It should be no surprise to hear that many female bodybuilders grew up in sports and are quite accomplished athletes in other arenas. Transitioning from sports and athletics in childhood and through school to spending time in the gym and competing in fitness, figure, and bodybuilding as an adult seems widely common.
It should be no surprise to hear that many female bodybuilders grew up in sports and are quite accomplished athletes in other arenas. Transitioning from sports and athletics in childhood and through school to spending time in the gym and competing in fitness, figure, and bodybuilding as an adult seems widely common. Recently, I had a chance to catch up with former NPC figure competitor Jennifer Lynn Cowan, who has switched to bodybuilding recently and won the Overall Bodybuilding title at the 2008 NPC Junior USAs. Jennifer’s a good friend of mine, so I asked her to take a few minutes to tell all of us about her journey through athletics and to competitive bodybuilding, and to share a few words of wisdom and inspiration for us.
LS: Hey Jennifer, I really appreciate you taking the time to give our readers some insight into the realm of woman's bodybuilding and your personal experiences.
JC: You’re welcome… it’s always good to catch up with you, Lori!
LS: Tell us a little about yourself. Have you been athletic all your life? How did you first get into bodybuilding? Have you always had a desire to compete or was this something that slowly developed over time?
JC: Since I was in grade school, I was always drawn to sports and have been very competitive. I have had relatively bad asthma from the time I was a baby, and I actually think this helped to push me harder. Regardless of who I was competing against, my biggest competitor ended up being my own lungs and I vowed to never let this hold me back.
In junior high school, I was a track athlete, but my asthma was an issue – anything longer then the 200m dash gave me major problems, so I focused on sprinting and jumping. During those years, I remember my coach telling me what other competitors were jumping and saying that I could beat them. This fed my desire to be the best and drove me to push harder.
Once I got to high school, I started to realize that the harder I pushed myself physically the better my asthma was. I knew I wanted to get into shape before the track season my freshman year, so I looked at my options as a female athlete. That is when I went to men’s wrestling meeting thinking maybe I would be a manager. Never able to say “no” to a challenge, I said I wanted to try to compete in wrestling, so I was finally allowed on the team. My mom completely supported my decision to wrestle and I was the only female on the team all four years!
My main reason for wrestling to start with was to prepare for track, which was my love. My four years running track brought me successes and failures. I left high school with a triple jump record, 55m dash record, and I medaled in State twice and won all four events at my conference meet. High school was actually the first time I was called “The Beast” a nickname that has stuck over the years. Running in high school led to a track scholarship to Eastern Illinois University.
LS: And I have to stop you for a second here because of course we have to know more about how you ended up with your nickname, "The Beast." It seems to have stuck pretty well over the years!
JC: In high school we were running against a high school in our conference, and I happened to be racing in the 100m. There was a rumor floating around that I had beaten up a girl from this high school (which never happened!!), and for a 17 year old I was muscular. At the meet, a freshman on the other team looked at the heat sheets and ran up to her coach and said, “I can’t run in this heat...THE BEAST is in it!!!” Her coach thought it was funny and told my coach, who in turn told me! Since then, I have been working out many times, usually on leg days, and someone oblivious to the story will say “You are a beast!” because I can push some good weight, and I have a great work ethic. I love the nickname because it seems so silly when you see me, but just do legs with me and you will understand!
LS: I can verify that The Beast is an appropriate nickname for you! Now tell us how you stayed in athletics through college and ended up competing in figure and bodybuilding.
By the time I was in college my asthma had diminished greatly, thanks to exercise and medication. College, unfortunately wasn’t as successful for me as high school – I just didn't have the natural talent that some of the women had, no matter how hard I worked. My events in college were the 400m, 400m hurdles, long jump, and triple jump. Although I medaled in Conference, I never made it to Nationals, unlike another member of my team and now a figure competitor, Alicia Harris. Alicia actually earned her IFBB Pro Card in Figure last year. She was not only one of the hardest workers I have ever trained with, but she also had amazing natural talent. I really miss running with her and working with her – we had so much fun running those 400’s!
After college, I knew I had to be involved in athletics, but I just didn't know in what discipline. Through high school and college, I was always more muscular and stronger than other girls. I had been told that I should try bodybuilding, but I didn't have a clue where to start. During my first year after college, I decided to train for a marathon instead. After months of training, I ran the marathon, finished in my goal time of 3:57 and then decided never again!! I was very “skinny fat,” had lost all the muscle that I loved, I missed lifting heavy weights, and I needed a new goal – I needed to find a sport I could be good at, and long distance would never be it for me.
That is when I learned of figure competitions. During the first year, I just asked for tons of advice from trainers at my gym, got on some message boards and dove right in. After three local shows and one dismal National level show, I took the rest of that year off to put back on the muscle I had run off. I came back my second year ten pounds heavier and started to have success at the National level placing 9th in Figure at the 2006 NPC USA’s. Some of the judges told me that I was a bit too muscular and I looked like a bodybuilder (albeit a very small one).
After hearing that, I knew I didn’t have a choice and that I would have to make the switch over to bodybuilding. Lifting is the part I enjoyed the most, and I didn’t want to scale that back. Plus, my structure wasn’t made to be a figure girl – I needed more muscle to give me curves I like. During my first year competing in bodybuilding, I competed in a drug-tested show where I won my weight class. I also competed in the State NPC show, and I won my class and the Overall. I went to Team Universe in 2007, where I placed fifth in the middleweights.
During my off-season, I spent time looking for a good person to diet me down, getting my things in order, and really focusing on doing well, as I wanted to come in my best in 2008. The 2008 NPC Jr. USA’s was the goal, and with the help of Dave Palumbo, I came in ten pounds lighter than the preceding year at 114 pounds! I made the lightweight class and ended up taking the overall at the show, much to my surprise!!
LS: What is it about bodybuilding that keeps your drive to be successful alive?
JC: Bodybuilding really is an inner fight and battle. For me, it has been difficult to think of bodybuilding as a competition against another person because you don't know who is going to show up, how they will look, and there is really no way to prepare yourself any better to beat them specifically. The drive to be a successful bodybuilder has to come from within. This coming year, I want to bring a better, more complete package to the stage with fuller, slightly bigger muscles. I have a picture of how I want to look up there which keeps me going every day.
LS: As you're well aware, many female bodybuilders take a lot of heat and criticism from the general public. Many even take some of this from some of the "supposed" fans of the sport. Is any of this negative criticism justified in any way?
JC: I think people have a hard time keeping their opinions to themselves, and in many cases, these people would never say these things to your face – so in that sense, I would say no, it isn't justified. Everyone has an opinion, and I completely understand why someone may dislike the look of female bodybuilding, just like I may dislike the look of being extremely thin or spending $300 on a pair of jeans – To each their own. It is incredible to me that people take so much time to criticize when nothing can truly come from it other than hurt feelings.
LS: In your opinion, what is the biggest reason for this negativity? Is it a simple lack of understanding and education that leads these individuals to be so harsh?
JC: I think in America, we are given the freedom to say anything we please without repercussions. I think a lot of this negativity is from individuals trying to be funny. Maybe they had been the joke earlier in life so this is the way they can let out their frustrations. Unfortunately, it is at the expense of real people. We don’t only do this to bodybuilders – we do this to movie stars, singers, pro athletes of every sport. If you are in the spotlight you will be dissected.
LS: What are some of the things that could be done in the realm of female bodybuilding that could ultimately change current perceptions? Do you see yourself as being in a position to help lead this change in attitude?
JC: I am sure many people won’t like this and I do feel that it is everyone’s own choice what they decide to do with their bodies, but if we want to change their perception of female bodybuilding, then female bodybuilders should stop taking drugs. If we want to be accepted, then we must conform to societies “rules,” and for female bodybuilding, this is the biggie. Will we still get flack for being too muscular? Sure, there will always be someone who doesn’t like muscle on females, but drugs are a major problem in this sport and will ultimately keep it out of the mainstream.
As many of you may know I am a huge proponent of staying natural. I realize that my hopes of earning a Pro Card in the NPC are close to none, but I am competing because I love to compete and I love challenging my body. Hopefully there are competitors that will follow this lead, but do I actually think I can change the public’s perception of female bodybuilding? Probably not – not until the media changes the way it portrays muscular females. I don't think there is a whole lot any one person can do, although I will do all that I can to show that women can be bigger and still feminine.
Hopefully the new bikini division will bring more viewership of NPC/IFBB competitions. I really believe that the more a person is exposed to muscular females, the more they start to appreciate the look and like the look. There are so many competitors that started out as smaller figure girls but fell in love with the look of muscle, enjoyed being stronger and pushing themselves, and became bigger figure competitors. Then, the thought about crossing over to bodybuilding seemed appealing because they saw some beautiful bodybuilders on stage having fun.
LS: What do you think the future holds for women's bodybuilding? Do you feel that it is a sport that will continue to grow in a positive manner, or do you think women’s bodybuilding has already seen its glory days?
JC: I think that bodybuilding in general has seen its glory days, but this is not to say that bodybuilding in the future won’t again be in the spotlight. It seems many of the fringe sports go through cycles of popularity – this includes boxing, MMA fighting, pro-wrestling, etc. I do think that popularity will eventually swing back over to bodybuilding, but because our sport isn’t televised, we lose some of the potential to come into the mainstream.
While bodybuilding already has these issues, being a female bodybuilder makes it much more difficult. As is true with most sports, the female version of bodybuilding doesn’t get nearly the coverage as our male counterpart. Female bodybuilders also have to deal with the negative stereotypes of being “overly” muscular, and therefore some of the sex appeal that interests people more in sports like women's golf, tennis, or basketball is lost.
LS: Obviously, while not yet a card carrying pro bodybuilder, you have built a pretty good name for yourself in this sport. What do you attribute to this success and what do you feel would be in the best interest of other female competitors to be able to reach this same level of success in the sport?
JC: When I first started in figure nearly five years ago, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. During those first few years, I spent hours researching shows, looking through magazines to see who’s who, sending magazines pictures of me and stories about my past, writing on message boards, and going to local shows – all so I could try to get my name out there. What I learned is that there were a ton of beautiful figure competitors, and unless I was somehow in the judge’s face prior to the show it was much harder for me to be noticed at the show.
The most important thing I think I have done since those first years is make myself accessible to other competitors as well as attend many of the bigger shows and talk to people in the industry. I have the luxury of traveling to many National Level and Pro shows, and when I am there I am searching for people I have met or heard of along the way. After competing, I try to talk to or email the judges about my performance and thank the promoters of the show. I walk around the expo, say “Hi” and chat with the people behind the booths. Be nice to people – you never know who you will meet.
LS: Last questions, what does the future hold for Jennifer Cowan? What are your plans for 2009? What message would you like to convey to other competitors who are inspired by you?
JC: I am very excited for this year for a few reasons. Late last year, I decided to give powerlifting a try! My off-season was so long, and I have always been a great squatter. After talking with you and Becca Swanson, I took the plunge and will compete in powerlifting here in March and again this May. This has been my longest bodybuilding off-season, and powerlifting has helped keep me focused in the gym. For me, working out and training is 100% easier when I have a specific goal in mind.
As far as bodybuilding goes, I will be competing at Team Universe in New York this September, hopefully as a lightweight. My goal is to win my weight class and come in a little bigger and fuller than I was last season. The winner from each weight class gets to go on to the World Championships, and that would be such an amazing experience.
My message to other women and competitors out there is that you have to do this for yourself, and do what makes you happy. When I first got into competing, my goal was to earn a Pro Card. It’s strange because I wasn’t competing for the right reasons – I was competing for a title. Over the years, I have realized that I don’t really care about the Pro Card. Being a Pro really won’t change why I compete or why I love competing. Now, my goal is to bring my best physique to the stage and have a wonderful time in the process. This is the actually the main reason I switched from figure to bodybuilding. I wanted to push my body to the limit, and even though I committed to stay natural and I have less chance of winning a Pro Card (and if I did, it would be hard to be successful as a Pro), this is my path and my experience, and I am doing it for me. Have fun, make your own decisions – the decisions that are right for you. I will see you onstage!!
LS: Thanks so much Jennifer! And you just might see me on stage next to you one of these days – it would be so much fun! If not on stage, then maybe at a powerlifting meet! Best of luck to you in 2009! I’m confident that you’ll have success in everything you do!