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Local resident embraces her femininity as a bodybuilder

Leah Thomas competes in bodybuilding competitions in Grand Rapids.
Leah Thomas listens to music as she uses the chest press machine in the Kroc Center. She lifts 40 pounds.

Leah Thomas listens to music as she uses the chest press machine in the Kroc Center. She lifts 40 pounds. /Amena Anderson

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Check out a YouTube video by Dream Video of Leah Thomas in action at the 2010 NPC Grand Rapids Bodybuilding, Fitness, Figure and Bikini Championships: 


Leah Thomas uses a barbell to work on her biceps at the Kroc Center.

Leah Thomas uses a barbell to work on her biceps at the Kroc Center. /Amena Anderson

Leah Thomas lifts 25 pounds when during dumbbell curls to work her biceps.

Leah Thomas lifts 25 pounds when during dumbbell curls to work her biceps. /Amena Anderson

Leah Thomas eats a lot.

She eats every two hours, totaling about five or six meals a day. But that’s what it takes to be a competitive bodybuilder.

Before the sun rises each morning, Thomas, 48, is already at the Kroc Center working up a sweat sculpting her body before heading to her day job as a customer service representative at Grand Valley State University.

“It’s like creating art,” she said. “You see yourself when you start off, you see yourself as it gets closer to the competition.”

At the Kroc Center, the 5-foot-4-inch Thomas does one hour of cardio and one hour of weightlifting. Each day she works on a different body part. On Tuesday, she might work on her biceps and chest. While on Wednesday, she might work on her back and triceps. The incline press, which works the chest, and the dumbbell curl, which works the biceps, are her favorite exercises.

She wants to look like Rachel McLish, the first woman to win Ms. Olympia in 1980. McLish is the reason Thomas started weightlifting in the 1980s as a college student at Wayne State University in Detroit.

“When I saw her, I was like, man, she lifts weights, and I was like, man, I want to look like her, so that’s what piqued my interest,” she said.

Thomas said McLish symbolizes what female bodybuilding should be about. But nowadays, she said female bodybuilders are looking more and more like men.

“[McLish] was still beautiful, but still feminine,” she said. “She had muscle but it’s nothing like what you see today. And that’s what disturbs me about women bodybuilding today.”

Thomas said female bodybuilders who are as large as men are most likely using steroids.

“That’s the reason women get that big,” she said. “Unless a woman is just naturally bigger, she’s still gonna get to a certain point, but she’s not gonna get like what you see those professional women doing.”

Thomas said she would never take steroids. Instead, she goes the natural route and takes vitamins such as Calcium, Omega 3s and B12 to stay healthy and strong.

After ditching Wayne State and working a few years in Detroit, she moved to Grand Rapids in 1989. She continued to lift weights off and on through the years, but never entered any competitions.

Then in 2000, she entered her first bodybuilding competition: The Western Michigan Bodybuilding and Fitness Competition. She was 36 years old.

“I was just ready to do it,” she said. “It was a desire that I always wanted to do, and I just made up my mind.”

Thomas got advice about what to eat, and how to prepare for the competition. She said the hardest part was increasing her food intake. At the time, she ate only one or two meals per day.

“I had to eat five to six meals a day,” she said. “Oh my goodness, I didn’t think that I was gonna make it.” She also had to restrict her sugars and fats.

During her first competition, she wore a yellow bikini. She later found out that wearing bright colors was not the norm. She also didn’t have a 90 second routine to perform for the judges. She didn’t know she needed one. Instead, she did basic poses the entire time.

“I just learned from trial and error,” she said.

When she entered the competition, she only had one goal.

“My goal was not to win, it was just to get my feet wet and to do it to see if I can do it,” she said.

Thomas said she won third place in the middleweight weight class that year and in 2001. She also entered in 2002, but didn’t win anything.

Eight years went by before she entered another competition. During that time she was laid off from her job as a finger print technician in 2003 and didn’t find another one until a year later.

Then in December 2009, as she was listening to a New Years Eve sermon at Word of Faith Church in Grand Rapids, she felt inspired to get back into bodybuilding competitions. “The desire had never gone away,” she said.

Thomas found out about an upcoming competition in May 2010 and started training five to six days a week in January. She also found two mentors who adjusted her diet to include more protein and gave her more bodybuilding advice.

Michelle Homrich is one of those mentors. Homrich, a manager at Warren Nutrition in Grand Rapids and a bodybuilder herself, gave Thomas a new meal plan to follow and advised her to be more consistent with her weightlifting.

“It was amazing the changes that she made in her body to get ready for this competition,” Homrich said.

All the hard work paid off. Thomas won first place for the lightweight class in the 2010 NPC Grand Rapids Bodybuilding, Fitness, Figure and Bikini Championships. She attributes her win to her faith in God.

“I know God was in it because everything just flowed. I had no snags, no problems [and] everything just flowed,” she said. “It was the best one I’ve done so far.”

Currently, Thomas is training to compete in the upcoming Western Michigan Bodybuilding, Fitness, Figure, Physique & Bikini Championships in Grandville on October 20. She’s in the gym working out five to six days a week.  

Thomas said that when she sets her mind to do something, she does it.

“Especially when somebody’s talking negative in your ear, that just adds fuel to the fire,” she said.

When it comes to bodybuilding, she said it gives her a certain feeling.

“It’s empowering to me,” she said. “It’s saying that even though I’m doing this, I’m still woman; I’m all woman, [and] I’m not trying to be a man.”

Bodybuilding is also a sport she isn’t walking away from anytime soon.

“I always said I was going to compete until I have no more breath in my body,” she said. “That’s my goal.”

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