“Wear your scars on your chest, never on your back.” ~ Roman Legionnaires’ Motto
James Hergott took second place in the men’s welterweight division at the GNC Cobourg Naturals bodybuilding competition on April 20. Although a win would have been nice for the only hometown competitor in the event, to everyone who knows James this placement goes far beyond any victory.
On March 7, 2013, Hergott spent the day posing for photos with fellow bodybuilder Crystal Kenny, under the lens of photographer Grzegorz Kieszkowski. The shoot was fantastic, and the images of two primed athletes working with full focus and intensity came out brilliantly. Both were focused like a laser beam on the upcoming Cobourg Naturals. But for James, something wasn’t quite right.
Training had been intense, as it always was for Hergott. He assumed, as anyone would, that the twinge of pain was muscle-related; that he was somehow straining something in a way his body wasn’t quite used to. For several weeks ahead of the photo shoot, he’d been soliciting advice from friends on Facebook and elsewhere on dealing with the cramping in his abdomen.
Most of the advice hinged on hydration, electrolytes, and various minerals to stop cramping.
At the same time, his career was on a high note. He had recently received good news from a major motion picture studio about his proposed project. Hergott, a successful film producer and founder of OWN3D Entertainment — whose work has included some now classic MMA documentaries (including “Fight for the Troops” and “The Striking Truth”) — was in every conceivable sense a man at the top of his game.
Then the Facebook feed went silent, and James Hergott, whose image appears on the promotional posters for the event, almost didn’t make it to the Cobourg Naturals.
In fact, he almost didn’t make it to March 8th.
Late in the evening on March 7th, Hergott was doubled over in pain. The abdominal cramping he’d been experiencing had gone from bad to worse, and now was incapacitating. Rushed by ambulance to the hospital, he was informed by the surgeon there that the outlook for both his condition and the surgery to correct was bleak. By the time he was prepped for surgery, he had already expressed his final wishes to his family and was fully prepared to die.
“If I hadn’t gone in for surgery I would be dead. When I asked the surgeon probability of death from surgery he said it was very high, but 100% if I don’t have it. I actually thought when he said this I was going to die that night and came to terms with it. Told my family my wishes. Very creepy experience but I’ve done many things I wanted to and have had a blessed life so I could have accepted it.”
What had actually happened was surreal, and a cautionary tale for everyone involved in heavy training.
As it turns out, Hergott had a perforated ulcer that had become infected. The cause of the ulcer was just as surprising: too much ibuprofen.
In preparing for last year’s competition season, Hergott trained hard. That’s not surprising; nor are the aches and pains that come with that level of elite training. So to compensate for the soreness, he took Advil. Lots of it. Unbeknownst to him, however, the highly acidic nature of ibuprofen was wreaking havoc on the lining of his stomach. This led to the ulceration that, unnoticed and therefore untreated, almost ended his life.
Hergott’s post-op pictures on Facebook sent a wave of shock through the fitness and MMA communities. Personally and professionally, Hergott is well-liked and an inspiration to those around him, many of whom are elite athletes in both fields. The image of him in a hospital bed with a tube coming out of his stomach caught everyone completely off guard.
The outpouring of love and respect was overwhelming. The only thing Hergott could do was translate that energy into a speedy recovery.
And so on March 9, in defiance of the pain and swelling in his abdomen, he started walking.
By March 10, he was able to take longer walks, this time to the end of the hallway and back. “I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal,” he wrote online, “but compared to [the previous day] it was a huge world record.”
On March 13 he had his staples removed. “36…” he notes, “one for each year on this planet.”
Nonchalantly and with characteristic stoicism, Hergott referred to the whole ordeal as, “just one of the curveballs of life.” He determined then that he would go through with the competition, knowing full well he wouldn’t win. A week in the hospital on nothing but intravenous saline, and then a bland diet of pudding, yogurt and crackers, didn’t do much to support the typical pre-game conditioning needed for bodybuilding competition. But he’d spent a year training for this event, and wanted to make a show anyway.
What was worse was that he wasn’t even able to seriously work out until April, barely three weeks out from the competition.
Even so, it was just something he had to do. As he wrote on April 4, “no matter that I won’t be able to come in my best I just want to be in the game and not on the bench. Placement is not as important to me as showing up and seeing my goal through. I believe in life you have to see things through and not just give up because of hardship. I’ll have to play this one safe and do the best I can with what I have to work with.”
With the help of trainer Nadine Williams, Hergott put himself back in the game. The scar from his surgery was healing nicely, and although visible wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. And his overall conditioning hadn’t suffered a great deal. Taking things nice and slow, he got back to work to pick up some of the tone that had been lost to recovery.
Then, to everyone’s amazement, he posted his night-before shots. Even with the evidence of his surgery still inscribed on his abdomen, he looked phenomenal. At thirty-six years old, a month out of life-saving surgery and a day away from competition, James Hergott was poised to do what he had been told was impossible.
On April 20, 2013, the GNC Cobourg Naturals bodybuilding competition was held in the sleepy town of Cobourg, Ontario. And from a field of OPA elite athletes, James Hergott took home a second place finish in the welterweight division. It was a story that overshadowed much of what went on at the competition. While there’s no denying that the other competitors were all completely remarkable in their own right, towering above that den of lions was the young moviemaker who had climbed his way back from the brink of death to make the best showing he could on stage.
His only concern was making his friends and supporters proud. He’d have managed that by simply appearing in the competition. That he finished so near the top has made his success story virtually legendary already, and an inspiration to anyone looking to get back in the game.
Perhaps his own summation is the best place to close. There isn’t much more to explain about his philosophy of life and success, or about the character of the man, than can be made immediately apparent in his own words:
“One thing I learned through this whole experience is what it is truly like to face death at a young age. The doctor came in and told me that if I hadn’t gotten to the hospital when I did I would be dead. They prepared me for surgery almost instantly. I asked the doctor in private my chances and it was not that promising. You really can’t prepare yourself for a moment like that. Let me say, I have no desire to die and I did not have a desire to die, but I also had to face a real possibility. I guess you really don’t know how you will react until that moment. I didn’t cry, or feel sorry for myself. I did cry for my loved ones. The biggest thing that crossed my mind is that I looked back on all I have done: moving to California, making movies, TV shows, doing the GSP doc, competing in bodybuilding, pretty much living life on my terms; and because I did that I was at peace. If it were my time then I could accept it. I feel in the future this will continue to be how I live my life. IF you are unhappy with your life or not doing what you want I think you should consider whether you would have regrets on your death bed. In those moments you really have no one else to answer to but yourself. Please please please do not stay in a job, relationship, life that you are unhappy with. Life really is too short. Pursue your dreams. Life is short.”
Points on Post-Operative Training:
- DON’T proceed without a specific go-ahead from your doctor.
- Forget about “at your own pace.” Chances are you’ll overestimate what your own pace should be. Work slowly, and pay attention to signals from your body.
- Work with a qualified trainer, and keep checking in with your physician.
- Don’t expect to work at the level you were at before surgery. Your body is serving you well by healing. Let it do its job, and cut it some slack.
- Remember: if your objective is a target date, the calendar repeats. You can do it again next year if you feel you’re not ready right away. James felt he was ready, and took his time; but he was also already in peak condition before surgery, so he didn’t have to destroy himself to get it back.