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Go Figure - Switching Back to Bodybuilding Has Been the Perfect Fit for Cathy LeFrancois

All it took was a simple comparison of applause to change her mind. In 2006, Cathy LeFrancois had just completed a guest posing routine and emcee Lonnie Teper asked the crowd who wanted to see her continue as a figure competitor. Before Teper could finish asking if they wanted her back in bodybuilding, the audience began cheering and gave her a standing ovation.

That was all it took to convince LeFrancois.

“Right after that I went to (NPC President) Jim Manion and asked him if I could come back to bodybuilding”

said the Canadian-born fan favorite.

Three months later, LeFrancois finished in the top 10 at the IFBB Atlantic City Pro and was back where she belonged. In two years, she captured the New York Pro title at 37 years of age.

LeFrancois began her career in 1990 with a second place finish at the Quebec Metropolitan Regional Amateur Bodybuilding contest. She competed in her home country for six years before coming to the United States for the 1995 Jan Tana Classic. She broke the top 10 on three occasions (1996 and 1998 Jan Tana Classic, 1999 IFBB Women’s Extravaganza) before her best finish as a pro by placing third at the 2000 Ms. International.

That same year, LeFrancois married bodybuilder Lee Priest. During the five-year period the two were married, LeFrancois left bodybuilding and became a fitness competitor.

“I decided to do that after I won the 2003 Arnold Classic (Ms. International) and did the Ms. Olympia,” said LeFrancois. “I didn’t do well at the Olympia (fourth place) due to personal issues with my ex-husband. I needed to work on myself and find myself again. Now he was gone and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.”

LeFrancois took a year off and then entered the 2005 Sacramento Pro Figure, where she did not place.

“One day I woke up and I knew that I needed a plan,” remembered LeFrancois. “So I decided to do figure because I knew it would get attention and I thought it would be less work than bodybuilding, in which you need to put out 100 percent. At about the same time I started to work with Gaspari Nutrition. Everything kind of got back together.

“I wanted to come back and make an impact,” she said. “I wanted to lose that name Cathy Priest and come back as Cathy LeFrancois. It was kind of weird. I was with many of the female bodybuilders and they told me that it was not the same without me. I was thinking to myself, ‘is that possible? Have I really made so much of an impact that I was going to be missed that much?’”

Once she returned to her first love, LeFrancois realized that her friends in bodybuilding were right all along.

“The figure to me was so horrible with all the cardio,” she said. “Probably because I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know how to diet and train.

“People would ask me how did I get so small? I told them that when you get divorced that’s the best diet that you can have,” she can say now with a laugh.

LeFrancois competed in four bodybuilding shows before being a surprise entrant at the 2008 New York Pro.

 “I wasn’t supposed to be in that show,” she said. “I didn’t even think about it. The company that I work for is located in New Jersey, so they asked me if I wanted to do it.”

During preparation for the contest, LeFrancois’ weight rose to 160 pounds and she bulked up to add more size to her physique. She put on nearly 25 pounds in only four days and described it as “eating everything in sight so I get sick of it.” Once she starts to diet, she does not cheat on it and really appreciates her oatmeal and rice.

In winning the New York Pro, LeFrancois got down to a body weight of 135 pounds, still a few above what she was when taking the stage at the 2008 Ms. International and Ms. Olympia contests.

“I had more striations last year, but I looked more full at the New York Pro and Arnold Classic this year,” she said.

A few months ago in Columbus, Ohio, LeFrancois finished in eighth place. She was not satisfied with that placing.

“I was a little bit disappointed,” she said. “I was really looking good a few days before the show. I thought that I was going to be on stage (for the prejudging) at around 12:30. You focus on one thing and try to look good.”

By drawing number 14, LeFrancois had to wait an extra 90 minutes that she didn’t plan for before going in front of the judging panel. “I felt that I didn’t look as good as I did in the morning. It didn’t help my confidence.”

She was trying to bring a different look to the judges after being told that she was a little small the previous year, when she weighed 129 at the Ms. International.

“So I guess they judged me from what I was last year, the fact that maybe I was less lean.

“So I was kind of like Jay Cutler – kind of washed out,” said LeFrancois. “It was not my lucky day.”

Competing at the more prestigious shows such as the Ms. International and Ms. Olympia may seem like the ones that put more pressure on the competitors, but LeFrancois does not see it that way.

“To me it’s the same,” she said matter-of-factly. “Doing a show like the New York Pro, it’s probably more stressful because I can’t be second. I need to be a winner. I take this one even more serious. That’s why, to me, the smaller shows are more important. It gives me more credit for the bigger shows that are coming.”

Part of that preparation consists of some heavy training of her legs, one of the two body parts (including her back) that LeFrancois enjoys working on the most.

“It’s a big part and you do a lot of exercises and you have to train them hard,” she said. “Plus if you don’t have good legs or a good back you are not going to win many shows. So I always put a priority and stock to where the judges are going to look.”

LeFrancois only trains one body part per day and even separates her quads and hamstring workouts. She has refrained from doing squats in recent years, stating that she is getting too old and sore to benefit from them now.

“I did so many of them my whole life and did them heavy, like three plates (on each side - 315 pounds) for 15 reps. You do crazy things when you’re a kid. Today, I don’t want to take a chance and hurt myself,” she said.

Even without squatting, LeFrancois more than makes up for it with her leg press routine, which after hearing the details it is no shock that she works the back of legs on a different day. She begins with 45-pound plates on each side as a warm-up and does 20 repetitions. Each set, she adds two more plates on each side and hits it for another 20 reps. By the time she is loading up the machine for her last set, LeFrancois has 10 plates on each side and adds five to 10 reps to the amount she already did.

“I did that last year at Gold’s Gym at about 138 or 140 pounds,” she said, adding that she can do as much as 15 sets on the leg press. “I’m really strong on legs. Nobody wants to do them with me.”

To get herself ready as the defending champion of the New York Pro, LeFrancois, who now resides in California, will fly into the east coast three days early before the show in Manhattan on May 16. After leaving Ohio, she contemplated going away from her previous offseason weight gain.

“Every time I say that I’m not going to do that,” LeFrancois said. “I could stay in shape and just do some photo shoots, but I didn’t do that. I stopped my diet already and I’m up to like 160. So now I have like two months to get into shape.”

What may seem like a tough task for many is not for LeFrancois, who has climbed many mountains in a career that will mark its 20th anniversary next year. The mere fact that she put her personal troubles aside and carved out what amounted to a second career with the figure competitions was a great accomplishment in itself.

By returning to bodybuilding and becoming a champion tells you all you need to know about LeFrancois. The thunderous applause that she received convincing her to do a 360-degree move has been far from the last directed towards her.

By the time the middle of May rolls around, it seems like there’s a good chance the people in attendance at the Tribecca Performing Arts Center at BMCC will be giving LeFrancois another well-deserved standing ovation.

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