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Chinese bodybuilders' coach makes the most of flex time

Jicheng Qian barely noticed the pungent mix of sweat and tanning oil.

His focus was on one man, dressed in skimpy purple trunks. As 20 bodybuilders rushed past, Qian yelled at No. 585 to keep his shoulders up.

Onstage, Caleb Sun adjusted the position of his abs and tightened his chest. Satisfied with the symmetry of his flexed body, Sun lifted his head and grinned.

"A ya! He's still sagging his shoulders," Qian said. "But, mmm, his form — not bad, not bad at all."

Coaching Chinese hopefuls in Columbus, Ohio, at one of the world's most-talked-about bodybuilding competitions, Qian gazed wistfully at the trophy he never had the chance to win.

As a 17-year-old, he watched "Rambo" and "The Terminator" on screen. At 23, Qian gave up his job in mechanical engineering to focus on making his 5-foot-6 body stronger. For much of the next two decades, he lived and trained in San Ya — China's popular beach destination.

Now 42 and retired from competition, Qian lives in Alhambra, his modest apartment serving as headquarters for the World Assn. of Chinese Bodybuilding. Its mission statement reflects his commitment: We are aiming to show the world a new image of the Chinese people.

"I want Chinese [bodybuilders] to realize their dreams," he said, sitting in his sparsely furnished office, decorated with a poster of himself and a world map that covers an entire wall. "I understand their passions, their goals. Why not help others get to where I've gotten — and beyond?"

A former coach for China's national team and the first of his countrymen to win an International Federation of Body Building and Fitness championship, Qian came to the United States in 2011 and began forging friendships and making connections.

His dream took a giant leap forward the day he met Dexter "The Blade" Jackson at Gold's Gym in Venice.

"He's an IFBB professional, 2008 Mr. Olympia, three-time Arnold Classic champion," Qian said excitedly, rattling off the bodybuilder's accomplishments from memory.

Jackson was on his way out of the gym when Qian, through a translator, launched an impromptu presentation in hopes of persuading Jackson to travel to China.

In truth, it was an easy sell, Jackson said: "We were trying to get more people involved in the sport, teach them how to work out, eat better, live a more healthy lifestyle."

Jackson lighted up a competition last December in San Ya, during which Qian recruited two Chinese bodybuilders to compete in Arnold Schwarzenegger's annual sports festival, site of a high-profile amateur competition that offers finalists the possibility of turning pro.

On a chilly March weekend, Qian — in his favorite red China tracksuit — joined Max Yu, 38, and Suqing Lin, 39, at the Sheraton Hotel in Columbus.

Anxious about his international debut, Lin had bought a mini rice-cooker for his pre-competition diet of rice and dozens of hard-boiled eggs.

The bodybuilders sat around listlessly in their room, occasionally weighing themselves and practicing poses in front of the mirror. Fatigued from intentional dehydration, they spoke only when necessary.

On weigh-in day, Yu happily ran around the warm-up room, taking photos with his iPad. Qian posed for pictures beside every poster bearing Schwarzenegger's face, wishing he could meet the real deal.

With them was Sun, 32, who had turned down a spot on China's national team and moved to the United States after marrying an American law student. This thrust him into a more competitive and established world of bodybuilding.

For three months leading up to the competition, Sun focused full time on chiseling away his body fat: two cardio sessions, three hours of lifting, six portioned meals and multiple recovery naps each day.

"I love that when we walk down the street, men don't look at me, they look at him," said his wife, Lori. "He works so hard for it, I'm glad people notice. In China, especially, people always ask me if they can touch him."

Before 2001, Sun had never stepped inside a gym. Considered something elders did to curb high cholesterol, pursuit of personal fitness was not common in China.

The gym, it turned out, was a small world that led to many friendships. Sun bumped into experienced athletes, including Qian, who readily gave him advice and inspired him to take control of his own body.

This was Sun's second appearance at the Arnold Sports Festival.

When it was his turn to pose, the veins in his muscles bulged — sparked by chocolate he had eaten after days of water and carbohydrate deprivation. He pushed his hands together and crunched forward to flex every muscle in his upper body.

After his moment in the spotlight, Sun listened respectfully as Qian told him to practice his shoulders before moving on to critique Lin: His upper body is too thin, but Lin had hands-down the best butt in his weight class.

"Just look," Qian said, making Lin flex his rear muscles. Yu and Sun examined the contours, nodding in agreement.

None of the three hopefuls made the finals. Lin placed just one spot short. Still, they celebrated the day over 22-ounce burgers and glasses of iced tea.

Qian barely ate. Instead, he talked of his hopes for the World Assn. of Chinese Bodybuilding — and of meeting Schwarzenegger.

"Dexter was a start, but the [Chinese] government sees him as just a celebrity. We need someone like Arnold to catch the government's attention," Qian said.

Officials, Qian reasoned, would jostle to eat dinner and take photos with Schwarzenegger; they'd want to invest in bodybuilding.

"He doesn't even need to speak," Qian said of the former bodybuilder turned action star and California governor. "He just needs to be there."

The next morning, Qian headed over to the Arnold Fitness Expo. Walking through the more than 700 booths, he said that one day he hoped to bring similar expositions to China.

"I only had four vendors at my competition in San Ya, but I'll slowly attract more each year —commercialize bodybuilding like this," he said, looking around the hall filled with pulsing music and neon-clad models selling protein powders and weightlifting devices.

Seeing IFBB President Rafael Santonja a few feet away, Qian jumped the red tape barrier and grabbed Santonja's arm — trying to get him to understand his meaning through eager facial expressions.

"I sent you a letter about the competition I hosted in San Ya. Did you receive it?" Qian said, bowing humbly. "I will continue to work hard to bring more bodybuilding to my country."

"Yes, I did," Santonja said reassuringly as he was ushered away by judges. "We will work together.... Things take time."

Outside the hall, Schwarzenegger had arrived to unveil an 800-pound bronze statue of himself.

Qian pushed his way through hundreds of fans, gunning for that one crucial second. Too short to be seen, he ran around to the side, reaching his arm out as far as possible.

Schwarzenegger reached out and grasped his hand.

Qian grinned for the camera, hoping it was the first of many photos he will take with his idol.

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