In his role as a personal fitness coach, Tom Cox (standing) helps Richard O’Neal with his weight-training at FirstHealth Fitness-Richmond.
Rockingham resident Tom Cox in a bodybuilding pose.
ROCKINGHAM – Although he was just a boy when his father passed away, Richmond County native Thomas Cox came to believe that a less-than-healthy lifestyle contributed to his dad’s early death.
The loss of his father and his mother’s chronic illness helped convince the young Cox to adopt a personal way of life that included a healthy diet and ambitious regimen of physical activity that would eventually translate into a passion for bodybuilding.
A personal fitness coach at FirstHealth Fitness-Richmond, Cox claimed first place in his class in July at the 2016 IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilding & Fitness) Europa Games in Charlotte. It was a goal that the 2010 graduate of Richmond Senior High had been working toward for a long time.
“It’s consumed me,” he says. “It’s what I love. If I’m not working, I’m in the gym working on myself, but that’s what it takes if I get where I want to be.”
The son of Rockingham resident Helen Cox and the late Clark Cox, Cox had lots of interests growing up – many of them encouraged by his teacher-mother and journalist-father. He played the guitar and made Team 1 All-Conference in soccer in high school, but found he didn’t have “the knees” for successful long-term soccer play.
“I wanted to still be active, but I found that bodybuilding and weightlifting were more individual, and that really caught my interest,” he says. “I could get better at that individually and wouldn’t have to worry about letting a team down.”
At Richmond Senior High, an acknowledged football “powerhouse,” Cox became acquainted with great coaches who steered him “in the right direction.” Although he played soccer, he worked out with football players, learned about weights and got the foundation to continue that strenuous activity level at East Carolina University, where he earned a B.S. degree in exercise science in 2015.
Bodybuilding seemed a logical next step.
“I always wanted to work on my physique,” Cox says. “I thought it was pretty neat that people could actually work on their body and sculpt it that way.”
Cox spent his first few months after college prepping for the 2015 Muscle Heat competition in Greensboro. He didn’t have a coach, now acknowledges that he wasn’t eating properly and “did it all myself,” he says. He took his poor showing as motivation to do a much better job of preparing for the 2016 Europa competition.
He began by looking for an experienced coach and found one in Robert David Sr., a former heavyweight division Masters Universe bodybuilding champion now living in Hamlet.
“The training techniques he showed me were far superior to what I had experienced from anyone else,” Cox says.
Under David’s guidance, Cox worked on diet and the softer “beach-body look” that he believes most people find more pleasing than the classic look of a bodybuilder.
In the type of bodybuilding in which Cox competes, class is determined by height. At 5-11 ½, he competes in the Class C division, the second class from the top. With the help of David, who also claimed a 2016 Europa title in his division, Cox had a much different outcome from the earlier Muscle Heat experience in Greensboro.
“It was like night and day from the first competition,” he says.
Cox and David continue to work together in anticipation of the 2017 Europa and hopefully even higher-level events. The 2016 Europa win nationally qualified Cox to compete at the next level in bodybuilding, but his goal is to get his IFBB Pro Card, which would put him in top-level competition – maybe even the Mr. Olympia level that “put Arnold (Schwarzenegger) on the map.”
A split schedule at FirstHealth Fitness – 8 a.m. to noon and 5 to 9 p.m. for the convenience of his clients – gives him plenty of time to train. It has also introduced him to a variety of local exercise populations, from young adults to seniors, which he enjoys.
“I’m in a very good place right now,” Cox says. “Everything has worked out for the best, and I’m happy to be with FirstHealth.”
Jonathan Pope, manager of FirstHealth Fitness-Richmond, is just as happy to have Cox as part of his team and agrees that he’s in a good place personally.
"With the over-saturation of exercise-related degrees coming out of colleges, it's not hard to find qualified candidates for the health and fitness industry,” Pope says. “It is, however, difficult to find someone who has natural talents to pair with those qualifications. The knowledge base is only one piece to the puzzle. You have to be adaptable, encouraging, committed, patient and, most importantly, know how to sell yourself. Tom possesses all of these qualities. It's been fun to watch someone with all the skills necessary to be successful, strive and thrive in the environment that has so greatly influenced his own life."