Six-pack abs at age 74: ‘Age is nothing but a number,’ says Guinness World Record’s oldest competitive female bodybuilder

May 27, 2011

She is 74 years old, and she is ripped.

Sculpted deltoids, carved biceps and a stomach chiseled into a glorious six-pack that rises and falls into magnificent little hills and valleys.

It is the first thing you notice when you see Ernestine Shepherd in the front of the class, teaching body sculpting at a gym north of Baltimore.

Shepherd is wearing tight red shorts and a red bikini top. Between the two is her signature span of chiseled abs.

She is a Dorothy Dandridge beauty, a knockout. Her makeup is perfect, lips painted candy red to match her workout clothes. She has thick, black eyelashes and wears her hair in a long, gray braid that swings down her superbly sculpted back.

She is wearing white Converse sneakers with little white kitten heels. She flexes. “If you are going to try to motivate people, you have to live that part,” she says. “You have to look that part.” Her husband will say later that he still has trouble keeping guys away from her.

Behind her, women many, many years younger than she are struggling — huffing and puffing and trying to keep up. Thighs heavy, bellies jiggling, breath short, they sweat away as their 74-year-old instructor with the body of a college cheerleader counts.

A woman rolls over on her back, exhausted.

“Everybody okay?” Shepherd, at the front of the class, asks softly.

“Third set. And one, two.” Her arms are spread like wings.

“Three, four, five, six.” The women are exhausted. Shepherd continues. “Seven, eight. Good! Nine, 10, 11, 12. And hold. Last set, and one, and two, and work those shoulders. Good. Put your arms down. Shake them out.”

A woman in the back of the gym, who has seen Shepherd on television, whispers: “How do you get to be 74 with a body like that?”

“Age is nothing but a number,” Shepherd says assuredly into the microphone. She has been featured in Essence, on the “Today” show and local television in Baltimore. Last fall, she appeared on “The Mo’Nique Show,” explaining fitness and aging. “We can do it! Why?” Shepherd asks. “Because we are determined, dedicated and disciplined to be fit. You can. You can do it.”

Her voice trails off under the beat of gym speakers blasting: “Young man, there’s no need to feel down. I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.” Seven more counts.

“You can do this,” Shepherd says again. Her voice has a hint of urgency, as if the class means something deeper, as if she were trying to save the women behind her. She turns on her side and stretches out a lithe movie star leg.

But the truth is, most people in this class probably do not have the discipline it takes to reach Shepherd’s fitness level. Most people will not have the determination to run 10 miles before lunch, 80 miles a week, passing people by as if they were standing still. Most people will not want to eat only bland chicken, green beans and cups of plain brown rice and drink liquid egg whites, the lean protein diet of body builders, three times a day. Most people will not have the discipline to turn down that slice of chocolate cake in the cafeteria. Most people will not be able to say, as Shepherd says, “I really don’t have a desire for it.”

Every day, Shepherd rises at 3 a.m. to meditate, then dresses in the cool of a Baltimore morning. She carefully applies her makeup, dresses in another fabulous color-coordinated running suit. She leaves the house quietly, climbing in her gray Corvette and driving in style to Druid Hill Park. Here, she will run for the next three hours through a wooded trail, running to fulfill a dream that did not start with her. Running because long ago she made a “pinkie promise.”

Over the past 18 years, Shepherd has completed nine marathons, won two bodybuilding contests. She was listed in the 2010 and 2011 Guinness World Records as the oldest competitive female bodybuilder in the world.

Most people will not be able to imagine that Ernestine Shepherd was ever once one of them.

***

“Believe it or not, I used to be a couch potato,” Shepherd admits with a slight smile. Bodybuilding was not something she ever really wanted to do. From the time she was a child, her main goal was to “sit and look pretty.” When Shepherd was 11, she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle, and she broke her ankle.

“From that, I said, ‘Gee, I don’t want to do anything!’ I had my mother write a note saying I couldn’t do any type of exercise,” Shepherd says. “That note followed me all the way through school. I did absolutely nothing, because I always wanted to look nice and I’ve always wanted to be noticed. I guess I’m vain, but vain in a good way.”

So for the next 45 years, she did exactly that: sit pretty and try not to break too much of a sweat.

But one day, she and her older sister Mildred were invited to a pool party. They immediately went to the mall to buy swimsuits.

They had always been pretty women. And they knew that. In fact, Shepherd had been a model in Baltimore for years, after her seamstress invited her to model clothes in a local fashion show. But the two sisters were about to encounter something in the dressing room that would change their lives.

“I was 56. She was 57,” Ernestine recalls. “We were in the same dressing room. She had selected white. I selected red. She always said she was too dark to wear red. She put her suit on and looked at me and started laughing. I said, ‘You are not looking that good yourself.’ ”

They didn’t buy the suits but went to the party anyway and sat by the pool, talking about how their bodies had changed. A woman overheard their conversation and told them about aerobics classes at what is now Coppin State University in Baltimore. The sisters started taking the classes from an instructor named Jay Bennett, who was well known in Baltimore. “My sister went in and told him what we wanted to do,” Shepherd recalls.

The instructor asked what their goals were. Ernestine told him: “I like my hips. I don’t want to lose them.” He said fine but told her there was no program in the world that would allow for “spot reducing.”

“My hips were a 41, and I thought that was great,” Shepherd says. The sisters continued the aerobics classes, with Mildred working harder than Ernestine. “I was complaining, jiving. I noticed she was working hard. I started working hard. I noticed a change in my body.”

The instructor told them they were shaping up nicely and suggested they begin to lift weights. “I said, ‘No, no, no. I don’t want to get big and muscular.’ ” But he told them that women did not have enough testosterone to develop huge muscles. He told them weights would help them tone.

“I followed her in there, but I would drag my feet. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t believe what he was saying. My sister got in there and did the routines. Her back developed.” That was the first thing Ernestine noticed.

“Everybody started paying attention to her but not me,” Ernestine recalls. “I was jealous. I left the gym and went home. She came back, and she said, ‘Teeny, if you want to enjoy what I am enjoying, you better do what I’m doing.’ ”

***

Ernestine and Mildred grew up in a red brick rowhouse in East Baltimore, the daughters of a carpenter and a schoolteacher. Ernestine was the third-oldest of the six Hawkins children, but she was closest by far to Mildred. She followed Mildred everywhere.

“I remember I was 5 and she was 6, and we were going to school. We would go to school, and we would hold hands. She would drop me at my class, and I would cry when she had to leave me to go to her class. All I enjoyed was being with her.”

Their mother dressed the two girls alike, with polished shoes and pressed dresses. Mildred was always neat in those pretty dresses. Ernestine, on the other hand, would come home for lunch, and her clothes would be rumpled. Her bows would have fallen out. Their mother would make them both change.

Mildred scolded Ernestine. I am going to have to watch over you, because I get tired of changing clothes. So Mildred would walk behind Ernestine. “If my ribbon fell off, she would pick it up and put it back on.”

When Ernestine was 7 and Mildred was 8, the two sisters were walking down a street in East Baltimore when they passed a beautiful grassy area with a sign warning: Seeded. Keep off the grass.

Ernestine uttered a terrible word. “I said, ‘I’m going to walk on this ‘so and so’ grass!’ ”

Mildred gasped. I’m going to tell Mum.

Ernestine recalls begging her: “Oh, please don’t tell. I’m going to get a spanking.”

Mildred agreed not to tell their mother.

“We made a pinkie promise,” Shepherd says. “Right then I knew she was my friend.”

The sisters became almost inseparable. As they got older, they never lived far from each other in Baltimore and talked or visited several times a day. When Mildred got married, Ernestine wanted to get married.

It just so happened that there was a young man who had been trying to court her. He had lived on the next street over, but she had not noticed him until he returned home from the Army.

Collin Shepherd remembers noticing Ernestine for the first time at a supermarket, where she worked as a cashier. She was 18; he was struck by her beauty.

“My mother would send me to the store,” recalls Collin Shepherd, now 80. “And I would go in and look at Ernestine. She wore so much jewelry, I thought she was married already.”

But Collin’s brother-in-law who owned a barber shop across the street from the food market told Collin that Ernestine was not married or engaged.

“That’s all I need to know,” Collin recalls. “ ‘I’m going to work on her.’ ”

Collin drove his shiny new blue-green ’56 Plymouth — with wings and whitewall tires — to the store and waited for Ernestine to get off work. But Ernestine wouldn’t get in the car. She told him she would walk home. “She just lived nine straight blocks, no curves, no turns from the store.” Still, as she walked on the sidewalk, Collin followed her. “It wasn’t like a pickup. Eventually, she got used to me.” But she was just that hard to get.

Collin persisted. After a while, they began dating. Collin’s big break came when Mildred got married.

“The sister I’m so crazy about,” Ernestine says, sitting in her kitchen after another workout, eating plain chicken and brown rice, “she got married a few months ahead of me. I wanted to be married. So I asked him would he marry me.”

“I was quick to go,” Collin says.

“Everything my sister did I had to do,” Ernestine says. “... The only thing we did different is she had two children, and I had one. I said, ‘Shep, don’t do this to me again.’ I don’t know how women have five or six children. I was still trying to get into my clothes. I was so prissy.”

Her kitchen is painted lavender. Inside the refrigerator, her husband has stacked plastic containers filled with bland green beans, scoops of brown rice, pieces of chicken breast. Plain. No salt. Collin, who retired in 1985 from AT&T, does all the meal preparations. “I cook and clean and whatever needs to be done,” he says. “I run errands to help. I don’t mind doing it.”

They have been married 54 years. Ernestine says he is the best husband. Right now, their son, Michael, 53, who lives with them, is upstairs. Her grandson, also named Michael, is 14.

Just then, her cellphone rings with the theme from the movie “Rocky.” Sylvester Stallone is her idol.

***

When she was working out with her sister, Mildred got to the point where she could do squats with a 135-pound barbell. Their instructor began inviting Mildred and Ernestine to talk about fitness at classes and fashion shows. And people began to notice the stunning sisters with muscles.

Mildred decided she wanted to compete in bodybuilding shows and took on a stage name. She called herself Velvet. Ernestine wanted to call herself Magenta, but Mildred suggested that Magenta didn’t sound right and told her she should just go by Ernie.

One day in 1992, Velvet told Ernie that she had a dream. They would be in the Guinness World Records for being two sister bodybuilders.

Then Mildred mysteriously confided to Ernestine, “If I don’t make this, you have to fulfill this dream,” Shepherd recalls. “ ‘This is something we want to do. Listen to what I’m saying.’ She said: ‘If anything happens to me, you are not to fall to pieces. You are to continue what you started.’ ”

Ernestine recalls looking at her sister and saying, “Vice versa.”

Mildred responded in a serious way: “ ‘I’m not playing.’ ”

The sisters shook pinkies as they did when they were girls.

Ernestine thinks now that her sister felt something was wrong with her but had decided not to tell anyone at that point.

About three months later, Mildred began complaining openly about headaches and ringing in her ears. But she rationalized the pain. The ringing in her ears was from weightlifting, she told her sister.

Mildred told Ernestine that the top of her head felt tight.

“We both wore our hair back in a braid. She said she would just loosen her hair up.” But then Mildred admitted one day she couldn’t see out of one eye.

“Velvet called me from work. She said, ‘I got up, and I didn’t know who I was.’ She said, ‘I couldn’t use my hands or anything.’ I said I would leave work and go with you to the doctor. I said, ‘I don’t want you dying over there.’ ”

Their parents and baby sister, Bernice, got to Mildred’s house first and took her to the nearest hospital, but the wait was too long. They left, heading for a second hospital. On the way there, Ernestine rode with her sister in the back seat. “She laid her head on my lap and she said, ‘Why does my head have to hurt like this?’ I said, ‘You will be fine.’ I whispered in her ear and told her, ‘When you get well, I will have to tell you how you worried me.’ ”

Mildred was admitted immediately. Soon, a doctor told the family in the waiting room that Mildred had a brain aneurysm, or bulging blood vessel. And that it had burst.

“If we had gotten there in time, maybe we could have saved her.” By then Mildred was on life support, which she had always told Ernestine she did not want.

When they pulled the plug, Ernestine jumped up and ran around the hospital. “I didn’t know where I was going.”

Bernice ran after Ernestine. Ernestine screamed: “Now, I don’t have anyone!”

Bernice held Ernestine. Two sisters crying for an older sister. Bernice told Ernestine: “You have me.”

***

Shepherd’s world seemed to stop. The sister she would talk with from morning to night had gone suddenly, giving her no chance to prepare. The sister who kept her together and told her what needed to be done was gone.

She sank into a deep pit of depression. “I developed acid reflux, panic attacks and high blood pressure.” Shepherd stopped working out. She lost her faith.

One day Shepherd was sitting in her bedroom in red pajamas when it seemed to her that the cream-colored walls began to move. She was careful not to wake her husband. The walls appeared to be closing in on her. Then when she looked down, she thought she saw “a third arm.” That afternoon at work, the third arm seemed to grow.

“It felt like I had three arms.” Two on one side and one on the other. “Now, this is when you are crazy,” she recalls, laughing. “I held my arm, which I thought was the third arm, which I didn’t have. I held that arm. I said, ‘I have to hold this arm. If I don’t, it will get in the way of the other arm.’ ”

At the time, Shepherd was working as a school secretary in an elementary school in Baltimore where her baby sister, Bernice, was the principal. “My baby sister, God bless her, she was right there for me. I didn’t cry. I just kept holding that third arm. I had sense enough I didn’t want anybody to know this.”

Shepherd recalls being on the subway and wanting to scream and run from the front car to the back car. “But I said, ‘Hold yourself together.’ When I got off, I ran.” She was 61 at the time, holding on to five years of grief.

“I just felt crazy with that third arm. I kept that arm for about a week. It sounds like a joke, but I’m telling you: Your mind can tell you anything.”

***

Shepherd went to a doctor and told him about the panic attacks and the acid reflux. “But I didn’t tell him about my third arm because I was afraid he would commit me. He told me he would prescribe medication for the panic attacks and told me all the side effects.” Some medical journals refer to an experience similar to Shepherd’s as “phantom limb” syndrome, a sense that an arm or leg is still attached to the body even after it has been amputated. In Shepherd’s case, she may have associated the third arm with her sister, she says.

Shepherd left the doctor’s office and went home. “I thought, ‘How will I fulfill my sister’s dream if I fall apart?’ ”

She sank down and prayed. “I came down from my room and called my husband and son and sat at the kitchen table. I said to them, ‘From now on, I will try to do the dream my sister had. Will you help me?’ They were so glad I was coming out of that. They said, ‘We will do whatever we can to help you.’ ”

Bernice told her: “Every time you feel like you can’t make it, lace up your tennis shoes and get out and go walking.”

So Shepherd put on her tennis shoes once again.

***

It’s Tuesday in Fort Washington, and Shepherd is hanging from a bar with her hands. Her trainer, Yohnnie Shambourger, 57, who won the gold medal in bodybuilding at the Pan American Games in Argentina in 1995, and in that same year won the title of Mr. Universe, is counting.

She lifts her full body weight up into crunches, working her abs.

“One and down. Two and down. Three and down.”

Shepherd grits.

“Fifteen. Get it up there,” Shambourger says.

“That’s it?” Shepherd asks.

“No, we are going to 20. Very good.”

In this gym, a storefront off Allentown Road, Shambourger began helping to train Shepherd at age 71 in 2007. (After her sister died, Raymond Day, a trainer in Baltimore, would pick her up and take her to the gym.) Shambourger coached her as she worked out, building and toning her muscles, and taught her how to pose in preparation for bodybuilding competitions. It is here that Shepherd comes every Tuesday morning, driving one hour from Baltimore.

A poster on the wall says: “Unleash the Winner in You: Yohnnie Shambourger, former Mr. Universe, shares his winning formula.”

Shepherd will lift heavy weights for 1 1/2 hours.

Finally, she works on her stomach muscles in another set of hanging leg raises. She will do 20 more reps.

“The six-pack,” Shambourger says, “that is her signature. When she walks in a room and you see her six-pack, you say, ‘Ohh! Okay!’ ”

Shepherd, careful not to chip her French manicure, grabs a 20-pound kettlebell. Fifteen reps, Shambourger announces. And she swings the bell as though she were chopping wood.

Between sets, Shepherd jokingly suggests that Shambourger doesn’t realize how old she is. But her coach doesn’t ease up.

“You are a champion,” he says. “I will train you like what you are.”

***

She is running through the forest in Druid Hill Park in a sleek, black track suit. A misty rain is falling. Her gray braid swings down her gorgeous back. Her husband and son walk behind her, admitting they cannot keep up. A young photographer runs beside her teasing, “You are not running that fast.”

Shepherd takes off, running so fast the young photographer cannot catch her. And she doesn’t stop for two miles. She circles back and zooms by her husband and son, who are still walking. Park service workers ride by in a truck and wave.

People ask Ernestine Shepherd how long she plans to run, how long will she lift weights, how long will she train so hard it hurts. “You will die soon,” they tell her.

She tells them simply, “We are all going to die.”

“But it’s the quality of life while I’m living.”

When she traveled to Rome last year to participate in the ceremony for the Guinness World Records, she carried her sister’s ashes.

“I spread those ashes,” she says. “It was something we dreamed about. I try to keep that dream alive. Now, it’s my dream.”

DeNeen Brown is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at browndl@washpost.com.

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