Estimated reading time:8 minutes, 24 seconds
Everyone has a story. Hereâs how a young Chad boy fell in love with body building, thanks to Muscle & Fitness magazine, and went on to become a champion. Meet Gilbert Alaskadi, now running Oxygen Fitness Universe, a private gym close to Holloway tube. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill.
Oxygen Fitness Universe at the far left end of Hornsey Street, N7, is crowded with fitness equipment â from weight machines to pec decks – all overlooked by a massive cut out of a mighty muscle man. Turns out the silhouette is of the gymâs owner, Gilbert Alaskadi, in his prime. For a decade he was a Mr Universe competitor and also won the 2004 British body building championships. But Oxygen Fitness Universe isnât just for the body builder pros, this is a place to go if you are determined to get into shape whatever your age or current muscular outline.
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One of Gilbertâs regular gym clients, Cara Burton, suggests heâd be perfect for Islington Faces, not just because heâs a brilliant “master trainer” but also has an incredible life story. The gym website provides a summary: Â âAfter escaping capture in his native Chad during the civil war, he settled in Nigeria in 1983 where he started weight training using homemade concrete weights. A chance encounter with former French body building champion, Paul Pere, in 1985, led to Gilbert’s first competition in 1987 which he won, quickly followed by another win at the Grand Prix of Nantes in 1988. By 1994 he was competing for Mr Universe, making the top 10 on his first attempt. From here he continued his ascension in the world of body building which climaxed by winning the British championship in 2004 and being selected to represent Britain in the European championships in 2005, finishing fifth.
âThroughout his career as a pro body builder Gilbert has been helping to train others of all levels. He worked as a senior trainer at Muscleworks gym for 10 years followed by six years at Holmes Place. Since 2012 Gilbert has been training clients in his own space: Oxygen Fitness Univers. Gilbertâs approach is mind, body, spirit which is missing in the bigger gyms,â says Cara who lives round the corner. âI didnât know anyone in the area but more than any other gym Iâve been to, youâre part of something here. Now I meet other regulars for coffee. Itâs a place I feel really welcome.â
Islington Faces is not written by a gym goer and Gilbert is the first pro-body builder featured. But what a gentle giant! Sitting at a desk, in his gym, Gilbert, in black and aqua blue tracksuit top, talks about how he ended up running a gym in Islington. The space is not crowded with gym bunnies because this is a private gym, so you make an appointment to be coached by Gilbert knowing youâll have the space to yourself. Every client also has Gilbertâs immense training knowledge which takes in food, mental strength as well as how to train.
âPeople need to know that Oxygen Fitness Universe is the place to come and get good friends and change their lifestyle,â says Gilbert.
âWhen people come to the gym from work they will have their issues: their health, boyfriend of girlfriend. I get them to focus on training and feel more healthy. Anyone can come here including people in their 50s or older. Training someone new makes my day, itâs very rewarding,â he says. And he means it.
Places Gilbert Alaskadi likes in Islington
If I go out I like to go to Turkish restaurants because I like everything grilled. Gallipoli is a good one on Upper Street.
I like Hornsey Street where Oxygen Fitness Universe is. This area has changed a lot but it now looks so new and is a good place to go.
I go to the Nags Head shops, mostly Morrisons, but I like to look around the stalls too.
But how did the teenager from Chad end up in this bit of London? âI wanted to be strong to defend myself at school. I didnât want people to beat me or my friends, or family,â says Gilbert. âOne of my uncles had a magazine with a picture on it of Arnold Schwarzenegger [the Austrian body builder, five time Mr Universe, seven times Mr Olympia, who became an actor and was twice Governor of California, 2003-2011]. I thought âthatâs not a human, thatâs a caricature!â And then I thought âOMG I want to look like that and then no one will touch meâ.â
Not long after the civil war started and there âwas a big fight. I was 14 and fled on a truck â what ought to be a dayâs travel â to neighbouring Cameroon. It took a few months and then I moved to Nigeria. I didnât know anyone in Cameroon or Nigeria: but it changed my life and made me strong. I had to sell my clothes and my shoes to pay for transport. Then in Nigeria I found the same magazine my uncle had, Muscle & Fitness. It wasnât for sale so I had to bribe someone to sell it to me. Inside I read everything about training and nutrition. I found out what equipment I needed and thatâs when I started body building. Iâve still got that copy.â
Training in Nigeria saw Gilbert create homemade weights. He also learnt to speak English as in Chad heâd been schooled in French.
âI trained in Nigeria for many years and then Nigeria began driving out all the foreigners so I went to Cameroon and there met a French guy who was preparing for Mr Universe, which is always held in London.â
Gilbert was taken to France with his boss and for the first time saw professional body building equipment. âI wanted to enter Mr Universe so I asked the Libyan embassy to pay for my transport, and that became a political problem. I went to Britain for the competition but then as I was about to fly home to Cameroon, via Germany, I got a message saying that the Chadian government in Cameroon were coming to arrest me. My French friend said âdonât go home, theyâll arrest youâ.â So, Gilbert missed his flight and became a refugee. âI started to live at Heathrow airport. Every night I changed terminals, 1, 2 and 3 and went to the gym in the day. I donât think you could do that now.â
Next he had to seek asylum. âIt was 1994. I didnât want to stay in Britain. I came for a competition and then I couldnât go backâŠ and Iâm still here today,â explains Gilbert. His achievement as a pro body builder is all the more remarkable as he was his own trainer. âThat magazine gave me the ideas about what other body builders were doing and the food they were eating so training was not a problem,â he says. âAnd I managed to buy Arnold Schwarzeneggerâs book, The Education of a Bodybuilder. His book is so good â everyone uses it. From then on I knew everything and it was trial and error.
Oxygen Fitness Universe
Gilbert is at his gym six days a week â his wife has persuaded him that he needs one day of rest. And on those six days he works with all sorts of clients, from out of shape over 50-year-olds to keen-as-mustard younger gym goers, men and women.
Even if his competition days are over now that heâs had both knees replaced (the right one, 10 years ago, and the left more recently), it hasnât stopped his passion for bodybuilding or his ability to share his training skills. Gilbert loves a muscle â he picks up a recent Muscle & Fitness magazine and looks at the cover of a man with super-defined abs: âBeautiful, isnât it!â he says.Â I realise itâs not a question when Gilbert then adds, âtalking health and fitness makes my day.â
January is the month when people traditionally decide to get fit. But Islington Faces suggests February might be another good opportunity. And if you need a trainer to help you figure out the equipment, set targets and keep you motivated then Gilbert at Oxygen Fitness Univers is your man. Even better, his life story is such an inspiring tale of personal motivation against what are often overwhelming odds â political and nationhood struggles.
- Oxygen Fitness Universe, Studio 37, 10 Hornsey Street, N7 8ELÂ
- Check out Body Building events in the UK, during 2018 https://www.ukbff.co.uk/ukbff-events/Â
Over to you
If youâd like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com. Thank you to Cara for suggesting Gilbert.
If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at theÂ A-Z Â index, orÂ search by intervieweeâs roles orÂ Meet IslingtoniansÂ to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by, Nicola.