Former Olympian Moji Oluwa had been chasing the dream of bodybuilding since he missed the bus to school one day and stayed home to watch the documentary Pumping Iron, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno.
At age 13, he left the palace where his royal family lived in Nigeria and followed a journey unlike most athletes on his way to becoming an Olympian. Now he was finally in Los Angeles, in the shadow of Muscle Beach and Gold’s Gym, the iconic meccas for bodybuilding featured in the movie, but he was struggling just to get by, working odd jobs for food and living on the streets.
But he had come this far—he left the work-free life of royalty, survived on his own as a teenager and surprised doctors by overcoming major injuries, and after reaching the peak of his career as a weightlifter at the 1996 Olympics, he still wanted to become a bodybuilder. He wasn’t about to quit now.
“People can lose hope in life because of the pain they’ve gone through,” Oluwa said. “I use my pain to move myself forward. Pain is part of life, but you can turn it into strength. Like in bodybuilding, you break down muscles to build them up stronger. I use the same metaphor for my life.”
A Scrawny Prince in Nigeria
Oluwa, now a resident of Eagle Rock, CA, was a skinny kid living the life of a prince in Lagos, Nigeria when he saw Pumping Iron.
“I just got excited, I had no idea the body could be transformed that way,” Oluwa said. “I wanted to use my body to inspire people to change their life.”
Although he was living in a palace, it was on an island separated from the mainland, and he didn’t have a gym. That’s when Oluwa’s commitment to this dream began to show: He memorized exercises from Pumping Iron, then went to a local mechanic and got a rusty bar and a couple of flywheels to make a barbell. On the way home he recalls a man asking what he was going to do with the makeshift barbell, and Oluwa responded, “Build muscle.”
“What are you going to do with that muscle?” the man said. Oluwa didn’t know, but he said he felt that following this dream would open another door to something else great.
As passionate as he was about the idea of bodybuilding, Oluwa kept his training a secret. He was royalty, after all, not expected to work. So he began hopping a boat to the mainland, where he was able to train at a sports complex. He stopped buying treats and instead read bodybuilding magazines to learn about the science and nutrition. He tried to hide scrapes and bruises he got working out.
His mother noticed he was eating more than normal, and soon she would find out Oluwa’s secret. After training with a local weightlifting team, Oluwa was invited to compete in the junior category of a sports festival for a few days. He told his parents he was going camping with the Boy Scouts, packed his bags and took off. Oluwa won a medal, one of the youngest weightlifters to do so, and was interviewed on TV.
When he returned home, Oluwa noticed the other people in town looking at him strangely. The interview was broadcasted nationally, and everyone—including his parents—learned the truth. Support was hard to come by, but the following morning his mother asked him, “Are you going to lift weights today?” It was the first time he felt supported on his journey, and he said his mother eventually gave him permission to leave the palace when he was 13.
“I wanted to become my own person,” he said. “I didn’t want to depend on what was there for me to follow. I made up my mind that some day, if I do this long enough, this is going to happen for me.”
Winning the Mental Battle
Although Oluwa’s dream was to become a bodybuilder, weightlifting was more popular in Nigeria. After leaving home Oluwa worked his way onto the state and national teams, but during a competition he dislocated his elbow completely out of the socket.
Because of the enormous amount of pressure weightlifters put on their bodies, doctors said Oluwa had a 50/50 chance of returning to the sport. He remembers going home after that and hearing family and friends tell him, “See, this wasn’t the path for you, you turned yourself into a cripple.”
That’s when Oluwa began to embrace the mental strength needed to complement his physical strength. He rehabbed for about eight months but injured the same elbow, this time with a muscle tear, and also suffered a leg injury along the way. Doctors told him he was done.
“You lost the physical battle, so now it’s time to win the mental battle,” he told himself. “What you’re telling yourself is more important than what someone else is telling you. They can’t put a number on your will and your drive. They can’t measure your passion.”
Oluwa defied the odds, rehabbing over the next two years to make the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada. He won two gold medals and a bronze. Next came the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, which Oluwa describes as the pinnacle of his career. He remembered seeing the 1984 Olympics on TV for the first time and the pride he felt to see Nigeria there. When he walked the track during the opening ceremony, he said everything in the stadium was silent, but the voice in his head was loud.
“You can't do this,” it said, laughing at him. But he knew it was wrong. Overjoyed, Oluwa took off his hat and through it into the crowd. “I’m home,” he thought. “I’m here now.”
Oluwa retired from weightlifting following the ‘96 Olympics, but he continued to train in Savannah, GA. His dream was still to become a bodybuilder, and in America he thought he could live his dreams without being judged like he was at home in Nigeria.
A coach he knew from the Olympics offered him a place to stay in Los Angeles for a while, but Oluwa had a hard time breaking into the bodybuilding world. He would walk door to door, offering to mow lawns in exchange for food, when finally he met a man who owned a construction business. It didn’t solve all of his problems—Oluwa was offered food and shelter in exchange for his work, but no money.
While on the job one day, a stranger asked if Oluwa was a bodybuilder. Oluwa told the truth—no, he wasn’t a bodybuilder, though he had been a weightlifter. The man’s friend was holding a bodybuilding competition the following weekend, and he told Oluwa, “Don’t think about it, just do it.”
He won the novice division at the competition, and that’s when he began to realize his dreams. Since then, he’s won many competitions and awards, and he also works as a personal trainer in California. Oluwa thinks back to seeing Pumping Iron and wanting to inspire others to be more fit. He thinks about the time he said more doors would open if he just kept building muscle, and he was right.
Now his story serves as an inspiration to other aspiring bodybuilders, athletes and people just looking to get more fit.
“I always tell them to work more on mental ability than physical ability,” Oluwa said. “Spend time imagining and creating the world you want to live in, then come back and work hard no matter what to get there. It makes me feel good that people can achieve their dreams regardless of what their past was.”
Everyday Inspirations is a series that features people in Patch communities who inspire others through their work, or people who have faced extraordinary situations and grown from them. They have been nominated by others in the community who have been inspired by their work.