Through tragedy, a woman finds her strength
When you first hear about Stephanie Irish, you don’t think of a bodybuilder. A single mother of an 8-year-old daughter, Irish runs a security company and lives in Leesburg. Originally from Kentucky, Irish’s only high school athletic experience was cheerleading.
But all it takes to be convinced is one glance at Irish. Her triceps and biceps ripple and you can count her washboard abs. When she flexes, her trapezius muscles bulge. Her physique is a testament that this former cheerleader is most certainly a bodybuilder.
In her first competition on Oct. 20, Irish attended the North American Natural Bodybuilding Federation Charm City Classic at Goucher University in Baltimore. Irish was hoping to medal in her first contest. She placed first in all three categories she entered.
Irish swept the competition, placing first in the Master’s (35-plus) division, the Novice division and the Open division and to add to her accomplishments, she was a unanimous winner in all three categories. With her wins, she was able to earn her “pro card” from the International Fitness and Physique Association, allowing her to compete in professional events.
But Irish’s life hasn’t been all success. In between her triumphs, it was marred by tragedy.
In the short span of just six years, Irish suffered two blows, losing both her younger brother and her husband.
In 2005, Irish’s 16-year-old brother was driving some friends home when he lost control of the vehicle swerving to avoid a deer on the icy roadways of Kentucky. Though the two girls he was with survived, albeit with severe injuries, the younger Irish’s brain was punctured and he died.
In August of 2011, Irish’s husband Kenneth, a retired US Army colonel with whom Irish ran her security company, was hit by a pickup truck while riding his motorcycle in Ashburn. After being transported to the hospital, he died from injuries sustained in the accident.
“When you lose someone, that moment of hearing the news someone passed, nothing matters except that loss,” Irish said.
Irish turned to her faith to help her cope with losing her brother and husband in such a short period of time.
“I feel like my success has come through my faith,” Irish said. “Coming out of what I experienced last year, I decided I was not going to let this tragedy overtake me. I want to be strong. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed and I feel like the Lord opened up all kinds of doors.”
Seize the day
Irish developed an interest in bodybuilding in high school after flipping through her uncle’s bodybuilding magazine, but never pursued it.
Motivated by a deep-rooted faith and a seize-the-day attitude, partly a byproduct of the tragedies she experienced, Irish decided to pursue her longstanding dream.
“After losing my husband, I decided now was a time to achieve my dream,” Irish said. “I just decided, ‘I’m going to do this.’”
Irish had worked out at a home gym in her basement, but in April of this year, she decided to join L.A. Fitness in Leesburg. In June, she was began training with Chris Elardo, a gym rat that frequented the Leesburg gym.
“The biggest thing that helped me get where I needed to be was hiring a trainer,” Irish said.
As her training got more serious, Irish’s support system grew to include a nutrition coach, a posing coach and a choreographer. There are four divisions in bodybuilding; Irish competes in the figure competition. While emphasizing muscularity, the posing and a choreographed walk are also part of the figure division.
Irish has a 25-week training schedule leading up to competition. For the first 12 weeks, she bulks, lifting for two to six hours daily, five to six days a week, focusing on heavy weight and consuming high calories (mainly oatmeal, egg whites and chicken). The second 12 weeks is the prep or shred season, where she works on losing any extra weight and reduces her lifts and caloric intake. The final week before competition is peak week, which focusing on reducing water weight.
“She took the bull by the horns, did everything I asked her to do,” Elardo said. “She has a strong work ethic. It’s a huge strength of hers.”
Though challenging, Irish has found her new lifestyle rewarding. She will compete again in May, this time in Richmond, this time as a professional.
But ultimately, Irish hopes to be an inspiration and credits her faith with giving her the strength to not only overcome her personal tragedy, but giving her the inspiration to pursue her dreams.
“Earning her pro card at her first crack is pretty unheard of,” Elardo said. “Something like this could take her down a variety of paths. She’s made connections and is working with the right people. The sky is the limit.”
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