“So you were the Ms. Figure America?” I asked. Small talk helps when you’re standing naked in front of someone you’ve known for three weeks.
It’s the day before the Texas State Naturals, my second bikini competition, and I’m standing in Melissa Merritt’s garage with my arms spread wide while she sprays cold brown tanning solution on me with a spray gun.
Everybody calls her Mel, and she has a team of girls who compete in bodybuilding shows called Mel’s Machines. Since my trainer, Daniel, moved to Houston one week before my competition Mel has taken me under her wing. I’ve taken posing classes with her the past month, but I’m still pretty intimated by her and her team.
“Yeah, the Ms. Figure was a lot of fun.”
“Did it take you a while to get there?”
“It was my second show, actually. Turn your arms the other way, palms facing me. I moved here after college with my brother and a friend and became my heaviest at that point from partying every night. Then I got into the super unhealthy abusive relationship in which I lost all self confidence. Once it got to the point that I knew I had to get out, I decided that I first had to find a way to build myself back up in order to gain the courage. That’s when I started running outside, before the beast would come home, and dieting to the best of my knowledge. The weight started coming off and I began feeling “healthy” again in both mind and body. It took a family death back home in Florida for me to be hit with a ton of bricks- life’s too short.
So as soon as my bro and I landed back in Austin, he took me to my house to grab my dog, Riley, and my clothes and we jetted out of there and never turned back. My brother saved me. I moved in with him and that’s when I took my life back and promised myself to do everything I ever wanted instead of letting fear hold me back. That’s when I went back to school for kinesiology and became a trainer with my brother at Lifetime Fitness. The first show came about a year later. I was training for the Ms. Fitness America when my posing coach, Adela Garcia, (she won the Ms. Olympia Fitness seven times) suggested I do the Lackland NPC competition as a warm-up show. Turn to the side. Look up.”
I turn and try not to shiver as she sprays in small spurts. She looks like a very focused artist. “I won second place, but all of a sudden the crowd started booing.”
“I was so excited to be there and come in second, but the audience thought I should have placed first, so they started booing the judges. And then Dave Goodin posted on Facebook that I was the best newcomer he had seen since Jamie Eason and interviewed me for Iron Man magazine. I couldn’t believe he was talking with me. He’s really big in the bodybuilding world. Put your right leg forward. No, your other right leg.”
We both laugh. I’m carb deprived and a little dippy.
“Two weeks later I was competing in the Ms. Fitness America in Las Vegas and I won best overall figure. It was crazy.”
She half laughs as she puts the spray gun down and takes a bite of her brown rice and chicken from a Tupperwear container.
“Do you still compete?” I asked.
“I spent years doing back-to-back competitions but Adela convinced me to take this past year off. It was a little scary for me, you know? I’m always a little afraid of turning back into the fat girl. Between all the shows and the surgeries, Adela told me my body needed a break.”
“Surgeries? Is that why you have those scars?” I’m staring at her perfectly chiseled stomach and see two large scars. She doesn’t respond immediately and I’m embarrassed I asked the question.
“Face the back and part your legs.”
I face the garage door and hold up my hair. She begins to spray my back.
“In January of 2009 I went into the hospital for an emergency appendectomy when they found my intestines were twisted. Apparently, when I was born my intestines didn’t attach like they are supposed to on my right side, so there were left hanging. The doctor was able to untwist them, but he warned me it could happen again. But I wasn’t going to let it stop me. I continued to train for my next show and kept doing photo shoots.”
“You trained after having your intestines twisted?” I couldn’t imagine being able to push through something like that. She squatted lower, spraying down each leg as she spoke.
“Weight lifting was my stress relief. Cardio was my stress relief. I couldn’t imagine stopping either. But then, two weeks before my competition I was training a client at 5 a.m. and my stomach cramped up. I tried to stay strong for my client, but then I had to go. I grabbed my brother, who was also a trainer, and said I might need to go back to the hospital. By the time I got to the bottom of the stairs at the gym I had collapsed in the worst pain you can imagine and was drenched in sweat.”
She stops spraying for a moment. “ It’s funny, so much of my life was focused on show prep and fitness modeling, but when your doctor says you can either be cut open or die, modeling doesn’t seem so important.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
I was the one naked, but it seemed she was exposing herself too.
“I’m not sorry. Everything happens for a reason and it really gave me perspective. Now when I do my show prep, I don’t complain about the food or the exercise. I’m just so happy to be alive and to be able to compete again at all. And my clients are amazing. I have a client dying from two terminal illnesses. I have girls overcoming eating disorders. They don’t complain; how can I? Face the side. Left leg forward. Um…your other left.”
We laugh again and then we are quiet. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be at the top of your game in your 20’s, Ms. Figure America, a bikini model, and then have to deal with two inch scars on your abdomen. I wondered why she wasn’t bitter; she was always laughing in the gym, comfortable in her body. I’m glad she still competes. I’m glad she still models, even with the scars. “You’re life would make a good book,” I said, “you’re really inspiring.”
“Everybody’s got a story,” she said. She put the sprayer down and the tanning mist around me began to dissipate. “You’re done.” She smiled at me.
And after that conversation I knew I wanted her to be my coach. I wanted to be a Machine.
It’s almost a year later and she’s still my coach. Some trainers are like drill sergeants; Mel is more of a cheerleader. She takes the time to explain nutritional questions and is backstage for every show her clients are in. In the bodybuilding world most teams are so big the clients barely know each other. The Machines work out in small groups mid-week and each Sunday we get together for a booty camp. She also set up a group text so we can support each other. Sometimes we text about show prep and recipes and give each other a cheer; sometimes we hold each other accountable so we don’t cheat on the meal plans or miss too many sessions; sometimes a teammate is going through real tough times: a death, a divorce, a disappointment, and we are a shoulder for each other to cry on. And we are all connected through Mel.
Recently, she got married to a powerlifter/fireman (of course). They just bought their first house, and she is pregnant with a boy. They are going to name him Gunner (because with two fitness powerhouses you know the kid is going to have big guns.) She truly has found everything she ever wanted.
Melissa Merritt Coker trains at Gym One and specializes in women interested in figure and bikini competitions and women who have trouble losing those last ten pounds. She also does private coaching for posing and rents custom posing suits for competitors. If you are interested in a consultation she can be reached via Mel’s Machines.
Photo credits noted below pictures.
Sheslosingit.net (c) 2013 Lisa Traugott. All rights reserved. No portion of this blog, including any text, may be reproduced or copied without written permission.