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Tina Chandler

by Hans
Photography by James Cook

One of the things that makes national-level shows so exciting is that there are always competitors that seem to come out of nowhere and leave fans - and even judges – asking “Who is she?” At the USA this year, one of those competitors was middleweight runner-up Tina Chandler.

Before she stepped onstage in Vegas, the 31 year-old from Houston was almost completely unknown outside Texas. I had only heard about her a few weeks earlier when Colette Nelson had told me about a girl named Tina who had just won the overall at the Lone Star Classic and was going to be at the USA. “She is going to kick ass,” Colette told me. “She is the total package.”

But although people like Colette were expecting big things from her, Tina herself didn’t have too many expectations when she arrived in Vegas for her national-level debut. Between the Lone Star and the USA she had had a virus and had even considered going to Vegas just as a spectator.  She was also nervous about going up against veterans who had been competing at the national level for years. “I’d never even been to a national-level show,” she says. “I was just happy to be there. My mindset was, ‘I just want to do my best.’”

Onstage, however, Tina immediately stood out, with beautiful shape and symmetry, a tiny waist, and an awesome back and arms. In the end, she placed second behind 20 year-old phenom Britt Miller – not bad for her third ever show. “I could have not been more proud,”she says. But after seeing the photos, Tina even thinks she could have walked away as the class winner. “I feel that if I had come into this show as hard or harder than the Lone Star, I could have won,” she says. “It was already close, but it would have been closer.”

Coming so close to winning her class on her national-level debut has definitely made Tina more motivated than ever about her future in bodybuilding. “I’m in it, and I want to see what I can do,” she says. She is also excited about the direction women’s bodybuilding seems to be going in now and thinks she benefited from the emphasis the judges placed on femininity. “I feel like I got into bodybuilding at the right time,” she says. In fact, Tina says, the overall winner at the USA, Amanda Dunbar, represents exactly the kind of look she aspires to have for herself. “She’s the epitome of female bodybuilding to me. I can see myself looking like her in a few years.”

Like Amanda, Tina’s foundation of muscle comes from genetics and gymnastics. Born in Shreveport, La., her family moved to Texas when she was eight years old, where she began competing as gymnast and quickly developed a compact, muscular body. “I have pictures of myself at 9 or 10 years-old coming off the vault, and the front of my legs were ripped,” she says. “That was just from flipping.”

At the age of 13 Tina quit competitive gymnastics but, determined to keep the strength she had developed, she began lifting weights at her high school football team’s field house – the only girl in there. By the age of 14, she was religiously reading bodybuilding magazines and looking admiringly at pictures of Cory Everson and Lenda Murray. Even then, she instinctively felt that she had the potential to look that way herself. “I knew I did,” she says, “because I already looked like that somewhat.”

In high school Tina competed in a variety of sports from cheerleading to volleyball. After leaving high school she was a pre-med student but ultimately decided not to pursue a career as a doctor, instead working as a personal trainer and massage therapist. Throughout her twenties, Tina continued to lift weights, and the idea of competing remained in the back of her mind, but it never seemed like the right time.

Then, four years ago, Tina’s boyfriend Reggie was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. For several years she was pre-occupied with looking after him as he underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy and finally a bone marrow transplant. In the spring of 2004, with Reggie recovering, Tina decided it was time for her to focus on herself and finally compete. With her gymnastics background, she initially intended to compete in fitness, but figured she’d need more time than she had to practise the routines,  and decided to give bodybuilding a try in the meantime. At her first show, Betty Pariso’s Southwest Pro Cup last year, she won the novice lightweight  class. She took the rest of the year off to add size, and then did the Lone Star earlier this year, before going on to the USA eight weeks later.

After her success at the USA, Tina is now more focused than ever on bodybuilding. “I’m taking it a lot more seriously than I did before,” she says. “It’s all geared towards me improving in bodybuilding and winning now.” Her plan is to take an entire year off of competing and come back to the USA in 2006 showing a dramatic improvement in her shoulders, quads and abs. “I’m trying to improve my look by making myself fuller and rounder,” she says. “I want to round out the edges and try to mature them.” Right now she still works as a personal trainer and massage therapist, but plans to start nursing school in the spring.

But although Tina has had to become more disciplined than ever before, for her that’s a good thing – not just for her future in bodybuilding but for her whole life. “I love the discipline you have to have for it,” she says. “With a positive mind set you can achieve so many more things in your life other than bodybuilding. I just feel it makes me a better person.”

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