CLEVELAND — On the bodybuilding stage, looks are everything. Flaws are literally judged, imperfections are graded, and when the spotlights shine on one of bodybuilding’s most recognizable figures, you can’t help but stare.
“I wish I was training just to feel good about how I look on the beach,” Cleveland’s Michael Anderson said. “But the judges are harsh.”
Anderson is a giant in the bodybuilding world.
“He's what we call the OG. He was a trendsetter,” said Michael's longtime coach, Andy Bartolovich.
Anderson was a two-time national champion—a pro, who’s competed on the world’s biggest stages in the men’s physique category, a genre he helped launch almost a decade ago.
"I just happened to fall into the sport at the right time,” Anderson said. “Bucket list item, mind you, it was something I was only going to do once, and here I am training for my 53rd competition.”
Those competitions have included three Mr. Olympias and multiple appearances at the famed Arnold Classic in Columbus.
“My name is in the record books for a lot of firsts in this sport,” Anderson said. “And then I got to come back and be the first amputee.”
Anderson’s body—so elite, in so many ways—began to fail for the first time late in 2015.
“Being an athlete, especially being a professional athlete, you suck it up, you deal with the pain. When you think something is an injury, you’ll address it when the time is appropriate and sometimes you have to just work through an injury,” Anderson said. “That’s what I thought I was doing was working through an injury.”
What Anderson was really working through was much more significant: compartment syndrome.
Chronic internal inflammation, which—coupled with other underlying health issues—ultimately killed off much of the tissue in his right foot.
“Ironically, at that time, the doctor said ‘you might not walk the same again.’ So here I am thinking I'm going to have a minor limp and that’s the end of the world,” Anderson said. “I would give anything to have just a minor limp.”
Thirteen months and 21 procedures later, Anderson’s health only declined.
“We just decided that, okay, enough is enough,” Anderson said. “I just felt like I could have much more of a life with a prosthetic than the life I was living in a hospital bed.”
In February of 2017, Anderson’s stage career—as he knew it—was over.
“My body had emaciated lying in that hospital bed. I lost 60 pounds in bed rest. There was just nothing left of me,” Anderson said. “I had pretty much come to accept that I was done, that there was no other place for me in this sport.”
But at a point in life in which Anderson could’ve easily given up, he found support in a likely place with an unlikely connection.
His father, Larry, was also an amputee.
It was really nice to be able to lean on someone emotionally, who had my back 100% and knew what I was feeling,” Anderson said. “This is someone who loved me, who saw me struggling and really wanted to see me succeed. and that helped, tremendously.”
That support helped motivate Anderson back to health and back into the gym.
“My dad was so proud of what I was doing,” Anderson said.
The 2018 Pittsburgh Pro was supposed to be Anderson’s splash back. It was the same place he’d won his first national title six years before.
Only Anderson never made it.
“The day that I was supposed to start training for that competition, was the day that I buried my father.”
Just seven days after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, Larry was gone.
For the second time in a year, the spotlights on Anderson’s career went dim.
“Nothing seemed right about it,” Anderson said.
Because as he already discovered once, healing is a process.
“I felt like I owed it to myself and I owed it to him to take the time to grieve,” Anderson said.
But like with his leg, loss would not keep Anderson away.
“I think there are normal moments where Michael would hit a valley and the thoughts were more difficult to get through and facing the reality of what he was dealing with. But it never became the permanent state of mind,” Anderson’s husband, Kenny said. “That state of mind was, how do I get back on stage and how soon can I do it?”
It took months of grieving, coupled with countless hours of training, as Anderson navigated both a new body and a new life without one of his biggest fans.
“It was a lot to come back from. It was a lot to try to overcome,” Anderson said. “But if I didn’t, it would’ve overcome me.”
That summer, Anderson completed his comeback and after a tune-up in Chicago, returned to Pittsburgh. the same city he won his first national title seemingly a lifetime ago.
And the dominance? That came back, too— to the tune of six titles since his amputation, proving even in a sport that chases perfection, the only disqualifier is giving up.
"I could not control the death of my father. I couldn't control the loss of my leg,” Anderson said. “I could very easily just get back in bed and say no one would blame me. But I don’t know who’s watching me and who needs to see that person, that beacon, that inspiration, so they can be the best them they can be.”