She was affectionately known as Brenda “Starr” at the University of Rochester where she was one of the only women on campus who was lifting weights – or would admit to it anyway. “I was on the track team in high school and we never used starting blocks,” recalls professional figure champion Brenda Marie Lauver (formerly Brenda Norris-O’Neill). “So when I went to college, my arms and shoulders were so weak I couldn’t hold myself up!” she laughs.“My coach suggested that I go lift weights. Back in 1976, there weren’t a lot of females in the weight room. The guys didn’t take me seriously at first, but when I started getting stronger and lifting heavier, they started calling me Brenda ‘Starr’.”
Some readers will recall the other Brenda Starr , the smart and glamorous reporter – a “modern” woman, if you will – created in 1940 by cartoonist Dale Messick for the Chicago Tribune Syndicate. There are some definite similarities between the two Brendas – both are smart, both are glamorous, and both were newspaper reporters – but Brenda Starr the comic strip heroine ended her reign in the comics in January of this year at the age of 71, while Brenda “Starr” the professional figure champion is still going strong.
In fact, Brenda “Starr” Lauver, the professional figure champion, has just announced that she will be competing in the 2011 IFPA Pro USA Natural Bodybuilding & Figure Championships on July 16 in Sacramento, adding yet another illustrious name to the growing list of top competitors in this important international event.
“Bren,” as her friends know her, grew up in Wooster, Ohio, and graduated from Wooster High School where she participated in track, cheerleading, and the debate team and received a scholarship to the University of Rochester. After earning a BA in American History, she went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Syracuse University and a second Master’s Degree from the University of Michigan in International Politics with an emphasis on Middle Eastern Studies. She wrote for the newspaper in college (something else she and the “other” Brenda have in common) and went on to become an adjunct professor at the University of Tampa.
So how did this mild-mannered professor become a bodybuilding and figure champion? “In 1997,” explains Bren, “I was walking through the gym where I worked and someone asked if I was getting ready for ‘the naturals.’ I had no idea what he was talking about. After he told me about the competition, I figured I could do it. I’ve always loved to compete, and since track, I never had that opportunity. And I always lifted weights after college, although not heavy, and not with a plan.”
“I asked what I would need to do. He told me that to diet, I should stay away from eating fat and bread, so I did, but I ate Twizzlers and Dots anyway – my two favorite candies but,hey, they’re fat-free!,” she laughs. “A woman who was a retired bodybuilder showed me the poses, and I figured I was good to go. Of course, I came in dead last. But instead of giving up, I hired a trainer and won that very same show the next year. I was hooked!”
Bren went on to win her pro card at the Natural Muscle Association (NMA) Can-Am in 1999, and along the way she made the transition to figure competition earning her pro card at the U.S. Bodybuilding Federation (USBF) Jersey Shore Natural a decade later in 2010. And, now, at the age of 53, she is still contending in a sport that has traditionally been relegated to the younger generation.
“Natural body builders are supposed to be the epitome of health. Lifting, diet, cardio, all combine to sculpt a beautiful, healthy, human body. Competitors who use steroids are not only cheating the other contestants, they are robbing themselves out of YEARS of their lives. By the time juicers reach my age, many have heart, kidney, liver, and other health problems. I feel like if gravity continues to be my friend, I can continue to compete and improve,” says Bren.
“I usually don’t announce my age at shows,” she says,“because I think people look for flaws rather than find inspiration, but I’m completely comfortable being this age. And sometimes age has its funny moments.”
“I was at a show where they actually announced my age, and when I got off stage, a girl said ‘DUDE! They just said you were 50!’ as if she couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t stop laughing to myself.”
“Another time I was sitting at a table after a show with a group of competitors, and someone was talking about another figure contestant. She said ‘can you believe she is 45 and still doing figure?’ And, here I was 51 and had just beaten everyone at the table! I loved it!”
What does Bren recommend to women of all ages who might consider competing for the first time? “Take time to meet people back stage and have fun!!!!” says Bren enthusiastically.“I’ve been competing against/with many of the same people for years and it’s so much fun to make these connections with kindred spirits. You end up getting to know the expediters, judges, promoters, etc. Competitions end up being like reunions!”
A newly-wed, Bren and her husband, Jeff, were married on June 25 and live in Bernville, PA, a tiny borough in Berks County, where she is a personal trainer and group fitness instructor at Colonial Fitness in Sinking Springs, PA.
How did they meet? “A friend of Jeff’s had been a client of mine and had some awesome results. Jeff asked him what was the key to his success, and my client told him about me! So, for Christmas 3 years ago, my client gave Jeff a gift certificate for training with me at my gym. He walked in, and all I could see was that he was tall and gorgeous. He has since lost weight, put on muscle, and now goes to the gym almost every day! My friends tease me that I sculpted him into my ideal man,” she chuckles with delight. “He’s amazing.”
Bren’s daughter Jasmine (from her previous marriage) – just graduated from Penn State University in May and will be attending the University of Westminster in London, England, in the fall, making Bren a very proud mom.
“When I had my baby, I decided I wanted to spend my time with my daughter rather than read journals and grade papers. It was a choice I never regretted. I was blessed to have a husband who could afford for me to be a stay-at -home mom. I love athletics, and when Jazzy started school, I got certified to teach aerobics, and later became a trainer.”
Bren has been mulling about Sacramento since her disappointing 6th place finish at last year’s event. “It was the first and only figure show in which I did not place – amateur or pro. I obviously wasn’t prepared and that will never happen again.”
Still, even with her competitive spirit, she has the perspective of a seasoned champion. “Lots of people take losing as a sign that they are not good, or they’ll never be good and they just give up,” she says. “I’ve never been that way. After training, dieting, sacrificing late nights, doing everything we can to ‘win,’ if you can look at yourself in the mirror and see a champion, you already have won. If the judges don’t agree that you look the best on that particular day, does that mean you don’t look amazing? Nope. I have never left a competition thinking that just because I didn’t place first, that I must not look very good. Ever. If winning means a lot to you, then just keep working hard and eventually the placings will come. As Winston Churchill said, ‘never, ever, ever give up!’ That attitude gets you far not only on the stage, but off the stage as well.”
And Bren Lauver is bringing that championship attitude to Sacramento.