The twice-divorced grandmother discovered she was a beloved child of God.
Posted in , Apr 27, 2021
The contest was called Battle of Texas. More than 500 competitors. Fifteen hundred fans. A crew ready to slather contestants with tanning oil and body glaze.
I was backstage at the Irving Convention Center, near Dallas. Stage lights blazed on the other side of the curtain. DJ music thumped. The crowd roared for favorite competitors.
I stood at the head of a line to go onstage, wearing an outfit I wouldn’t be caught dead in anywhere else: a ridiculously small bikini, clear plastic platform heels, hair sprayed stiff, skin brown and shiny with glaze.
I was competing in my first ever bodybuilding contest. I was so anxious, I could hardly stand up.
In just a few minutes, someone would call my number. I would walk upstairs to the stage and flex my muscles in a series of required poses. Lights would blind me. I wouldn’t be able to see my husband and the rest of my family in the audience. Seven judges would scrutinize me from head to toe.
Why had I ever decided to do this? I was 48 years old. A twice-divorced mother of two grown kids and a grandmother of three, whose previous weight-lifting experience consisted of lifting groceries out of the trunk of my car. I looked nothing like the toned, sculpted competitors around me. A year ago, I’d been a flabby 190 pounds. I’m just shy of five-foot-three, by the way.
“Number one, you’re on!” the stage manager called.
I tried to take a step but couldn’t. I felt as if I was going to pass out.
If you saw me in the grocery store, you would not say, “Wow, she looks like a competitive bodybuilder.”
For most of my life, I was so insecure that I would have preferred you just didn’t notice me at all.
Why did I get on that stage last December? (By the way, the event observed pandemic protocols. Crowd size was limited; contestants and spectators were required to wear masks except onstage.)
You could say it was a conversation with my son-in-law that started it. But, really, this story stretches back all the way to my childhood.
My parents divorced when I was eight. There was addiction. Violence. Chaos. Unmanageability. Fear. So much fear.
I made a lot of bad choices after that—and as a result of it, I’m sure. I got married at 16 and had a little girl, Kelsi. The two-year marriage ended shortly after Kelsi was born. Predictably, a second marriage unraveled too, leaving me a single mom with two beautiful daughters.
Kids internalize a lot. The message I’d internalized growing up was: I was unlovable, undeserving of love or a loving relationship. That’s why I kept getting involved with men who didn’t treat me right.
I found a job as a paralegal to support my girls. The work didn’t make me feel good. The attorney I worked for represented massage parlors and strip clubs.
One day, I saw a women’s fitness magazine at the grocery store. A woman bodybuilder was on the cover.
Some people think bodybuilders look weird—too muscly. Not me. I looked at that woman and thought, She’s strong. She’s in charge of herself. I want to be like that. I tossed the magazine in my cart.
I signed up at a gym. I copied the workouts I saw in the magazine. It was fun for a while, but it’s hard to keep up a gym habit when you’re a single mom. I stopped going and gained a bunch of weight.
I joined a few more gyms over the years, even worked with a personal trainer once, but I never stuck with it.
Kelsi grew up and became a paramedic and, eventually, a nurse. She met a good man named Adam, who worked in construction. When he proposed to her, I was thrilled. If anyone could break the Layton marriage curse, it would be Kelsi and Adam. I could tell that Adam was going to be a wonderful husband and father.
Kelsi wanted to get married in a nearby United Methodist church because of its pretty stained glass. I’d taken the girls to a different church sometimes when they were little, but I was never serious.
“Kelsi, you can’t just walk into a church and say you want to get married,” I said. “You have to get to know the place. Make sure you like the minister. I’ll check it out.”
Walking into First United Methodist Church of La Porte felt surprisingly good. Normally churches made me feel insecure. What if people knew my history? Where I worked?
After the service, the pastor greeted people as they left. “You’re new,” he said to me. “What’s your name?”
“Eva,” I said.
“Welcome, Eva. We’d love to see you here again.”
I went back the following Sunday.
“Hi, Eva,” the pastor said.
He remembered my name! Did that mean he actually wanted me to go to his church?
I began attending services regularly. Kelsi and Adam got married at the church, then became members too. Soon I was involved in various ministries. I did a Bible study. Prayer became a part of my life.
During a Bible study session, I mentioned my conflicted feelings about my job at the law firm. Someone must have mentioned my situation to the pastor because, not long afterward, he called to say an administrative position had opened up at the church. Would I like to apply?
I got the job and, a couple years later, became an administrator for the South District office of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. For the first time ever, I was doing work I could feel proud of.
That didn’t mean I was proud of myself. That personal trainer I’d worked with briefly in my late thirties had convinced me to sign up for a bodybuilding competition. I chickened out when I had to send in a photo of myself in a competition swimsuit. I looked terrible! No way would I get onstage looking like that.
I stopped working out regularly and spent evenings and weekends bingeing on junk food. I ballooned to 190 pounds and fell into a depression.
“You have to get out and do something, Mom,” Kelsi said. “I’m worried about you.”
I was introduced to a trainer down the street from church named Ryan. I started working out at Ryan’s gym, and he turned out to be a man of faith.
“Ma’am, fear is not from God,” Ryan would say whenever I got discouraged. “You can do anything with God.”
Adam had started working out too, and he encouraged me.
When a friend from church invited me to watch her compete in a bodybuilding contest, I invited Adam to come along. He always seemed to get overlooked whenever we were celebrating Kelsi’s latest accomplishment. Maybe watching a contest would inspire him to compete too. Then we could celebrate him for a change.
The contest was electrifying. I loved the lights and the music. The sheer energy of the competition. The amazing things that people could do with their God-given bodies. Adam and I stood and cheered for my friend.
“What do you think?” I asked him. “Want to try it?”
“I think so,” he said.
“But only if you do it with me,” Adam finished.
What?! No way! But Adam left me no choice. If I wanted to support him, I would have to enter a contest too.
That was October 2019. We found a trainer and started working out.
In February, Adam called it quits. “I’m just too busy,” he said. He and Kelsi had two boys, and the workouts just didn’t fit their family schedule.
Then the pandemic hit. I was tempted to quit too. Who could blame me? I couldn’t even go to the gym since it was closed.
Around this same time, I married a longtime friend named Brian. People always said he and I were meant for each other, and finally I realized they were right. This time I knew the man I loved, loved me back.
“Don’t quit!” Brian said. He bought me a sledgehammer for my birthday. A sledgehammer? It’s a common bodybuilding workout tool. You hit tires with it. I had a tire in my backyard and some old weights. I began doing routines outside. Sometimes I just flipped the tire around the yard.
I needed a trainer who specialized in competition, so I asked God for guidance. I worried bodybuilding was somehow too self-focused. Who was I to think I could have a beautiful body?
With God’s help, I found just the right trainer: Walter Ray, a man of faith. Whenever I doubted myself, he simply said: “Positive mindset. God is making you strong. Don’t turn your back on his gift.”
Slowly but surely, my flabby, overweight body began to slim down and became hard with sculpted muscle. I signed up for Battle of Texas. I had to send in photos of myself. It was just like before, except now I was nearly a decade older. No amount of working out could disguise that.
Before Brian and the rest of my family drove me to the competition, my previous trainer, Ryan, called to wish me luck and pray for me. I wish I could remember every word of that prayer. It was beautiful. Empowering.
Standing backstage, too petrified to move, I tried to remember Ryan’s words. I closed my eyes and could hear his voice: “Fear does not come from God. You are strong and can do anything with God.”
Was I strong? I had never felt strong, not a day in my life. God would have to be strong with me. I could do this—just not alone. I didn’t have to.
I took a wobbly step, then another. I climbed to the stage. The lights were blinding. The music pounded.
“Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Eva Layton!”
Somewhere in front of me, judges called out directions for poses. I went through the routine, my exhilaration mounting. And then it was over. I strode offstage on a cloud.
I was a twice-divorced mom with two grown kids, three grandkids and a weakness for junk food.
I was also a strong, beautiful, beloved child of God. A child of love and not fear.
You probably want to know how I did in Battle of Texas. I entered in several categories, placed fifth in two of them and rounded out the top 10 in the others. I even qualified to go to nationals in my age group this year if I want.
I’m no national champion. But I did sign up for another contest coming up next month.
I am incredibly excited that Adam will be there to cheer me on and celebrate his birthday weekend.
Like my trainer Ryan said, I can do anything with God. You’ll find me flipping a tire in my backyard.
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