“Hard work is a choice that anyone can make. But many would rather make excuses. Their lives are substandard because they’ve chosen the path of least resistance.” Easily one of the most interesting and controversial professional bodybuilders and powerlifters in the industry today, Matt Kroc’s strength might be record-breaking but not even that could overshadow his decision to come out as a transgender female in July 2015. Changing his name from Matthew Raymond Kroczaleski to Janae Marie, Kroc took the bodybuilding world by storm after years of wowing audiences and stunning his fiercest competitors as one of the strongest men in the industry.
Growing up in a dilapidated trailer nestled in a rural, conservative area of Michigan where he and his brothers lived in extreme poverty throughout the 1970s, Kroc’s childhood was anything but pleasant with his father often turning to alcohol and drugs to ease the pain of his misfortune. With little to do and nothing to afford in the neighborhood, Kroc discovered weightlifting when he was six years old after picking up a set of weights from Sears. He dedicated himself to his new hobby and eventually worked up to 100 reps with a 10-pound dumbbell before he built his own workout bench using cement blocks at eight years old. Filling up milk jugs with sand and balancing them on a long stick, he had his own barbell and bench by the time he was nine.
Weight training quickly became an escape from both his life at home and his mixed feelings over his own sexuality. “Lifting weights was a pleasant escape,” Kroc told Muscle and Fitness magazine. “Dad was stringy and unathletic and by nature, I was too, but training changed all that, and every rep took me further away from [my dad and his habits].”
After high school, Kroc joined the United States Marines where his size and commitment made him the perfect recruit as he served from 1991 to 1995 and earned exceptional reviews that made him a shoe-in for the presidential security team under President Bill Clinton. Gaining immeasurable experience traveling the world with the Marines and the United Nations, it was during this time when Kroc discovered powerlifting and entered his first competition. As expected, his strength continued to pay off as he created his own dumbbell row exercise known as “Kroc Rows” that he debuted in a training video where he did 25 reps with 225-pound dumbbells. At the height of his career, he did the same exercise with 300-pound dumbbells for 13 reps.
Competing in the 2002 USA Powerlifting Nationals shortly after graduating from Ferris State University, Kroc lost the competition but his determination to win skyrocketed when he moved to London, Ohio where he trained with other prominent powerlifters like Jim Wendler, Dave Tate, Johnnie O. Jackson, Branch Warren and Mountain Dog John Meadows. Despite his personal life in complete disarray after his marriage to Patty Stoll in 1996, Kroc knew the gym wouldn’t let him down and buried himself in training and competing shortly before returning to school to become a pharmacist.
Before making his bodybuilding debut, Kroc was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2004 and first toyed with the idea of coming out as transgender. However, he put his feelings aside and competed in the 2006 Arnold Classic where he was named the WPO Powerlifting Middle Weight Champion. Once again burying his emotions with every rep, he reached the height of his career in 2009 when he set a new world record for male powerlifting after he bench-pressed 738 pounds, back-squatted 1,003 pounds, and deadlifted 810 pounds for a combined 2,551 pounds. Praised as his greatest career achievement, it earned him sponsorship deals with MuscleTech and EliteFTS before powerlifter Shawn Frankl beat his record the following year with a 2,715-pound lift.
With the record out of reach, Kroc shifted his focus to bodybuilding and qualified with the National Physique Committee shortly before winning his first competition at the 2010 NPC Michigan State Bodybuilding Championships in the heavyweight division. Despite most powerlifters failing to find success as bodybuilders, Kroc proved everyone wrong with his first competition before finally letting the world in on a big secret of his own.
A decade after coming out to her family—her mother, brothers, wife and sons—and a lifetime of identifying publicly as an “alpha male” and the “manliest of men,” Kroc came out in July 2015 as transgender and gender fluid. “It’s been this burden I’ve carried that’s been so heavy,” Kroc told Muscle and Fitness. “Having to hide a huge part of who you are—that’s a horrible thing for anyone to bear. I always describe it as feeling broken, like a freak or unlovable… I would drive to work with tears running down my face, then get to work like everything was OK. I did that for years.”
Now living as both male and female (male when he trains at the gym and female when she works as a pharmacist at a Walgreens in Canton, Michigan), Kroc continues to struggle with balancing the needs of both genders as they fight for control over her body. Although she mostly identifies as a female, she’s not keen on the idea of sexual reassignment surgery. In fact, after her first two rounds of hormones, Kroc lost so much muscle that she stopped the treatments altogether. Why? The former record-breaking strongman was terrified that she would no longer be able to protect herself.
Caught in between her passion for powerlifting and her dreams of womanhood, the 44-year-old Kroc has a few regrets. “It’s funny,” she said. “Whenever I see pictures of Matt, I always thought he looked so small. Whenever I see Janae, I think I look huge. I wish I had come to terms with this earlier in life. I’d look a lot better.”