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What makes girls get up at dawn to work out in the gym and give up all the treats like chocolate?

Stephanie Bell talks to three local female body builders ahead of their Northern Ireland championships later this month.

They are the ladies with flex appeal — the top athletes whose incredible dedication shows in every taut ripple and defined muscle on their perfectly sculpted physiques.

Northern Ireland’s leading female body builders are currently at their peak having spent months in intensive training and strict dieting to prepare for the province’s biggest contest on April 21.

It’s a harsh regime which demands total devotion and much sacrifice with the rewards visible in the perfectly toned bodies which will be paraded on stage in the Ulster Hall at the NABBA Northern Ireland Championships.

Billed as “Northern Ireland’s Biggest and Best Bodybuilding Contest”, winners will qualify to compete in the British and World championships.

Last year’s competition saw the biggest turn out of athletes ever with more than 80 competitors at the sell-out event. Similar numbers are expected again this year with as many as 35 ladies taking to the stage.

Audiences will also be treated to routines from three guests, Mr Universe 2011 Tony Mount, reigning Mr Northern Ireland and Mr Britain Class 1 2011 Mark Getty and Miss Britain Toned 2011 Joanne Stanger who will be showing off their remarkable physiques to the crowds.

Every athlete will have been dieting for at least 14 weeks, combined with training of up to three hours every day to get in the best possible shape for this major event.

We caught up with three of this year’s competitors who told us what attracted them to this extreme sport and what is involved in achieving an award-winning toned body.

I feel feminine, I wear dresses and do girly things’

Linda Cassidy (29), a primary school teacher and fitness instructor from Banbridge, competed for the first time last year and came third in the NI Championship Miss Trained category. She says:

I’ve been doing gymnastics since I was a child and weight training from the age of 15. I only started bodybuilding and competing last year. I think it was to give me a goal because I was flat out training and it can become a bit monotonous if you have nothing to work towards. I took part in four competitions in total last year.

After the Northern Ireland championships, I competed in the British finals in May and then Miss England in October, when I came third and qualified for Miss Universe, where I finished in the top 14 — so it wasn’t a bad first year. It meant a lot of training and dieting and was extremely intense emotionally.

I think it was tougher on my boyfriend Gareth than me as he had to put up with my moaning about being tired and hungry.

I have been preparing for the Northern Ireland championships this year since January. I get up at around 5.30am and do an hour’s cardio training and then go to the gym to do weightlifting before going to work. I go back to the gym in the evening for another hour of fitness training and then do more cardio workouts when I get home.

I think you have to be a bit obsessive compulsive to do it and I am like that about most things.

I love being on stage in my bikini and my tan and even though you are up there for only three or four minutes it is worth all the pain and heartache. You feel a million dollars. The dieting can be tough and you have to work your day round your food.

You do get cravings and it’s not chocolate I miss most, but cheese.

I’m in the trained category which is bigger muscles and I do get different reactions from people.

People in the fitness world appreciate the dedication. Other people don’t understand, especially women who don’t like the bulkier look and think it is not feminine.

I feel feminine; I still look like a girl and wear dresses and do girly things.

My boyfriend trains alongside me and is very supportive and would eat what I eat when I’m preparing for a competition.

Unfortunately, one of the first things that comes to people’s minds when you mention bodybuilding is steroids which I do get peeved off about, as you are working so hard and dieting to achieve your look, and you know some people are thinking ‘she must have taken something to look like that’.

My friends and family are 100% behind me and it’s nice when they come up to the competitions to support me and see the results of my training.

‘I have no social life when I’m in training’

Claire Scullion (33) from Bangor is a self employed sports therapist and winner of the NI Toned Figure 2010 title. She says:

About five years ago the trainer at the gym I joined asked me if I had ever done figurebuilding. He showed me a DVD and when I saw these extremely feminine, powerful and elegant women, that was it for me, I was hooked.

They had such defined muscularity and I decided I wanted to look like that. It involves a lot of |hard work and you have to change your lifestyle as well as your thought processes.

We have off-season and on-season preparation to do. Everything in our day to day lives has to be thought out and calculated. I started to prepare for the Northern Ireland championships last November with a strict diet and exercise routine. The diet is very much based on body weight, body mass and muscle. I eat only chicken, fish, red meat, green vegetables, fish oil and eggs during this period and drink 5-6 litres of water every day, plus take all my essential amino acids and multi vitamins and minerals. I will lose about two and a half stone in weight and build muscle.

I get up every day at 5.30am and go to the gym for an hour and a half of cardio training. I eat every three hours and go back to the gym for an hour of weightlifting.

I have two great trainers, former Mr Northern Ireland Mark Getty at Olympus Gym. I also go to England every couple of months for training with Miss Universe Rachael Grice. I am also grateful to Steven Stewart who trains with me.

My family and friends are extremely supportive. They know when I am tired and don’t have the energy for a girly get together or when I just need a hug and to be told everything will be OK. I have no social life whatsoever when I am training. I’m single at the minute but even for a guy to meet me when I am training, they wouldn’t be meeting the real me. I don’t have muscles popping out everywhere so I don’t usually get a negative reaction from people. It does frustrate me when people talk about bodybuilders using steroids, especially because we work so hard to achieve our physiques.

It is a humbling experience and I think it has made me appreciate life more and hard work. Bodybuilding makes you think more about things because you are being deprived of so many things that everyone else takes for granted. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It is a very personal journey.

I want to sget on that stage and look better than I did any other time I competed. I’d like to wish all the girls good luck. It’s easy to sit in the audience and judge but it takes a lot of courage and strength to go on that stage and I know what the girls have been through to get there.

‘I am fascinated what I can do with my body’

Claire Rose Fegan (28) is a beautician from Stranmillis in Belfast and winner of the Northern Ireland Miss Toned Figure 2011, going on to the British Championships. She says:

Last year was my first year competing seriously. I used to be in a dance school run by former Miss Universe Andi Black and in 2005 she asked some of us to take part in a bodybuilding contest to make up numbers.

I trained for two or three weeks and did it. She asked again in 2008 and that time I trained for a month.

I’ve always gone to the Championships every year and really admired the girls. Doing it to help out for those two years I was really intrigued by the changes you can make to your body. I’m a naturally small person and I was fascinated by how big I could get my body.

I know people find it bizarre, and even my own family struggle at times to understand it, but for me it is simply a fascination with what I can do with my body. To prepare for the championships is very tough. I start a strict diet eight weeks before, which is very high in protein and low in carbs and involves eating every two hours. You aren’t allowed any treats or fruit.

It does affect your brain function and just the way women who are pregnant talk about baby brain, we get diet brain. If I do find myself struggling and if I am going to cheat, I will cheat with something that’s not too bad, like a teaspoonful of peanut butter or an orange.

The idea is to strip off all your body fat and get a really lean look. I exercise every day for between two and three hours with heavy weights four times a week and cardio exercises every day. It can be a lonely and anti-social eight weeks. It’s hard work and it can be annoying when people think you have achieved your look by using steroids. I don’t really care what they think as I work hard for it and I know I am natural.

My boyfriend, Rod Bell, is a personal trainer and he has been really supportive. I don’t think that he would like me to go into the next category, above toned, which is really muscular. He likes me lean with a little bit of muscle. The sport has increased massively since 2005 when I was asked to fill in because there was a lack of competitors, which I think is great to see.

Tickets for the NABBA Northern Ireland Championships are available from the Ulster Hall box office, tel: 028 9033 4455 or email boxoffice@belfastcity.gov.uk

next stop is the universe

  • The National Amateur Body Building Association was formed in 1950. Its first Mr Universe contest was won by Steve Reeves who later found fame in more than 30 Hercules movies
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger, a four times winner of Mr Universe, also became famous for his film roles before moving into politics and becoming Governor of California
  • Northern Ireland holds annual qualifying events for the Mr and Miss Britain contests which can lead onto the European and Universe championships
  • At the last Universe championships 151 athletes from 36 countries flexed their muscles
  • Glamour model Jodie Marsh shocked the nation when she turned to bodybuilding. Previously known for stepping out wearing next to nothing, the former pin-up girl denied it was a publicity stunt.

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