The "Big Lao"
The year was 1975 and the first wave of refugees from Laos set foot on American soil. Among them was a scrawny four-year-old boy who would one day achieve greatness, fall, and rise again. That skinny refugee boy would one day become "The Big Lao".
Phoothaphone Ko Chanthadouangsy was born in Mukdahan, Thailand to parents from Savannakhet, Laos. The two cities are separated by the Mekong River and Ko spent his early years in Savannakhet. Ko’s father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Lao Army and fled with his family across the Mekong River after the communist takeover. The family was resettled in the United States in late 1975 when Ko was four. His father decided to shorten their last name to Chandetka.
After a brief stay in Lima, OH, the Chandetka’s became one of the first Lao refugee families to settle in Elgin, IL. Being small and different Ko was often picked on by his classmates. A large wave of Laotians began settling in the area in 1979 and today Elgin boasts one of the largest Lao populations in the United States. As a child, Ko loved comic books and superheroes and became obsessed with looking like one after he began lifting weights in his basement. As Ko grew bigger the name-calling and bullying he faced began to subside and he actually became intimidating to some. Inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger he poured everything into bodybuilding and won his first National NPC title at nineteen in 1991. This childhood superhero fantasy was fast becoming a reality.
Coming from a traditional family Ko’s parents wanted him to take a more predictable path. His father was an accomplished engineer with multiple degrees and a stable job at the Elgin Sweeper Company. Ko was determined to follow his own path and went on to rack up eight more top three finishes in IFBB and NPC competitions between 1992 and 2003 before taking a break from the sport.
Bodybuilding requires an athlete to stick to a strict diet and training regimen. Not the easiest thing to do when surrounded by a large Laotian family that loves Lao food. Strict dieting and intensive workouts can take a toll on the body and mind. According to a study published in the Journal of Urology, bodybuilders have a 34% higher mortality rate than others in their age group. Comicbook superheroes are invincible but bodybuilders are human. Ko opens up about his struggles with addiction and depression in the 2019 documentary film Fallen Star, Rising Sun and his autobiography, I am Phoothaphone. Quoting Ko’s late trainer Daniel Saxton from the movie, “It’s not the healthiest sport, from the extreme dieting…to…let me be real…to the drugs”. Ko suffered a shoulder injury just before a Pro qualifier event and struggled to get through his workouts. "Someone suggested why don't you try this, its a pain killer...it will help you get through the workout," Ko said. That medical prescription would lead Ko on a path to drug and alcohol dependency and place strain on many of Ko's personal and professional relationships. He ended up losing a sponsorship deal with one of the largest companies in the fitness industry before joining AA.
Ko returned to the sport in 2011 achieving some of the best results in his later career. He took first place at the 2014 NPC Nationals (middleweight and overall) earning an IFBB pro-card. He entered his first Mr. Olympia in 2016 where he took seventh place. Ko last competed in 2018 at the Arnold Classic where he finished 16th.
Ko has two children and currently resides in Elgin, IL. He is an advocate for the Laotian community and athlete mental health. By opening up to the world about his personal triumphs and tribulations he hopes to help others overcome adversity, follow their dreams and achieve success. You can learn more about Ko by reading his 2019 biography, I am Phoothaphone.
Outdoor Photos by Reggie Deanching of R+M Photo
About this Article
Information for this article was obtained from Ko's book, I am Phootaphone and through interviews with Ko Chandetka, A special thank you to photographers Dan Ray and Reggie Deanching.