Sunny Akhigbe Credit: Jiayue Yu

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Sunny Akhigbe, 44, bodybuilder, fitness model, trainer, and actor.

I grew up in a very remote village in Nigeria where you have no cars, no road, no water. I was rejected by my own family and left to live with my grandmother. I was molested, I was abandoned, I was rejected. I just wanted to have a big hug from a dad, and I never had it.

I could not find a therapy to help me feel better about myself. So doing bodybuilding was therapy for me. I was training with bricks and engine blocks. Each time I lifted bricks and ran, I felt better. I didn’t even know what it was; I just knew that whenever I exercised, there was part of me that was happy: “This thing is making me feel better. This thing is making me be a normal human being.”

Eventually I moved to a city in Nigeria about the same size as Michigan City, Indiana. I was online one day, and a lady reached out and said, “My name is this. I’m a Christian. Do you believe in God? This is my e-mail.” So I reached out to her: “Hey, my name is Sunny, I live in Africa.” Then I gave her my phone number, and we started talking. She flew to Nigeria, and she found out that everything I talked to her about was real. She told me she’s gonna bring me to the United States, and she did. We did all the documentation, and before you know it, I was here and we were married. That was in 2004.

I started working and training at a YMCA in LaPorte, Indiana. My body started transforming. People started saying, “Why don’t you go compete?” I said, “What does that mean?” I never heard about it. So I started training heavily and eating right, and I went to compete. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was ready. So when I stepped onstage, I won the whole show, I won the division, I won overall. Now I am an [International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness] pro.

I was like, OK, this is my calling, and I became a fitness model and personal trainer. My targeted audience is the business owner who doesn’t have time for themselves, so I help them create a program that’s gonna regain their health. I talk to all my clients every day, and they have to meet with me once or twice a week. Between eating and exercising, it’s gonna take you two hours per day to take care of your health and wellness so you feel good.

I’m also an actor; I just finished with Chicago P.D., the TV series. I wrote a book called A Boy and His Dream, and I have a foundation to help every child who is going through adversity like I did. Here in Chicago, I go from school to school talking about life skills.

Fitness is my therapy. It gives me life. The trauma that chased me, it helps me to control it. When I embraced fitness, I became complete, I was well. I became healed from my trauma. Without fitness, I wouldn’t be able to focus. Yes, fitness gave me life. I’m healed.   v