PAUL OLIMA ALWAYS wanted to be a professional athlete, but he could never have envisaged the unusual route his career would take.
Through work as a sports model and choreographer, he rubs shoulders with the likes of Usain Bolt, Mario Balotelli, Antoine Griezmann and Cesc Fabregas while shooting advertising campaigns for global brands such as Puma and Nike.
As an ambassador for MaxiMuscle, the 31-year-old has been pitted against Ireland rugby star Conor Murray in a fitness challenge and admits pinching himself occasionally as he’s “essentially getting paid to lift weights”.
If that wasn’t enough, there have been a couple of cameos in major films, while Olima’s long-term aspiration is to break into television presenting.
His hectic life in London is a far cry from growing up in the north Dublin suburb of Clonsilla.
Naturally athletic and blessed with lightning pace, Paul began playing rugby at school and lined out alongside current Ireland international Devin Toner at Castleknock College.
But he wasn’t solely-committed to the oval ball and a move to Shamrock Rovers’ U16s kick-started his schoolboy football career at a relatively late stage. After a couple of seasons with the Tallaght outfit, the striker was offered a trial at West Ham and jumped at the chance to try his luck in England.
A short-lived spell with the Hammers didn’t go according to plan, however, and he bounced around a number of clubs at various levels.
“I went over to West Ham but it didn’t go too well,” he recalls. “Then I was on trial at Scunthorpe for the guts of a year as a reserve player. I ended up signing for Dagenham & Redbridge and I was there for two years. From there, I went to Barnet and that was pretty shit as well as I didn’t like playing reserve football.
“I dropped into the Conference and was playing for a team call Grays Athletic and then wound up in the Conference 2. I started off in the Premier League and now I found myself in the seventh tier so I decided football wasn’t for me and thought I’d try my hand at the rugby.
I told myself I was going to become a professional rugby player as I was athletic and pretty big.”
Through his older brother Martin, a former player who now works for the Rugby Players Association, Paul was offered the chance to line out in a Sevens tournament for Nigeria — the country of both his parents.
That resulted in a move to National League One side Esher, where the wing spent four years before a stint with Harlequins’ ‘A’ team.
“I thought I’d give it a few years and was confident I’d smash it. But as I was playing, I realised Esher was probably my level. Maybe if I had stuck with the rugby and not played football I could have made it, so that kind of killed me inside.”
Paul had been a big fan of working out from a young age and earned his qualifications as a personal trainer after hanging up the football boots.
“I loved the gym and had been sneaking into the one in Coolmine since I was 14. I owe Ben Dunne a few quid, I reckon! When I left football, I got my personal trainer’s certificate and I was training people but I never really liked that because they often don’t listen to you about their diet or what they should be doing.”
Frustrated with having to deal with disobedient clients, he kind of fell into sports modelling after being discovered by a company called Sports On Screen. There, Olima was recruited as a body double for Italian footballer Mario Balotelli and Jamaican sprinting superstar Usain Bolt, among others.
And he has even become close friends with the former Manchester City and Liverpool striker over the past few years.
“Mario’s one of my best mates now and we are regularly in the WhatsApp group giving him abuse,” he laughs. “Nobody’s safe in there, but he’s brilliant and he’s just one of the lads.
“I think he has got bad press but he’s an absolute gent. We’ll go to a restaurant, he’ll pay for everyone’s food and he won’t say a word. People only hear about the bad things at times. You only see Bolt when he’s on shoots but he’s a lovely man too.”
Paul has worked on over 100 shoots for some of the world’s biggest brands, and in more recent times, he has moved into the choreography side of the industry.
He spent time with Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmman and, just last month was involved in Nike advert with Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal.
Two years ago, sports and bodybuilding supplements company MaxiMuscle signed him up as an ambassador.
“They have been amazing,” he explains. “They put me against their athletes in competitions. So I took on Conor Murray and a few other lads in training. I have to make sure to go to the gym so I essentially I’m getting paid to lift weights. It’s a joke!
“I do five or six sessions a week — two of them are three hours and the others are two hours. When I’m at home, I’ll wake up in the morning and do an hour of mobility too just to loosen up the body because I’m stiff as hell.”
So how has his training changed over time?
“When I finished playing football, I was just lifting weights to look good so it was all endurance like 15 reps and super sets. It was never anything that was going to build my muscle, but lean me out.
“The fitness in football is a different level. They have to run for miles. I noticed it when I played rugby and then went back to football. I must have been fit as a fiddle.
“I’m 105 kilos, you can’t carry that around a football field. When I went to rugby it was more about power. The stuff you would be doing is about how powerful you can be so it is bench-pressing with three reps max and quick tempo ones and squats and stuff like that.
“I was a winger so they would make sure there were jump squats as well to hit the plyometric side as well.
“The rugby is kind of coming to a stop now. I’m getting a bit older and I’ve injured too many parts of my body from playing the rugby so I decided this year to finish up. Men’s Health did a feature on me and I was buzzing off that, so I decided to just body build and try to be as fit as I can in that sense.”
The use of anabolic steroids is rampant in gyms across Ireland and the UK and has been linked to increasing pressures attached to body image as young men and women strive to build what they perceive as the perfect physique.
Olima is well aware of drug use but stresses that he is 100% clean.
“Everything with MaxiMuscle is 100% batch-tested. That’s why we have the best athletes in the UK and Ireland like Conor Murray and Maro Itoje — they’re the best of the best.
“In the Cyclone shake that I have, it’s 5% creatine, HMB, BCAA and 25 grams of protein. That’s all in one shake. I’d have two or three shakes a day on top of all my food. If I’m tired, they take caffeine tablets.
I come across it [drugs] a lot and it annoys me more than anything. Even some mates of mine back home are taking steroids. I’ve been smashing the gym for 16 years and then I come back to Ireland and a fella I’ve seen three years ago is now the same size as me.
“How the fuck did that happen? But I’ll put it this way, if a fella is taking stuff and they’ll admit it I’m alright with that as they’re doing it for themselves because they want to look big or whatever.
“It’s when you’re competing in a sport that it will get to you, but you come across it quite a bit.”
Film work can also be added to Olima’s lengthy CV as he earned minor parts in a couple of Hollywood movies. Alongside Gladiator and Blood Diamond star Djimon Hounsou, he was cast as an African warrior in The Legend of Tarzan and plays a US marine in the recently-released Justice League.
“It was good to see how the films work. You’re there for three days and you’re only in it for two seconds. I was like ‘What’s going on?’. There’s a lot of waiting around but it’s alright.”
In January 2016, Olima won the hearts of the British public as a contestant on ITV’s dating show Take Me Out, when 27 girls left their lights on after a flawless performance.
“That was good craic,” he remembers. “I had all the boys from the rugby club come down to watch it. I’ve even got one of my mates on it this year through ITV.”
And television is where Olima sees his future. He was due to appear on Love Ireland earlier this year but pulled out after getting back together with his girlfriend. Presenting is definitely an avenue he’s eager to explore, however.
“That’s the goal in the end. Fingers crossed something goes well with it. One of the big ITV presenters is schooling me through doing little bits so I’ve given myself five years to host the X Factor!” he laughs.
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