JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Marble falls to the floor as the sound of hammer on chisel reverberates through an empty room, empty except for the artist, his tools and his masterpiece. He takes a step back to analyze his creation with critical eye. He's been working on this project for years. To the outside world, it appears flawless. To him, it's nowhere near ready. He's pressed for time. There is a showing in the next few days. This will have to do for now. He hopes it is good enough.
Such was the mindset of Airman 1st Class James Jones, a 673rd Communications Squadron cyber systems operator, as the days drew closer to his first ever bodybuilding contest: The 2015 National Physique Committee Alaska State Championships on April 4. He spent more than a year preparing, chiseling at his physique slowly but surely every day. Hundreds of hours in the gym, a diet that would drive many people insane and an entire lifestyle designed to push his body to its maximum potential, would be validated or destroyed by a panel of judges when all his hard work was unveiled under bright stage lights.
Cue the lights and the music. Jones went through mandatory pose after mandatory pose as his body was critiqued. A panel of judges examined his work and compared it to his competitors, looking for the slightest flaw. The result was not only a first place clear-cut victory in his middleweight class, but a landslide victory in the overall men's category, becoming the youngest person in the contest's history to win the title and only the second ever to win it in his first try.
In competitive bodybuilding, contestants' physiques are judged on size, shape, symmetry and definition. For many top-tier bodybuilders, their champion physiques are built through years, often decades, of work. Many are in their early to mid-30s. Standing 5 feet, 7 inches and weighing 165 pounds at 21 years old, Jones was just hoping for a high placing in his first-ever competition. He got that and then some.
"I hit all my mandatory poses and then we waited for the judges to tabulate their scores," Jones said. "My heart was pounding. Of course, it seems like they drag out the announcement forever. Then, I heard my name called, that was amazing! All the time and money I put into this ... it let me know everything I put into this was all worth it. It was one of the best feelings in the world."
With more than a year's worth of work culminating in a few brief moments on a stage, Jones was not without worry or retrospection. Did he do everything he could have to create the best possible version of himself?
"When I saw the other competitors, I realized many of them were a lot bigger than me," Jones said. "I was a little worried. I felt they could win on sheer size alone. However, the biggest guy can be big, but if he isn't lean it does him no good. You also have to be lean and symmetrical. I knew I had good proportion, and thankfully it resulted in a win."
Jones said when people view his contest photos, he is humbled by the praise. He is often asked, "How can I look like that?" However, few people are prepared for his answer. The hundreds of hours in the gym is the easy part. The hard part comes in the thousands of hours spent outside the gym.
Bodybuilders typically structure their year in two seasons: offseason and competition or "cutting" season. The offseason is spent bulking and competition season is spent trimming down. Just as in sculpting, it is better to start with too much material than not enough.
For Jones, a typical offseason day sees him rise at 2 a.m. to drink a protein shake, before going back to bed. He sleeps until 5 a.m. Breakfast follows as soon as he awakes. It's the first of six meals, not counting his shake, which he'll eat.
"Right now, I'm eating 350 grams of protein a day and 400 to 500 carbs," Jones said. "I eat every two to three hours. That's a very difficult thing to do. You spend time preparing all that food. You spend time eating all that food. You're carrying Tupperware containers of food everywhere you go."
Jones said another common question he gets is, "Hey, what supplements do you take?"
"I don't mind sharing that with people, but even if I tell you, supplements only represent a very small percentage of what you're going to need to do to be successful. You still have to eat the right food in the right amounts to make gains in the gym."
Jones said the hardest part of bodybuilding is the long-term rigid discipline the sport demands.
"The biggest challenge is consistency," Jones said. "You have to eat your meals every day. You can't skip a meal. If you skip one, it's going to show. Starting a year out, I knew I had to get every training session and every meal in. If I lost, I didn't want it to be because of something I could have prevented through discipline."
According to Jones' coach and trainer, George Hartley, Jones' ability to discipline himself sets him apart from many competitors.
"James is driven beyond his years and has an exemplary work ethic," Hartley said. "I believe his time in the service has helped him mature in ways other men his age don't have until their 30s in the civilian world. He understands bodybuilding is a lifestyle and becoming a great bodybuilder is something that takes years of training and discipline."
Jones shared that while he is self-motivated and possesses tremendous drive, he wouldn't be able to do it without two secret weapons in his bodybuilding arsenal: his personal faith and his family life.
"One of the main reasons I was able to accomplish my goals of competing was because of my faith in God and amazing support from my wife, Emily," Jones said. "She helped me cook my meals when I was physically drained and provided constant motivation throughout the final weeks, letting me know, 'It's almost over.'"
The discipline and attention to detail Jones exhibits in his personal life has a direct correlation with his workplace performance, where his leadership recognizes him as a leader among his peers.
"His level of professionalism is top notch and unsurpassed," said Master Sgt. Aaron Hazen, the 673rd CS network operations section chief. "He is one of those Airmen you can assign a task to and not have to worry or follow up. Airman Jones doesn't linger on what he can't do; he finds what he can do and runs with it. We've been able to assign him responsibilities normally reserved for noncommissioned officers. He will go far in his career and in bodybuilding if he stays the course."
Having conquered the top bodybuilding event in the state, Jones is hoping to use the momentum of his success to propel him to greater heights. He has his sights set on the 2016 Emerald Cup in Washington.
"The Alaska competition qualified me to go do this bigger show in Washington," Jones said. "If I place high enough, it will set me up to eventually earn a pro card. That would officially make me a professional and that's a big deal."
Currently, Jones is still considered a novice, having competed in a National Physique Committee event, which is considered to be the amateur league for the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness organization. The IFBB is recognized throughout the world as the premier bodybuilding organization, drawing an overwhelming majority of top-tier athletes. Winning at the Emerald Cup and a subsequent national-level competition would award Jones professional status with the IFBB.
"Once that happens, you start talking about being put in magazines, supplement and clothing line endorsements, not to mention being recognized as being in the top percentages of bodybuilders in the world," Jones said. "It would be a dream come true."
In addition to the gratification Jones receives seeing his hard work rewarded with a title, he also gets personal fulfillment from being able to positively influence people around him through bodybuilding.
"Bodybuilding opens a lot of doors," the state champion said. "I get to meet new people, make new friends and have an impact on their life. After I won this show, I had a promoter for one of the high school bodybuilding shows ask if I would come guest pose at their competition. For me, that is awesome to be able to reach out to high school kids and help motivate them to achieve their goals."