Photograph by Joe Del Tufo
Put a school bus on Gerald Aikens’ massive shoulders, and he’ll likely bang out 25 squats without so much as disturbing the children inside. Ask him to keep an Amtrak locomotive at bay while a gaggle of geese crosses the tracks, and he’ll wonder what he’s going to do with the other hand. There are big men out there. There are big buildings. And then there is Aikens, whose 61-inch back, 32-inch thighs and 22-inch biceps appear to be the work of some Hollywood special-effects professional and not years of his bone-crushing work in the gym and 6,000-calorie days. “I call him the black Schwarzenegger,” says WDEL talk-show host Rick Jensen. OK, now that’s ridiculous. Arnold wasn’t nearly as big as the 6-foot-2-inch, 320-pound Aikens is. “And I have 5 percent body fat,” Aikens says, while displaying a stomach that appears to be made of concrete.
No matter how much weight Aikens can toss up into the air or how pristine he can make his physique for the bodybuilding competitions he aims to dominate some day, there is one challenge that lays him low every time. That’s when he looks at Crystal Lambert, to whom he is engaged and has devoted years to caring for, and he realizes that no amount of hard work and determination can get her off the couch and walking again. That’s up to the doctors. And, so far, they haven’t been able to do it, either. And their trapezoids aren’t anywhere near as big as Aikens’. “This all haunts me,” Aikens says. As he prepares for a trip to Columbus, Ohio, in March for the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic, Aikens is also searching for answers about why Lambert’s degenerative disc condition, which at one time caused her to have trouble maintaining strength in her legs, took away her ability to walk altogether when she tried to step off an operating table three years ago.
Lambert has undergone tests, consulted with doctors and—yes —spoken with attorneys in attempts to solve the mystery. “I know I did nothing wrong,” she says. “That is the worst part of it.” There is another procedure on the horizon, early this year, and maybe this one will get Lambert back on her feet. The one-time Delaware state champion hurdler who ran for Delaware State University, retains her lithe, athletic figure, but as she sits in her living room on a biting December morning, she wonders how her body—and those she trusted to repair it—let her down. “I have undergone three years of CAT scans and MRIs of my whole spine, up to my brain, with people trying to see what happened,” Lambert says. “There has been no healing. Nothing.” Lambert grew up in Newark and graduated from Glasgow High School in 1995. At Delaware State, she finished fifth in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in the 60-meter indoor hurdles. She was studying early childhood education and nursing and received her medical assistant’s certification.
In 2003, she met Aikens, although the two were already familiar with each other, since they had gone to the same high school. “We were both in Mr. Bixler’s geometry class,” Lambert says. Because she wasn’t allowed to date in high school, Lambert didn’t pay much attention to Aikens. Not that he was making strong moves in her direction, either. “We were the loud and boisterous ones,” she says. “He was quiet, but he dressed nice.” They finally connected at Club Utopia at Ninth and Orange streets in Wilmington. The match made perfect sense. Lambert came from a big family that was always getting together for parties and dinners. Aikens played football with some of Lambert’s cousins, so when the house would fill with relations and friends, “[Aikens] was probably there,” Lambert says. Lambert says that “it was easy falling in love” with Aikens. What wasn’t so simple was dealing with the back issues that she has been dealing with since high school. Many members of her family have battled similar problems, and some have degenerative disc disease.
She remembers a moment in a high school track meet, during which she completed a long jump and jammed her back. “When I came down, I couldn’t stand back up,” she says. “I crawled out of the pit and across the track.” After therapy, Lambert recovered and didn’t think much about her back over the next several years. But in 2004, she began to feel pain again, and an examination revealed the disc between her L-4 and L-5 vertebrae had been compromised. Though she could walk, Lambert experienced episodes that lasted up to a week in which she “seized up” and had trouble moving at all. After a while, there were more bad episodes than good. Injections to manage the pain were minimally effective. An invasive procedure proved ineffective. When she had her second, in 2011, her problems increased. “I went to get off the table, and I didn’t know my legs weren’t working,” she says. “I fell. There was no strength in my legs. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Thus began a three-year stretch of doctors’ visits, meetings with attorneys and—mostly—pain and despair. Lambert has made no progress, and there isn’t anybody who can explain what is going on. She takes painkillers every day but can’t stand or walk. Aikens is her full-time caregiver, a job he performs with love and care. When he gets into the gym, however, the tender Aikens gives way to an iron-abusing competitive monster. Although he played football in high school, he didn’t continue on the gridiron at Ball State University, where he earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in exercise science and kinesiology. His gym, Aikens Athletic Club, is in Wilmington’s Five Points district and is a no-frills place of work. “My philosophy is, ‘The hard part is done; you are here. Let me take over,’” Aikens says. Hip-hop music blares as his clients work through a variety of drills designed to reshape their bodies.
Jensen, who has spent 14 years at WDEL-AM, is one of Aikens’ success stories. He thrives on the atmosphere and is a true believer in Aikens’ training and nutritional methods. “I’ve been working out three times a week, and in a few months, I lost 15 pounds off my belly, and I’m adding muscle,” Jensen says. Putting on the armor is Aikens’ specialty. He weighed 180 pounds in college and has added bulk steadily. He entered his first bodybuilding competition in 2002 and won a Mr. Delaware title. He has been on a steady rise since and placed 10th in Las Vegas last summer. He plans to make a big splash at the Arnold Amateur in Columbus in early March and has been training relentlessly for the event. He has the bulk; in fact, he wants to take off about 40 pounds in preparation for the event, the better to have his body perfectly toned. It’s a grueling process that involves hard work in the gym but also proper nutritional discipline, the better to thin one’s skin so that judges can see practically every fiber of muscle. “Size is size,” Aikens says. “You have to condition it. Judges want to see definition.” While Aikens hones his body to perfection, Lambert prays that someone will help bring hers back to normal. The irony is that while Aikens can hoist a Buick, he can do nothing with the microscopic area of interest in Lambert’s spine. But he can love and support his fiancée. And he can hope for a miracle. “We’re looking for a hero,” he says.