By Peter O’Connell
TWENTY-EIGHT hours of weekly training has transformed Zoe Kelly. The mother-of-two, who lives in Ennis, is to represent Ireland at the Arnold Classic Europe section of what is the largest amateur bodybuilding championships in the world. The event takes place in Madrid on the weekend of October 11 to 13.
Zoe, who is originally from Surrey, will be one of six representatives on the Irish team. It’s hard to comprehend though that she is just 32 and has had corrective heart surgery in recent years.
“I had corrective surgery for an underlying heart rhythm disorder. I was in intensive care for several weeks in Ennis. It was diagnosed in 2009. In 2010, I had two procedures in the Mater hospital,” Zoe told The Clare Champion last week.
“I just kept having episodes of collapse. It’s important to say it wasn’t life-threatening. It was a quality of life issue. To carry on like that wasn’t feasible,” she added, noting the heart problem had been an issue she was a child.
Zoe’s recovery was hastened when she joined a gym in February 2012.
“When I started the gym, within two or three months I was taken off all of the heart medication. I’m on nothing now apart from my protein and my fitness. I don’t have any chest pains. Also, I think it’s had a huge mental affect as well. Stress is a huge trigger for being unwell. Stress can cause chest pains. For me, it has turned my life around.”
It’s quite a turnaround from when Zoe first darkened the door of a gym nearly 20 months ago.
“It was my first time ever in a gym. I had never picked up a dumbbell. I was so unfit. I thought I was fit because I had worked for years with horses. I saw improvements bit by bit. Then I went to a body building contest in Waterford last April,” Zoe recalled.
She doesn’t deny that she harboured a few preconceptions.
“I had this impression that it was all very seedy. I only went purely because a friend was competing. But when I saw the women I just thought ‘I’d love to do that’. So I started training harder and last September I entered my first show in Carlow. I came second, which gave me the confidence to keep going. Ironically, it came full circle. Last April I did a show that I had originally seen last year. It was hosted at UL. I came second, which qualified me for the Arnold Classic,” Zoe explained.
She will compete in the figure category next week, although there are several body building grades.
“You start with bikini and then you have figure, which is what I’m going into. It’s more toned. Then you have fitness, which is much more athletic again and then you have physique and then the body building, which is more extreme. I’m at the milder end of the spectrum,” Zoe said.
“All of the entrants go on stage and line up. From there they select the top 12 or thereabouts. Judges look for physical shape, confirmation, symmetry, tone, leanness, how dry you are and you musn’t have too much muscle or veins,” she outlined.
Zoe admits she has become addicted to her gym routine but feels that she could be addicted to worse.
“Is it addictive? Definitely. To the point where I’ve become so engrossed in it that, after the competition, I need to allow myself to step back and have time for my girls. On the flip side, I could be out every weekend. I can’t remember the last time I was out, although that will change after the show,” she laughed.
Zoe’s daughters Amber (7) and Melissa (9) attend Cloughleigh National School. Currently concentrating full time on bodybuilding, Zoe has worked in the horse racing industry, as a driving instructor and was even in the Irish army for a spell. Her long term ambition, however, is to work full time in the fitness industry.
“I’d love to pursue a career in fitness, following on from this. Bodybuilding has kicked off in a huge way in Ireland. In the past 12 months a lot more women are competing. Women are more aware that bodybuilding doesn’t mean bulking. It’s more about toning and getting fitter. People are much more aware now of the importance of health and fitness and getting your kids off the couch,” she observed.
Back in Surrey, Zoe’s parents, Nick and Sue, were ever so slightly taken aback, initially, when they got wind of their daughter’s new career path in Ireland.
“They were shocked. It took a while. I started off by sending them links. I have their blessing and backing now. They have really come full circle,” Zoe smiled.
While all but living in the Ozone gym, Zoe has had to carefully select her food intake. No point in working for hours and follow that by heading for the chipper.
“Very, very clean foods. Oats, sweet potatoes, chicken, turkey. Super lean and clean food. No fats, no dressing, no salt,” Zoe replied when asked what she eats.
“You can season it with herbs to make it a bit more exciting. I do succumb to the odd protein bar but that has to stop now this week. The key is to eat every two hours. So if you had three meals a day, break it into six meals. That’s the biggest head-wrecker because I love my food, my cakes and sweets,” she laughed.
As she prepares for her self-financed trip to Madrid, Zoe says she has supportive family and friends behind her, while she tries to use any negative vibe as a motivation.
“I’ve had nothing but support. Occasionally people do experience negativity when someone is doing well. I think you get that in all spectrums of life, be it what I’m doing, your work or home life.
“There’s always going to be someone that has something negative to say but, at the end of the day, they are people who are jealous or insecure. Those people shouldn’t matter. You’ll always come across negativity but that’s that persons problem,” she maintained before returning to her seven day training routine in preparation for Madrid.