I’m always asked for bodybuilding advice in the gym
I get up at 2.30am every day. After my devotions and meditations, I have breakfast then I’ll go for a run (with a bit of walking thrown in) in my hometown of Baltimore. A typical day sees me usually exercising at the gym by 7.30am. Then I’ll teach a workout class with up to 45 people until around 11.30am before going home to eat, have a nap and see my husband, Colin. I’m usually back at the gym for 5.30pm, training people aged 20 to 86 until 7pm.
I make sure my weightlifting workouts focus on all the key areas. I focus on my chest and biceps on Mondays, shoulder and triceps on Wednesdays and back and legs on Fridays.
I’m 81 years old.
Despite how important it is to me now I haven’t always enjoyed exercise. In fact, I didn’t set foot into a gym until I was 56. I was always too prissy to work out – and you couldn’t get me away from chocolate cake. But the year I turned 56, my sister Velvet and I went shopping for swimsuits. Neither of us had worn one for years. We looked in the changing room mirror, and made a pact to get in better shape.
We started off doing aerobics but then we moved on to lifting weights and, eventually, we really got into bodybuilding. One day, Velvet turned to me and said, “We should try and get into the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest bodybuilding sisters in the world!”
It became our goal.
Sadly, shortly after, Velvet got sick and suffered a brain aneurysm. “I want you to continue what we’re doing even though I won’t make it,” she told me, just before she passed away. “I want you to inspire other senior ladies, and anyone who will listen, to exercise.”
I fell to pieces when she died. I didn’t know what to do because she had always been right there with me. After some years had passed, I decided I wanted to honour our pledge, and contacted the former Mr. Universe, Yohnnie Shambourger. We’d met a few times at his bodybuilding shows and when I asked whether he could help me get into the Guinness Book of World Records, he said, “Yes, but you have to go on a long journey: do you plan to hang in there?”
That’s exactly what I planned – but I also told him I didn’t want to bulk-up and look too muscular. He said that I didn’t have the testosterone for that to happen and reassured me that I would only look ‘toned’.
Seven months later, aged 71, I entered my first bodybuilding contest – and won first place. The Guinness Book of World Records found out and called Yohnnie to confirm that I was the world’s oldest performing female bodybuilder. They also invited us to Rome so I could be given the official title on a TV show. I’ll never forget standing on that stage as I collected my medal and certificate. “I’ve done what you wanted, Velvet”, I remember saying as tears filled my eyes. I had carried some of her ashes with me, and when no one was around, I went outside and spread them as far as I could.
That was in 2010 I remained the oldest female competitive bodybuilder in the world until 2012, when another woman, Edith Wilma Connor broke my record. But, in a way, receiving my title was just the start: I ended up in the annual Ripley’s Believe it or Not! book in 2011 as Granny’s Six-pack – another dream my sister had talked about – and I’ve made lots of TV appearances, including Steve Harvey’s NBC show, and met famous bodybuilders like Lee Haney who has won Mr Olympian eight times. I’ve performed in seven more bodybuilding competitions and run nine marathons. Oprah Skyp’d me once to talk about my health.
I’ve never felt self-conscious about being a bodybuilder at my age thanks to a mantra Velvet passed on to me: ‘Determined, Dedicated and Disciplined’. If you follow these three D’s no matter what you’re doing in life, you can succeed. That’s what I live by and that’s why I always tell people that age is nothing but a number.
I love lifting weights in nice workout clothes – and sometimes in heels. I just think they look great with my workout outfits. I keep my nails well-manicured. Of course, it’s an intense lifestyle. I don’t take supplements like some bodybuilders: I keep everything natural and I eat the same food every day. After my two breakfasts – an 8oz glass of liquid egg whites, a handful of walnuts, a bowl of oatmeal before my run, and four boiled egg whites when I get back – I have three further meals throughout the day. That’s either chicken, tuna fish or turkey with a baked sweet potato, white potatoes, mixed vegetables or brown rice. I don’t want to eat junk food: my ‘treat’ is un-sweetened jelly, and I drink lots of water. I’ll have my last glass of liquid egg whites before bed. I know my diet won’t be for everyone and I wouldn’t advise people to suddenly start eating like this without speaking to a doctor or dietician but it works for me.
Young men are always asking me what I eat, as well as asking for bodybuilding advice when they’re working out the gym. I tell them they’ll end up lifting heavier than me! But I’ve helped some of them to become trainers. When I was competing, I was bench-pressing 150lb. Right now, it’s about 115lb, and I can lift 80lb with the pull-down machines – I enjoy working my back the most. When I look in the mirror, I feel happy because I feel healthy. I love how bodybuilding gives me definition.
And I have never received a negative comment. People are so supportive, especially my family. I have a 60-year-old son, a 21-year-old grandson and a bunch of other children I have ‘adopted’ at the gym who call me mum – and I love it. Colin and I have been married 61 years and until he got sick, he would prepare all my meals. Before I’d leave for the gym in the morning, I would sing him a song: “Oh I can’t sit down, gotta keep a rollin’ like the rollin’ of a song. Today I am happy and free”. After I’d finished, he’d say, “Alright, go on your way but be safe.”
I’m still surprised by the amount of people who say I’ve inspired them. I get recognised as ‘that lady’ all the time, and I’m never too busy to stop for a picture or give someone a hug. Motivating people has become my ministry – I get invited to do talks all around the country and I organise a community walk once a month where 100 people, including lots of senior ladies, come out to join me. They help me too, though. I always say I am nothing without the love of people.
When I look back at 56-year-old me, I can’t believe how much life has changed. I’m not that shy lady anymore. I am 5ft 4, I weigh between 118-120lb, and I can go anywhere and not feel intimated by anyone. Bodybuilding has given me an amazing sense of confidence. It’s my joy, and 25 years on, I’m still having the time of my life with it.
I have a doctor keeping an eye on me and at my annual check ups, he tells me to continue what I’m doing – and I will, for as long as I can. My next goal? To meet Sylvester Stallone. I learnt so much about motivation through the Rocky movies – it’s why anyone who calls me will hear the hear the usual dial tone, but then before I answer it they’ll hear the Rocky theme tune. I want to be able to touch his hand and tell him how much he has inspired me.
I often wonder how Velvet would feel knowing that I have done all the things that she wanted. I like to think she is looking down on me with pride.
As told to Lisa Harvey
As told to Lisa Harvey