Skip the Cake: What it Takes to be a Figure Competitor

By Marlo Holdren with Leah Fisher Nyfeler – January 3, 2012
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

Sarah Farr has a mantra: "Skip the Cake." While Farr may sound like many other Austinites who are worried about their weight, she is not the average couch potato fretting about a few extra pounds. In her spare time, Farr trains for figure competitions. She fits her workouts and competitive lifestyle around a demanding job as a registered nurse at St. David’s Hospital, a second job as an operating nurse at Austin Surgical Center, and family life with her husband, Ken, and their horse, Dodger, at their Dripping Springs home.

Fitness competitions for women are a relatively new phenomenon. According to the International Federation of Body Building (IFBB), the first Ms. Olympia competition was held in 1980. The men’s competition (Mr. Olympia) began in 1965. As women entered into competition, new categories were created, emphasizing more feminine aspects than pure bodybuilding competitions. In the past two decades three new competitions were added to the original Ms. Olympia. Fitness Olympia (1995), Figure Olympia (2003), and the new Bikini Olympia (2010) all feature women with defined muscles and low body fat, though they move progressively away from pure muscle development toward other attributes, such as pleasing facial features and feminine curves. Farr competes in figure competitions, which occupy the middle ground on this spectrum; they require contestants to be both feminine and toned at the same time, leaving out the aerobic aspect of fitness competitions and adding the swim suit emphasis found in bikini competitions.

Farr grew up playing volleyball, running track, and enjoying horseback riding with a slim physique that she often shyly hid under bulky clothes. She wasn't all that interested in “pumping iron,” though her husband bought her a membership at Gold’s Gym. One morning a stranger approached her there and told Farr her physique was ideal for figure competitions. Farr researched the topic, attending a show. Intrigued, she wondered whether she could attain that much muscle, and she hired both a trainer and nutritionist to assist her in her development.

Farr’s husband Ken said, “It is extraordinary that she has gone from someone who doesn't show a particularly strong desire to work out to a person who has become a top national figure competitor after only a couple of years. Especially given that she was never one to want to be in a bikini.”

Farr’s first competition was the October 2009 Texas State Championships. She was not sure which event to enter. “I decided to compete in Bikini because I thought I wouldn't be ready for Figure that early,” she said. As it turns out, she was a little too ready. Her look was too defined for the softer requirements of the Bikini competition, and she wound up taking last place. Devastated, she was ready to quit.

Farr regained her composure, shook off the defeat, and looked for a new coach. Ironically, she needed look no further than her own neighborhood. Monica Brant, noted Austin-area fitness trainer, Austin Fit Magazine contributor, and a top national competitor herself, lives just down the street. In addition to a new trainer, Farr began to work with a makeup artist, Melinda Quiroz, who also assists Brant on photo shoots. Quiroz said, “When I first met [Sarah], she was very shy. When I did her makeup for her first photo shoot, she looked into the mirror at the results and burst into tears. She wasn't aware that she could be that beautiful. I said, 'Oh no! Don't cry…you'll mess up your makeup!'”

With Brant as her new trainer, Farr swept the Lackland Classic in San Antonio, placing first in her Figure B class. She moved on to compete in the “Excalibur” in Los Angeles, sacrificing her entire rent and bill money to buy tickets. Next on the agenda were first place finishes in the Capitol of Texas Roundup and Europa Supershow in Dallas, with a strong second in her class at The Arnold International.

Unlike some of her fellow figure competitors who are free to train without work constraints, Farr must budget her training time wisely around her commitments. Farr does a cardio workout in the morning and weight training after work, often as late as 10 p.m. She has an hour-long commute to work at St. David’s, where she has three 12- hour shifts each week. The rest of the week, Farr works at Austin Surgical Hospital assisting in surgical cases ranging from cardiovascular, neurosurgery and spinal cases to plastic, gynecological, abdominal, and orthopedic surgery. With her busy work and training schedules, sometimes the only time Farr and her husband have together is in the gym. She even cooks her meals ahead of time on Sundays, so that they are prepared for the week, saving time as well as eliminating the problem of grabbing unhealthy food for convenience.

There are other difficult aspects; competition costs can sometimes be astronomical, and Farr’s training takes a toll on the couple’s social life. “Every social activity often revolves around eating and drinking the wrong thing,” he said. “You have to be disciplined… it's no fun being the person on the boat eating bell peppers when people are eating nachos and drinking beer.” The Farrs try to avoid this problem by surrounding themselves with like-minded, fitness-oriented friends because, as Ken said, “The difference between [Sarah] and other competitors is that for her, there is no cheat day, no off day. She is 100 percent sheer dedication and devotion.”

Some of Farr’s most powerful motivators are her patients. As a nurse, she sees patients every day who suffer from diabetes, lost nerve sensations, amputations, and dialysis, often as a result of an unhealthy diet and poor lifestyle choices.

“You can't always fix them, but you can offer them a choice,” Farr said. “Not working out and not feeling good; honestly, it's just not worth it….[T]his is not a rented body. Just take the first step and get in there.

“Anyone can have fitness. Eat your veggies and protein, and work out hard. People ask me how I got these abs, and I tell them that my abs are made in the kitchen. Nutrition matters.”

Another important piece of motivation for Farr is the support of her friends, co-workers, make-up artist, and trainer. “Because I know how much the people around me have sacrificed to help me get to my goals, it makes me not want to let everyone down.” Ever humble, Farr summed up, “You can do this, even with a [day] job. I'm not special. I'm just a regular person. Anybody can do it.”



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