“It’s about a lot of hard work” “I was liv­ing out of home, eat­ing lots of choco­late and pizza, drink­ing and smok­ing, and I’d never set foot in­side a weights room”

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Joe Hildebrand -

It’s four o’clock on a tomb-cold Mel­bourne morn­ing. It’s the kind of cold where bat­ter­ies fail and frost cov­ers any­thing left out­side. The sun won’t be up for an­other three hours. But Lau­rel Downes is out the door by 4.15am, down­ing a pre-work­out combo of caf­feine and fat burners in the car. She’s ready for her gru­elling morn­ing ses­sion at the gym known as “the mecca”, Do­herty’s Gym in Brunswick.

Less than two weeks out from her 12th com­pe­ti­tion in three years, 31-year-old Downes starts with “fasted car­dio” on the step­per for 40 min­utes, fol­lowed by an hour of weight train­ing – to­day it’s back and shoul­ders, her favourite. Later, she’ll post a photo of her epic “pump” to her 17,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers. For Downes, this is the best part of ev­ery day.

An in­creas­ing num­ber of women are hit­ting the weights room. They squat heavy, they chase a good pump, and they fol­low a diet that makes prison food look like an all-you-can-eat buf­fet. Since 2013, when the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Body­build­ing (IFBB) Aus­tralia added a bikini di­vi­sion, what was once a male-dom­i­nated, rel­a­tively un­known sport has grown in pop­u­lar­ity. Com­peti­tors aim for the per­fect “bikini body” of around 10 per cent body fat, and they train (and eat) like ath­letes to get there.

Downes is cur­rently in prep for the IFBB Amanda Do­herty All Fe­male Clas­sic in Mel­bourne’s Moorab­bin on Satur­day. It’s pop­u­lar with new­bies be­cause it’s all-fe­male, and there­fore less in­tim­i­dat­ing.

Mark Ot­to­bre, a personal trainer who spe­cialises in 12-week body-build­ing comp prepa­ra­tion cour­ses, says bikini com­peti­tors are his fastest-grow­ing clients. “It’s like an en­try-level cat­e­gory – it’s not easy, but it’s achiev­able,” he says. “You can lose body fat rel­a­tively quickly with the right train­ing and nu­tri­tion. Mus­cle takes longer to build. The hard­est part for me in train­ing fe­males is teach­ing them to eat prop­erly, and heal­ing that re­la­tion­ship with food.”

Women’s re­la­tion­ship to food, and train­ing, re­flects not only their mind­set and emo­tions, but how they cope with stress. Downes says there is no room for re­la­tion­ship dra­mas when she’s in comp prep, as emo­tions af­fect her body. Even if she doesn’t eat any ex­tra kilo­joules, her body will “hold onto” food if it’s pro­duc­ing more of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol. Learn­ing about the in­ter­re­la­tion­ship of food, life, train­ing and feel­ings is what the ma­jor­ity of bikini com­peti­tors will tell you is the most in­ter­est­ing part of a prep.

Judges fo­cus on strength and sym­me­try. The weights room is cru­cial – you can only get so far with car­dio, and it does noth­ing for mus­cle def­i­ni­tion. Train­ers such as Ot­to­bre like to ban car­dio un­til the last few weeks of prep just to drop that last bit of fat “when you’ve used up ev­ery­thing else”. He also stresses the im­por­tance of a good coach to pre­pare the com­peti­tor for the post-comp come­down. “You’re never go­ing to look as good as you do on comp day, and that’s OK.”

For Downes, who takes her pre­pared bar­ra­mundi and greens in sand­wich bags to her full-time job in a child­care cen­tre ev­ery day, it’s a lifestyle choice. Un­like oth­ers chas­ing spon­sor­ship or in­ter­na­tional cham­pi­onships, she has no de­sire to turn pro. Prize money in Aus­tralia is al­most non-ex­is­tent, any­way. Jaz Cor­rell, who hired Ot­to­bre to prep her for her first com­pe­ti­tion and has placed in five since, does want to turn pro­fes­sional. For Cor­rell, the hard­est part was also the most sat­is­fy­ing: pos­ing on­stage.

Like most com­peti­tors, Downes has a weight-loss story that led to the bikini di­vi­sion. “I was liv­ing out of home, eat­ing lots of choco­late and pizza, drink­ing and smok­ing, and I’d never set foot in­side a weights room,” she says. Af­ter meet­ing Amanda Do­herty (wife of Tony Do­herty, who runs the Do­herty’s Gym chain and IFBB Fig­ure Pro), Downes lost eight kilo­grams in eight weeks on a diet plan Do­herty wrote for her (no sugar, min­i­mal carbs, eat­ing ev­ery three hours) and daily ses­sions on her spin bike. Soon af­ter, she joined the gym, and then be­gan com­pet­ing in the bikini di­vi­sion. Un­like Cor­rell, Downes found pos­ing on­stage fun, and now teaches the poses to new com­peti­tors.

THE FIRST THING you no­tice upon ar­riv­ing at Kingston Arts Cen­tre on com­pe­ti­tion day is the smell of spray tan. Back­stage are four tan­ning tents, and the women must be naked for their fourth and fi­nal “top coat”. Mod­esty has no place here, but there’s a strict no-males pol­icy. There are smears of fake tan on the toi­let seats. Make-up artists have set up camps in the cof­fee stand down­stairs, and I know which ones are com­peti­tors by their black­ened skin and false eye­lashes.

A friendly man with huge arms waves me into the com­peti­tors’ room. Dur­ing the show, I’ll hear him shout­ing en­cour­age­ment to his “clients” on­stage (“Smash­ing it, Steph!”). He’s one of a grow­ing num­ber of pro­fes­sional body builders be­ing hired by as­pir­ing bikini com­peti­tors for their first show.

At 10am, a dozen or so com­peti­tors are in the back room, which is freez­ing cold.

Heat­ing, ap­par­ently, would melt the tan­ner. Ly­ing on the floor near es­kies full of chicken, rice cakes and other body-build­ing sta­ples, with blan­kets cov­er­ing their dark­ened skin, the women re­mind me of kids camp­ing out overnight for con­cert tick­ets. Some even have pil­lows. Si­mone Collins, a fig­ure com­peti­tor who also helps out back­stage, says, “Blan­kets work bet­ter than clothes – they don’t want to smear their tan.” A smat­ter­ing of bar­bells lit­ter the floor, ready for com­peti­tors to pump up their mus­cles be­fore they go on­stage.

Prob­a­bly the weird­est thing is the treats ta­ble, which cov­ers the en­tire back wall. Plat­ters of cup­cakes, brown­ies, choco­lates and slices are laid out for the com­peti­tors – Amanda Do­herty, who doesn’t eat sugar, made them the night be­fore. “You don’t see this at the Bendigo Clas­sic [mixed com­pe­ti­tion],” some­one says. “Amanda only does this for the girls.” Collins says the sugar fills out the mus­cles that have been de­pleted over the pre-show prep. It still seems odd.

With tiny legs, huge fake lashes and black­ened skin, the com­peti­tors re­sem­ble Oompa Loom­pas from Tim Bur­ton’s ver­sion of Char­lie And The Choco­late Fac­tory. Some have sup­port crews to help them – the biki­nis re­quire su­per­glue to stay put. There’s a strange ca­ma­raderie, ev­ery­one semi-naked, the tan­ning as­sis­tants hon­ing in on a smear on an in­ner thigh here, a strap that needs ad­just­ing there.

Downes’s di­vi­sion, the Bikini Open, is last on­stage at 4pm. Her friend Jade, who’s com­pet­ing in Bikini Novice, spreads al­mond but­ter on a rice cake as we chat, and they dis­play their cus­tom­made biki­nis, which can cost up to $1000. It’s hard to know which bit is the front and which is the back.

The Bikini First-timers are first on­stage. Of the 50 en­trants in to­day’s com­pe­ti­tion, more than a third are here for this di­vi­sion. One by one they file out, tak­ing around 10 sec­onds to make their en­trance and pause on their poses. One en­trant has to be taken back­stage half­way through as she’s fall­ing out of her bikini top. A hand­ful of women make “first call-outs”, and the judges ask them to turn to the back of the stage and walk in uni­son. All their legs are shak­ing, pos­si­bly be­cause of the heels, or pos­si­bly be­cause they’re wear­ing a few cen­time­tres of fab­ric on a stage with strobe lights and five judges as­sess­ing their flesh. With glute and ham­string def­i­ni­tion so im­por­tant, it’s easy to see why they all train on the squat rack.

The win­ner, a slen­der Eva Lon­go­ria look-alike, has long shiny hair which she swishes as she does each pose. Af­ter

STRIKE A POSE Lau­rel Downes on­stage at the Amanda Do­herty All Fe­male Clas­sic.

PUMP IT UP Jaz Cor­rell spends hours in the gym each day to stay com­pe­ti­tion-ready.

BEST IN SHOW (from left) Jaz Cor­rell, Mark Ot­to­bre, and body builder Janet Kane; (above, from left) Lau­rel Downes and Amanda Do­herty.

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