Johnny Wazicsko - Betancourt Athlete Takeover
One of the biggest lessons you learn in pursuit of your dreams is that you're often in a marathon, not a sprint. That's the biggest takeaway for Pro Strongman Johnny Wazicsko. Sitting with Johnny on a cold March morning at his gym in New Jersey, we picked his brain on his upbringing, his obstacles, and how he got into professional strongman competitions.
Growing up in Carteret, New Jersey to Ukrainian immigrant parents, Johnny and his older brother spent a lot of time fending for each other while their parents made ends meet.
"Both my parents worked a lot, so we were latchkey kids, my brother was 3 years older so he kinda took care of me," he reminisces, "we would get home to nobody there. We had three rules - don't answer the door, don't answer the phone, don't turn on the oven. We managed to survive."
Active right out the gate, he participated in all kinds of sports, especially taking a liking to anything where he could be a daredevil. "You'd almost always find me either on my skateboard, my bike, or roof-hopping." Like many other kids growing up in Jersey, he participated in all kinds of sports including football, baseball, and track. Friends and family considered him a very disciplined and determined kid, qualities he will carry with him to success as an adult.
TELL ME I CAN'T
"There were always one or two people who would tell me I couldn't do things, and that was always the best thing to say to me," he laughs. "When I was about 13, I figured out also that working for money got me things I needed and paid for my sports, so I would wash dishes and deliver papers to make myself some cash".
Johnny's calling really came though when he visited his first Gold's Gym. Noticing everyone looking large and strong inspired him to want to be a part of the dynamic and atmosphere. "I remember walking into the gym and it was so surreal. Everyone seemed like giants. It was the eighties so there was a lot of spandex and chrome. I just loved it." He looks back fondly at the memory.
"I remember the guy in the front asking me what I wanted, and I said I wanted muscles! He said to go get my dad and I knew it was a no-go. I was so disappointed." The experience, however, was approached in classic Johnny fashion and inspired him to approach fitness solo. His next birthday, he asked for a weight set, which he set up in his basement and used every day for the next few years. "I went to the mall and bought every supplement that said Big Arms or Big Chest and swallowed as much as I could."
Insecurity about going to the gym led Johnny to pursue the endeavor independently in his basement. Luckily this gave him a strong start once he finally scored himself a Gold's Gym membership. "All those years in the basement feeling insecure about looking like a fool actually gave me a strong base when I went in. This opened the doors for me to participate in bodybuilding, then powerlifting, then finally Strongman."
STRONGMAN IS MY LIFE
"Now, Strongman is my life," he says passionately. His biggest influences in Strong Man were discovered watching the classic Strongman Competitions on ESPN. He felt confident that with enough training, he'd be able to hold his own in the sport. "Everyone I told that I was going to do that laughed at me and said I was out of my mind." A poster outside the gym gave him his first shot.
"I went in still very wet behind the ears, not knowing entirely what I was doing," he laughs at his first experience. The sport, as it turns out, puts a big emphasis on comradery and support even among competitors. "Within a year of starting, I was winning heavyweight shows thanks to my teammates and competitors."
MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
As it is in any success story, there of course was errors and transgressions. During his earlier years, he learned that preparation is not a sprint but a marathon instead. Trying to go stronger, heavier, faster all too quick can have its advantages but is also a higher risk of injury. "Anytime I would injure myself, it would feel like I took one step forward then 3 steps back, it really hurts you at the sport." The hard lesson he learned was pacing and moderation, allowing a longer tenure at the sport by pacing himself. Listening to more experienced athletes and coaches paid off in reducing injuries and being able to continue participating in the sport.
The lessons did not come without a price. After 20 years in Strong Man, Johnny has faced injury to most of his appendages. Comparing himself to the great Jackie Chan, he goes down the list of injuries he has experienced.
"I have torn and broke every part of my body. I met Jackie Chan at a taping on Good Morning America and we exchanged scars and broken bones. I'm very lucky though that most of my injuries were tears and pulls." From Kevlar netting in his arm to cadaver hamstrings, Johnny has gone anywhere from a couple weeks to a full 7 months of recovery for his injuries.
MESSING WITH THE BULL
Around 2007 was when Johnny first discovered Betancourt, close to the start of his Strong Man career. At the Arnold, Betancourt reached out to him to offer a partnership. 10 years later, Johnny and Betancourt Nutrition together have travelled around the world, competing and inspiring. Through some of the classic formulas like D-Stunner and Bullnox, Johnny found it was a great brand for Strong Man just as much as it was for Bodybuilding.
"Over the years, Betancourt has fueled me for well over 20-25 world championships," Johnny looks back fondly. "I've competed with the best, I've won against the best, I've lost against the best and it's all been great."
"One of the beautiful things about Strong man and no matter who is competing against who, we're always like a family and support one another. I know it sounds funny, but in other sports people get too into their teams and the competition, whereas in strongman your competitor is also your biggest fan."
TRAINING A NEW GENERATION
Now at 47, Johnny still competes, winning first placed in the Master's World's Strongest Man competition in Ukraine in 2021. He also competed in Paris late summer of 2022. Additionally, he dedicates most of the year to training the new generation of Strong Man Competitors at his local gym in Clark, New Jersey.
"Everyone that has walked through the door of my gym, I feel like I have touched their lives. Not just physically, but also mentally - hearing their stories and sharing mine it goes both ways. I learn from them just as much as they learn from me. When they see me do what I do, it helps them with their lives to see the potential. "
Finishing up our chat, Johnny concludes with some sound advice to anyone trying to begin their journey, "Try everything. You are going to be great at something and don't stick around with things that don't fulfill you. There is something out there for everyone and you will be great at something."