintaining strength and energy to complete my tasks and commitments of work, study, parenting, and maintain my home. I do not carry excess weight; therefore, it did not take very long to reach my target (8 weeks).

With the unpredictability of COVID, there was no guarantee the national championships were going ahead as the world championships were cancelled. This to me was also an uncontrollable and not something to focus on. Many competitors opted out due to the unpredictable nature of travel and restrictions, however, I used this as an additional incentive and a vehicle for people to see that we have to maintain our belief and mental/physical health. The mental health struggles at that time for so many people were incredibly difficult and sad to see. Many people turned to substance abuse, excess eating, and sadly too many lost their mental battle through suicide. It is incredibly important for me to show people the positive effects of exercise, particularly when situations become incredibly hard.

Exercise is scientifically proven to improve your mental health as well as your physical health. After a workout, endorphins (dopamine) are released that make you feel happy that you have done something good for you. Additionally, the fitter you become, the more energy you have, the better you feel both inside and out. I wanted to show this element to as many people as possible. Every other state in Australia had gyms open, did not get into lockdown, and for many of them, had no understanding of what we were experiencing. Many other parts of the world were and are struggling very badly with the virus and restrictions.

By November 9th, six months after gyms had closed, they finally reopened. I had three weeks back in my gym, my place of peace and health, before the competition. The evidence was, I was already prepared to compete. Three weeks was terrific to have the gym, however, the hard work of 18 weeks at home had got me in competition shape. I was excited to have the chance to walk on the stage as the only person in my category without the gym and could display what sort of condition can be achieved using resistance bands, bodyweight, experience, adherence, persistence, determination, focus, and self-belief.

I was extremely proud to win my category (Men’s physique 50+) and become an ICN Australian Champion against the odds. As I stood on the Victory dais, my son was in the crowd, and I reflected on the 21 weeks of hard work, sacrifice, and dedication that my children saw. The terrific lessons for them, that we can achieve if we want to and are willing to commit to the hard work and dedication. To all those that had sacrificed so much in Melbourne to eradicate the effects of COVID and return to a cautious but less restricted societal freedom. I hoped that I had shown what we can achieve even though we are severely restricted and hampered by circumstance.

A quote from another love of mine, philosophy, in ‘Man’s search for freedom’ by Frankl, V. E., (2008) who states; “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. In essence, to me, this sums up our attitudes to anything. We have a chance to react positively. Embrace all that life can give. We can learn, prosper, and grow through any hardship and circumstance. Maintain health, mentally and physically, be humble, mindful, and grateful.

Follow Damien Taylor at @s11strength or LinkedIn.