First Person: Ernestine Shepherd

Ernestine Shepherd entered her first bodybuilding competition at the age of 71, and won

I’m proud of the way my body looks but it was still a shock when I went to buy my first competition swimsuit. My oh my! I could not believe that they wanted me to wear something so skimpy on a stage. I felt embarrassed to walk out in front of a crowd of people but when I did, the audience cheered and hollered. My husband Collin is 82 now, and it was a big surprise when he found out too. We were married way back in 1956, when even a modest bikini was frowned upon.

I was born and bred in Baltimore, Maryland, and still live here today. At school I was a prissy kid, too concerned with the way I looked to enjoy sports. I wanted to be a nurse but ended up in a factory making telephones, earning some extra money modelling. I appeared in a couple of TV commercials and always tried to make my hair and figure look nice but I never went to the gym.

After my son Michael was born in 1959, my body started to lose shape. By the time I was 56, I was a well-padded school secretary who ate everything. One day, my sister Velvet and I were invited to a picnic and told to take our swimming costumes. Neither of us had been into fitness, so we felt overweight and uncomfortable showing off our bodies. That’s what inspired us to start exercising and we signed up for an aerobics class. Velvet was more dedicated than me but our bodies started to tone up and look real nice.

Things were going well until my sister died of a brain aneurism. I was devastated. I quit exercising and started to suffer from panic attacks and high blood pressure. It was a year or two before a friend persuaded me that Velvet would have wanted me to carry on with training. I went back to the gym and immediately felt better about myself again.

I didn’t take part in my first bodybuilding competition until I was 71. My trainer suggested I enter the Natural East Coast Tournament, and I won. It was a very emotional moment for me because of my sister – she would have been so proud.

Some folk still think it’s weird that a grandmother wants to be a bodybuilder. The fact is, I feel better now than at any time in my life. I’m dedicated to looking after my body and eating right, I don’t take supplements or pills. And I’m training harder than ever. I jump out of bed at 2.30am and say my prayers, because I believe fitness is nothing without God in your life. Then, at 4am, I team up with a couple of friends and go for a 10-mile run. I’m usually at the gym by 8.30am. I can bench press 135lbs, and one-handed press-ups are just easy! I’m fitter than my son, and my 16-year-old grandson can’t believe what I do.

I try to have a sleep in the afternoon and I’m always in bed by 10pm. Collin is really supportive, making sure everything’s in order at home. His running days are over but he does a lot of walking, and I couldn’t compete without him. I’m sure he never imagined that one day he’d be married to a bodybuilding granny.

There is no shortcut to having a healthy body. You need to be careful about what you eat too. No junk meals, only natural food and good things, like oatmeal and tuna. I aim to eat 1,500 calories a day, including three glasses of egg whites. I’m 5ft 5in tall and weigh 116lbs so my body fat ratio is 9 per cent. I have such an appetite for life that not eating sweet things is a small price to pay.

People ask how much longer I will be able to compete but my body isn’t complaining yet. I have no major health problems and only suffer from acid reflux, which means I can’t drink juices or eat grapefruit. It does sadden me when I see overweight people struggling to walk and not trying to exercise. I want to tell them that it is amazing what we can do when we put our minds to something, regardless of age. Age is nothing but a number and it shouldn’t stop you doing anything.

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