Strong is the new skinny

Reclaiming power: Island bodybuilders prove anyone can make a change

When Natasha McNally, a single mother of two, found a lump in her breast, she made a pact with God to make a change and never live in fear again.

When Natasha McNally, a single mother of two, found a lump in her breast, she made a pact with God to make a change and never live in fear again.

Reclaiming power: Island bodybuilders prove anyone can make a change

Natasha McNally, a single mother of two, was used to putting others ahead of herself. She had her daughter at age 21 and son at 26, and, with the energy she spent on her dissolving relationship, she found herself lost in the eddy of chores, cleaning, work, school and meals.

But it was when she found a lump in her breast and doctors couldn’t tell if it was cancerous or not that she decided to make a pact with God.

“I said, ‘God, if you could afford me more time and give me one more shot here for everything to be OK, I promise I will never live in fear again,’” says McNally, now 41.

She was given that clear bill of health on New Year’s Eve of 2006, with her 12-year-old daughter by her side to celebrate.

“I realized I had been finding excuses not to really live my life; everything I told myself I could never do was around fear — but what was I afraid of: stretch marks?” says McNally of her long-time dream to have a healthy body. “Before, I had been taking such poor care of myself. I wasn’t healthy — physically or emotionally — and now I really had to do something about it. I had promised!”

As though the universe had planned it, McNally ran into a fitness trainer at work who offered to help her find a start. The two began a dedicated routine, and spent the next eight months training together. But while McNally saw her body and mindset change drastically, she never imagined that what started as a goal to get healthy would eventually turn into a powerful drive to compete and become a trophy-winning fitness champion.

Now, McNally is helping others realize that same goal through Victoria’s second-annual Fit Life Vancouver Island Fitness & Figure Championship. For the first time, on Sat., Oct. 27, the event will offer competition categories in men’s bodybuilding, along with the previous women’s fitness, figure and bikini divisions.

“There are so many obstacles we create so we don’t have to follow through,” says McNally. “And it doesn’t matter what the goal is — school, travel, a new job, writing a book, painting, getting healthy — the real goal is to not hold yourself back because you are afraid to fail.”

Strong: the new skinny

When McNally first heard about the Victoria competition in 2011, she was thrilled — finally, bodybuilders and fitness competitors on the Island would have a stay-at-home chance.

“People don’t see Victoria as the city for bodybuilding, but [participants] come from all over this city,” says McNally, who is now a coordinator for the event. “We have a huge Mixed Martial Arts [MMA] and a yoga scene, we have health-conscious people who bike to work and eat organic, we have the ideal environment for outdoor recreation: it’s the perfect set-up.”

Dwayne Ganderton, founder of the Fit Life competition, decided the Island needed an event to celebrate the challenges and triumphs everyone faces with healthy living — and also to help push the industry forward.

“We have to be careful around our concept of bodybuilding, because the industry is moving away from that stereotypical image and toward one that supports athletic bodies,” says Ganderton, who works as a life coach and a support worker for people with long-term weight management goals. “When people say ‘strong is the new skinny,’ they really mean it. We want to focus on the fitness of the body rather than a trade ideal.”

While the competition itself can drive competitors to the extremes of workout and diet regimes, Ganderton is quick to point out the goal is not to reach “the perfect body” and then stay there — it’s as much for people to see what they are capable of.

“Canadians spend over $60 billion a year on health and diet routines, yet 65 per cent of us are still overweight, and so many people are living with ‘disordered eating’ — whether it’s extreme dieting or eating at Tim Hortons everyday,” says Ganderton. “It’s a struggle to live healthy, because healthy living is not necessarily ‘normal’ and it’s not what we are sold — we are sold images and ideas of instant gratification. There’s a huge psychology behind why we choose to eat what we do.”

Ganderton himself came from a background of weight challenges, but, like McNally, used his own goals to delve into a healthy lifestyle. Now, he challenges those who are drawn into fitness to examine what is holding them back.

“Developing that fitness figure — or bodybuilding — for women is not a look that everyone likes, or even respects; it is niche-y,” says McNally. “What a lot of people don’t understand about figure is that it isn’t always about losing something. When you are training, sometimes you need to build up to look symmetrical, and that is just as important.”

About 20 competitors showed up to the first Island competition, which McNally volunteered at. By that time, she had already entered three professional competitions, often contending with as many as 150 other participants from across the country. McNally won six categories, placed in more and was ready to give back. She began to coach other women, and other moms, who were inspired by her story.

More than a pose

“The thing I have found so exciting about my process is that you don’t have to ‘settle’ for what you have. Genetics play a part, but, with hard work, you can override genetics,” says McNally. “The reason so many people give up is because they have no plan. When you plan to compete, that can give you the investment you need.”

That investment is something 2012 competitor Vanessa Parker is keenly aware of. The 37-year-old mother of three attended last year’s Fit Life competition just to watch, then decided to make her own change. She hired a personal trainer to help her lose the more than 100 lbs she had put on since her pregnancies, but wondered if a competition was something she could do.

“I always struggled with my weight, so I really didn’t feel like I had a right to do this,” says Parker. “As soon as I committed to the idea, though, my trainer told me I had to go out and tell 10 people. She knew that, if I was accountable for it, I would have to do it.”

Parker did, then started her intense training last January and saw the shift from her original 230 lbs to 127 lbs. The process was difficult and forced Parker, a self-described food-lover, to adopt a “new normal” way of living. Friends were often threatened by her drive and didn’t understand her decisions not to join everyone else for a drink, or a meal out, but she kept her resolve.

“The biggest change for me has been my mindset,” says Parker. “I still reach for clothes that the ‘old me’ would have fit into, then I’m surprised when I have to go down another size. I still look in the mirror and see myself as big, even though people tell me I am so tiny now. There is a mindset that just grows with you, which people don’t really talk about, and I think it takes longer to work off.”

While some competitors have used the competition as a mission to lose weight, others, like Monique Miller, are drawn to its other element: confidence.

“Showing off your body is not really something we celebrate or even encourage in this day and age, especially as you get older,” says Miller, 34. “To see females walk across a stage with such confidence is so inspiring. And we are talking about all ages, all kinds of body types.”

Miller says health and fitness have always been important to her; she has participated in 5K and 10K runs before, but in a casual way.

“I was always the mascot in school,” she says. “I never saw myself as very coordinated, and I liked the gym, but it was hard to stay motivated. I could never see myself standing and posing or anything like that.”

Miller surprised herself, then, after watching last year’s competition for fun and getting sucked in. With a background in athletics, biology and kinesiology, she became her own trainer and decided to develop her own meal and fitness plan to compete the following year.

“I put my ticket to last year’s event on my fridge to remind myself that my ticket to this was going to be my motivation — both through my fridge and at the gym,” says Miller.

Now, Miller has seen her own inspiration change as she has made supportive friends through her gym and with others who share her desire to compete.

“The funny thing is that bikinis come in every size. There are women who wear a size zero who won’t put on a swimsuit because they aren’t comfortable with their bodies, but it is incredible to find out what you are capable of,” says Miller. “It’s great to realize that these people don’t look amazing because they were born that way: they look amazing because they’ve worked damn hard. This competition isn’t about vanity — it’s about accomplishing something you are proud of.”

To McNally, the process has taught her a lot about herself, and about the misconceptions she had around self-imposed limits, and around getting older.

“I had never really looked forward to aging, but now I look at these competitors who start at any age and achieve amazing results, and I realize you can look the best you’ve ever looked in your life at any age,” she says. “Never believe it’s too late to do anything. It’s not.”

Next year, the event will receive designation from the British Columbia Amateur Bodybuilding Association (BC ABBA), meaning winning participants will qualify for national competitions. Ganderton will also add a category for men’s fitness and figure. As more than double the participants pump up for this year’s competition, Parker is as excited as any to compete, though she doesn’t care about placement — she says she has already won.

“One of the best side effects of this that I never expected is for my kids to see me making these sacrifices and showing them what it looks like to be dedicated to something you want to achieve,” she says. “At first, I was doing this to get the body, but I’ve fallen in love with the process. Now, my passion will keep me going, long after the competition is over.” M

Check out the Fit Life Vancouver Island Fitness & Figure Championship Sat., Oct. 27, at McPherson Playhouse (3 Centennial). Pre-judging at 11am, with competition and health expo at 6pm. Tickets $56.50 at 250-386-6121. More at