The Journey to Pro

On the night of June 8, 2013, I stood behind the curtain stage left in an auditorium in Spartanburg, SC, in a tiny jeweled posing suit and five-inch heels. Five other women were in line with me, waiting for the top five  to be called on stage and handed trophies for the medium height figure class. I thought to myself, “That’s so awful that five of us will go on stage and one will not. I will feel so bad for her.” Several of the other women in my class were first-timers too, and we bonded while attending posing clinics together. A minute later, I was the one left standing behind the curtain in complete shock, and a couple minutes later I was a 29-year-old crying like a kindergartner. I never considered getting “last” place. In the past I was a successful competitive triathlete. Any athletic skill I tried came naturally to me and I always achieved what I wanted so long as I worked hard for it. I trained 14 weeks for this competition, so what went wrong?

I was a sad and angry person that night. My parents had driven 7.5 hours from Enterprise, AL, and were my only support crew in the audience. They didn’t know how to handle my disappointment, but I know  it hurt them to see their baby girl so distraught. I was already registered for another show the next weekend because I figured it would be a good way to maximize my training. I wanted to quit and all I could think about was how much of a waste it was to spend a month’s rent on my suit and shoes and  not even come home with a trophy. My dad convinced me to give it one more shot because maybe the experience would be different. I fixed a couple of my mistakes, such as getting the host company’s spray tan instead of doing it at home, trying water manipulation (loading up and then slowly dehydrating to flush water out from under the skin), and not eating a sodium-filled meal the night before. The second show only had three competitors in the novice class, of which I placed first, but the open class had four. Even though I placed fourth there, I walked away with two trophies!

It wasn’t until I was able to take a little time away from the stage that I understood how everything went wrong. I made the mistake that many people do when attempting bodybuilding. I said to myself, “Hey, I’ve been fit all my life. I’m motivated, I work hard, and I look pretty good, so of course I’ll win.” The thing was that I had no knowledge of the bodybuilding world and therefore no respect for it. Although, as a former triathlete, I had respect for the endurance sports world, for some reason it didn’t transfer to my new sport. I knew what it was like to train for hours and hours for several years as a triathlete, but back then I was able to eat whatever I wanted because I needed lots of fuel for my long runs and bike rides. I had never done the type of training that required me to work hard in the gym AND in the kitchen. I had no idea just how wrong my body type was for the figure division, because I got convinced to compete by someone who thinks everyone should try it (which is the exact opposite of how I feel now…this sport, just like all others, is not for everyone). My torso has always been straight because my hips are narrow, but bodybuilding favors a narrow waist with more size and shape to the shoulders, back and hips/glutes in every division.

So if everything was against me, why keep trying? Most importantly, I completed that first 14 weeks of competition prep as a newly transitioned vegan after 12 years as a vegetarian. I found all the vegan bodybuilding resources and communities online, and I knew there were people out there supporting me despite the ridicule I received in real life. I thought, “What cooler way to reinforce my choice and use my body as a walking billboard?” I had been wanting to be 100% plant-based for a long time but needed that final push to make it happen. I had gone from a person who didn’t have the best relationship with food and used hours of cardio to balance it out, to someone who lifted heavier weights than ever, did less cardio than ever, was more disciplined with her food than ever, and watched her body change more drastically than ever in a short period of time. I remembered how in awe I was of the women on the cover of Muscle & Fitness Hers when I was in high school, and I was hooked on the process of trying to become one of them. The gym became my safe place where nothing else could touch me and I loved watching my body change in progress pictures just as much as I loved watching the weights that I lifted get heavier.

I’ve competed many times since June 2013, starting with the fitness model division before I had built much muscle and then transitioning to women’s bodybuilding, fit body, and physique as I realized those divisions favored my naturally muscular legs and less than ideal waist. I still never placed that well or had much competition in my shows, but I was able to join Team Plantbuilt and compete with them in 2014 and 2015. I slowly watched myself get better every year and slowly saw my placing move up. Most importantly, I learned what it meant to be a year-round athlete and to work on my mental fortitude in the way I had in my previous sport. I learned that anything worth having takes time and patience, and I’ve stepped on the stage each time since the first as a humble competitor, not expecting anything except to enjoy myself.

May 14 in Greensboro, NC, was the only time I competed in 2016. I had changed so much, I worked harder than I had before, and I chose the show because as long as enough people showed up, the class winners would get pro cards. When I first started bodybuilding, going pro had not been my goal. It was not something I had thought as ever happening for me, because I was still fighting my straight torso and progress was slow. At the very least, I would love to see someone else get a pro card, or to “lose” to someone who got one. A tiny part of me dreamed of winning, but the more realistic part of me held onto my “don’t get last,” and “just place one higher than last time” mindset. When the six of us were lined up, I saw a chest vein and six-pack on the woman next to me and knew she was the winner. I was called to receive the second-place sword and I skipped onto the stage with a huge smile on my face. My parents cheered so loudly, and I got major personal redemption. I was the happiest person to ever not “win,” because deep in my heart I knew that I hadn’t worked hard enough to deserve the pro card.

The mindset of training not to get last is not the mindset of a champion. I used, “Champions never quit, and I am a champion” as my personal mantra for years, but I was not living it as a bodybuilder. Two days after the stage, I was back in the gym with a vision and a plan. The winner of the show got a pink sword instead of the black ones that the rest of the top five got, and dang it, I wanted that pink sword. I was not going to compete until that same show the following year, and I was going to train like I wanted to win. I had nothing to lose and I was ready to take myself to the highest level of discipline I had ever gone. I ate in an unstructured way for the rest of 2016 but trained my hardest and heaviest ever. I wanted to give myself a much-needed mental break from structured eating so I could flip the switch when the time came. Although my muscles were slowly being covered up by the necessary body fat I needed to grow, I dreamed of what I could look like the next time I was on stage.

When January 1, 2017, came around, I was ready to nail it. I bought a used elliptical for my Christmas present to make it easier to  get cardio in when I wanted. I took prep one day at a time and got a sense of accomplishment every time I completed a day’s eating and workout just as I was supposed to. I told myself many things: that no one was forcing me to do this, that someone out there had more going on in her life yet was still training harder than me, that the animals and the vegan community needed me to bust myths, and that I wouldn’t have made it this far already if it wasn’t for fighting for something greater than myself. Most of all, I visualized what it would be like to be the last name called, to get the first place trophy or medal or sword, and to possibly become the first vegan to be a women’s physique pro in a natural organization. I would have moments when I would cry happy tears after a workout or looking at myself in the mirror because I was just so proud of how hard I was working. I imagined what it would be like to improve on my physique, but seeing it happen in real life was even better..

I decided to enter an INBF Fit Body competition on April 22 in Sumter, SC, because that was the category I did with Plantbuilt in 2014 and it held a special place in my heart. It would also be a good warm up and a chance to wear my new suit more than once. The closer I got to show day, the more I realized just how much my mindset had changed. I now wanted to win so badly that I was actually scared of how it would go. I worked so hard over the years to change my attitude, and that was what I was most proud of as a competitor. In a world of “I want it all, and I want it now,” there is something beautiful about being the person who stays out of the spotlight and humbly and gracefully puts in daily effort. Someone who stays the course and makes short-term sacrifices in hopes of a long-term pay off that is never guaranteed to come. I worried that I would revert back to my 2013 bratty self who ugly-cried and  cut down the other competitors, taking away from their success in my frustration

In the morning show of bodybuilding, called “prejudging,” the competitors’ placing is determined. The winner is generally “moved to center,” and that’s a way to know that you won and if you are eligible for a pro card, that you will be giving a urine sample at the night show! I didn’t start in the middle of the five competitors, the minimum number required to give a pro card for that federation, but I was moved to center and stayed there. I had just learned how to do the abs and thigh pose in the way that made a six-pack pop, and I flexed and smiled like my life depended on it. I had never been moved to center, so that alone was incredible. In the night show, I watched each person step forward from the back line until I was the last person left. I was already starting to tear up, but I could see my support crew sitting toward the front of the stage and cheering for me. I couldn’t contain my happy crying when the medal was put around my neck, the swag bag was placed in front of me, the show promoter told me congratulations, and the other competitors surrounded me. In all the nights that I fell asleep dreaming of the possibility of that moment, the reality STILL surpassed it. I not only accomplished a once-unattainable goal for myself, but I  secured a huge win for the animals and made history as the first vegan WNBF Fit Body Pro.

I still had my “redemption” show coming up two weeks later. Once I ate a few post-show treats, it was a challenge to get right back to a strict diet. There was the part of my mind that wanted to just stop where I was because of what I had achieved. There was a huge part of my mind that feared I couldn’t be better the next time I got on the stage, and I dreaded the thought of letting myself and other people down by not winning. Once I got the taste of first, I couldn’t wait to fight for it again. I knew that my posing, poise, and confidence on stage were huge factors to my success, and I brought it all again to Greensboro on May 6. This class was small, only three competitors, but I came out on stage in center and stayed there. The night show was more rushed, but I got a huge sword (not pink, but it was the longest one!), and ANOTHER pro card. I had another huge personal redemption and made history again as the only vegan OCB Women’s Physique Pro. The announcer even said, “A vegan pro, how about that?!”

To fulfill my requirements as a WNBF pro, I had to compete one more time within a year. I decided to hang onto an already long prep by another four weeks to compete in the Boston area. I wanted to quit so badly, but I only hung in there because I wanted to be proud of the vegan physique I put on a pro stage. I don’t consider it my “real” pro debut, and it ultimately didn’t matter because I was the only person in my class. I put so much mentally into January 1-June 4 that the moment I stepped off stage, I had the most monumental internal sigh of relief. As tempting as it was to give up, I never once did. I got to see what it was like to truly push myself as hard as I could go, and I was able to reap the reward. I made it to the finish line knowing I did everything I possibly could, but even still I KNOW I can, and will, do better next time. That’s what brings me back to the stage and what keeps me going each of the days between. I know that each time I diet down I will reveal and get to “meet” a new me, and I thrive off doing something that many people cannot physically or mentally handle. I have truly embraced the “me vs me” mindset, and I know that I can NEVER control anything about competition day. That applies to any activity or sport. The only thing that I can control is the amount of training I put in, how closely I follow my meal plan, how much I practice my posing, and how much heart I put into everything I do. I still don’t have the “perfect” genetics and never will, but I have turned what I thought was impossible into a dream come true.

Looking back on it now, I am proudest of not giving up. I’m proud to be an advocate for a vegan lifestyle in a sport where animal consumption is considered vital and usually taken to the extreme. If I could do it differently, I’m sure I probably would have. I wish I could have realized it wasn’t a race from the beginning. The stage will always be there, and there are countless competitions every year. I would have loved to know what it would have been like to train for several years before entering my first competition. I wish that I could have changed my mindset sooner. I also wish that I had started training for bodybuilding much earlier in my life. However, wishing I could change things doesn’t actually change anything…

Now I am not required to compete until April 2019 to keep my pro status. I am enjoying a longer improvement season, and I am looking forward to January 1 and not going on prep. I already know what I want to look like when I step on the pro stage, and I’m putting in the work that will slowly get me there. I’m putting my career first, having more fun in my life, and eating what I want so I can give myself that much needed mental break. When it’s time to flip the switch again, whenever that ends up being, my previous self would probably be scared of the competitor I end up unleashing. I look forward to once again making myself and the vegan community proud, but I’m in it for the long haul and am not in a rush. To be successful in any sport, you have to realize that you spend 99% of time on the journey, not the destination. If you are committed as an athlete, there’s no endpoint anyway.

Thank you for following my journey and allowing me to share my story!



About the Author:

Erin Fergus
Erin is a competitive bodybuilder and the first vegan WNBF Fit Body Pro. She holds a Masters degree in Exercise Science and is currently the Academic Program Director of Personal Training at Greenville Technical College in South Carolina.