Meet Technical Sergeant Ricardo “Rick” Zuniga, weapons load team chief with the 131st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron based at the Warrensburg Missouri Air Force Base – weapons loader by day, competitive bodybuilder and personal trainer by night and weekends.

U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Halley Burgess

U.S. Air National Guard photo by
Airman 1st Class Halley Burgess

But Rick wasn’t always a bodybuilder and trainer. If you look at the tattoo on his back you’ll see a pair of angel wings encircling a heart, a physical representation of the angels who surely were protecting him during a terrible motorcycle accident that nearly cost him his life and at age 23 required him to learn how to walk again. If you look closely, you’ll see that the tattoo partially covers the scar from multiple back surgeries.

An active duty airman from 2000-2013, Rick was stationed at Aviano Air Base in the mountains of northeastern Italy in 2006 when he took that fateful motorcycle ride. As a van came around a curve, it swerved into Rick’s lane and crashed into him head on. Flying off his motorcycle, Rick was thrown through the van’s windshield.

Life-flighted by helicopter to a hospital an hour away, doctors determined that Rick had broken four ribs, three vertebrae and his sternum. They also realized that his spinal cord was pinched and did emergency surgery to release the weight on it, the first of multiple surgeries he’d endure.

Unable to walk, he was bedridden for weeks, spending a total of 25 days in the hospital and doing physical therapy two-to-three hours daily for three months. But his weight was hindering his recovery – it was putting too much pressure on his spine.

When the doctors finally said to him, “If you don’t start taking care of yourself, you may never walk again,” that got Rick’s attention. Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he accepted it as a personal challenge. In spite of the pain he was suffering, he used a walker to relearn as an adult the basics of walking.

In a 2016 interview by Senior Airman Nathan Dampf of the 131st Bomb Wing, Rick said he was almost medically discharged by the Air Force but he wasn’t ready to give up on his military career. He was told that to prevent a discharge, ‘I needed to pass a PT (Air Force physical fitness test) test with no waiver. So I quit drinking and started working out and eating right.’

His determination kept him in the Air Force – Rick lost 30 pounds and scored an 85 on his PT test. But the doctors told him once again that if he let himself get out of shape, it would be very painful, possibly preventing him from walking again. Every year since his accident he’s consistently scored an excellent on his annual PT test.

Using bodybuilding to get back into shape, Rick is now a competitive bodybuilder and has already placed first in bodybuilding and second in physique at the Whiteman Classic held in November 2016 at the Missouri State Fairgrounds. He’s also taken second place in two separate categories as part of June’s Muscle Mayhem event in Kansas City, Missouri. Rick’s next show is June 10 in Kansas City and his goal is to win first place.

Impressed by his turnaround, other airmen now come to him for advice on how to achieve the same results, something he really enjoys. As someone who always needs to stay busy, Rick now has his own personal training business on the side. His long-term retirement goal is to open his own gym and have his own competitive bodybuilding team.

Although he transferred from active duty to the Missouri National Guard in 2013, he still wears his uniform Monday through Friday just like active duty personnel but he gets paid as a full-time civilian Guard member. Rick says he works hand-in-hand with active personnel in the same office; “You can’t tell us apart except that we are older. LOL”

Loving the challenge sports provide, in addition to bodybuilding, Rick has also played baseball and soccer. As a life-long military man, I asked his thoughts about LGBTQ inclusion and diversity in sports. He says he thinks it’s a good thing. “Everyone deserves a chance to showcase their talent no matter their background. Your work should do your talking and not your history.”

When asked what he might now tell his younger self or those younger airmen looking up to him, Rick’s response at age 35 is to never give up. “No matter your past don’t ever give up. What you do day in and day out will mold your future. Instead of making excuses, make reasons why you will get it done.” Rick Zuniga is definitely a man who walks his talk!


By Harry Andrew