On his bad days, Rhadi Ferguson surveys his drab, worn-down dorm room and marvels at what becoming an Olympian cost him.
He lives at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, 2,000 miles away from his wife in Rockville. Pain often keeps him from sleeping and forces him to endure two hours of treatment each day. He's so deep in debt that he refuses to spend money on anything other than his sport, judo.
"I've given up just about everything," said Ferguson, 29. "Some days, that's pretty devastating. But its almost not a choice. I needed this, to make the Olympics."
For Ferguson, it has never been so much an Olympic dream as an Olympic obsession. He fell in love with judo six years ago, and the sport ransacked his life. For it, Ferguson sacrificed a $70,000 job at Texas Instruments and a comfortable home with his new wife.
He underwent major knee surgery, ripped his thigh muscle off the bone, pulled his groin muscle and dislocated three fingers -- all in the past year. "He takes brutal beatings," his strength coach said, "that most men wouldn't even survive." And in return Ferguson, ranked No. 1 in the United States, hopes to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Athens.
"It was never my goal to be the best in the U.S.," Ferguson said. "I want to be the best in the world, and I've worked harder for that than anyone."
A three-sport star at Howard University in track, football and wrestling from 1994 to '97, Ferguson stumbled into competitive judo almost by mistake. Having dabbled in the sport during childhood, Ferguson decided to join a judo club after graduation. He overpowered his amateur opponents and earned a black belt. On a whim, he decided to compete in the prestigious N.Y. Open in 1998 and wound up finishing third.
Less than a year later, he moved to Colorado Springs and went to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney as an alternate. "I hated watching the Olympics and not competing," Ferguson said. "So I made a vow to stay in Colorado and make it in 2004."
At the Olympic Training Center, a place where dedication seems cliche, Ferguson is revered for his work ethic. He wakes up at 5:30 to lift weights and then goes to practice for two hours. In the afternoon, he takes classes in pursuit of his third degree before going online to run his blossoming business www.trainingtowin.com.
Coaches think Ferguson might be in better shape than any other person in the world, and its easy to see why: At 5 feet 7, he weighs 225 pounds with just 5 percent body fat. He can squat 550 pounds, bench his weight 30 times and run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds.
In fact, Ferguson is in better shape than many of his opponents think could be legally possible. Because of his build, the Olympic Training Center has tested him for steroids about a dozen times in the last few years, coaches said. Each time he's come up clean.
"People don't understand that he's just a genetic freak," said Carlos Santana, his strength coach. "His body works better than anyone else's in the world. It just leaves people dumbfounded."
To Paul Cotton, his Howard wrestling coach, Ferguson is "the closest thing this world will ever have to Superman." To William Moultrie, his Howard track coach, he's "the most athletic guy I've known." And to Mike Barnes, ranked No. 2 in judo in the United States, Ferguson is "flat-out scary."
At tournaments, opponents dread fighting Ferguson. They don't want to lose, sure. But more than that, they don't want to endure the physical pain he can inflict.
So far this year, Ferguson estimates that he has "popped 25 arms" or dislocated 25 shoulders. He grabs an opponent's hand, swivels it behind his back and then jerks upward. When that doesn't work, he resorts to simpler methods: Once this year, he picked up a 220-pound opponent and threw him 10 feet into the air.
"I'd be scared to fight against me," Ferguson said. "I'm all muscle and desire."
Question is, could Ferguson be too dedicated? Judo has left some lasting marks on his body -- early signs of arthritis, a finger so swollen his wedding ring won't fit -- that Ferguson seems to ignore.
Last year, doctors told Ferguson to give a torn thigh muscle six weeks to heal. He fought in the Pan Am Games less than two weeks later, finishing third. At the Olympic trials this month, Ferguson won despite a groin injury that kept him from moving side-to-side.
Ferguson's body never screamed louder for rest than it did about a year ago, when he tore his lateral collateral ligament and needed major replacement surgery. Doctors told Ferguson the injury would take nine months to heal. Finally, friends thought, Ferguson would be forced to spend a week in bed.
"That was so tough for him," said Rufus Ferguson, Rhadi's father. "But we thought he would relax and give himself time to heal."
Instead, Ferguson woke up at 5 a.m. after his surgery and hobbled into the weight room on his crutches. He lifted upper-body weights for more than an hour, until a combination of pain and anesthesia made his so nauseous he went to the bathroom to vomit.
"People came up and asked me what I was thinking," said Ferguson, who ended up recovering from the torn LCL in about five months. "I told them I was thinking about going to the Olympics. I was thinking about staying in shape and fulfilling a goal."
"He borders on crazy," said Lloyd Irvin, who teaches Ferguson jujitsu. "But once he decides that he's going to do something, there's no way he's stopping."
And hence the pattern that has sculpted Ferguson's life: Define a goal and aggressively achieve it.
He wanted to play three sports at Howard, so he did. He wanted to amass a bevy of degrees, to become a "lifetime learner," so he got a Master's in education, became a certified strength and conditioning specialist and started working toward his Ph.D.
He even pursued his wife, Traci, the same way. She came to one of his football games at Howard and, that same day, he told her they would get married. She resisted for five years, but he eventually achieved his goal.
"Rhadi was just so persistent," Traci said. "He always gets what he wants."
That's why friends take Ferguson seriously when he talks about his next goal: playing in the NFL. Ferguson had a solid college career as a gritty running back, but a major shoulder injury kept him from going to the NFL coaches combine for prospective players. Plus, judo has left him so broke -- he spent $30,000 traveling to competitions last year alone -- that he wants to make money fast.
"He has the skills," said Rufus, who played for the Atlanta Falcons in the late 1970s. "He could very easily be at that level."
"He'd be in the best pure shape of anybody in the league," said Santana, who works with about 20 NFL players. "And if he says that's what he wants to do, I sure don't have any reason to doubt him."