It was well into retirement when bodybuilding icon Flex Wheeler would face the toughest challenge of his life.
A four-time Arnold Classic winner, he was described by Terminator star and fellow strongman Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. With his amazing strength and symmetry, he was also a five-time Ironman Pro winner.
So in 2019, the fitness world was left stunned when Wheeler underwent emergency surgery to have his right leg amputated.
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The drastic measure had seemed to come out of nowhere for the star who had continued to lift weights long after retiring from competitions.
Wheeler would go on the explain that it was either a case of losing his leg – or losing his life.
The former champion's life was a rollercoaster from the word go.
Born in Fresno, California, the young Kenneth Wheeler was a victim of child abuse and bullied at school – leading him to thoughts of suicide.
He was diagnosed with dyslexia and struggled academically but always excelled in athletics. Training in martial arts as a teenager, he then joined the police force for a short time before launching his bodybuilding career.
Wheeler enjoyed huge success during the 1990s, smashing his competitors out of the park at his peak and his ability to execute a complete split soon earned him the nickname Flex.
But he continued to face many obstacles in his life.
In 1994, he was involved in a near-fatal car accident that could have left him with lifelong paralysis.
He also admitted taking steroids to Dennis James on The Menace podcast, first using dianabol.
He said: “I put on like thirty pounds, and I was like ‘is this safe?’
"I remember asking one of the old timers, and he goes ‘don’t stop son. Don’t stop, keep going,’ and I’m like ‘yeah, but look what’s happening.’
“(I had) stretch marks everywhere. They were so painful, they were like big worms…you can still see them on my forearm, in between my legs. They were huge and red, it was horrible.”
Bodybuilding legend Ronnie Coleman admitted that Wheeler was his toughest ever competitor. But in 1999, around the time he finished second in Mr Olympia, Wheeler was diagnosed with kidney disease.
Doctors were unable to give an explanation why his kidneys were failing; he said he noticed things getting worse after every competition.
He would gain 30-40lb, with extreme swelling in his hands and feet, and even his genitals.
It has been suggested his drug use may have contributed but Wheeler said the condition is hereditary.
Wheeler underwent procedure after procedure but circulation problems caused by the disease eventually left him with no choice but to have his leg amputated below the right knee.
Wheeler said the decision to amputate part of his right leg was “due to escalating circulation difficulties" that had become life-threatening.
“At that time, the doctor just stared at me, and I started crying because I knew. She said ‘Flex we’re there.’
"So I said ‘just take it.'"
Despite life throwing him yet another cruel curveball, Wheeler stayed positive, fighting his way back to fitness.
One video posted on his Instagram page showed Wheeler working out on a leg press, impressively pressing weight with his left leg and prosthetic right leg.
“I will not be denied,” Wheeler captioned the video. “Let’s go.”
But he's not out of the woods yet, and remains at risk of having other limbs amputated.
“I’m at risk of losing my left leg. I’m at risk of losing my right arm, my left arm, because it attacks your limbs," he said.
In 2020, Wheeler became the inaugural recipient the Olympia Inspiration and Courage Award, honouring bodybuilding stars who show extreme courage while facing adversity.
Speaking at the awards, he said: "Everybody goes through problems in life.
"Everybody’s had their challenges. My challenges are no different than anyone else.
"I’m definitely not Superman. But what I’ve really tried to learn through this process is accepting what I can’t change and change what I can’t accept, and just let that be that."
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