Ruthann Zentner, mother of three, wants to compete and win.
This article originally appeared in the Lee’s Summit Journal.
Many aspire to grow old gracefully, but Ruthann Zentner stares age in the face and makes it flinch.
Zentner, 39, has won four bodybuilding and fitness contests – including Miss Kansas and Miss Missouri – and wants to compete in another after she turns 40 in order to show that it can be done.
She’s not a single woman with time to burn. Zentner, of Lee’s Summit, is a married mother of three daughters and directs the aerobics, cycling and water programs at Summit Fitness.
“I want to compete again,” Zentner said. “That’s my personal goal … to show other women that as long as you do what you are supposed to be doing – exercising, taking care of your body — you can do it.”
Zentner is hard to miss at the fitness center. Contest photos of her super-lean physique grace the wall next to the treadmills. She teaches and takes classes in yoga, strength training and aerobics each week.
Leah Morgan, 35, said Zentner is helping her lose the weight she put on during pregnancy and is an inspiration and role model.
“She’s got a family with three kids and works outside the home and still manages to live a really healthy lifestyle,” Morgan said. “She makes a really positive impact on the members and is someone you can model your own aspirations after.
“I’ve seen a lot of trainers who (only) stand and count. She really is like a cheerleader and gung ho and really drives me way past what I could do by myself.”
Getting in shape
The pursuit of fitness didn’t hit Zentner in midlife. She’s been competing since 1988 when she won the heavyweight division of the Women of the Big 8 bodybuilding contest. She won her division of the Miss Kansas bodybuilding competition the next year.
“I really started because I just wanted to see a change in my body,” she said. “I was in that era of doing aerobics, being thin.”
When she added weight lifting to her routine, she kept the lean appearance but added upper body strength.
At first, she aspired only to compete without much thought of winning. But after enduring rigorous training and dieting, she changed her mind: “Forget that,” she said. “I want to win. I’m a competitor.”
As years have passed, she has found that exercise is a source of strength.
“It was my stress relief and it still is especially after having three kids,” she said.
After winning the Miss Missouri competition in 1998, Zentner left bodybuilding behind to begin competing in fitness contests. She said she has never used performance- enhancing drugs, but was bothered by the abundance of women bodybuilders taking them.
“There are hardly any women professional bodybuilders anymore,” she said. “The popularity of that sport has gone down because it’s so hard on your body, your heart. But the figure and fitness side of the industry has escalated. Most women just want to feel good in a swimming suit.”
Instead of using drugs, her prescription is “a lot of hard work and a lot of determination. It is years of lifting and taking care of my body.”
Muscularity is part of a fitness competition, but is only one aspect.
“You do a dance routine and have to show your flexibility and strength and are judged on your overall physique,” Zentner said. “It’s not a bodybuilding pageant, it’s more of a physique pageant. They don’t want you too muscular. It’s not a bikini contest either.”
After the birth of her second daughter in 1999, Zentner began working to lose the 60 pounds she put on during pregnancy. But she had a goal beyond that: winning a fitness competition by the time her daughter turned one.
Training for competition is grueling and requires sacrifice, said Bruce Gentry, her boss and former trainer.
“They have to be completely committed to it,” said Gentry, owner of Summit Fitness. “It takes a disciplined person because they are competing for trophies, not a million dollar reward.
“If you are going to compete and somebody offers you a piece of cake, you have to have the discipline to say no. If you cheat, you are the one on stage and there is no way to hide that.”
After her pregnancy, she increased her cardiovascular activity and added protein to her diet to speed her return to pre-baby shape. She followed doctor’s orders and waited until she received the green light to resume all-out training.
Zentner emphasizes that lifestyle changes – not fad diets – lead to fitness.
It took six months to lose her post-pregnancy weight. Then, about one year after her second daughter was born, she won the fitness contest of the Missouri Bodybuilding and Extreme Fitness show.
“I felt awesome,” she said.
Others at the gym were blown away, too, with comments like “amazing” and “omigosh.”
“One guy said, ‘Ruthann I (only) see you incredibly fit or pregnant,’” she said.
Although the idea of posing your physique for a crowd could seem vain, she said the competitions are not ego-driven.
“I compare being a fitness competitor to a person that runs a marathon, rides a bike for 150 miles or a triathlon athlete,” she said. “I love it and enjoy setting goals and pushing my body out of a comfort zone. A lot of people who compete are scared to death to be on stage. For me to be on stage is the reward. …You should be very proud of your body. I won’t call it ego. Am I confident? Yes.”
Zentner continued competing through 2000, when she won first place fitness and bodybuilding trophies in the Gold’s Natural Classic in Kansas City.
As motivating as her personal accomplishments are, Zentner’s goal and job is to inspire others to stay fit.
“The neatest thing about people here is they’ve seen me have kids, exercise through the entire pregnancy and get my shape back,” she said. “I get to do what I love to do, which is to stay strong and be fit.”
She also wants to set an example of good health for her daughters.
“It’s a great conversation piece,” she said. “My (oldest) daughter’s friends are like, ‘Look at your mom’s abs or your mom’s whatever, your mom’s arms.’ I think that’s neat. That’s rewarding.”
Another factor motivating her passion for exercise is the premature death of her father, who died of a heart attack at age 62 in 1997. She finds it satisfying if she can inspire one person to take care of their body.
“It’s just perfect to make somebody’s heart stronger,” she said. “I think about my dad everyday. I use (the example of) my dad’s death to help encourage others stay fit, know the signs of a heart attack, eat healthy and exercise on a regular basis.”
The loss of her father has also has fueled her passion for the gym’s Silver Sneakers exercise program for seniors, which she said is the largest of its kind in Missouri.
Zentner said that although only some have the genetic gifting for fitness competition, everyone can improve their health and shape.
Although her athletic resume sounds intimidating, Zentner experiences the same aches and pains that affect everybody. She suffers from arthritis in her neck and, as a result, can no longer blast her shoulders with heavy weights. She has to work harder to stay flexible.
“I can’t lift my shoulders to where they burn like I used to,” she said.
But that doesn’t extinguish her desire to burn up the competition next year.
“I would be competing against girls in their 20s, so they definitely have a slight advantage,” Zentner said. “That’s OK though. If you don’t know what your goal is, you’re never going to reach it. You have to set those goals, challenge yourself and get out of the comfort zone.”