Greg Rando - 2002 Guest Poser

Greg Rando Time’s up, and Greg Rando is about to begin his next set of squats. With six plates resting on a barbell, Greg lumbers over to the rack, positioning his body so that the bar rests comfortably but securely across his muscled shoulders. As sweat begins to bead on his forehead, he unracks the bar and steps back, planting his feet firmly in a position that gives him maximum drive. Without even giving it a thought with the experience that only comes from years of hardcore training, Greg slowly descends into a deep knee bend, head up, gazing into the mirror in front of him. In its reflection is a powerful, deeply chiseled bodybuilder grinding out rep after rep. But Greg doesn’t see that image today, and may not ever again, because a degenerative eye disorder has left him almost completely blind.

In the fiercely competitive sport of bodybuilding, Greg Rando has achieved unique status by overcoming a major handicap: blindness. His victories in national bodybuilding shows are a source of inspiration to the handicapped and to everyone else. In a sport known for its athletes chiseling of fully developed bodies, Greg cannot see how he looks. As Yale eye specialist Dr. Dante Piramici put it, “It’s fascinating to me that he should have this condition and make no compromise, since bodybuilding is sculpting the human body.” Yet Greg has chosen to pursue competitive bodybuilding, a longtime passion that has taken him to a threshold few natural bodybuilders, disabled or otherwise, can attain. In his inspiring story of how he manages to succeed in his training - not to mention running a successful gym, Boston Nutrition and Strength Center in Massachusetts, seems more like the stuff of a made-for-television movie.

In his youth, when Greg had fairly good vision, he played football, baseball and hockey, even envisioning himself as a professional athlete. By the time he reached high school, however, his life started to turn gray.

Greg Rando “It really began to sink in when I was a sophomore and it was getting difficult to walk the halls without bumping into people,” he says. “My doctor told me I wasn’t able to play contact sports anymore, and it became difficult meeting people because I wasn’t able to make eye contact.

It quickly became a source of frustration.” Greg and his older brother Chris have a pair of hereditary ocular afflictions, retintis pigmentosa is a gradual destruction of some of the light-sensitive cells and working its way to the periphery. The retina lines the inside of the eye and sends visual images to the brain; the macula is a small spot on the retina responsible for processing the details in the central part of the image. “Degeneration of the macula, combined with retinitis pigmentosa, simply means that I’m really able to see out of only the extreme sides of my eyes. In the center things are very blurry. We mainly just see by contrast of objects against each other. If things blend in, it’s really difficult to see, even if I know something is there.”

Greg’s father, Ron, recalled a doctors explanation of what this blindness was like for his sons: The doctor said, “Take a pair of eyeglasses and use Scotch tape to attach a quarter to the middle of the lenses. Smear the outer parts of the lenses with Vaseline. That’s all they see.”

By age 20, Greg’s sight in the center of his eyes was no more than an opaque gray cloud, with only vestigial shadow vision on 30 percent of the outer periphery. Nevertheless, he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where he attained a bachelor’s degree cum laude in health education in 1997 - an achievement he and his family consider his greatest.

Professor Bob Neal, who has taught health education at Lowell for 22 years, said, “He was one of our most outstanding students, always well prepared and with his presentations well put together.” Greg added, “The courses provided a foundation for a career in health and fitness, and I remember their outlines and much of what I learned in them.”

Though he’d given up on team sports, Greg found he could still excel in wrestling at the collegiate level. Yet his budding interest in weight training turned wrestling into an impossible endeavor. “I couldn’t put on size and wrestle at the same time because wrestling workouts ran for more than two hours a day. So my sophomore year I gave up wrestling and just starting weight training exclusively. I knew from the start it was something I could do without vision and on my own, which were the most important considerations.”

Greg Rando “I knew how I wanted to feel and look. I wanted to be strong, muscular, and have a very strong self-image. In just the little bit of time that I’d been weight training, I knew this activity could deliver those things for me. So I began training more frequently, feeling great. Despite having so little guidance, after three years people began telling me that I had pretty good genetics and that I should consider competing. A friend helped me get into it. From then on, I was encouraged and wanted to make further improvements. What I knew from being in competitive sports as a kid was that I had a vision. In fact, I still have that vision in my mind of where I want to be. I feel if I work hard as I need to, improve and learn along the way, and just stay focused and determined, I can reach the level I want to see as a bodybuilder.”

For competitive bodybuilders, complex movements like the squat, deadlift and overhead press form the backbone of their routines. They require a high degree of coordination, balance, control, and practice, but the overall muscle-building benefits are vastly greater. You might expect someone like Greg to stick to safer movements, perhaps those done on machines, to lessen the risk of injury. Think again.

“I rarely use machines,” Greg says somewhat defiantly. “My longtime workout partners are John O’Rourke, who is also my coach, my business partner Miles Beccia and my brother Chris, and we do things the old-fashioned way: with free weights.

Greg admits some movements were difficult to learn to do right. “Squats, deadlifts, standing push presses - those compound movements are very difficult lifts for anybody because they require total body control. What I do is ground myself, meaning that I get a good base, and maintain a slow, controlled movement throughout the whole range of motion, I keep my feet planted on the floor and I don’t vary from that. So with good technique, I’m able to get into my squat, for example, and extend out of it nicely. For the record, Greg cites his best lifts as 405 pounds in the bench press, 515 in the squat and 515 in the deadlift.

In 1992, Greg entered his first bodybuilding competition, the ANBC US Natural Massachusetts Bodybuilding Championships. His training partner at the time Craig Torres, described what happened at the finals: “When they announced No. 3 it was Greg. The place went wild. The cheering was just overwhelming. Everyone stood up. And the applause and cheers went on and on. You couldn’t hear who had come in second and first because the cheering was still so loud for Greg.”

Standing ovations have become routine whenever Greg appears. “I’m aware of the fact that they’re cheering for me because I’m an impaired athlete, “ he says. “I’m overcoming something that these people obviously feel is significant. What’s most pleasing is that they used to cheer for me pretty much only because I’ve overcome a disability, but I know that in the past few years, these same people are now cheering me because of my athletic ability and my physique, and because I’m a top competitor.”

Greg Rando Though he’s reluctant to acknowledge it, Greg unquestionably inspires others, and not just bodybuilders. “Naturally, it feels good to hear that; it makes me feel great that people can be motivated or inspired by me. But I truly believe that I’m just like the next guy; I just have a visual impairment that’s a type of adversity to overcome. When it comes to weight training you don’t need eyes. I think that others face adversities of a different nature that can be equally challenging.”

Every bodybuilder knows that some degree of proficiency in the kitchen is a must if you are going to stick to a clean diet. Though he prides himself on his culinary self-sufficiency, Greg concedes that he’s no Martha Stewart. Well, maybe not even Sara Lee.

“For breakfast, I’ll crack open eggs and drop the egg though my fingers and catch the yolk and throw it out. Needless to say, people don’t really like me cooking their eggs!” he laughs. “When I prepare chicken, I’ll wash it and rip off the fat. I boil a big pot of water and just throw it in. When I think it’s done, I take a piece out with a fork, cut it open and feel it to make sure it’s cooked, then put a piece in my mouth to be sure. A lot of it’s by feel, and I get burned frequently because I use my hands to feel the pot and the water. I keep things pretty simple. I’ll cook food in bulk for a few days. I cook plain, I eat plain. No, I’m really not a good cook, but I’m good for me.”

Greg also shares his house with another top bodybuilder, Jose Raymond, and perhaps the most striking aspect of the all-male household is its cleanliness. “My room’s always like clean. That’s one room in the house I have control of. I can’t be throwing things just anywhere, or it’ll take me 10 times as long to find what I’m looking for. I can actually choose my clothes by feeling the fabric, for one. I really can’t tell navy blue from black, but if I know the texture of a garment, I can tell which is which. What sometimes gets aggravating is if something’s dirty, I won’t know until someone tells me.”

Greg Rando Assuming he has a clean shirt on, how does Greg meet new people? “Meeting new people, carrying on a successful business, trying to be a professional bodybuilder - it’s all very difficult when I’m across the desk from somebody or I’m going into a restaurant and trying to talk to someone who I’ve never met before. I’ll try to look them right in the eyes, and they often don’t know what I’m looking at. I hate to have to qualify every conversation. I don’t want people to look at me that way.” But it is his evident sincerity that wins people over. As his mother, Elaine, said, “Once Greg makes friends, they are friends for life.”

By Greg winning the 2001 NPC Mr. Universe title his popularity has grown. And you better believe that’s one image Greg has perfect vision. “I would like to make a career as a guest poser and inspirational speaker.”

Bodybuilder Greg Rando, guest poser at the 2002 New Haven event, can’t see his own creation, but others certainly can!

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