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Bodybuilding toward a healthier goal

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If attention were all she was looking for, trust that Tammy Johnson could have found easier ways to get it.

Certainly, there are better ways to catch an eye than logging extensive gym workouts, eating a strict diet that includes cooking 40 chicken breasts every weekend, going to school and working a tiring nighttime job at a nursing home.

But when you don't believe in shortcuts, there are few other ways to go about becoming a professional bodybuilder.

For Copley's Johnson, there's been no skipping workouts, sliding on meals or dodging work. And definitely no steroids.

``First of all, I like being female,'' said Johnson, 31. ``So you can forget the drug thing. It's like playing Russian roulette to me. I see what it does to some women. And my insides are as good as my outsides.''

So as she works to gain professional status, Johnson is careful to target drug-free competitions first, only using those that don't specify such as back-up plans.

``It's hard to compete in the same shows with them, because the look is so different,'' she said. ``It may give them an advantage now, but in the long run you never know what's going to happen to your body with all that stuff in it.''

But while attracting attention never has been Johnson's goal, it is exactly what has happened to the former Buchtel track standout since her quest to become a professional bodybuilder began a year and a half ago.

It all started innocently enough.

While working out at a gym one day, someone suggested she ought to try bodybuilding.

``I was teaching aerobics and working as a personal trainer at the time,'' Johnson said. ``I didn't want to be a bodybuilder.''

Still, the thought stuck with her. And she kept asking herself, ``Well, why not?''

Her father, Willie Johnson, had been a well-known champion bodybuilder back in the 1970s. She had grown up admiring all his shiny trophies and reading articles about him.

Back then, she never gave one thought to following in his footsteps. But suddenly, it seemed more like an attainable goal than a far-fetched idea.

So Johnson checked out a competition to see what she was in for. She found a trainer in Mentor. And then she plopped down $650 to get started.

``You're just trying to be like me,'' Willie said, jokingly to his daughter.

And how could she argue? She is. But for a much different reason.

Getting started

At first, the tough workouts, major time commitment and especially the lack of food, stunned her.

``I was so sore at first and so hungry, I thought I'd die trying to do this,'' she said. But then she'd reason with herself.

``I can't afford to waste $650,'' she'd say.

So she kept at it.

Already athletically built and standing 5-foot-9, Johnson was surprised how quickly her body changed -- her arms, for example, went from 11 inches around to 14.

But in order to gain muscle, initially she had to gain weight.

``I had to get up to 174 pounds to be able to turn it into muscle,'' she said. ``I'd always had lean abs, but I had thick legs. Now I weigh about 150 pounds. For contests, I usually weigh about 136.''

Her support comes in various forms. The man who initially approached her, Clay Singer, has become a key person in a small group she trains with.

``He always tells me, `Winners don't sit at home, Tammy,' '' Johnson said. ``Clay motivates me, he cooks for me when I'm sick, and when people come up to me at the gym, he tells them to let me get my work done.''

``Wait till she's done, she's training!'' Singer tells the well-wishers.

And inspiration to keep going is never far away.

One day while Johnson was grabbing a quick bite at McDonald's, a woman came up to her. Amazed at her abs, the woman asked if she could touch Johnson's stomach.

Johnson didn't mind, but the odd moment of fun ended as soon as Johnson spotted the woman's overweight daughter standing nearby.

``I couldn't eat, I just got a Diet Coke and left,'' Johnson said.

Another time in the gym, a woman came up to her and told her she had been secretly admiring Johnson's work ethic and wanted her to know she'd been an inspiration to her.

``The lady was 220 pounds,'' Johnson says. ``She's down to 145 now. And all she told me when she first talked to me was, `I'm going to lose that weight because of you.' ''

Then there was the time last summer when she was shopping in the grocery store and ran into her old high school track coach, John Scott.

``When I saw Tammy, I was stunned,'' Scott said. ``As a runner, she'd always been thin, but the muscles! I was so impressed after talking to her, I asked her if she could help me.''

The 24-year track and cross-country coach always had considered himself to be in pretty good shape.

``But with Tammy's help, I've lost 32 pounds since June 7,'' he said with a laugh. In addition to all the inspiration Johnson has been providing, she has been gaining quite a bit of attention for winning, too.

In 2001, she won her first competition in Cleveland. A few months later, she won her weight class (for women, heavyweight is considered anything over 132 pounds) at the Natural Northern USA competition. Last summer, she took her weight class and won overall at the Collegiate Nationals in Pittsburgh.

``I'm really shocked at how I've done right from the start,'' said Johnson, who is enrolled in a nursing program at Cuyahoga Community College. ``I mean, I didn't know how to train, what to eat. I didn't know anything, really. And now, I've got one more to win, and I'm a pro!''

Scott says the woman who still owns Buchtel's record for the 3,200 meters is a natural.

``I went to the competition in Pittsburgh to see her,'' Scott said. ``And I was struck by her stage presence. She has such charisma. I know I could never stand up there practically buck naked with everyone scrutinizing my body.''

Someday, Johnson hopes to turn the focus into something more meaningful.

``I want to work with kids, especially obese children, by running camps in the summertime,'' she said. ``I want to get them while they're young, teach them about eating, and taking care of their body.

``I've found my joy. And I want to use it to help others and to keep myself grounded.''

You see, it never was about gaining attention for a gorgeous body. But if it leads her to a higher purpose, well then it was well worth it.

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