At 51, Establishing a New Body of Work
By MICHAEL WEINREB
ATLANTIC CITY — Eva Birath strolled along the boardwalk, past shops and stands selling pungent varieties of junk food that she would never allow herself to eat. Birath is a 5-foot-11 Swedish woman with blond hair, blue eyes and chiseled muscles. Birath, wearing a spandex tank top and sweat pants, has become accustomed to standing out in a crowd.
“What do you bench press?” a man sitting nearby asked. It was nothing, Birath said, that she had not heard before. In Sweden, she often hears much worse. The man asked again; Birath continued to ignore him.
Blunt questions and curious looks are the price Birath pays for making such a striking career change. Four and a half years ago, at 47, she was a harried marketing executive who had been through two divorces. She made 45,000 krona (about $6,700) a month, often flew to Stockholm on business trips, chatted constantly on her cellphone and lived with her two children in a large house in Goteborg. It was, she says, a very normal high-pressure corporate existence.
And then, in December 2002, she was laid off.
Birath sold her house and moved into an apartment. She sold her car. She had no idea what to do next. She began going to a nearby gym, where one of the regulars told her she had a good physique for bodybuilding. She found out about a tournament to be held the following December and she signed up, despite knowing virtually nothing about the sport — how to diet, how to train, how to pose.
“It was very unusual for someone to begin bodybuilding at my age, but I thought my age was one bit of the challenge,” said Birath, who is now 51. “I think all people have preconceptions, like that bodybuilders are all stupid. I think I probably thought bodybuilders were a bit stupid, too.”
At that first tournament, Birath faced one other competitor in the heavyweight division and finished first. It was, she says now, a bit of a fluke, but it was enough to persuade her to commit to her training as an amateur bodybuilder.
She finished fourth last year at the Swedish national championships, and despite the fact that she is 10 or more years older than most of her competitors, she is one of the favorites to win this year’s event, Oct. 13-14 in Vasteras. As she accompanied her friend and training partner Irene Andersen to a professional tournament here in mid-September (the trips were paid for by a sponsor), she was already cutting down on her carbohydrates to prepare for the Swedish nationals.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how Eva will look next year,” said Andersen, 41. “Another year, and she will be even better.”
It is not unheard of for women older than 50 to succeed as bodybuilders, whether as amateurs like Birath, or on rare occasions as professionals. But it is still very uncommon, according to Magnus Branzen, who works for BODY, a Swedish fitness magazine. And most who do succeed have been training for decades.
“Indeed, there aren’t many female competitors her age in Sweden, even historically,” Branzen wrote in an e-mail message. “Especially since she started competing late in life.”
Birath said she took to the sport’s grueling regimen almost immediately; she attributes some of her success to genetics. She began adhering to a strict diet — porridge for breakfast; chicken or fish, rice and vegetables for lunch and dinner; and no butter, milk, or animal fats — in early 2003.
She allows herself to “cheat” on certain Saturday afternoons with a cheese sandwich or an occasional piece of licorice.
In the process, Birath changed her lifestyle, letting go of many of her possessions and embracing a love of painting she had cultivated since attending art school as a young woman.
She says she makes enough money selling her paintings to get by from day to day, and that her daughter, Victoria, 27, and son, Andreas, 20, have been supportive. Her son is eager to train with her, but Birath says he often strains himself trying to lift the same weights as his mother.
Birath has also discovered that not everyone is accepting of her new self. There are still certain perceptions about bodybuilders, Birath says, that are not always easy to combat, especially in Sweden, where “people get uncomfortable with it.”
One of her former co-workers, upon seeing photographs of her, told Birath that two questions ran through his mind: “Is she on steroids?” and “Is she a lesbian?”
“The hardest part is people’s attitudes,” she says. “You know how you have those circle of people who are your friends? Suddenly, I wasn’t invited to those parties anymore. I think they thought I was strange, but I don’t care.”
Birath insists she has never used steroids or performance-enhancing drugs; she says she has been tested at all her events, and that steroid use is much more prevalent on the professional level.
Birath says she has no plans to turn professional, in part because of the expense of training, and in part because of her late start.
At some level, she says she is not concerned about how she may be judged at competitions; she is doing this for her well-being.
“My life now is so much better,” she said. “I’ve stopped searching for a job because I realize I don’t want it. I do what I love now: I paint and I train.”