Brian Killigrew set a lofty goal as he sunk deeper into his hospital bed during 15 days in November and December of 2017.
Killigrew, a 62-year-old Mancos resident, said he felt depressed and anxious as he recovered from a quadruple bypass open-heart surgery at a Colorado Springs hospital. His sternum was in pain when he decided that in less than a year he would compete in Tokyo Joe’s Rocky Mountain Championship in Denver, a bodybuilding competition known as “The Rocky.”
“I thought to myself, ‘This is like nothing I’ve ever done before; I’ve never felt like this before; I don’t even know if I’m going to make it,’” Killigrew said. “And then I said, ‘When I get out of here, when I’m able to, I have to have a goal. I have to do something really hard.’”
Killigrew said it’s extremely rare for anyone to compete in a bodybuilding competition after open-heart surgery and much more rare for someone in their 60s to do so just one year after the procedure.
The news that his arteries were clogged came as a surprise to the New York City native, who has been lifting weights since he was 17 and bodybuilding for 40 years. He said he was using a treadmill one day and started breathing hard. He told his doctor and completed a stress test. A few days later, the doctor called Killigrew as he was driving to last year’s iteration of “The Rocky.” The doctor told Killigrew he needed surgery or he would die.
He attended the bodybuilding show and 10 days later was under the knife in Colorado Springs. Less than a year later, he’s dieting hard and practicing his poses for an hour every day in preparation for the bodybuilding competition on Saturday.
“Entering a bodybuilding show when I was young was something that was laughable, and now here I am, 62 with open-heart surgery, and part of me is still going, ‘Brian this is crazy why are you doing this?’” Killigrew said. “I’m doing it so the heart surgery doesn’t beat me.”
A slow recoveryHe said there are two aspects of recovery: mental and physical. Many open-heart surgery survivors have a healthy heart, but they’re scared to death to do anything – the mind controls the body, he said. Killigrew wants people to know that they can reclaim their lives after surgery.
“If you don’t recover emotionally from it, physically you don’t do anything,” Killigrew said. “You literally stop living.”
Recovery started slow for Killigrew. For two months, all he could do was walk and go to cardiac rehab. He couldn’t lift his arms or complete basic tasks like washing the dishes. All of the cups and plates in his home were taken down from the cupboards onto the counter, where he could reach them.
By the third month, he was able to get back into the gym. He said he will never forget the first 10-pound rep on the bench press.
“It was glorious,” Killigrew said. “I was like, I’m back.”
February through July, Killigrew said he was training hard and lifting heavy to prepare for the competition. Then it was time to start cutting. He said he’s been dieting for the past three months and is now down to 8 percent body fat. He misses pizza, but there’s a special kind of motivation involved in bodybuilding, he said.
“It seems very hard to diet but when you think of yourself almost naked in front of 1,500 people with your body hair all shaved off, believe me it’s intimidating as hell,” Killigrew said.
He’s had some help along the way. Killigrew works out at 24hr Power House, a gym in Cortez owned by personal trainer and wellness coach Heather Barritt.
“I’ve just seen him transform into a new butterfly from this surgery from even to where he was prior,” Barritt said.
One day in July, she saw Killigrew loading 45-pound plates on the leg press machine, for a total of 807 pounds. She counted one rep, then two. He stopped after eight. Barritt said Killigrew is the only member of her gym at that age who lifts that much weight, much less someone who had their sternum cut open eight months ago.
He has largely trained for the upcoming bodybuilding show on his own. She’s only provided some assistance in his daily posing routine.
“He’ll get in front of me in his trunks, and I’ll say his mandatories, ‘OK, front double bicep, hold it, quarter turn to the right, side chest, make him hold it, quarter turn to the right,’” Barritt said.
Inspired by strong menKilligrew was weak as a kid. He said he weighed 118 pounds as a freshman in high school. His interest in bodybuilding began as an attendant at a busy candy store in the Bronx. There was no time to read on the job, but he was able to flip through pictures in photography and bodybuilding magazines – two of his interests that continue today.
“So actually looking at these guys that have strong bodies, for me was really inspirational because I was a really skinny kid, you know, I was bullied in school,” Killigrew said.
He said he wanted to be like those strongmen, but he never thought he could. He then came across the teachings of legendary bodybuilding Mike Mentzer. Killigrew said he found Mentzer’s high-intensity training regimen helpful. He started growing strong really fast, and Mentzer, who died in 2001 at age 49 of cardiovascular disease, became his hero.
“Being weak in New York City is not a good thing,” Killigrew said. “It does not match at all. Being strong is a lot better. But being strong just for life is a lot better.”
Killigrew has never stopped lifting weights, and bodybuilding has been a hobby for decades. He said he’s entered in two bodybuilding competitions, including Mr. New York City in 1996 – he was 40 at the time – when he took home fourth place in the masters category for men over 40.
Competing takes discipline, Killigrew said, and requires months in the gym, aerobics and dieting. He said he’s cleaned up his diet since the surgery and blames his clogged arteries on his protein-rich, meat-filled diet.
“They were just clogged,” Killigrew said. “Probably cholesterol or plaque. Eating too much bacon, things like that. It was probably all diet-related.”
Now, days before the big show, he said he’s consuming a calorie deficit to cut out as much body fat as possible.
“For breakfast, I have 10 egg whites and three ounces of meat every morning, that’s my breakfast,” Killigrew said. “Two hours later you’re starving, but you have to do all of these parts of it to be able to get on stage.”
‘More human’Killigrew said the building where he used to live in the Bronx had more people than the entire town of Mancos. Life is different out west. He said it still boggles his mind when folks at the post office or bank know his name and say, “Hi Brian.”
The move to Mancos in 2012 began with a vacation to Durango with his fiancée. He said they took a two-hour horse ride that changed their lives.
“City life now is too intense for us. Everybody is very aggressive, and there’s not a sense of – people aren’t neighbors in New York,” Killigrew said.
He said there’s a sense of community here that generational residents take for granted. He said people take care of each other and know their neighbors.
“Life out here – I think I can say I feel more human since coming out west,” Killigrew said.
He said he has a simple message for heart surgery patients – to help them feel more human. The surgery may have saved your life, he said, but it’s up to you to reclaim your life. He said that means taking a 15-minute walk every day and doing a bit of exercise. He would also advise anyone over 40 to get a stress test.
“I am on every heart patient’s side, I’m their advocate,” Killigrew said. “But I also have to tell them you have to walk, and you have to start exercising because you’re hurting yourself by watching television.”