“I didn’t just want to be another pro taking up space in a lineup. I made a decision to become the best.” Nicknaming himself “Modern Art” as a reference to his incredible 330-pound mass in the off season, Art Atwood might not have become the best in the industry but he certainly used his determination to build a stellar reputation as a heavyweight IFBB professional bodybuilder. So how did the Wisconsin native get his start and what led to his tragic death at only 37 years old?
Born and raised in America’s Dairy Land during the 1970s, Atwood showed a competitive streak and his athletic side on both the track and on the football field as a child. At 12 years old, he knew he needed to build his strength to become a better and faster athlete so he worked to increase both his speed and power by lifting weights. Fortunately, his older brother and coaches were more than willing to help and, once he learned the basics, he quickly excelled.
Atwood attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he shifted his focus from football and track to high intensity weight training after he met and befriended Tony Frontier, who argued that Atwood could train all night and day but would never pack on the muscular mass he envisioned without the right diet. Taking Frontier on as his mentor and nutritionist, Atwood increased his calorie intake and hit the weights even harder as his muscles filled out his 5’11” frame.
With Frontier encouraging him to make his bodybuilding debut, Atwood signed up for the 1993 Mr. Wisconsin contest in the light heavyweight division and surprised himself when he took home first place weighing 185 pounds at only 20 years old. Afterward, he took a break from competing and spent the next six years learning everything he possibly could about bodybuilding and nutrition. To support himself, he managed various nutrition stores and health clubs until returning to the Mr. Wisconsin stage in 1999. This time, he took home the title as a super heavyweight at an impressive 236 pounds.
Like most bodybuilders aiming to go professional, Atwood started competing as an amateur with the National Physique Committee (NPC) and entered the 2000 NPC Junior USA as a super heavyweight in 2000. Winning first place overall, he had high hopes of stealing the show at the 2000 NPC Nationals but saw a 14th-place finish and then a seventh-place finish at the 2000 NPC USA Championships. In 2001, he was back at the top of the leaderboard when he won the NPC Nationals. With only two years of competing under his belt, Atwood was ready to make his professional debut after taking home third place at the 2001 NPC USA Championships.
Atwood became an IFBB professional bodybuilder in 2002 and competed in four events with his first three contests leaving much to be desired with a seventh-place finish at the Grand Prix England and 12th place finishes at the Mr. Olympia and the Show of Strength Pro Championship. By the 2002 Toronto Pro Invitational, however, Atwood managed to find his groove and won the competition, which gave him enough momentum to compete in a series of Grand Prix contests in 2003 across England, Holland, Hungary and Russia.
Despite Atwood’s determination to be the best in the industry as well as his growing popularity among fitness and bodybuilding publications like RX Muscle magazine, he never won another competition after the 2002 Toronto Pro. But, that didn’t stop him from competing in a variety of events over the next four years including the 2003 and 2004 Night of Champions, the 2003 Mr. Olympia, the 2005 Arnold Classic, the 2005 San Francisco Pro Invitational, the 2006 Europa Super Show and the 2006 Atlantic City Pro. By 2006, the reality of his losing streak finally caught up with him as he realized the high point of his career had come and gone as he gave up competing at 33 years old.
Over the next five years, Atwood stayed out of the spotlight as a professional competitor but worked behind the scenes to launch his own supplement company, Professional Supplements, just as minor gossip circulated that the once massive bodybuilder with 22-inch arms, 33-inch legs and a 59-inch chest was dwindling in size. But, by September 11, 2011, none of the rumors—true or not—mattered anymore when Atwood collapsed and felt into the swimming pool at his condo in Dallas, Texas. Suffering a heart attack, two residents quickly worked to revive him but Atwood died minutes later as paramedics rushed him to the nearby Baylor Regional Medical Center. He was only 37 years old.
An autopsy later revealed that Atwood’s cause of death was indeed a massive heart attack, which came only a month after the former bodybuilder suffered a minor heart attack. Of course, his death immediately ignited a slew of rumors that the 37-year-old had long abused steroids and other performance enhancing drugs to achieve the perfect physique at the height of his short-lived bodybuilding career. His business partner at Professional Supplements, Steven Salmon, quickly came to his friend’s defense and set the record straight. “Art died at the hospital. The coroner’s report shows that he died of a heart attack. He unknowingly suffered a minor heart attack about a month ago. As it turns out, heart disease does run in his family.”
Today, Atwood’s legacy is carried on by fellow IFBB professional bodybuilder T.J. Humphreys, who worked with Atwood on expanding Professional Supplements as well as his relocation from Wisconsin to Dallas. Atwood’s family later approached Humphreys to carry on his legacy in what is now known as ProSupps, a supplement company that Atwood would be proud to know asks its customers, “Are you a Jekyll or a Hyde?” After all, ProSupps caters to “both the man and the monster,” both of which perfectly describe the late, muscle-clad Wisconsin beast.