Sue Gafner didn't pick up her first barbell until January, 1987, but by April of that year she was already flexing her pecs on stage and winning the overall women's title at the annual Palm Springs Muscle Classic novice contest.
Her speedy rise to the top ranks of women's amateur bodybuilding continued last year when she won the lightweight title at the U.S. Bodybuilding Championships in Las Vegas, one of the most prestigious contests in the country.
"For her to begin competing in '87 and then win the USA in '88 . . . Oh yes, that's very fast," said Jim Manion, president of the Pennsylvania-based National Physique Committee, the organization that sanctions amateur bodybuilding contests in the United States.
Not bad for someone who, by her own admission, is a former "mega-couch potato" who started lifting weights as part of a New Year's resolution to lose a few pounds.
"I was the kind of person who would go to the gym real sporadically," said Gafner, a 26-year-old Tustin resident who hangs wallpaper for a living. She had taken aerobics classes but never got the results she wanted, so she bought a book by a female bodybuilder and decided to give weight training a try.
"My body just responded really quickly," Gafner said. Friends at the Placentia gym where she works out noticed her suddenly lean build and well-defined muscles and suggested that she give amateur competitive bodybuilding a shot.
She had never considered competing before, but when she took the stage in Palm Springs that first time she knew she was hooked. "It's just something that you kind of fall in love with," Gafner said. "I knew I wanted to keep going with it."
Gafner, who is married, said her family and friends were skeptical at first about her new-found avocation but have long since come around. "They're real supportive," she said. "They follow me everywhere."
Her husband of 6 1/2 years was an avid weight trainer before Gafner started bodybuilding, and has only gotten more involved since. "He loves it because I'm happy with myself," Gafner said.
At 5 feet, 2 inches and about 110 pounds, Gafner is lean and muscular but not the Amazon that some might expect from the stereotype of a female bodybuilder.
Before she started bodybuilding, Gafner would look at the models in fashion magazines and feel envy. Now she sees the same pictures and finds the women shapeless. "Your whole concept of what looks good changes," she said.
Still, some women on the female bodybuilding circuit are too massive for Gafner's taste. While she strives to add more muscle density to her own frame, there is a limit to how much bulk she wants, no matter what the pressures of winning contests. "I have to be happy with myself," she said. "I have to live with my body for the rest of my life."
Gafner admits that she was a "total greenhorn" when she started her training and attributes her success to hard work, a diet change that almost completely eliminated fats and sugars and "God-given genetic ability."
There was a point early on when she hit a plateau, unable to add more muscle mass. That's when she met an experienced bodybuilder, Lisa Hitchens, who helped her adjust her routine. "She saw the potential in me," Gafner said. "She kind of set me straight as far as training."
She has not competed since winning her division at the U.S. Bodybuilding Championships last year, taking the time off to concentrate on training for the sport's top U.S. event, the 1989 Women's Nationals to be held in New York in September. If she does well, that could lead to the World Amateur Championships and even to professional status.
Gafner now spends about 60 to 75 minutes a day in the gym, with one day off following every three days of training. She does high-speed, high-intensity workouts, concentrating on a different area of the body each workout day.
Still, Gafner has to work hard to add muscle to her frame. It is a problem most women bodybuilders have, a problem many seek to overcome with the help of steroids. At last year's U.S. Bodybuilding Championships, one of the first shows that employed drug testing, two leading contenders in Gafner's division tested positive and were eliminated.
"Most athletes have a pressure to do drugs, particularly bodybuilders and especially women bodybuilders," Gafner said. "I've always felt that taking drugs was wrong." Steroid users "have to live with the effects for the rest of their lives," Gafner said. "I know I won because I worked hard."