By ALLEN LAMAN
A Pike Central High School graduate is making waves at a record pace in the world of professional bodybuilding.
A little more than a week after Derek Lunsford, who grew up in the country between Petersburg and Otwell, notched second place in the 212-pound division at the Mr. Olympia contest in Las Vegas, the 25-year-old Tampa man spoke with The Herald and stoically looked ahead to his future.
James “Flex” Lewis of Wales won the weight class for the seventh consecutive year, but announced his retirement after the victory at what is often regarded as the top professional bodybuilding competition in the world, , vaulting Lunsford forward as the favorite to win next year’s contest.
“You can either take it one way or another,” Lunsford said of the expectations in front of him. “You can build confidence off of it, or you can let the pressure get to you. And I never, ever, ever feel pressure. I’m always very confident because I know that the work that I’m doing and the physique that I’m bringing is gonna be world class.”
Lunsford’s career began in May 2015 and has taken off at a breakneck speed. It marks the fastest a bodybuilder has won their pro debut and gone to the Mr. Olympia contest. He placed in the top five at his first go at Mr. Olympia in 2017 — another rare feat.
Lunsford stressed that his confidence is not rooted in egoism, but instead the fact that how he handles the next year could set the standard for being one of the best bodybuilders on earth. He is excited and abundantly thankful for finding his passion and receiving sincere support from those closest to him.
“I say this not to boast, but I say it graciously: I love my life,” Lunsford said. “I absolutely love my life. I love my career, I love my family, I love my friends. I love everything that I’m blessed with by God in my life. I think we should all feel that way, but I absolutely feel that way.”
Though he remembers them fondly, he has come a long way from his small-town roots. As a child, Lunsford loved basketball, but gave it up because he didn’t have a talent for the game, even though he worked hard to improve his skills.
He had wrestled in elementary school, and when he entered his freshman year at Pike Central, he took up the sport again. Lunsford remembered how he got his butt whooped that first year, but was passionate and driven to improve, and eventually qualified and placed at state and national levels. He also earned a scholarship to wrestle at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee.
He went from nothing to a collegiate wrestler in less than five years, and credits his coaches, wrestling partners and family with pushing him to reach his full potential. He wrestled at Cumberland in 2011 and 2012, but stopped wrestling after transferring to Vincennes University and then later to Indiana State University where he graduated with a degree in business administration.
“I felt like a quitter,” he said of his mindset after the transfer. “So, I needed something else to be driven for every day. And I always loved training in the gym. When I wasn’t wrestling back in high school and in college, I was in the gym training.”
It was then that he realized how much he loved to work out and sculpt his physique. He began training in 2014 and entered his first bodybuilding contest in 2015.
Lunsford works out in a gym five days a week and takes the weekend off to rest and recover. He sticks to four or five exercises and he perfects them.
“My main focus when I’m in the gym is to challenge the muscle,” he said. “I’m not worried so much about completion or how many reps or how much weight I’m using or whatever, I’m just challenging the muscle that I’m trying to stimulate and grow.”
He does cardio exercises every day. His diet fluctuates, but he consistently eats clean food.
Looking back, it’s mind-blowing to him how quickly he progressed from beginner to a frontrunner in a contest at the pinnacle of the sport.
“It’s not just a goal of mine anymore,” he said. “I expect to be the champion because of the standard that I set for myself every day. I raise my standard every day to be the best I can be, and for that I expect to be the champion by my actions.”
He has notched first place finishes in the welterweight class at a junior nationals competition; the National Physique Committee’s men’s open welterweight championship contest in Indianapolis; the NPC USA men’s light heavyweight championship; and the 212 pound weight class at the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness’ Tampa Pro competition.
He also placed fifth in the Mr. Olympia contest in 2017 — where he was named rookie of the year — before his runner-up at the 2018 event. He was named Mr. USA at the 2017 NPC USA championships.
Outside of winning, Lunsford takes pride in being a role model. He likes to see others succeed, too. Collecting titles and earning money isn’t all he wants — he strives to grow a community of people and build up the sport of bodybuilding as a whole.
“I love building people up, and when you’re adding value to others, your value increases,” he said. “The more I can build up the bodybuilding community, the more value I have and the more pride I take in myself versus just being selfish and taking from bodybuilding. I want to build bodybuilding.”
Lunsford’s family in the area includes his mother, Jovona Miller of Petersburg, father, Scott Lunsford of Washington, and grandmother, Carol Arvin, of Petersburg.
Lunsford can be found on Instagram here.
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By ALLEN LAMAN