Sabrina Mercado, 24, devoted a year to grueling training and life sans simple carbs—all so her body could be judged onstage.
I played water polo in college, but after school, I couldn’t find a workout routine that fit. I started looking at fitspo on Instagram, and these female bikini athletes had the most incredible, muscular figures—I thought, “How can I look like that?” My stepdad and boyfriend helped me start lifting weights, and for a year and a half, I watched my body transform. Then I decided to see how far I could take it; I wanted to look back in 20 years and say, “I did this, I pushed myself, I looked like this.” So I signed up for a bikini bodybuilding competition.
In bikini bodybuilding, women compete onstage for the title of best physique. It isn’t the scary, steroid-y bodybuilding you’re thinking of; the women are just super fit, like models in a Nike ad. My very first competition was the World Beauty Fitness & Fashion Show on July 11, and I started training in January. It was a full-time commitment: I did 1½ hours of lifting five days a week, and I drank a huge amount of water and ate every 2½ hours. I took in 3,000 calories a day: After my morning workout, I’d have a double serving of oatmeal plus 2 cups of egg whites, scrambled. At 10 a.m., I’d eat one of those big, squat tubs of Greek yogurt and three slices of bread. And that was all before 11 a.m.
In spring, I started a new job in merchandise planning, and halfway through a meeting I’d have to get up and grab food to stay on schedule. I was the new girl who always had stinky ground turkey at her desk. On my first day, I blurted out, “Oh, it’s nice my desk is so close to the bathroom!” because I had to pee every 25 minutes. And I was totally that weirdo eating sweet potatoes and green beans on the subway. It wasn’t cute.
I couldn’t drink alcohol or deviate from the eating plan, so my social life took a hit. I’d order seltzer at bars and pull out a Tupperware of ground meat at restaurants. It was tough on my relationship, too, because I had so little energy—I’d say, “You can come over and sleep next to me!” But my boyfriend was supportive, as were my friends and family.
My body was so depleted right before the competition, thanks to four hours at the gym every day and no carbs. I cried almost every day. Then I walked onstage and it all faded away. I thought, “Every second of the last six months was leading to this.” I felt so proud of myself! It was such a crazy rush of endorphins. Then I walked off and tore into a bag of Oreos. I didn’t place, but I know I did my best. I’m looking forward to having margaritas and pizza and cookies again, but I might sign up for a November competition and get back into training mode soon. I want to do better.
You know, I’ve been told my whole life that my brain is the most important thing, not my body, and it was funny to be doing something that’s strictly about my looks. I understand the criticism, but—have you ever worked so hard for something and then gotten an opportunity to showcase it? The rush of that moment on stage…for that, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.