Matt Oien knows very well what it means to put his heart into his endeavors. When he was diagnosed 15 years ago with a rare heart condition, he was fortunate to be alive. “If the doctors hadn’t diagnosed me, I could have died walking down the street,” says the Terumo Medical Products rep. However, at 26 years old, when he received his first implantable cardiac defibrillator, that sense of gratitude threatened to turn into one of fragility. “I felt like I was in a category with 75 years old, and I became depressed,” he says. But, after talking with his physician, he realized his life was anything but over. “My doctor said I could do anything but scuba dive,” he recalls. Not long afterward, Oien resolved to do two things: set some fresh goals and strive to be the best at whatever he endeavored.
The green light from his physician was exactly the boost Oien needed to jump-start his life. And, if there was any reason to take it slow, it certainly didn’t occur to him. An avid bicyclist since childhood, he decided then was as good a time as ever to take up competitive cycling – after training for a triathlon, that is. “I had ridden a bicycle since my childhood, but I had to learn how to swim without exhausting myself,” he recalls. However, his girlfriend at the time, a competitive swimmer in high school, offered to coach him.
With months of workouts heavy on biking, swimming and running, Oien attempted his first triathlon – an ex-terra (off-road) race, which required athletes to ride a mountain bike over trails during the biking portion of the race. “I finished my first triathlon in 2 hours, 22 minutes,” he says. The following year, he entered the race with more training and shaved five minutes off his time.
The experience was great, he notes. But the biking portion continued to be his favorite part. So, in subsequent years, Oien has participated in the two-day Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic, riding a “fat-tire” bicycle over 204 miles of sometimes uphill and unpaved roads to raise money for Prayer Willie Syndrome. (See related article, “Riding with a Purpose,” Repertoire, May 2009.) In addition, three years ago, he completed the Copper Triangle, a trek that took him 78 miles over three mountain passes. And, more recently, he completed the Buffalo Classic, which involved a 100-mile ride from Boulder, Colo. to Ft. Collins, Colo., and back. “I’ve completed many of these events with different [distributor and manufacturer] sales reps,” he points out, adding that the camaraderie with his colleagues makes his accomplishments all the more meaningful.
A new challenge
Cycling has not been the only activity Oien resumed upon regaining confidence in his health. If he could move mountains on a bicycle – or at least cross them – why not push his limits in other ways as well, he recalls. “I had always lifted weights,” he says of his high school and college days, noting that he had become “small and lean” after receiving his first cardiac implant. “I felt it was time to add some size.” So, he hired a professional bodybuilding coach with the intention of entering a competition.
“I came to the coach at 172 pounds, with 11 percent body fat,” Oien says. “The coach put me on a complete plan that included diet and weight lifting.” With his eye on competing in the HARD Nutrition Colorado Natural bodybuilding event, he strove to bulk up to 207 pounds. That was no easy feat, he notes. In January 2010, he began a daily 5,000-calorie diet. “I began eating eight meals a day, one every two hours. I had to get out of bed at 5:00 a.m. every morning and start the day with a 1,000-calorie protein shake.” He would follow up a couple of hours later with a breakfast of 10 egg whites and oatmeal. Throughout the day, he would squeeze in 1½ pounds of chicken, a pound of lean ground beef and 1½ pounds of Talapia, he adds. “It was not fun,” he says. “Food became my enemy. The cooking, weighing and packaging of the food became such a burden, I finally hired a chef!”
After about 7½ months of physical training and maintaining an intense diet, Oien surpassed his goal, weighing in at 210 pounds. With 12 weeks left to the competition, his coach dropped his daily calorie intake to 3,200. “The only carbohydrates I was permitted were oatmeal, brown rice and sweet potatoes,” he says. “At this point in training, the goal is to lose the fat while retaining as much muscle as possible. When I weighed in at the competition, I was 182 pounds, with 5.8 percent body fat.”
The HARD Nutrition Colorado Natural is a natural bodybuilding event, notes Oien. “This means, no diuretics or steroids, and they run a polygraph test on you,” he explains. “People can cheat on a urine test, but for the most part, a polygraph test is fool-proof.”
The competition itself calls for poise and performance on the part of the contestants. “The competition runs from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.,” says Oien. “I was entered in four categories: novice middle weight; men’s master 35-39-year-olds; drug-free for light middleweight; and open light heavyweight.” The routines involve contestants posing for panels of judges during a morning show, and then again during the evening show, after which awards are presented. Despite this being his first experience as a bodybuilding contestant, Oien left the competition with a handful of awards. “I took first place in the men’s master 35-39-year-olds,” he says. “I took second place in the drug-free and middleweight competitions,” he says. “And I received fourth place in the open light heavyweight event. This category includes contestants weighing up to 198 pounds – the ones who often win the overall competition. My goal was to bring home one award, and I brought home four! And, as far as I know, I’m the only one who has walked across that stage with an implantable defibrillator.”
Oien looks forward to entering the HARD Nutrition Colorado Natural again, in October 2012. “In the next event, I’d like to weigh in at 198 pounds, which would qualify me [to advance to] the national competition. Right now, I am at 186 pounds, so I have a ways to go.”
What began with a single implantable defibrillator has led him to a whole new level of self-awareness, notes Oien. “I have learned that if I focus on something, I can achieve it,” he says. Whether he is biking over mountain passes, bodybuilding or working with his physician customers, “I have learned to strive to be the best at what I do,” he says.
— By Laura Thill