By Laura Coulter
15 December, 2014
Congratulations on your big wins! Is bodybuilding something that you've always been interested in?
Thank you, it was a good first year of flexing! Bodybuilding has been on my radar since I was a kid. My Dad was really into weightlifting and bodybuilding aesthetics for many years and that was a big part of our lifestyle at home—the baggy muscle pants, the raw egg yolk protein shakes he used to have me drink, the muscle magazines, Tiger’s Milk bars, all of that. When I started getting into trouble as a teen, he’d bring me to Gold’s Gym with him and make me work out. I guess the interest was seeded around then, but I never had the discipline to go with it at the time.
I made a halfhearted attempt to become a bodybuilder in my late twenties, but during that time I was also a pack-a-day smoker, a heavy drinker, dependent on antidepressants and painkillers, just a mess. So, I’d lift heavy at the gym and then walk quickly to the bar as soon as I was done with my sets, cigarette dangling out of my mouth. That just doesn’t work.
I cleaned up my act in 2009: quit smoking, quit drinking and quit taking antidepressants and I got into the long distance running scene. After a while, I found that I was better at weightlifting and enjoyed it more than running so a few years ago, I decided to train with the aim to compete as a figure athlete.
What were some of the challenges you faced getting ready for the competitions and how did you stay focused?
Everything about it was challenging, to be honest! I didn’t expect competition preparation to be so all-encompassing; I thought that the process would be similar to what was required to train for a marathon, so I was in for a big surprise. Finding balance in my work and family life while training has been the biggest hurdle by far. Preparation and time in the gym takes up a lot of hours and head space, and requires a fair bit of sacrifice. No indulging for me while on holiday!
Ten months before my first competition, the Singapore National Bodybuilding Championship, I became quite ill. I’d been dealing with endometriosis, an immune and reproductive system disease, for many years, and it got to the point that it incapacitated me, so I had to have surgery. That was a setback.
By the time I’d decided to compete, I’d already committed in my heart one hundred percent so the focus was there from the beginning. To help me along the way, I put a big photo of IFBB pro figure competitor, Erin Stern, right in the middle of a Vision Board I keep in my office. I also hired a coach, Singapore-based personal trainer Roz Alexander. Showing up each week for our sessions and sending her regular progress reports kept me accountable. Being ambitious by nature, I wasn’t going to settle for anything less than giving it my all. You must have the drive to be the very best version of yourself if you’re going to participate in this sport. It’s not like marathons or triathlons, where participation, camaraderie and a finisher’s ribbon are generally the goals. In bodybuilding, you step on stage to win: period.
What’s the experience of competing like?
The experience of competing in Singapore versus competing in the US was entirely different. I can hardly begin to compare the two. In Singapore, there was a fair amount of support among the athletes and it felt like a tight community that we were all in together. The guys were helping each other apply tan and the ladies were complimenting each other on suits and shoes. Backstage, the environment was relaxed. I had a friend, Samina Malik, taking care of my makeup, and my coach was with me the entire time. There were also approximately twenty supporters in the audience. Singapore Nationals was a really great experience and I’m thankful it was my first competition.
Competing at the IFBB/NPC Ft. Lauderdale Cup in the US was intimidating. The atmosphere was extremely competitive, as the bar was set quite high. Everything happened so fast—I was up at 5:30am getting my makeup done and my spray tan reapplied and before I knew it, we were shuffled out in front of the judges. I had about twenty seconds to show my stuff during individual presentations and then exit the stage. For the first category I competed in, Figure Novice, the head judge didn’t even see me. It happened so quickly, he actually asked after if I’d already posed! My heart sank to my feet when that happened as it meant that I wouldn’t even place as a winner, if one of the judges hadn’t remembered seeing me. I had to force myself to keep it together for the second category which was Figure Open. I was on my own for much of the preparations and had no real support backstage, although my Dad and brother came for the evening show, which I really appreciated.
The Ft. Lauderdale Cup taught me to believe in myself no matter what the circumstances and to let me practice my belief in myself in a real experience, not just played out in my head. I was surrounded by many phenomenal athletes who had already been competing for years but, despite this intense surrounding pressure, I told myself, “You flew thirty hours to bring home a trophy and that’s what you’re going to do.” And so, I did.
Tell us what your diet looks like. Any treats?
I’ve been eating a primarily whole foods diet for about two years now, so I didn’t have to make much of an adjustment in terms of food choices. I eat six times a day and I weigh all of my food for portion control. Sweet potato, asparagus, chicken, salmon and beef are staples, as well as eggs and oatmeal. I also consume a lot of healthy fats including olive, flax and coconut oils, and avocados. All of the meat I prepare is antibiotic- and hormone-free, and I try to buy organic whenever possible.
On Saturday evenings, I allow myself to eat whatever I want, which is usually a burger, a steak or a bowl of pasta with some garlic bread. For sweets, I try to stick with desserts that follow Paleo guidelines that contain no white flour or refined sugar. I love the Bacon Chocolate Brownies from “The Paleo Kitchen” cookbook and I keep a batch of them in the freezer. Once in a while I’ll indulge in an ice cream cone from Udders or a piece of cheesecake but I don’t really crave those things anymore. French fries, on the other hand…
Do you prescribe to a certain belief like "The Secret" or destiny in working towards your goals?
You cannot succeed without vision and I’d formed a crystal clear picture in my mind of what my competition experience would be like months before I even stepped on stage. Every evening, I mentally went through my routine in my head while lying in bed. During training, I employed the mind-muscle connection, recruiting muscle fibers through visualization. I meditate and pray regularly and these actions are just as important, if not more, than lifting the weight because they keep me in a positive, focused frame of mind. If my head’s not screwed on properly, I’m not going to make it to the gym every day and I’ll find excuses not to go. As a result, I’ll lose momentum. These are all tools I learned in the process of becoming a runner, and by the time I’d started training for figure competitions, they were already second nature.
I also use Vision Boards to keep myself clear and inspired, and to remind me where I’m heading. One of my Vision Boards contains several photos and words that represent my aspirations as a competitive athlete, and I probably look at it a good dozen times a day. I truly believe that there aren’t any limits to what we can achieve and the way we visualize our future should represent that truth. My life has proven this over and over again.
I’ve been holding workshops on Vision Boards and visualization at Woolf Works, a women’s co-working space in Joo Chiat. They’re quite popular and we have a lot of fun. I’m obsessed with encouraging people to move beyond their perceived limitations. What would the world be like if we all lived up to our full potential?
What are some challenges women face living a healthy lifestyle in Singapore? Any advice for them?
Singapore is a fantastic country to stay fit and active in. There are so many race and triathlon events available each month, as well as more unique sports like dragon boating and bodybuilding that anyone can get involved in. There seem to be outdoor boot camps, boutique gyms and yoga studios popping up on every corner now, and many qualified personal trainers will actually travel to one’s home or condo gym. That said, it’s incredibly hot here and I think that stops a lot of people from getting active outdoors, especially if they’re not used to the weather. There’s not much work-life balance here either, so for professional women, finding the time to fit in exercise can be daunting, especially if they’re raising children as well. You really have to make fitness a priority and a habit, like brushing your teeth. I suggest to my Heath Coaching and Personal Training clients that they calendarize their exercise time and make it a non-negotiable activity; it must get done no matter what! Otherwise, it’s too easy to wriggle out of it. Hiring a coach to keep you accountable or joining a team or club can really help.
Maintaining a nutritious diet here in Singapore is a challenge, especially with all the yummy hawker stand dishes and diverse cuisines. Preparation is key: by preparing and packing meals and snacks, practicing mindfulness around eating, and scheduling restaurant meals instead of dining out impulsively. Learn how to read labels and get curious about what’s actually in your food. Stick to the periphery of the grocery stores to avoid processed foods. Ladies, you can be healthy and eat your chocolate too just stick to seventy percent dark or more!
I’ve also noticed that Singapore can be quite ageist; there’s a narrow focus on celebrating the thirty and under set. I guess it’s like this in most developed countries, but in Singapore, it’s very apparent. This attitude steers women away from believing that an athletic, active lifestyle can be achieved and maintained in their forties, fifties, sixties and beyond.It discourages continuous striving throughout all stages of life. This is ridiculous! Women can become athletes at any age, and they should. We ladies really need to support each other, even if we happen to be competing against one another in a sport or activity.
What do you do for fun?
Get up at 5am to make hot sauce swirls in my egg whites! That’s only during on-season though.
I’ve decided to take a year off to build as much size as I can before competing again and get back into Olympic lifting, which I did a bit of before solely focusing on bodybuilding.
Spending more time with my husband and my dogs is definitely on the plan as competition season is tough on everyone. We have a few trips planned—Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Italy—and I’m going to make sure I take full advantage of the local cuisines. My Health Coaching business is growing rapidly, so I’m also going to spend more time on that, as well as some advocacy work about using exercise as a treatment for depression and addiction. It’s not difficult for me to keep busy as there are so many things on my big “to do” list. Competitive bodybuilding is an important part of my reality now, but it’s just one component. My family and friends, my business, my meditation practice and spiritual life, enjoying my time as an expat—these all take precedence and I’d like to keep it that way. Also, French Fries. Finally, some French Fries!
Laura Coulter is a globe-trotting journalist, event planner, teacher, fundraiser and builder of houses. She enjoys hosting fabulous events that give back to her community and causes she believes in.