What inspired a 27-year-old to start competing as a bodybuilder with her husband

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If you happened across 27-year-old Nichole Gunderson in a coffee shop, leaning over her computer with her hands on the keyboard, rather than posing and flexing, you wouldn’t think she was a bodybuilder.

She’s tan, lean and petite, with a shock of short blond hair and long, toned arms.

But when she’s not busy working remotely in Cornelius with business development for the IT consulting and integration firm Burwood Group, Gunderson is working out. Or eating one of her six meals for the day.

She met her now-husband Tony Butler, 42, about five years ago in sales at her previous job, but she didn’t think much of him because he was a bodybuilder and she didn’t get that bulk-focused lifestyle (or the fact that he was always carrying around a cooler full of food and a gallon of water).

“I just didn’t understand it,” she said. “All I saw was this big-muscled guy.”

Butler was interested in her, though, and Gunderson’s best friend set them up after she changed jobs.

Gunderson was never athletic growing up in small-town Easley, SC. She played violin and a little bit of softball, but once she started working as an adult, she was never working out. She still kept her petite frame.

Then she decided to give the gym a try, so she could spend more time with Tony. She tarted to see some changes in her body — particularly in her “little chicken legs,” as she laughingly called them.

She said she realized, “Maybe being little and skinny is not really what I want.”

Butler wrote her a diet and she got into a routine.

“It became a thing that we did together,” Gunderson said. “It was our hobby that we had to stay on track.”

She started to see her confidence go up.

Previously, she said, “I had never done anything… I didn’t have anything interesting about me.”

Watching mutual friends compete in bodybuilding shows inspired her to give it a shot.

Gunderson trained with a coach, learned about posing and stuck to her strict diet. By the time she got to her first show, in the bikini division, she was 10 percent body fat. She was ready to get what she calls “this ridiculous spray tan,” and to hold her body and core tight and strike poses the way she’d practiced for weeks.

And as Burwood Group shared on their blog, she was also ready to win second place in the Jay Cutler Classic in Richmond, Va. in 2017, out of 15 contestants.

“I went into a whole other world,” she said. “I couldn’t hear the music. I was just in the zone. I couldn’t even tell you who was on stage with me.”

This year, she’s back at it in preparation for the North Carolina State/IFBB Champions of Power and Grace at the Raleigh Convention Center May 4-6.

She starts her day around 5 a.m. with up to 30 minutes on the StairMaster, eats a meal of egg whites and oats, starts her work day at 8 a.m., and breaks at 10:30 a.m. for chicken and broccoli. She works more, breaks at 1:30 p.m. for chicken, broccoli and almonds, works until it’s time for turkey and broccoli at 4:30 p.m., then heads to the gym for weight-lifting and StairMaster work. Her evening ends with two more meals: chicken with broccoli, sweet potato or rice around 6:30 p.m., and fish and green beans around 10 p.m.

She brings her food and water to social events (which is fine, she said, because most of her friends compete, too), and she sticks to the diet spreadsheet prepared by her coach.

“I have a lot more confidence knowing that I can push myself to these limits,” she said. “So I think that’s helped me appreciate my body more, because I know I work hard for it.”

And it’s still her hobby with her husband. They head to competitions together. They’re in this together.

And regardless of her competition results, Gunderson said, “Bodybuilding has taught me a lot about self-discipline. I have found that, having self-discipline, it also teaches self-love. You are disciplined enough not to eat a piece of cake because you love your self more than that, if that makes sense. This self-discipline leaks into my work because you have to stay on track, especially in sales, in order to be successful. Putting in the work daily even if you don’t see results right away.”

Photo courtesy of Nichole Gunderson.

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