Determined, Dedicated, Disciplined to be Fit: Ernestine Shepherd, World’s Oldest Female Bodybuilder

NOTE: I wrote this for Nat Irvin’s Managing for the Future class as part of my University of Louisville Entrepreneurship MBA program. The assignment was to interview someone 75 or older of a different race/ethnicity. I’d read about Ernestine Shepherd several years ago, so I called her up. We spoke for an hour and a half. She’s amazing – thought I’d share her story here. Besides, I got an A+ on it. I’m WAY better at the writing-ish classes than the numbery ones.

ernestine shepherd

There’s nothing quite like bathing suit shopping – and bathing suit trying on in a fluorescently lit dressing room – to test a woman’s bravery, let alone sense of humor.

For Ernestine Shepherd and her older sister Velvet, it was also an experience that changed their lives. “Velvet looked at me and started laughing,” Ernestine recalls. “And I said, ‘Hey, I can laugh at you, too.’”

Within days, Velvet signed them both up at a local gym. At the ages of 56 and 57, the two became aerobics class regulars and pumped away on the weight machines.

That was 21 years ago. Today, Ernestine not only wears bathing suits frequently – she wears really tiny ones. On stage. In front of a lot of people. As she competes as the World’s Oldest Female Bodybuilder.

She’s 77 and proves daily that it’s never too late to work up a good sweat.

‘Teenie, If You Want This Joy…You Better Get Busy’

Though, admittedly, sweat was the furthest thing from Ernestine’s to-do list. Born June 16, 1936, in Baltimore, Md., where she lives today, Ernestine says that she’d never so much as broken even a fitness-inspired glisten until joining the gym.

“As a child, I was too prissy to be athletic,” she says. “I daydreamed about pretty clothes, makeup, hairstyles and parties.”

In fact, while Velvet was excited to see the muscular transformations in her body, even coming up with a fitness mantra that the sisters had sewn onto each of their workout tops – Determined, Dedicated, Disciplined to be Fit – Ernestine wasn’t quite as interested in building bigger biceps.

When Velvet’s newfound fit physique began attracting compliments and even media coverage, Ernestine decided she’d had enough. “I got angry because no one was looking at me,” Ernestine recalls. “I left the gym, walked home and didn’t want to go back.

“Velvet came to me and said, ‘Teenie, if you want this joy that I’m having, you better get busy.’”

From that day forward, Ernestine kicked up her weight training and she, too, noticed significant changes in her body. So did everyone else. The sisters began spending even more time at the gym and took to the speaking circuit to promote the benefits of exercise.

That led Velvet to develop a new goal: She wanted the Guinness World Records to recognize the sisters for their “senior” fitness. Ernestine agreed to do her part.

In a tragic turn of events, less than a year after they’d begun working out, Velvet began complaining of severe headaches. She was so sick one day that she went to the emergency room. It was a brain aneurism, and it had burst. Velvet died.

Ernestine’s Rocky Recovery

Velvet’s unexpected and sudden death sent Ernestine into a terrible depression. She lost her faith. Stopped exercising. Spent hours on the couch. She suffered from panic attacks and high blood pressure. A full eight months passed and she’d barely left the house.

Then Velvet appeared to her in a dream. “She said, ‘You’re not doing what you said you were going to do. You said you were going to continue what we started,’” Ernestine recalls. “I didn’t move right away. It took me awhile before finally I got myself together.”

It took her awhile, and Rocky III. Ernestine’s son brought her the DVD during one of her couch sessions – the one where Mick dies, leaving Rocky too devastated to train properly for his upcoming bout with Clubber Lang.

“I sat there and I watched,” Ernestine says. “When it went off, I cried. I watched it again. I knew it was fictional. But it touched me to see what this man could do, and then what he lost that was wonderful to him. And then how he came back. Rocky Balboa was not about how hard you get hit, but how you keep moving.”

Ernestine credits Sylvester Stallone (whom she’s dying to meet; me too!) with finally getting her off the couch and back in the gym. Her ringtone? Theme from Rocky. I know this because her cellphone went off no less than five times during our interview. “That music makes me ready to take on the world,” she says. “It helps me keep my sister’s dream alive.”

But just as backup, her son bought the entire Rocky DVD collection for her.

About Those Biceps…and That Bikini

Ernestine spent the next two decades working out, eating a clean diet, wearing her Determined, Dedicated, Disciplined to be Fit tops and remembering Velvet. “My sister left me with a dream to fulfill and that was to let everyone know that age is nothing but a number. You can do anything if you put your mind to it.”

By 2007, at the age-is-nothing-but-a-number-71, Ernestine crossed paths with Yohnnie Shambourger, a former Mr. Universe, and asked if he would train her to compete as a bodybuilder. Though not without a word of caution about big biceps.

“I told him that I did not want big muscles. He said, ‘You won’t get big muscles. You’re going to look like a toned female. I’m going to create a body that women can look at and know that with a certain amount of dedication, discipline and determination, they can achieve the same thing.’”

Yes, well, dedication, discipline, determination and sleep deprivation! Here’s a look at a typical day in the life of Ernestine Shepherd:

Ernestine's Schedule

I’m not sure which is worse – up at 3 a.m. for a 10-mile run or downing gallons of egg whites Rocky-style each week.

Achieving Her Sister’s Dream

Nonetheless, after seven months, at 5’5” (she’s actually 5’4 ½” but wears high-heeled sneakers (seriously!)), weighing in at 116 pounds, with less than 10 percent body fat – measurements she still maintains – Ernestine won the Natural East Coast Tournament of Champions. It was her first bodybuilding competition. She posed alongside women decades younger.

I’ve watched videos of Ernestine, listened to her radio interviews and, of course, talked with her over the phone, myself. She is impeccably proper. So I had to ask: What was it like wearing that barely there bodybuilding bikini for the first time, in front of everyone?

“Oh, I was nervous,” she admits. “I’ve worn skimpy clothes before, but for this – people come to judge your body. The first time I competed, I peeked out from behind the curtain and saw my husband (trustee of their church, by the way) in the audience. And I thought, ‘Oh man, I can’t do this.’ And then I thought about my sister. This is what she said she wanted.”

Ernestine picked the disco favorite More, More, More as her walk-out-and-pose music, and that set her in motion. “I started walking across the stage with that More, More, More playing, and I forgot all about it. I started strutting my stuff! It was hard to get me off the stage, I wanted to stay out there.”

No doubt about it. You can see it all in her smile during another competition, the 2011 Musclemania. Wow.

Ernestine continues to compete in, and win, numerous bodybuilding competitions. And she has completed nine marathons in the past six years alone.

In March 2010, Ernestine achieved her sister’s dream, arriving in Rome on Velvet’s birthday. She was there to collect the title of World’s Oldest Competing Female Body Builder by the Guinness World Records. She brought Velvet’s ashes with her and spread them throughout the city.

Sharing God’s Plan on Facebook

Today, Ernestine has close to 60,000 followers on Facebook, where she posts her news, invites people to join her on runs and encourages those of us who find her so inspiring. She gives regular motivational speeches, always reciting her creed, which she adapted from author Christian D. Larson’s The Optimist Creed. (In fact, she recited it to me on the phone – “This is how I try to live my life,” she says.)

Ernestine continues to attract global media attention of all types. A Google search returns 389,000 matches and lots of gorgeous images, including the ones I swiped above.

I asked if she could imagine what her life would be like today if she and Velvet hadn’t entered that dressing room so long ago.

“I question myself each day if I had not been doing the things I’m doing, would I be happy?,” she says after thinking about it awhile. “I ask God to keep me as healthy as possible so that I can live this lifestyle and inspire others for as long as I can. I just love getting out there and talking about walking, running, lifting weights and eating correctly. It’s the truth. This is what I’m about.”

She stops. She’s a little teary now, no doubt thinking of Velvet, the devastation that followed  her death and how thankful she is that she, like Rocky, came back.

“Had I not been doing this, I’d be sitting home eating, not going out walking, not doing anything,” she continues. “I only wish that my sister and I could have been on this journey together. But this is the way God planned it, so I have to take that and run with it.”

I’ve never been one to buy into the idea of “God’s plan,” believing instead that we each design our own destiny based on the choices we make. But I’m the first to admit that these past few years have brought most all of my beliefs into question. Ernestine, and so many others devoted to their faith, have something to hang their hats on – God’s plan.

Finding Your Reason

During our phone interview, I invited my Facebook friends to pose questions of their own. Ernestine seemed truly thrilled by the idea as I read them to her and posted her answers.

My favorite of Ernestine’s responses was the one she gave my friend Aynex Mercado who, coincidently, lives outside of Baltimore. Aynex asked what Ernestine recommends for those who just don’t like to exercise.

Ernestine immediately suggested grabbing a friend and walking. And after stopping for a second to ponder, she said the most amazing thing: “Everything we do, we have a reason why we do it. Maybe she hasn’t figured out what her reason is.”

I’ve thought about that so much over the past week or so. I don’t think “losing weight” is the reason Ernestine was thinking of. We only need to look around to see that many of us want to lose weight, yet few of us do it. I think Ernestine is suggesting that our reasons for everything run much deeper than the obvious.

Ernestine, clearly, found her reason – and it’s no longer just to look good in a bathing suit. For her, living a healthy life is a way to honor Velvet, and to honor herself. She has, in a way, transformed her childhood daydreams into a career. She dresses up in her pretty workout clothes (high-heeled sneakers!) with her mantra beautifully embroidered on her tops. Her hair and makeup are perfectly done. Her competitions? Those are the parties she daydreamed about.

Successful entrepreneurs like Ernestine do what they do because they’ve found the reason behind their passion. If we don’t know our reason, how will we find the right place to put our passion?

So many times in the past few years, I’ve felt like I’ve lost my reason. Like Ernestine, my life was disrupted, too – though I hesitate to compare my painful experience to hers – but pain is pain.

At age 56, Ernestine chose to dedicate the next 21 years to doing something she loves, something that suits her well – and she remains true to her mantra, her creed and herself. Certainly at the age of 49, I can do the same.

Perhaps a mantra, a creed, some high-heeled sneakers and disco-inspired-walk-out-and-pose music of my own will help point me in the right direction.

Rocky Balboa was not about how hard you get hit, but how you keep moving.

 

4 Comments

  1. Jackie Cagle
    March 24, 2015

    I have just recently been “introduced” to Ms. Shepherd and she is phenomenal to me! All my life I have fought my weight/health and have never been able to maintain any (be it minimal) progress that I’ve made. I know there is no one “secret” but I just have never been able to find my niche. I would love to read everything Ms. Shepherd has ever written, know her routine, her diet, what motivates her DAILY and what she uses to overcome her doubts, fears and “slumps”.

    Reply
    • Mary Thorsby
      March 25, 2015

      Hi Jackie, and thank you for your comment! Ms. Shepherd is amazing! I loved interviewing her — and I love seeing her updates on her Facebook page. What an inspiration!

      Reply
  2. Annie
    September 17, 2017

    She lives on 4.5 hours of sleep per night???

    Reply
  3. jennyct
    September 18, 2017

    Running 10 miles burns 1350 calories, but she only eats 1700 per day. Do we need to be in deficit to maintain? Am I missing something?
    thanks

    Reply

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