Recently, I had the privilege to sit down with Ernestine Shepherd at the Book Expo of America in New York City. As we converse, Expo attendees walk by and stare in awe. I look up to scold them, "Please, stop staring. I'm only a man, just like any other man!" I shout. Then I realize their attentions are directed at Ernestine.
For you see, to be 5-5 and 120 pounds with less than 10 percent body fat and a bench press of 150 pounds is very impressive as far as virile, young women go. But in a day and age when the only push-up the majority of people know refers to sherbet in a tube, to be that way as a 74-year-old woman is downright inspiring.
Ernestine is indeed 74, a mother, wife of 58 years, a grandmother -- it gives her grandkids the rare schoolyard retort of "My grandmother can beat up your grandmother," a competition that's, no doubt, deep in development at Spike TV -– an avid marathoner and the reigning record-holder of "World's Oldest Bodybuilder."
Every day, this muscle granny is in bed by 10:30 p.m., up at 3 a.m. She runs around 80 miles a week. (For those of you doing the math, that's a heckuva lot.) And she works (yes, works!) as a personal trainer, doing her sessions at NRG Fitness & Wellness and the Union Memorial United Methodist Church. Retirement is a four-letter word to her.
But she is human. She takes a nap in the middle of the day before returning to her sessions later in the afternoon.
How did this begin? Contrary to popular belief, she was not shipped from her home planet to escape its destruction only to find work at a daily metropolitan newspaper.
In actuality, Ernestine, an office secretary and lifetime sedentary body, was 56 when she and her sister, Mildred, were invited to a pool party. She explains, "We needed bathing suits so we bought them. When we put them on and modeled them in front of the mirror, we did not like what we saw."
So they attended the party without suits -– er, that is not to say they were naked. They wore the same clothes they always had -- and at the party, they heard people talking of exercise and decided to get into it.
After her first aerobics class, Ernestine recalls, "Oh, God, I was sore," but went back nonetheless. After several weeks, the sisters observed great changes to their bodies and decided to incorporate weight training to their routines.
And their bodies responded even more noticeably. As Mildred made even greater strides, Ernestine felt she had to keep up. In fact, it was Mildred who began to consider a goal of becoming the oldest bodybuilder in the world, a goal Ernestine may never have set for herself.
Fate has a cruel way of manipulating goals, however, and after some time went by, Mildred grew ill. Sensing her time was short, she made a request of Ernestine: Should Mildred not survive, Ernestine would fulfill her goal to become the world's oldest bodybuilder. Ernestine promised, but still was caught off-guard when Mildred passed away of a brain aneurysm shortly thereafter in 1992.
Instead of attacking her training with a renewed sense of purpose, Ernestine went in the opposite direction and withdrew completely. The gains and practices she had achieved over the past few years disappeared, returning her to a pre-bathing suit wearing state. In addition, she was mired with high blood pressure, acid reflux and fighting depression without her late sibling.
She was back to square one when she returned to the gym and hired a trainer, Raymond Day, who quickly saw her potential and reminded her of the promise she made to Mildred.
And, as Ernestine was merely presenting trophies at a bodybuilding show, Day told her it was time she got involved in the competition itself.
After training her for more than 15 years, Day referred Ernestine to another trainer, Yohnnie Shambourger, who also happened to be "Mr. Universe 1995," having defeated bodybuilders from Uranus, Jupiter and the Nebula Galaxy to earn that title.
Twice a week, she meets with Shambourger at his center and lets him put her through the paces. And don't think he goes easy on her simply because she is -- by the definition put forth in Webster's Dictionary by people with no knowledge of this woman -- "elderly."
He has her on a diet of only 1,700 calories a day, featuring mostly chicken, boiled egg whites and veggies. Your average bodybuilder will consume double that. (Big Mac aficionados will as well.)
He still increases her program as needed, based on her development. For instance, he noticed that she wasn’t lifting heavy enough on her legs and added weight there.
Fast-forward to 2008 for her first competition in Washington D.C. where Ernestine came in first place in the Masters Division. In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records people got wind of her victory and thought she might be worthy of their mention.
It wasn't until another year had gone by when they called the now-champion bodybuilder back and invited her to a ceremony in Italy where they would officially present her with the title of "World’s Oldest Bodybuilder," having done their due diligence. (They didn’t want to make the claim only to have a muscular 90-year-old from Namibia come gunning for them.)
Ernestine arrived there on March 16, 2010, a day that happened to be Mildred’s birthday. She was given tag No. 316 and remembers Mildred's favorite song, "MacArthur Park," was playing on a loud speaker. "It was unbelievable to me," Ernestine says. She made a stop at the historic Coliseum where she sprinkled Mildred's ashes and cried.
The emotional purge behind her, Ernestine now moves forward with no end in sight. And why should she stop? "I have no aches and pains," she says, as I shake out the crippling cramp from my hand.
"I want to inspire and motivate seniors to a happy and healthy and confident life," she says. "Eat correctly. Get out and do something -- walking, running, jumping, anything."
Her motto is "Determined, dedicated, disciplined to be fit. Age is nothing but a number."
For the gathering crowd, she proves the validity of this statement by dropping to the floor and busting out a dozen push-ups. Then, in case the young folks around weren't impressed enough, she raises one leg and continues for several more, before alternating legs.
Finally, over to the pull-up bar they’ve brought in, she muscles her way to a half dozen while several of the on-lookers are treated for exhaustion.
Ernestine next competes on Saturday at the Capital Tournament of Champions in Silver Spring, Md. It's a mere nine days before she turns the clock ahead one more tick, to three-quarters-of-a-century old.
Her spirit only proves that anyone can someday find themselves in her shoes, holding the distinction as "World's Oldest Bodybuilder"... though something says the age is going to be a whole lot higher by the time Ernestine Shepherd is done.