Sitting on a plateau in Wyoming, immersed in a series of deeply emotional meditative thoughts, Jon Lee realized that he was dying. Not literally, of course. But he believed that he was killing himself, in a way. He felt as though something was missing from his life. Shaken by the recent death-by-sucide of a friend, he began to ask himself difficult questions.
“For me, it just felt hollow,” Lee explained. “I decided, ‘You know what? You need to put together what’s truly important to you and live your best life, because your friend did the same thing (as you’re doing now), and look where it led him.'”
At the time, the Washougal resident didn’t know that his epiphany would eventually lead him to a bodybuilding career. But he’s certainly glad that it did. His new passion has helped him find what he was desperately searching for on that fateful day three-and-a-half years ago.
“I’m absolutely, passionately in love with this journey,” Lee said. “I don’t have any clue where the destination is going to take me. It might be world champion, and it might not. I might fall in love with being a coach. You never know what’s going to happen with it. But being in love with the journey is the No. 1 thing that I currently am (focusing on). It’s almost like an epiphany. I’m overwhelmed with that. It’s a powerful thing.”
Lee, who participated in his first event earlier this year, recently competed at the 2022 International Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (INBF) Cecil Phillips Classic, held Saturday, July 30, in Eugene, Oregon.
The event is the only natural sanctioned professional qualifier in Oregon, according to its website, which also states that the INBF is “the most stringent of all natural federations.”
“That is the reason I chose that particular organization,” he said. “It’s the only one that I’ve found that (puts on) truly natural bodybuilding shows. … At the time of the show, you have to be 10 years clean of all substances on a banned substance list.”
Lee competes in the “physique” division, in which participants strive to attain a lean, athletic upper-body look, featuring symmetry and proportion rather than large amounts of mass.
“The judges are looking for how lean you are — your abs, your obliques, chest, shoulders. They’re really looking for that ‘X’ frame,” he said. “They’re not really judging the mass or the striations of legs – you don’t really need to train your legs at all, although I do substantially. And then of course, (they look at) your presentation.”
Lee grew up in Colorado and served in the United States Navy before settling down in Clark County with his wife Christina. Together they own and operate Luvitlife, an online shopping community affiliated with LuLaRoe, a designer and seller of women’s clothing that uses a multi-level marketing model to distribute its products.
It was actually a LuLaRoe leadership conference, in fact, that brought him to Wyoming and pivotal personal discovery in 2019.
“(My friend’s death) really, really hit me to the bone,” he said. “All of (the conference was about) dealing with your own emotions and digging deeper and all these things. For me, it went to a whole other level, because of what happened with my friend.”
At that point, Lee was a self-described weightlifting advocate, a “typical ‘bro’ guy in the gym pumping out curls in the mirror.”
But his friend’s death — and some wise words from his daughter, Candace — provided him with the motivation he needed to embrace a more focused approach to his lifestyle.
“In rebuttal to me trying to give her those, ‘Listen, if you put your mind to it, you can do anything’ (speeches), she said, ‘Whatever. You go to the gym every day and you’re not going to do anything with that.’ And I was like, ‘No, you know what? I’m going (to do something).’ What happened with my friend Doug is what set this whole thing in motion. And me being a Navy veteran with a militant nature fed right into that, to be able to just put my head down day after day after day and not deal with that grief. And it helped me get through it in a healthy way. But now it’s progressed into, ‘I want to show my kids first hand that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.'”
Lee initially decided that he was going to train to enter a Spartan competition, a series of obstacle races of varying distance and difficulty ranging from 3 miles to marathon distances.
“That hasn’t happened (yet),” he said with a laugh. “I shifted my focus when my wife and I (went) to Las Vegas last year. It just so happened that the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation was having their world championships in Vegas that weekend. I went and watched it, and it was really, really interesting. I didn’t know a lot about it, but I wanted to learn more. I was very, very impressed with the physique of the athletes, because the one thing that I knew going into was this was supposed to be an actually clean show.
“There were maybe 200 people in the audience, so it wasn’t a big, big deal, but it was an incredible environment. I saw athletes, friends and family helping competitive athletes that were having issues. But when I watched, the one thought that I walked away with was, ‘I could do that.'”
During the next several months, Lee taught himself how to be a bodybuilder, embracing a “from the ground up” approach.
“I probably should have, at some point, gotten an actual coach to help me progress through this, but I haven’t,” he said. “I have utilized YouTube and Instagram, and educational videos. I really dialed myself into a few specific creators who’ve got really great information and try to keep it simple.”
Christina had seen her husband struggle with his weight in the past, but knew right away that his latest effort was going to be “different.”
“He started to do research on how food affects him and the weight that he gains,” she said. “He started cleaning up his diet and working out at the gym every day. As the weight started to go, he told me he wanted to compete in a men’s physique competition. I have never doubted that he could do it. I did not have any idea about this type of competition, but Jon did all the research and talked to a lot of people and began watching a ton of videos. He started practicing, and his body was changing in front of our eyes.
“Our family is so proud of him and the sacrifices he has made to achieve this goal. It has taught our children that they need to set a goal and work hard at it, and they, too, can achieve it.”
Lee made his competitive debut in the INBF’s Natural Columbia Classic Pro-Am in Federal Way, Washington, on June 11. He placed second in the men’s physique debut category, fifth in the men’s physique novice category and third in the men’s physique master’s 40-plus category.
“Literally, I was so scared,” he said. “I thought I was going to get in there and just embarrass myself. I didn’t want to fall off the stage and I didn’t want to get last place. But I was a whole lot more ready than I thought I was. I didn’t fall off the stage, I didn’t get last, and I learned a ton. And the critiques that I got back from the judges were pretty incredible. They said that I had amazing stage presence.”
Lee’s training regimen is rigorous. He begins every day early with a two-hour workout session at 24-Hour Fitness Vancouver, then focuses on his nutritional intake for the rest of the day, typically consuming a chicken breast and brown rice when he gets home from the gym, French toast about three hours later, and a light salad with chicken and ranch dressing in the late afternoon.
He also runs on a treadmill to keep his heart rate up and is in bed by 8:30 p.m., in his view “the most important piece” of the recovery process.
“My family is such a high priority, and we run a business where my schedule is kind of all over the place, so I can piecemeal things in,” he said. “A big portion of my day, seven days a week, is going through the grind at the gym in the morning, and then spending the rest of the day going through the specific process of recovery for the next day, because that’s just as important.”
Lee, 45, said he now hopes to win the INBF world championship in the masters bodybuilding category when he turns 50.
“I guess I just kind of have a can-do attitude,” he said. “I’m the type of guy that says the old saying, ‘Shoot for the moon and you hit the stars.’ Let’s say that (winning the world title) never happens. I’m still living an incredible, healthy, awesome lifestyle.”
He believes that he is in a good place right now and is optimistic for his future.
“What I now have is the complete enjoyment of knowing that I’ve tapped into a source that is slowly but surely filling that void,” Lee said.
“Is the void filled? No, absolutely not. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied. That’s life. We’re inevitably in the pursuit of something. I was failing at that before, and I think that my friend, Doug, probably was too. Who knows what led to that dark moment?” Lee continued. “I do know for sure that where there’s yin, there’s yang, and I’m heading towards a much better place because of it.”