Archdeacon: Bodybuilder, ‘always a beast,’ soon could become Mr. America

KETTERING – The dream he had as a young, self-conscious, avoid-the-whispers teenager entering Fairmont High 13 years ago is about to become gleaming-muscle, body-sculpted, wildly-applauded reality on an Atlantic City stage 13 days from now.

By the time Drew Plumlee was a high school freshman, his embrace of sports was growing as his vision was decreasing.

When he was eight years old, he was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a genetic, retinal disorder that causes a loss of visual acuity and eventually presents some significant challenges, from needing magnification to read to being unable to drive a car.

It has no cure.

Plumlee didn’t want his diminished sight to be the first thing people thought of when they heard his name and he sought to change the narrative in the Fairmont weight room and on the wrestling mat.

“It was almost like I was trying to fill the void and just blend in,” Plumlee said the other day. “It was the kind of thing where I was trying to draw attention away from my vision and more toward my physique.

“In high school I didn’t want to be known as the kid who was blind.

“I wanted to be known as the kid who was jacked!”

Fairmont wrestling coach Frank Baxter knows both sides of him:

“Whatever he lacked in vision he made up for with his strength and power. He as an explosive guy. He was always a beast.”

That translated onto the wrestling mat, especially his senior season when he was a team captain and made it to the district tournament.

“A district qualifier for us…when he was legally blind!” Baxter gushed. “Oh my god, I could talk about Drew Plumee for an hour. I can’t say enough good things about him.

“His story is one we tell our kids year after year. He shows them it can be done, no matter what your circumstances are. If you come in every day and work hard and don’t use excuses, good things are going to happen.

“That’s why it doesn’t surprise me now that he’s doing so well in body building.”

On Oct. 8, Plumlee will compete in the Mr. America competition at the Tropicana Casino and Resort on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

He’s competed in four regional body building championships before this – in Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Youngstown and Columbus – and won the overall title in three of them and won his weight class while finishing second overall in the other.

An all-natural body builder – which means he uses no performance enhancing drugs – Plumlee competes with less than 4 percent body fat and 100 percent backing from almost everyone who comes in contact with him.

Baxter sings his praises and so does local legend Larry Pacifico, the nine-time IPF world powerlifting champion and three time World’s Strongest Man who now works as personal trainer alongside Plumlee at Absolute Fitness on Wilmington Pike.

Mike Moorman, the owner of Absolute Fitness, hired Plumlee this summer and had nothing but good things to say about him on Friday:

“I’ve been training for 26 years and have had my own business for 24 and, of all the trainers I’ve had, he is one of the most attentive with his clients. Maybe it’s partly because he really has to focus with the limits on his vision, but he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.

“Unless you knew beforehand that he had a vison problem and you were specifically looking for it, there’s no way you’d know by what he does with the people he’s helping. And when you do know what he’s overcoming and how he perseveres, it’s even more amazing.”

That’s even the case with the man who’s been around him the longest and knows him the best – his dad, Joe Plumlee.

Before Drew returned to the Dayton area this past July, he worked two years at a fitness center in Newport, Kentucky. Joe and his wife Angie, who live in Kettering, would go down to see him and were able to go to some of his body building competitions.

“When we visited him, he was in street clothes so we didn’t know exactly how he looked,” Joe said. “We already were proud of him, but once he was on stage, it was an incredible surprise.

“When he gets up there in competition it always blows me away!”

‘Learn to adapt’

“He started having visual problems when he was like five,” Angie said.

He had an astigmatism and needed glasses, though that condition – and the eyewear – eventually went away.

While the Stargardt diagnosis was something their only child would not outgrow, Angie and Joe were determined not to let it define him.

“I remember when he was diagnosed, they pretty much said, ‘Don’t treat him any differently,’ so we didn’t,” Angie said.

Today, their 27-year-old son salutes them for it.

“My parents definitely pushed me into a lot of different situations,” he said. “They made me do a lot of different sports and they helped me develop a mindset of not making excuses for myself. In uncomfortable situations, I just had to learn to adapt.”

He said the other big influence in his formative years was Baxter:

“Outside of my parents, he’s one of the biggest influences as to who I am as a person today. He had the same mindset as them. He wasn’t going to treat me differently because of my disability.”

That took him to a personal crossroads and the decision that one day would lead to the legendary competition awaiting him in Atlantic City.

“It took me a while, but I figured you have two options,” Plumlee said. “You can either ignore certain aspects of yourself and pretend they don’t exist – and then you never have the opportunity to grow – or you can accept them and say this is who I am and what I’m able to do. And then you use that as a tool to grow.

“I came to realize that even though my vision is a weak spot in my life, it’s become one of my strongest abilities. It’s taught me to adapt to anything that’s thrown at me.” Thanks to Baxter, the first lessons came early in Plumlee’s wrestling days at Fairmont.

It was a JV match against a rival school and because the wrestlers weren’t being made to do the mandatory touch starts after a break, his opponent took advantage of Drew’s slower reaction time because of his diminished vision and repeatedly shot from the open gap.

“He didn’t want to be treated differently, but finally I just sat Drew down and said, ‘This is not who you are. You’re starting with a different deck of cards right now,’” Baxter said. “‘Let’s put you on a level playing field and then see. If the kid beats you, then he beats you.’”

Beginning each restart of a match with a hand touch is legal, though Plumlee said he initially resisted the change:

“I just wanted to blend in and not be different. Doing that was uncomfortable for me. But eventually I agreed and, in the end, it helped my wrestling so much.”

After high school, he went to Wright State, but the school has no wrestling team and soon he realized he missed the sport.

He met another student who felt the same way and was transferring to Findlay to wrestle after his freshman year at WSU. He and Plumlee began to train together and often, thanks to a friendship with Beavercreek High wrestling coach Gary Wise, they worked out in the Beavers’ wrestling room.

Plumlee transferred to Ohio University and through a mutual acquaintance, he got to know Nate Carr, the bronze medal winning wrestler from the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games who now coaches at Iowa State.

Carr put in a word for him to the Bobcats’ wrestling coach, Joel Greenlee, and after a tryout, Plumlee made the OU team as a walk-on.

Eventually he transitioned to weight training and began to assist several of the OU teams, including football. After he graduated in 2018, he returned and got his master’s degree.

Back in the Dayton area he worked at a couple of fitness gyms, interned in the Fairmont High weight room and then was hired to help coach Alter High’s fledgling wrestling team.

“He just passionate about helping kids and other people train and get better,” Baxter said. “He’s just a decent guy all the way around.”

At Absolute Fitness, his range of clients goes from a woman in her 70s to young guys in their 20s. They are people who want to lose weight, stay active or just maintain a heathy lifestyle.

“The difference between me now and in high school is that I’m a lot more open about my situation,” Plumlee said.

No one knows that more than Jordyn Weaver, a Miami Valley Hospital South orthopedic assistant from Springfield who got her undergrad degree at Bowling Green.

She and Drew met four years ago through an online dating service.

“Before we met in person, he told me he had eye condition,” she said. “When we were trying to find a place to meet he said I might have to come pick him up because he can’t drive with his vision situation.

“I never asked questions about it because it didn’t matter to me that he had a disability. It was no big deal. I mean, we all have something.

“Back in the day I used to be a very anxious person and most people, when they hear that, they don’t want to deal with it. But Drew is somebody who has worked with me on that.

“I appreciate his drive, the way he doesn’t let things hold him back. I’ve learned from that and I’m a much better person for having him in my life. He brings out the best in a person.”

‘He did share his cheesecake’

Plumlee feels comfortable enough these days that he now introduces himself on his Instagram page as “The Blind Bodybuilder.”

But preparing for a big competition like Mr. America requires more than a catchy tag line.

It’s about science and sacrifice and no-nonsense self-discipline.

Usually Plumlee needs to drop about 30 pounds to compete at 175 pounds and for that he has a diet coach – champion body builder and trainer John Harris from Cleves – who has him on a strict, six-meal-a-day regimen where everything is weighed and monitored.

“Although he gives me some choices, I eat the same six meals every day,” Plumlee said with a smile and a shrug.

The first meal is typically egg whites, oatmeal and a little turkey sausage. Meal two is chicken, rice and an avocado. The third meal is a protein shake and some rice cakes. The other three are mostly variations of that.

Early in in his 14 to 16 weeks of training for a competition, he gets a “cheat meal” – something like a burger and fries – once a week. Eventually, that turns into a “clean cheat meal.”

For that he said he might go to Texas Roadhouse for a steak and potatoes or Chipotle.

But this close to competition, there are no more cheat meals, though they sometimes do add carbs in the final days to “fill out the muscles.”

For the Mr. America contest, he’s also added a trainer, Colorado-based Brian Minor, who is a competitive natural body builder himself and trains athletes worldwide. He mentors Plumlee with weekly online sessions.

Asked how he feels when he goes down to 175 pounds, Plumlee didn’t mince words:

“I feel like crap. Your cognitive function goes down. Your hormones crash and I don’t sleep that good because I’m starving. So I feel tired.”

So what’s the payoff?

“I mean there’s prize money, but it’s more about self-gratitude and being competitive and getting to show the results of all your hard work,” he said. “Truthfully, body building has become my passion.”

He said he entered the Mr. America competition because “I want to see how I stack up against the very best.”

Jordyn and a couple of their friends will go to Atlantic City with him and afterward there is another payoff.

“After I compete I can eat what I want,” Plumlee laughed. “But I’ve learned to be a little careful. Your hormones are out of whack.

“The hormone that makes you feel full is very suppressed and the one that makes you feel hungry is through the roof, so you just keep eating and your body doesn’t tell you to stop. After my first show I made myself sick.”

He’s learned moderation and it showed after his victory in Columbus when he went with his parents and Jordyn to the Cheesecake Factory.

“He did share his cheesecake,” Jordyn chuckled.

This time after the competition she may be going to dinner with Mr. America.

Has she thought of that?

Actually, she said, she knew she was with someone special soon after they met online.

“Look, I went through quite a few (online) duds before I stumbled upon him,” she laughed. “I know I hit the lottery with Drew. I’m very lucky.”

And, she said, no matter what happens in Atlantic City:

“To me, he’s already Mr. America.”

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