Debbie Keen, a 52-year-old personal trainer and mum-of-two has just returned triumphant from an ‘I Compete Natural (ICN)’ bodybuilding competition in Sydney, winning gold in her age group and category. While she is still considered an amateur natural bodybuilder (drug free), Debbie has had over 10 years’ experience and won a huge collection of trophies and titles.
Growing up in the New South Wales outback town of Broken Hill in the early 70s, Debbie had no idea that the world of female bodybuilding even existed. Back then it was all about eating meat-and-two-veg and playing team sport. Her first foray into the world of fitness began following the birth of her first child, Trent.
“I felt really uncomfortable with the extra baby weight I had gained, so with a few other mums, I joined a local gym in my then home of Dubbo,” she says.
“In 1993 it was all about aerobics, but not long after I joined up, the only female instructor left town. The gym owner introduced me to Phil, a muscly African American weight-lifting enthusiast. At first, I thought it was hilarious and slightly intimidating to be in the ‘proper gym’, but Phil was a fantastic trainer and as the weight fell off and my shape changed, I grew more confident in my ability.”
Debbie and husband Randy had a daughter Brittany in 1997, by which time Debbie’s love of keeping fit was well established. Encouraged by another local gym owner who saw Debbie’s potential as an instructor, she studied for a certificate III in fitness to help run the aerobics classes.
After a move to Newcastle in 2001, Debbie continued working as an instructor and completed a certificate IV in fitness, giving her the qualifications to take on personal training clients.
“I discovered a love for helping people achieve their individual fitness goals, and in 2006 one of my clients, a new mum, asked me to train her up for a bodybuilding show in Sydney.
“I hadn’t heard much about these shows before, so I did some research and we got cracking on her weight training and healthy eating program. I went to watch her compete and while she looked fabulously lean, she didn’t have the muscle tone and definition of her competitors and I was confused as to why not.”
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To learn more about what was involved in looking as muscular as the women on stage in Sydney, Debbie found a local trainer to show her how to get her own body to competition level.
Debbie’s first show was in her old hometown of Dubbo in 2008.
“I soon realised that getting my body ‘show-ready’ required a high level of commitment not only from me, but the entire family. It might sound silly but I still wanted a sense of normality at home and to keep cooking the nightly family dinner, but I was exhausted after work and three hours of weight training. Thankfully Randy stepped in to help prepare my special solo meals of grilled chicken and veggies so I had the energy to still be ‘mum’!”
After all the hard work and 4am wake-ups by Debbie and her supportive family, she was thrilled to win first place in her age category. Based on her success, she entered a further 13 shows across NSW and QLD in that first year alone and has since travelled to Korea and the USA to compete at an international level.
Debbie is the first to admit that training for a body building show is extremely tough and describes it as a ‘selfish sport’ for many reasons.
“Competitors are marked on presentation as well as muscles, so in the lead up to show I have four spray tans in one week as well as lots of waxing. I have to order my handmade sequin bikini and hair piece in advance, and I pay for fake lashes, nails and make up on the day. This is all on top of entry fees, annual membership fees and nutritional supplements.”
The costs and the time involved in entering a bodybuilding show can take a heavy toll and Debbie has seen the breakdown of many marriages.
“Training and dieting this intensely takes away from normal meal times and social activity so if the family are not on board, it puts a lot of pressure on a couple. I’m lucky that Randy, Trent and Brittany are supportive and all have their own interests and passions that bring a sense of balance to the family.”
In spite of the hardships, Debbie doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. She is off to Phuket later this year with Randy and plans to earn her ‘Pro card’, which would enable her to compete for money.
“I love the challenge of trying to get better with every competition, and I feel euphoric performing on stage, especially when I win! Ultimately, it’s all about inspiring my clients to achieve their own fitness goals and just being a fit and strong woman.”