Northern Ireland bodybuilder Nicole on how she went too far in search for a perfect shape
Bodybuilder Nicole Toan is back at the top of her sport after taking a step back when the physical and mental pressures became too much. Now, as she prepares for an international contest, Nicole (30), who lives in Cookstown with boyfriend Gareth Collins, tells Mairead Holland how she found the right balance
If experience has taught bodybuilder and personal trainer Nicole Toan one thing, it's that striking the right balance is the key to physical and mental good health. Nicole may be just 30, but she has lived through the highs and lows of pushing herself to the limits in pursuit of perfection.
A former bodybuilding champion, she stepped back from the sport in 2017 to reassess her lifestyle after feeling the physical and mental strain of acquiring and maintaining the ideal physique.
And while she has returned to the sport and is preparing for a Muscle Contest Ireland show in April, it is with a different mindset.
She also has a message, in particular, for young people who see images on social media that they believe are the norm or that they feel they need to aspire to.
"When girls look at someone online who has this amazing shape, what they probably don't realise is that she may have had buttock transplants or that the picture could be photoshopped," she says.
"Or that she has just been living on next to nothing and not eating to get that look.
"It's not reality."
The Belfast woman admits she got the "bodybuilding bug" around five years ago and in the quest for the ideal shape pushed herself through physical pain that she shouldn't have ignored.
"I have a herniated disc in my neck from wear and tear and not getting it seen to. I just went too far, but now I know to stop and listen to my body," she explains.
The punishing challenges that Nicole subjected herself to were laid bare in February 2016 in a BBC True North programme entitled All For Show which featured her rigorous and all-consuming training routine to improve the condition, symmetry and size of her muscles.
As a previous winner of the NABBA (National Amateur Body-Builders' Association) competition, the pressure was on to repeat her success and the show followed Nicole over six months as she lifted huge weights, followed a restricted diet and sacrificed a normal social life to impress the judges.
It revealed the toll such a lifestyle can take on social relationships and the stress that comes with such unwavering focus.
Looking back on it now, Nicole explains: "January, February, March and April are the months you get ready for a show and in that time just after Christmas there was my birthday and Valentine's Day to get through - all those months when you can't going out with friends and family.
"I was very secluded during that time. Then when the shows are over, you go on holidays and you binge.
"I couldn't get the balance right. I was going extreme, doing a show and then mentally I couldn't get back in the zone."
Nicole's last show was in 2017 at which point, she realised, that after five years of competing she had lost "a bit of love" for the sport and something had to give.
"I felt under pressure so I gave myself some time out. I still stayed in shape, but I went out with friends and family and had meals out," she says.
"I balanced it out. One day I would eat quite clean and the next I would have had a bar of chocolate.
"I was a nice shape - but not full abs - and I gave myself a goal to do a photoshoot to prove that you can have nice buttocks, nice legs and look good without beating yourself up about it and busting a gut."
The shoot was before Christmas and since then Nicole, who still has the 'bug' despite everything, has decided to do another bodybuilding show, coached by Emma Gormley, the first International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) Pro female in Ireland.
"I have done posing for her in the last couple of shows and she always said I should get back into it. The show is in Limerick and it's bikini fitness, which is less about muscle and more about looking shaped and toned."
The fitness fanatic's love affair with bodybuilding began, in a roundabout way, through dance.
"I was into dancing from a very young age - Latin, salsa and ballroom. I taught myself in the beginning and then went to lessons in my teens," she says.
"I started training in the gym when I was about 18 and then I got involved in doing a bit of boxing. I had a couple of fights and joined a boxing club. My fitness was coming up, I was putting on muscle and I was shaping my body, so I decided to become a personal trainer because I loved it that much."
It was when Nicole was taking part in a fitness photoshoot for the gym where she worked that she was approached and asked if she wanted to take part in a bodybuilding show.
She says: "They told me I could do a routine on stage... and I thought I could put my own wee twist on it and do some body-popping. That was my first show in 2013, the NABBA at the Ulster Hall. The judges liked it and I won. It was something different. And I was hooked after that."
Nicole's new-found passion took her on to further competition and success - in the Brits and then the Worlds.
She reflects: "I was around bodybuilders who were old-school - like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane. They lived and breathed the sport."
Nicole points out that one such bodybuilder who took her under his wing, Eric Dowey from Bangor, is still going strong at the age of 82 and has just won the Worlds in the natural category.
After working in Pete's Gym in east Belfast for two years she moved over to Cornwall for a while and set up her own personal training business before moving back to Belfast.
She has now settled in Cookstown where she works out of a local gym and runs her own company Miss:Fitt.
The name speaks for itself as Nicole has tapped into the all-female market and describes herself as "really busy".
"I do morning camps, boot camps, one-to-one and online training. I have a lot of different clientele," she explains.
"I have girls who train constantly, I have wee young girls who are 17 or 18 and want a Kim Kardashian bum, I have girls who are mums and just want to get away from the stress of things.
"I have very overweight people, people with multiple sclerosis and diabetes, and people who are even scared to walk into a gym."
These days, Nicole, who has also worked as a make-up artist and who qualified as a nutritionist in 2017, eats five or six meals a day, whether it be chicken and rice, salmon with veg and potato, or a pasta dish.
"I indulge, I don't hold back but the difference now is that I know my boundaries," she laughs.
"I love what I do. Weight training is the best sort of training. You burn fat more and it shapes the body. It's generally good for your health, and cardio as well.
"And I still do a lot of boxing too and I have boxing clients. It's really good fun. A lot of girls come to me and they think that not eating is best but eating is good. Getting the food right is 100%, the training is a bonus."
And while the thought of preparing six meals a day might seem daunting, Nicole has that well in hand.
Hutton's butchers in Cookstown supply all her meals ready-made as well as stocking the healthy eating Miss:Fitt range for the public.
Nicole says: "They are all under 300 calories, low in calories and sugar. I just pop them in the microwave. It couldn't be easier.
"Before, I felt myself falling into the yo-yo dieting but I have taught myself to balance and eat in moderation - 80% eating whole foods whilst getting my nutrients and 20% of the time indulging in my favourite food.
"It's just about giving yourself a realistic goal."
In all, she feels a much rounder, more fulfilled and happier person than the 'perfect specimen' she once drove herself to become.
"I do like going out and having a good laugh with my friends. My boyfriend, Gareth, is also very supportive. He is into fitness and competing. You need someone on the same wavelength," she laughs.