True to form

Sacramento figure bodybuilder Michelle Shepherd is on the comeback trail to self-discipline, self-discovery and some really killer muscles

After a divorce and other personal setbacks, figure bodybuilder Michelle Shepherd, who competes Saturday, July 28, in Las Vegas, is rethinking body image and reviving her career.

After a divorce and other personal setbacks, figure bodybuilder Michelle Shepherd, who competes Saturday, July 28, in Las Vegas, is rethinking body image and reviving her career.

Photo By taras garcia

Imagine your favorite mouthwatering, fattening, sweet and gooey dessert. Think of its delicious taste and delectable texture. Michelle Shepherd does that, too, but when the athlete’s training for a fitness contest, she routinely denies herself the pleasure of eating such treats.

And no wonder—you would, too, if people looked at your body under lights in the critical way Shepherd faces each time she takes the stage as a figure bodybuilder.

In 2007, the Elk Grove resident competed successfully in figure contests such as the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation World Pro Bodybuilding & Figure Championships and other challenges in which in which judges rank competitors on posing, muscularity, stage presence and body balance.

Life was good. But could it be better? She and her husband thought so. They opted to have children. They began fertility treatments—which ended, ultimately, in failure.

Then, the Shepherds divorced.

“It was a big turning point in my life,” Shepherd explains, sipping water at Tower Cafe one day in late June. “But [it wasn’t] an ugly thing. He and I maintained [a] friendship.”

But maintaining the rest of her life was another thing. Shepherd, then 43, entered a post-divorce period in which she found herself “hiding” from the world. That reality, new and nothing nice, hurt hard.

“My life wasn’t going in the direction that I thought that it would,” she said.

One thing that didn’t really change: Although Shepherd stopped competing after 2007, the Valley High School grad of Russian-Romanian-Spanish-Portuguese descent still kept her diet and training moving forward.

Sure, she visited Cold Stone Creamery—her sweet-tooth spot of choice—from time to time, but Shepherd kept the inclination to give in mostly under control. For her, willpower is the name of this dessert game.

Then, things turned around, and in 2011, walking out of her personal valley of despair, Shepherd launched a comeback to the sport. Along the way, step by step, a new measure of life-balance emerged, she says.

Now, Shepherd credits family and a new boyfriend with helping her to return to competition.

It’s a quest that doesn’t end or begin with training for competition. It appears to be a solitary pursuit. Contestants do it alone—accountable to themselves, not teammates—for results. Shepherd has no backup performers for a breather after posing for up to 30 minutes onstage. Still, this appearance of individualism belies a cooperative microsociety. No woman is an island.

Enter Randy Frank, a competitive bodybuilder and master trainer. Since January 2011, the Sacramento athlete has also been Shepherd’s boyfriend and trainer—and, she says, a rock-solid presence in her life.

“I understand body mechanics a little bit better now due to training with Randy,” she says.

For instance, he’s helped her to weight train for maximum efficiency via a five-day-a-week routine that aims to simulate more muscle fibers, using myriad sets of reps for each body part.

“I am in awe of Michelle as an athlete and a woman,” Frank says. “I am lucky enough to be able to help her and be in love with her as well.”

Away from the gym, Shepherd’s support network includes her mother, brother, aunt and grandmother in Sacramento. They encourage her, she says, as a natural fitness (drug-free) athlete and daughter, sister, niece and granddaughter.

She, in turn, is there for them, too. For example, Shepherd spends time each week with her 89-year-old maternal grandmother, Granny, who lives in a local assisted-living facility. The duo doesn’t have to do anything particular together, Shepherd says. They have a blast with one another, eating a meal or running an errand.

Shepherd’s mother, Ila Lewis, says she’s watched as the past few years have made her daughter stronger.

“I know that if I need Michelle, she will be there for me,” Lewis says.

“Michelle’s gone through lots of transitions in the past few years that have provided her with inner growth and the determination to find out who she is.”

In this comeback of self-discovery, Shepherd occasionally misses a workout to spend time with her family and friends. Of course, training is important. But so are people close to her.

Further, Shepherd says she’s grateful for the camaraderie that she enjoys with other women in figure contests.

“Encouraging other women is one of the things about the sport that I love most,” she said. “I’ve coached some women on posing and stage presence and helped them with their diets to lose weight and prepare for competition.”

And Shepherd, in turn, has received a hand. For instance, Carrie Cocchi, a fellow competitor, provided a few posing instruction sessions. In this sport, each can teach one. Reciprocal relationships flower.

Tina Smith of Elk Grove is a former competitor and current promoter of natural-bodybuilding and fitness contests. These days, she says, she sees Shepherd as a role model for other athletes.

“I’m thrilled that Michelle is helping women to achieve health and fitness and to support natural bodybuilding,” Smith says.

According to Shepherd, competitors of both genders wrestle body image—that of their own body and how it compares to the competition.

As such, where judges place contestants—first, second or otherwise—can set off a roller coaster of contestants’ emotions involving self-worth; it’s a thin line between negative and positive feedback.

“This sport is incredibly subjective,” she said.

While as competitive as anybody else, Shepherd says she tries to keep contest rankings in perspective.

“Making personal improvements is more important than winning and losing,” she says.

So how did Shepherd, the avid fitness contestant, come to this outlook—this end goal to not define herself by the latest ranking in a figure contest?

“It’s a struggle for me and other women,” Shepherd says of the challenge to keep a healthy perspective on what does (or doesn’t) happen onstage.

“I haven’t mastered it … but it’s so important and so hard to understand. Otherwise, you go around feeling inferior.”

Having been there, she’s moved on in her comeback, one of trial and error. Last year, she finished first, fifth, sixth, eighth and second place in competitions from Sacramento to San Jose to Overland Park, Kansas.

What accounted for her range of contest finishes? In a word, it’s a food thing.

“Last year, I did not have a nutritionist,” Shepherd says.

This year, Shepherd hired Dr. Joe Klemczewski, a nutritionist she last worked with in 2007. Now, as a result of his help, she understands how her body works much better.

For her, the scale’s the key. Shepherd weighs every bit of food before she eats it in preparing to compete. In this way, she knows the precise calorie content of each morsel of food.

The strategy has largely paid so far: at the IFPA Pro USA and the NANBF California Natural Muscle Mayhem Bodybuilding & Figure Championships held July 14, in Elk Grove’s Sheldon High School Performing Arts Center, Shepherd captured second place in the professional class of competitors.

Next up: Shepherd and Frank will travel to Las Vegas where Shepherd will compete in the National Physique Committee figure contest on Saturday, July 28. The event is expected to attract nearly 200 competitors. After that, Shepherd says she’ll assess when and where to compete again.

Wherever she ends up, natural health and fitness will play a part, she says. So will striving to maintain a balance between life’s ups and downs. Lessons learned on and off the contest stage, her experience dealing with unexpected outcomes, are part of—not apart from—who she is.

“I feel a lot stronger now,” Shepherd says.