“What do you eat!?”
Donnelle Petelo says she’s been asked this so often by men at her gym, she now just laughs at the question.
You see Donnelle has guns. Not the kind a military enthusiast collects but the kind a 32-year-old woman gets from pumping weights nearly every day for the last two years.
The West Auckland mother of three is among the best female amateur bodybuilders in the country and has just placed fourth at the Natural Classic Auckland Champs on Sunday.
In the weeks leading up to the event Donnelle reduced her food intake to a mere 1225 calories per day, while at the same time increasing her already strenuous cardio and weights routine.
Donnelle drastically reduced her water intake too. At the start of last week she was drinking up to four litres per day. On Saturday she was down to 250ml with not a drop on Sunday – the day of the big competition.
In 2007 Donnelle weighed 92kg and had never stepped foot inside a gym, let alone harboured life ambitions to become a top female bodybuilder.
A friend suggested a bodybuilding fitness trainer and in less than a year Donnelle had lost 37kg, and gained an obsession with the training and strict diet of bodybuilding.
“For you to get mass muscle you have to eat a shit load but for you to go on stage you have to eat bugger all – so they are quite polar opposites.”
Donnelle is down to an almost unbelievable 3kgs of body fat. The extreme weight loss has caused her to temporarily lose her period. She says it will probably be up to two to three months before it returns.
“When you get to about that 15 percent (body fat) there are a couple of weeks there where it is really hard, because as a female your body just doesn’t want to go under there,” she says.
The physical dangers of bodybuilding are amplified in the days leading up to competitions – with athletes sticking to “pre-comp diets”. But it is “post-comp” where the mental dangers arise.
Dramatic weight gain is common as athletes return fluid to their bodies causing them to puff out. Donnelle says she has known people to put on as much as 7kg in the day following a competition.
She says the weeks following competitions are full of mind games as your body adjusts to its larger size.
“It does [mess with your mind] as you get leaner and leaner, because it happens quite gradual too. So you begin to like looking like that. So then when you get your butt back and don’t fit your clothes it can be tough,” she says.
Female bodybuilding would however take a dark turn into the 90s with rampant drug use breeding masculine female physiques.
“To counter that, because [drug use] virtually killed the whole sport, they brought in the figure class which is more shape orientated and glamorous. But internationally that is almost getting to where women’s bodybuilding was,” he says.
It sounds like a tired joke. Female bodybuilders hepped up on steroids, growing facial hair and male pecs, but Peter says drugs have nearly taken over professional bodybuilding. He’s seen many athletes push themselves to the edge.
“I’ve seen guys just about die on stage,” he says.
“…because their electrolyte system is so out of wack.”
“Not to veer them away because I don’t think you’re ever gonna change it. But to give people a choice, because without it they have no choice,” he says.
Anabolic steroids are bodybuilding’s elephant in the room – be it an elephant that can bench 400kg. Donnelle says no one talks about them but if you turn professional (“get your pro card”) you basically have to take drugs to be competitive.
Donnelle is drug-free and in her own words “healthy”. She placed fourth at the Natural Classic Auckland Champs, taking the stage with around 30 other women. Even for first place there were no medals, limited prize money and barely any coverage in the press.