“If you want something you’ve never had before, you have to be willing to do something you’ve never done before.” A true American success story of rags to riches, Kenneth “Flex” Wheeler rose out of poverty and neglect to become a record-setting professional bodybuilder with a record-breaking five wins at the Arnold Classic. Earning the highest praise from bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman who said Wheeler was “the best bodybuilder he ever competed against,” Wheeler knew that he had finally made it in the industry when the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger described him as one of the greatest bodybuilders he had ever seen.
Long before taking the stage as “The Sultan of Symmetry,” Wheeler was born in extreme poverty in Fresno, California in 1965 and was often abused as a child, which led to suicidal tendencies. At school, life wasn’t much better as his undiagnosed dyslexia made reading and comprehension nearly impossible, putting him further and further behind his peers. The only thing that truly made him happy and feel like he fit in with his classmates was playing sports, which was exactly where he excelled.
Putting all his energy into martial arts training where he felt empowered and in control for the first time in his young life, Wheeler was a teenager when he was first introduced to weight training and bodybuilding. By then, it was only a matter of time before he made the transition to bodybuilding full time while describing himself as “a martial artist first [and] a bodybuilder second.” Showing remarkable flexibility and his ability to do a complete split, which was unheard of among bodybuilders, the California native earned his nickname as “Flex” as he proved not even his muscles could stand in the way of his flexibility.
Wheeler continued training as a martial artist and bodybuilder throughout high school before joining the local police force. Realizing that law enforcement had no real appeal to him, he turned in his badge and focused all his efforts on training as a professional bodybuilder. By 1983, he was ready for his first amateur competition and spent the next six years competing before finally securing a first-place finish at the 1989 NPC Mr. California Championships. Three years later, he won first place overall and in heavyweight at the 1992 USA Championships.
Joining the professional circuit in 1993, Wheeler made his first appearance at the Mr. Olympia contest and nearly won it with a second-place finish behind Dorian “The Shadow” Yates. Securing a second-place title two additional times in 1998 and 1999, Wheeler never won the Mr. Olympia title but he managed to win the Ironman Pro five times and the Arnold Classic four times with additional victories at the France Grand Prix, the Hungarian Grand Prix, the Night of Champions and the South Beach Pro Invitational.
Amid his incredible success, Wheeler built a reputation for being overly confident and exceptionally arrogant both on and off the stage. When asked about his bad attitude and cockiness, he admitted that it was his way of compensating for the insecurities he felt as a child in addition to hiding his lifelong battle with depression. For Wheeler, bodybuilding was an out—a venue to break out of his introverted nature and momentarily forget the troubles of his past.
In 1994, Wheeler’s depression reared its ugly head yet again after a nearly fatal car accident almost left him paralyzed. Once he was released from the hospital, he was determined to regain his strength and headed back to the gym to fight off his depression and rebuild his reputation as a bodybuilding legend. Doing exactly that, Wheeler was forced to start training from scratch after all the muscles in his legs and arms had weakened from his extended hospital stay. Remarkably, however, it didn’t take long for the famed Sultan of Symmetry to bounce right back into the body he had before!
Spending the next few years winning title after title at the 1995 South Beach Pro, the 1996 Ironman Pro Invitational and the 1996 Florida Cup Pro, tragedy struck again in 1999 when Wheeler was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which is a type of kidney disease. The news immediately sent the media into a frenzy as they speculated that Wheeler’s failing kidneys were the result of using and abusing performance enhancement drugs over the years. Wheeler denied all the rumors and argued that the condition was hereditary, which left many to argue that the performance drugs only sped up the process.
With his condition worsening, Wheeler announced his retirement in 2000 but continued to compete over the next few years before hanging up his speedo with a third-place finish at the 2003 Ironman Pro Invitational. The same year, he had a kidney transplant and received a new lease on life as he returned to his first passion—a martial arts combination of Aikido, Tae Kwon Do and Kempo known as Kemp-Kwon-Do.
Over the years, the 51-year-old bodybuilding legend has managed to stay in the spotlight especially after his interview in 2007 with Ironman Magazine where he shared his career achievements, adversity and success in their “Yesterday and Today: Legends of Bodybuilding” series. Apart from that, he held a prominent role as the Director of Media and Public Relations for All American EFX, which is a sports nutrition company based in Bakersfield, California. Frequently appearing in advertisements for the company, he also used his own experience and expertise in the industry to help aspiring athletes and bodybuilders sponsored by All American EFX navigate their new career paths. And, while he may not hold a Mr. Olympia title, he is living proof that hard work and determination can get you virtually anything you want in life—even an endorsement as one of the greats from Schwarzenegger himself.