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BUILT TO WIN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's been two hours since Kevin Levrone has eaten and he' hungry. Real hungry. His last meal was a mere 1,200 calories that wore off quickly during a drive through Glen Burnie.

And now the stomach of the 250-pound, world-class bodybuilder is growling.

From the telephone in his BMW he calls Sher Jantz, a waitress at Mo's Seafood Factory on Ritchie Highway. "It's Kevin. I think I'm going to get the filet mignon this time. I'll be there in 10 minutes."

He's at Mo's in five minutes. The meal -- his fourth of seven daily and his second of the day at Mo's -- is on its way, Ms. Jantz says. Soon, a 16-ounce, extra-lean steak, five stalks of broccoli and a large bowl of rice arrive.

He eats at least 7,500 calories daily -- mostly protein. Nothing seasoned. Nothing fatty.

"You don't want the wrong things to stick to you," he says. He pushes aside a basket of bread. "Can't have that."

At 28, Kevin Levrone is still growing. He wants to get bigger. He needs to get bigger. He has to get bigger.

The Severna Park resident is one of the world's top bodybuilders, a rising star in a sport where men's and women's bodies are judged by their muscle mass and symmetry.

Bodybuilding has been lucrative for Levrone. Since he turned pro two years ago, he has won more than $200,000 from contests. First-place wins earned him $105,000 in two contests in March.

He has also placed in the top five both times he's entered the Mr. Olympia contest, the sport's most prestigious competition. This year, he's a favorite in the September event in Atlanta. (Closer to home, he'll appear July 16 at a Glen Burnie bodybuilding contest named for him.)

"I've got to eat a lot of food because my meals are low in fat," Levrone says while at Mo's, the Glen Burnie restaurant where he dines at least 12 times a week.

"My body gets zapped for energy. Carbohydrates. So once I feel a meal wearing down, it's time to eat again. People are expecting a lot from me now."

As he eats, waiters and patrons pass by and gawk at his forearms and biceps, which protrude from his custom-made Polo shirt. The attention is not new to Levrone, and he politely smiles at the onlookers.

"It's attention that you get used to because people aren't used to seeing anybody who looks like I do," he says.

For Levrone, eating, working out and trying to be a "regular guy" is a full-time job. Problem is, few "regular guys" pack 250 pounds of muscle on a 5-foot-9 frame, which features a 56-inch chest tapered to a 32-inch waist and only 2.7 percent body fat.

And few regular guys spend $500 to $700 a week on food, much of it in a restaurants where the waiters and cooks know them by name and know how to fix each of their meals.

And not too many common Joes get paid to pump iron, travel the world and appear regularly on the covers of workout magazines and on television exercise shows, sans shirt.

But those are just some of the trappings that go along with being a world champ, Levrone says, whether it's in bodybuilding or anything else.

"That's my job," he says. "I get paid to stay in shape and be physically fit. Everything I've got I've busted my a-- for. What matters to me is if there is some kid out there who looks at me and thinks that I'm his super hero. If I can put a smile on his face and send him a positive message, that matters.

Although he's posed before thousands of people on stages throughout the world, been pictured on magazines and appeared on television shows wearing only the briefest of trunks, Levrone says he is relaxed only when in the gym.

Which explains why he's there for two hours twice a day, six days a week. That leaves little time to spend at home with his wife, Lolita, a saleswoman for Saks Fifth Avenue.

"I'm either training or thinking about training all of the time," Levrone says. "This is what I like to do. It's one of the hardest sports in the world to be successful. In bodybuilding you have to know your body and have it down to a science. When I train in the gym, it's my world and that's it."

Levrone began bodybuilding in the late 1980s and has pumped iron seriously for about 10 years. In 1990 he entered his first bodybuilding contest, the Mr. Colossus in Baltimore, and won. ,, That year he also won the Mr. Annapolis and Mr. Maryland contests. The next year he placed second at the Junior Nationals and later won the amateur National Championship.

He turned professional in 1992 and began a string of impressive contest showings in which he has never placed lower than fifth place in national or international competition.

He highlighted his career in March when he earned $90,000 by winning the televised Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic, and another $15,000 for winning the San Jose Championship.

"You have to always train, you have to always eat right and you have to eat properly," he says. "You have to discipline yourself everyday. You can't party on weekends. A successful bodybuilder is one who has really sacrificed a lot."

Tammy Levrone, Kevin's sister, sees the sacrifices her brother endures to be successful.

"He goes through a lot because he's the best," she says. "The surprise is not that he's successful. The only surprise is that he's successful in bodybuilding."

Jim Manion, president of the National Physique Committee, which sanctions most bodybuilding contests, and a judge in at least 35 bodybuilding contests a year, says about 20,000 bodybuilders competed nationally last year -- about twice as many as five years ago.

Levrone is successful, he says, because of his muscle mass and symmetry.

"He really stands out among other bodybuilders. You can tell he trains hard."

Levrone, who belongs to the International Bodybuilding Federation, trains at the Powerhouse Gym in Linthicum, a barbell and dumbbell sweatbox that has produced many state and regional bodybuilding champions.

Powerhouse Gym is not a juice bar and spandex "club" where members come to be seen.

"Everyone comes here to train hard," Levrone says. "You've got a lot of people who are very serious about lifting weights and training."

Levrone wears at least one layer of clothing during workout so not to draw attention to himself or make others in the gym feel uncomfortable. He trains with Scott Rayner, the current Mr. Maryland bodybuilding champ, for "high intensity" workouts.

Rayner, 25, pushes Levrone for the Mr. Olympia contest; Levrone pushes Rayner for this year's amateur National Championship.

"I want to be like him and I think I will," says Raynor, who is taller, has a barrel chest and tree-trunk legs, but does not have Levrone's muscle density. "He's already there, obviously. He feeds off of me. I feed off of him."

This is a "leg day" workout that begins with six 45-pound plates loaded on each side of a leg-press machine. Levrone and Raynor alternate doing sets, then add a plate until 13 plates are crammed on each side of the press for a total of 1,170 pounds.

"We just keep going until it [the press] can't take anymore, baby," Levrone says.

Despite the hard work that goes into bodybuilding, Levrone says the sport is scorned as being non-athletic. He says most people think bodybuilders are too muscle-bound to participate in sports other than bodybuilding. In fact, some body builders excel at other sports. Flex Wheeler, for example, is a top bodybuilder and a highly ranked kick boxer.

Bodybuilding suffers an image problem because of widespread reports of anabolic steroid use by competitors. Anabolic steroids are synthetic derivatives of the male hormone testosterone and their use promotes increases in muscle mass and strength. Steroid use has been linked to liver disease, testicular atrophy and other health problems. It is illegal to possess the drugs without a prescription.

Random testing is done, but some bodybuilders have reportedly gotten around it by using masking agents and by cutting back on steroid use before competitions. There are contests where drug checks are mandatory, and contestants who have illegal drugs in their system are disqualified.

Levrone has said he does not use steroids and does not want to discuss the issue because it maligns the sport. Manion says genetics plays a more important role in a bodybuilder's potential than muscle-building drugs. In other words, a bodybuilder must be born with the proper proportions and skeletal frame to handle the added muscle.

Levrone says bodybuilders strive to build muscle while lowering their body fat.

"It's a scientific thing to bring your body fat down to 2.7 percent and still perform and be healthy," he says. "In fact, they really shouldn't call it bodybuilding anymore. I always try to stress the fact that it's physical fitness. It's being physically fit."

Almost as important as fitness to Levrone is how he is viewed by society's youngsters and by his childhood buddies in the Meade Village community of Anne Arundel County.

To the children -- especially ill or handicapped children -- he's the boy who never participated in sports while growing up but began bodybuilding as a lark and became an overachiever.

To old pals at Meade Village, he's not just a head atop an inflated body seen regularly ESPN's muscle shows, but the once-puny, standoffish youngster who lived in a two-story corner rowhouse of the public housing development.

Between meals and workouts -- which consume a very large part of his day -- he often travels to the development to talk to boyhood friends. Near the Fort Meade military base, the neighborhood of low-income families has been plagued by drug trafficking in recent years.

Despite police cars that regularly cruise the area and a police substation in the community, drug dealing flourishes.

As his car slowly eases through the neighborhood, Levrone grimly looks at his old community. "I thought it would change, but it hasn't changed too much."

Young men linger on corners and watch passing traffic. Some cars -- like Levrone's shiny, black BMW -- are eyed suspiciously, especially when it's clear the occupants do not live in the community.

People recognize the face of the old Kevin Levrone, he says, but not always the body of the new Kevin Levrone. "I don't want anyone to get the wrong ideas. I look a little different, but that's all. Different body, same me."

Levrone graduated from Meade High School in 1983. He lived in the Marley and Meade Village communities of the county until 1987. The youngest of six children, he and his family lived in a rowhouse in Meade Village with a small patch of open space where the youngsters played.

His father died in 1975 and his mother in 1989, both of cancer.

"He was one of the big boys," says Corey "Pooh" Wallace, 23, who lived on the same block of the development. "I remember seeing him out back with a set of weights and making all that noise."

Although he has seen Levrone in muscle magazines, Wallace is amazed at how Levrone has grown.

"He was small then, but I saw him in a magazine and he sure has gotten big. But he's the same person he was then," Wallace said.

During a recent visit, Levrone talked with friends about childhood buddies who have fallen victim to drugs or are in jail. The names of the ones who are now successful are few.

"I came from an underprivileged area and made something of myself," Levrone says. "A lot of my friends are in jail. I hate to see that. These are people that were with me growing up. You can't imagine how that makes me feel."

As he cruises the neighborhood he sees many friends he hasn't seen in several years. Albert Herrod, 31, says he sees Levrone on television exercise shows and wants to have a day in his honor this summer at the neighborhood community center.

"The kids would like that. They all know who he is. He's a positive person. He came from this background," Herrod says. "It would give them something to shoot for, knowing that he came from here. They've got to have something to shoot for."

No one is surprised at Levrone's celebrity, Herrod says. He always "had the mentality" to succeed. "He was always going to school, going to work. He was always focused on something."

Most conversations with Levrone usually return to one of his favorite pastimes: eating. He likes to talk about eating as much as he likes having a meal.

"I eat anywhere from 6 to 7 pounds of fish a day, two to three filets mignon a day, 20 egg whites," he says. "But I have to eat like that. The muscle on my body, I have to feed it good food."

Levrone cringes when a visitor says that his lunch consisted of three tacos and a Sprite.

"I used to love Taco Bell. You can't get your body fat down going to Taco Bell," he says. "Now, I have no desire for a taco, pizza, hamburger or dessert."

How about a piece of Popeyes chicken?

"Nope."

Munchkins from Dunkin' Donuts?

"Of course not."

A lean burger from McDonald's?

"I didn't know they had them. I don't go there."

A Coke?

"Sometimes, maybe once in a blue moon, I might have one. But not often."

Instead, he prefers to eat a lot of rice or potatoes, and water. He also eats fruit, which turns to sugar once digested, he says.

Sher Jantz, the waitress at Mo's, says Levrone started coming in for meals about nine months ago. "What he eats is very healthy. It might be abnormal for you or me, though."

She serves him one of three entrees at each meal: beef, fish or poultry -- all broiled and with no seasoning.

"It's always plain. Sometimes, but not too often, he'll put a quarter-teaspoon of Grey Poupon [mustard] on his fish," she says.

Occasionally, he indulges in a snack while watching television.

"I'll eat a can of tuna fish. Open it up, drain it out, dig that dry tuna right out of the can, feel it going down sticking to my glands," he says.

"Know what I get out of that? Knowing that it's pure protein and knowing that after I eat it's going to break down and go toward every muscle cell there is in my body and start repairing it. That's a snack."

ROBERT HILSON JR. is a metropolitan reporter for The Sun.

Unscarred for life: Levrone's pec repair

In February 1993 -- about seven months before the Mr. Olympia competition -- Kevin Levrone tore a chest muscle while bench-pressing 550 pounds -- more than a quarter ton.

While lying on his back on a weight bench, he lowered the barbell to his chest, and as he pushed on the upward, he ripped a tendon in his pectoralis major. So severe was the rip, that muscle on the right side of his upper chest pulled away from the bone.

Levrone drove from the Powerhouse Gym in Linthicum to the emergency room at the University of Maryland Medical Center. His arm was placed in a sling and he was scheduled for surgery three days later.

A subsequent examination by Dr. Kevin D. Tetsworth, an orthopedic surgeon, revealed that the torn muscle had retracted about 4 inches into Levrone's chest. Under normal circumstances, Tetsworth would have made an incision on the front of Levrone's chest to reattach the tendon to the bone.

But that basic surgical technique would have left a scar on Levrone's chest -- a mark that would have hurt his bodybuilding career.

Tetsworth conferred with several colleagues -- including one in Chicago who told him to "just open it up, fix it and not worry about how it looks."

That method did not suit Levrone.

"His concern was that it would be botched up. Not having the same appearance and symmetry as before," Tetsworth said. "When you think about the amount of hours and dedication and training, and the fact that it's not just a recreational activity with him. It's a professional activity for him. It's a whole lifestyle.

"Having a big scar there would not have been a big detriment, but would have been enough to keep him out of the very top [in bodybuilding]."

During his four years at the hospital, Tetsworth had fixed ruptured tendons and performed numerous shoulder operations, but had never fixed a pectoral muscle tear like Levrone's.

Acceding to Levrone's concerns, he opted to make a 3-inch incision in the bodybuilder's armpit. He compared the delicacy of the surgery to "operating on Cindy Crawford's face."

"There's a scar there, but the position of the scar is in the normal folds of the skin," Tetsworth said. "So it's sort of the ideal location to put an incision because it's always at the base of its crease. It's a small incision. It's something that shoulder surgeons use when cosmetics are a concern."

Levrone's arm was immobilized for three months after the surgery. Gradually, he was allowed to stretch the muscle and to eventually pump iron again.

"His big concern was that he atrophied the chest muscles," Tetsworth said, adding: "He took years to build up that muscle mass and then it atrophied during that course of 12 weeks and he'd have to start over again and start building that muscle mass."

When he finally was able to fully exercise the chest muscle in late June, the Mr. Olympia contest was only 10 weeks away.

Levrone had placed second in the 1992 event, and many thought that with a year's training under his belt he could win in 1993.

He placed fifth.

"The amazing part is that I can walk on the stage and compete and there's no atrophy," Levrone said. "It looks symmetrical. When I came back from this I said there has to be a higher power. God has me doing this for a reason."

The Levrone Classic

The first Kevin Levrone Bodybuilding Classic will be held Saturday, July 16, at Glen Burnie High School, 7550 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd.

The prejudging portion of the contest begins at 11 a.m. and the main event at 7 p.m. Kevin Levrone will hold a seminar at 3 p.m. and answer questions about bodybuilding and nutrition.

Tickets are $10 for the prejudging show and $10 for the seminar. Tickets for the evening show are $15, $25 and $35. All proceeds go toward the Grant-A-Wish Foundation, which aids terminally ill children.

For more information, call (703) 534-1474.

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