Rio Fer­di­nand


Men's Health (UK) - - Mh Promotion -

There is a tick­ing clock that hangs over the head of ev­ery ath­lete. What­ever their achieve­ments in the sport­ing arena, how­ever rig­or­ous their prepa­ra­tion, their bod­ies will even­tu­ally stiffen, weaken, and ul­ti­mately let them down. It is the grim in­evitabil­ity of sport: with the pass­ing of the sea­sons, even the bright­est stars must even­tu­ally flicker and fade into the end­less canopy of night.

Rio Fer­di­nand was one such sport­ing star. In a foot­balling ca­reer span­ning 19 years, he won 18 tro­phies, in­clud­ing six Premier League ti­tles and a cov­eted Cham­pi­ons League. He re­mains one of the most- capped English play­ers of all time, a foot­ball stylist wor­shipped by Manch­ester United fans and grudg­ingly re­spected by ri­val sup­port­ers. But in 2015 – aged 36, and a wan­ing el­der statesman of his sport – Fer­di­nand waved good­bye to the only life he’d ever known.

The phys­i­cal slump was im­me­di­ate. “For those first few months, I didn’t do any­thing. I just stopped,” he says, re­call­ing the af­ter­math of his re­tire­ment, with­out train­ing ses­sions to at­tend or coaches to im­press. “You look at my old team­mates and other for­mer play­ers, and few of them are in shape. They don’t en­ter­tain the gym. But you’ve got to un­der­stand most of them were in the gym for 25 years. Run­ning, ev­ery day. I hate run­ning, ac­tu­ally hate it. Any type of work­out that in­volves breath­ing heav­ily, I hate it. Be­cause that’s all I did for 25 years – run, run, run.” And so, in most cases, the paunch grows and the fit­ness goes.

Sat at the break­fast bar in the open-plan kitchen of his Kent home – the size and pol­ish of which be­fit a re­cently re­tired pro­fes­sional foot­baller who twice broke the Premier League trans­fer fee record – Fer­di­nand looks noth­ing like the soft-stom­ached for­mer col­leagues to whom he’s re­fer­ring. Dressed in black shorts over black gym tights, a grey T-shirt fail­ing com­i­cally to con­tain his up­per arms, he looks ev­ery bit as im­pos­ing as he did when he was mar­shalling the MU de­fence. Scrap that. He looks quan­tifi­ably more so.

“I had a bit of an awak­en­ing,” he says. “I ran for a train at Eus­ton, about 400 yards. I got on and I was sweat­ing like I’ve never known. I was in agony! Luck­ily it was a time of day when no one was on the train, be­cause if they’d have seen me, they’d have thought this guy’s never been an ath­lete, never done any ex­er­cise. I’d never felt like that; it was em­bar­rass­ing. The de­te­ri­o­ra­tion was so quick. That kicked me into get­ting back in shape.”

Fer­di­nand en­listed the help of pro­fes­sional rugby player-turned-pt Mel Deane, and be­gan a pro­gramme built around lift­ing weights. Very heavy weights. He filled the glass-walled gym at the far end of his swim­ming pool with a squat rack, bench, TRX, dumb­bells, ket­tle­bells, Swiss balls and medicine balls – enough equip­ment to ri­val a small health club. With Deane bark­ing in­struc­tions, Fer­di­nand would work out, as he still does, four times a week, of­ten more. He be­came de­voted to this new style of train­ing. But what be­gan as a purely phys­i­cal en­deav­our soon took on an un­ex­pected ther­a­peu­tic qual­ity – of­fer­ing brief mo­ments of so­lace dur­ing a pe­riod of in­tense, emo­tional pain.

In May 2015, when Fer­di­nand was pre­par­ing to re­tire and plan­ning the ven­tures with which he would oc­cupy his new­found free time, his wife Re­becca, the mother of his three young chil­dren, died very sud­denly. She had pre­vi­ously re­ceived treat­ment for – and seem­ingly over­come – breast can­cer. But the can­cer re­turned. Only 10 short weeks later, Re­becca passed away.

As a pro­fes­sional ath­lete play­ing at the high­est level, and with a lov­ing wife at home, Fer­di­nand had barely needed to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for his life out­side foot­ball. Sud­denly, he be­came re­spon­si­ble for the care of, not just him­self, but three kids un­der the age of 10. The grief was over­whelm­ing – a feel­ing of an­guish he dealt with by dis­tract­ing him­self with work, his chil­dren, and of course, with train­ing.

Just how sig­nif­i­cant a role did train­ing play as a cop­ing mech­a­nism? “Huge, yeah. Just huge,” he says em­phat­i­cally. “It en­abled me to free my mind. You’ve got to re­mem­ber, when I played foot­ball, when I’d step onto the pitch, there was noth­ing I thought about but foot­ball. It was a clear space, a lit­tle re­lease time. With­out the gym, I don’t know where I would’ve had that re­lease time – that time just to think about noth­ing, or to think about some­thing other than what was go­ing on in my life. The gym re­ally played a part in that, and that’s why I’ve clung onto it. For me it’s a place where your mind gets to take a break for a bit.”

In the be­gin­ning, the gym served as an es­cape valve, a tool for ex­or­cis­ing pent-up feel­ings of anger and tor­ment. But it soon be­came a form of phys­i­cally in­duced med­i­ta­tion. “I’m sim­ply hap­pier when I’m in the gym and work­ing out, and I think ev­ery­thing else flows bet­ter when I’m do­ing that,” he says. “It in­vig­o­rates me and calms me at the same time.”

Ear­lier this year, af­ter months of keep­ing his feel­ings locked up, Fer­di­nand filmed a doc­u­men­tary, Rio Fer­di­nand:

“The gym is the place where my mind gets to take a break for a while”

Be­ing Mum and Dad, in which he opened up about the acute emo­tional pain that he suf­fered fol­low­ing his wife’s death. In par­tic­u­lar, he re­veals his early in­abil­ity to dis­cuss it with any­one, be they friends, fam­ily or a ther­a­pist. The film is by turns hon­est, raw and dev­as­tat­ingly sad.

It’s im­por­tant, says Fer­di­nand, for men to drop the tough guy ex­te­rior, and be com­fort­able dis­cussing their emo­tional af­flic­tions as read­ily as they might their phys­i­cal ones. “There’s this machismo that comes out. Feel­ings and emo­tions are not seen as some­thing that’s ma­cho enough to talk about,” he says. “There’s a ta­boo there and that was a part of the doc­u­men­tary that we wanted to ex­plore and break down a bit. Men need to learn how to speak and to open them­selves up. It’s OK to feel vul­ner­a­ble at times.” He hopes that his doc­u­men­tary, as well as the work un­der­taken by the Heads To­gether cam­paign fronted by Princes Wil­liam and Harry, will help us to reach a tip­ping point where men feel free to ex­press them­selves with­out shame or fear of stigma.

Fer­di­nand is keen to point out that he isn’t claim­ing to be an ex­pert on the sub­ject of be­reave­ment. More­over, he says that two years on from Re­becca’s pass­ing, it is still very much some­thing he is learn­ing to process. But he knows that his ses­sions in the gym have been vi­tal in en­abling him to make it this far. “I think you’ve got to find some­thing in your life that can help you take your mind off the stresses that hold you back. Fit­ness has been that some­thing [for me].”

It is hard, as an out­sider, to see quite how much Fer­di­nand’s phys­i­cal reg­i­men has helped him to de­velop emo­tion­ally. What is ev­i­dent, how­ever, is the ef­fect it has had on his body. On set, as Deane puts Fer­di­nand through his paces, the veins on his un­recog­nis­able fore­arms prac­ti­cally pop out of his skin. When the pho­tog­ra­pher asks him to re­move his T-shirt, the full ex­tent of his body­builder chest and di­a­mond- cut torso is re­vealed. A clas­sic foot­baller’s physique – re­tired or oth­er­wise – his is not.

“I’m about 11kg heav­ier than when I re­tired,” he says. “My play­ing weight was about 85kg; I’m now 96kg.” That’s 11kg – roughly the weight of a French bulldog – in pure, lean mus­cle. As a cen­tre-back, Fer­di­nand ex­plains, he had to be strong to cope with some of the tougher strik­ers in Europe, but stay slim – slim­mer even than he’d have liked – in or­der to keep up with nim­bler op­po­nents. He’d al­ways planned on ad­ding bulk to his slen­der frame af­ter re­tire­ment, but ini­tially had no idea where to start. “Peo­ple as­sume that an elite ath­lete knows ex­actly how to fine-tune their body, any way they want.” He pauses, con­spir­a­to­ri­ally lean­ing for­ward on his stool. “Well, we don’t. Most of us haven’t got a clue. We just do what we’re told.”

Hav­ing brought Deane on board to repli­cate the player- coach re­la­tion­ship, he then de­cided to con­sult a nu­tri­tion­ist. It was when these two dis­ci­plines com­bined that he be­gan to achieve real re­sults. Fer­di­nand is now keen to pass on his knowl­edge to oth­ers. He’s cagey about the de­tails, but plans are well un­der­way, he says, to re­lease a paid-for pro­gramme, avail­able to any­one want­ing to fol­low in his fast-bulk­ing foot­steps. “I’d like to help oth­ers get to the place where I am. Where I think: ‘ This is great, this is my life­style now,’” he ex­plains. “It isn’t a chore. It isn’t about watch­ing a gram of pro­tein here or a gram of fat there. And you don’t have to have a ready-made gym in your house. I want it to be some­thing that’s re­ally smooth and fits into your life­style.”

When Fer­di­nand’s time as one of the great­est de­fend­ers of his gen­er­a­tion came to an end, train­ing for a dif­fer­ent kind of goal helped give him a new fo­cus at a stage when many oth­ers lose theirs. But per­haps more im­por­tantly, in do­ing so he dis­cov­ered a strat­egy to help him through the most dis­tress­ing pe­riod of his life. “Un­til you start work­ing out reg­u­larly, you don’t un­der­stand it,” he says. “You don’t un­der­stand that some­times that hour, or even that brief 20 min­utes you snatch as and when, can be the most chilled out hour or 20 min­utes of your day. So why would you miss out on that?”


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