Kate Spaulding is hopping around in a janitor's closet at the Fort Lee Playhouse while her trainer, Robbie Jackson, spritzes her bikini-clad body with Hot Stuff. The oily mist clings to her arms and shoulders easily. It takes longer to coat the fine blonde hair on her back. Spaulding is already glazed with an array of specialized bodybuilding skin products, including Pro Tan and Professional Posing Oil, but this is the first that makes her hop. She's hopping because the oil feels hot when it hits her unnaturally brown skin. And because she has a leg cramp. And because she's nervous. It's Dec. 19, 1998, and Spaulding, 29, is about to compete in her first bodybuilding competition, the 1998 Amateur Athletic Union's (AAU) Tri-Cities Regional Bodybuilding Championships. She has been training for the show nearly all year, since she saw an amateur competition at Atlee High School back in May. So, in a few minutes, Spaulding will do something that most women would consider nightmare material. Wearing just that tiny, salmon-colored bathing suit, she will stand onstage, under lights, while an auditorium full of people assesses her body. She'll revolve by quarter turns until they've seen it all, hitting whatever pose the judge commands. She'll show every angle of her physique. Not a dimple will go undetected. Not a ripple. Not a bulge. The little bikini is glued to her (literally with Bikini-Bite No-Slip Suit Fastener), and there isn't that much to cover. Glimpsing herself in the mirror, Spaulding groans, "My boobs look awful! You lose all the fat, and ..." She shrugs. Spaulding isn't completely satisfied with what she sees in the mirror. But in this world, a body is an ever-improvable collection of parts, and few bodybuilders think of themselves as a finished canvas. The quest for bodily perfection is driven in large part by vanity. Yet, particularly among women, there seems to be a genuine satisfaction that comes from building strength and endurance. And for Spaulding, a dedicated newcomer, drastic physical transformation has taken place in a relatively short time, leaving her with a solid sense of accomplishment. Jackson finishes oiling her and stands back. Spaulding strikes a competition pose, fists raised on either side, and it becomes clear what has replaced the fat. The muscles in her shoulders and back tighten visibly, and as she holds the pose, her body develops like a Polaroid picture: The muscles lift themselves higher and higher from her skin, until they appear as flesh-colored cords laid across her arms and back. Then the final crucial detail pops out: the network of veins that runs through the muscles. That veined look is called "vascularity" in these circles. It's something judges specifically look for, and it's helped along by the hot oil. At the beginning of 1998, Spaulding, 5 feet 6 inches, weighed in the 150s, with around 23 percent body fat. (An average range for women is 27-33 percent; anything below 25 percent is considered lean.) As coordinator of the Northside American Family's aerobics program, a personal trainer, and a full-time student at VCU (studying community wellness), her life revolved around fitness and health, and she was toned and muscular. But like many women, she wasn't satisfied with her body. "I've always been thick," she says. "I've always had thick legs and a thick torso." Is that what finally drove her to devote her life to leg lifts and an extreme diet? She considers. "I just wanted to see," she says. "I just wanted to prove I could do it." Spaulding draws additional motivation from her history: about eight years ago she broke her back in a skiing accident. Doctors said she wouldn't be able to run or do aerobics again, and Spaulding is gratified by proving them wrong. Ever since the accident and her subsequent recovery, she says, "I've always finished what I started when it comes to fitness." OK, maybe epoxied-on swimsuits and vascularity-enhancing oils aren't for everyone. But who isn't intrigued by the idea of totally reshaping one's body? Spaulding hooked up with American Family personal trainer Robbie Jackson, and into her already crammed schedule went an extensive workout plan: Mondays and Fridays for biceps, triceps and shoulders; Tuesdays and Saturdays for legs; Wednesdays for chest and back; abs almost daily. Distance running four times a week, cycling three times a week, uphill sprints twice weekly. Extra squats, lunges, curls and extensions whenever she could fit them in, along with teaching step-aerobics classes several days a week. Spaulding says it wasn't the working out that changed her body so drastically, however. It was her diet. Jackson put her on an extremely restrictive high-protein, low-fat, low-carbohydrate plan. While it took some getting used to, the rewards were apparent, and that kept Spaulding's motivation high. "This is the first time [the weight] has actually come off," she says. To call the eating plan difficult is an understatement. Essentially, Jackson determined the ideal quantity and composition of Spaulding's daily food allotment, then parceled it into six meals. Clearly, aesthetic pleasure was not a factor. Her daily menu from the weeks before last December's show: Meal 1:6 a.m. 8 cooked egg whites, plus 8 ounces of sweet potatoes sprinkled with Old Bay seasoning Meal 2:9 a.m. 5 ounces of turkey, with 8 ounces of sweet potatoes Meal 3:Noon (same as second meal) Meal 4:3 p.m. 7 egg whites and one cup of broccoli Meal 5:6 p.m. 5 ounces of turkey and one cup of green beans Meal 6:9 p.m. 10 egg whites Spaulding stuck to her plan and grew leaner by the week. One dietary deviation of four mini-marshmallows had Jackson on her case, only half joking, for weeks. "This show has taken over every part of my life," Spaulding said back then. "I can't even concentrate. All I do is think about food. ... There's no way I could be healthy and sustain this." Her regimen may sound radical to many, but to those who work with athletes, it's all par for the course. Dr. Kenneth Zaslav, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, says a low-carbohydrate approach is commonly used by bodybuilders because it cuts body fat quickly, revealing the underlying muscle. The diet can become dangerous, he says, if an athlete sustains it for a protracted length of time while also maintaining an intense level of exercise. A typical strategy is to sharply reduce carbs only right before the competition, which allows a bodybuilder to reap the maximum benefits of this approach without sacrificing his or her health. On her December calendar, each day leading up to the contest on the 19th was filled with scribbled reminders about her menu, workout, water intake, and required supplements. Two words were written in capital letters on the 20th: FOOD. BEER. Spaulding became even more focused as the contest drew nearer. By one week out, she weighed 134, with a body fat ratio of 10 percent. By competition day, she was ready. In the janitor's closet, Trainer Jackson deems Spaulding sufficiently oiled, and they venture into the backstage area. Gym bags litter the floor, each a dropping place for its owner's water bottle, extra clothes, supplements and, in one case, Pam cooking spray and Welch's grape jelly. Jackson scarcely looks twice at the kitchen products. The Pam, he says, will likely serve as an inexpensive posing oil. The shine helps highlight muscles. And the jelly will go down a competitor's hatch right before the posing begins, the sugar converting instantly to glycogen. "That's what pumps up the muscles," he explains. "If the muscles aren't full, but just flat, then the vascularity doesn't even show. It makes the difference between first and last place." Finally, Spaulding's division is called: Women's Open, short class. Four buff and gleaming females pad onto the stage and squint into the lights as a voice drones directions over the PA system. "Front lat spread. ... Quarter turn to the right. ... Side tricep. ... Abs and one thigh." Spaulding, No. 33, is flanked on one side by a mean-looking Virginia Beach policewoman and on the other, by an absurdly tiny, smiley little thing who has eagerly circulated that she weighs 97 pounds and has only 6.6 percent body fat. After the group demonstration, each woman comes out individually to perform a one-minute posing routine to music. Jackson watches from the front row, critically eyeing his protégé. "Her back and abs are the best," he says. He's less enthusiastic about her lower body. This is a sport in which a woman's biology works against her: Jackson deems the nearly imperceptible jiggle of Spaulding's flanks a liability. After their routines, the women return to the stage for a final inspection by the judges. It's approaching 4 p.m. and most have been here since late morning. Their smiles are starting to look as tight as their muscles. Finally, the "prejudging" is over and the women are dismissed. But they can't relax yet. Soon, the evening's proceedings will begin a condensed version of the day's activities with a public audience looking on. It will be nearly a 12-hour day in all, filled with stretching, flexing, sweating and lots of waiting. In the end, Spaulding takes third place out of four. "Not bad at all," says Jackson. "The whole thing with bodybuilding is that you just don't know who the competition is going to be." In his mind, self-improvement is the ultimate win. "The goal is to be in better shape than you were [before]," he says. "I think it was pretty good judging. ... I had her between second and third." "I was very happy with how it all turned out," Spaulding cheerfully insisted a few weeks later. "I thought we all deserved the place we got. ... As far as I'm concerned, I've already won because I've changed my body structure." She was further buoyed by her family's attendance at the show. They brought her a homemade plaque, "so I'd at least take home something." One of her three brothers returned early from a trip to San Francisco just to see her compete. Even her grandmother came, though she couldn't refrain from asking Spaulding, "You're not going to keep doing this, are you?" For about two weeks, Spaulding enjoys the holidays and the thrill of her accomplishment. But the rest and relaxation proves too much for her: Before the first week of 1999 ends, she is off and training again, this time for a May 16 contest, called Annapolis Bodybuilding. "For the past year, it's all I ever thought about," she explains. "Now I'm so bored!" Back to sweet potatoes, turkey and 25 egg whites a day. Back to the gym and the grueling workouts. "It's so much harder this time," she says. "You already know what to do. But that means you know what you have to go through." Still, Spaulding says, her resolve is strong. "When people say I can't do something, I have to prove that I can," she says. "I'm so determined. I wish I was like this with my schoolwork. I'd have all As!" Proving herself capable, especially in the fitness realm, is what keeps her going, she says. But there's another reward, too. "It's the first time in my life where I've actually really liked the way I
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