Putting on a bikini can feel overwhelming for many women, even if they’re in the privacy of a dressing room.
Now, think about wearing that bikini in front of hundreds of people as you walk, alone, across a brightly lit stage. In high heels. To be judged by professionals.
For Nicole Rombaoa, a bodybuilding competitor, that moment is when any overwhelming worry falls away, and all she feels is the satisfying result of her hard work.
“It’s a surreal moment,” she says. “But when I’m on stage, all I feel is pride about how far I’ve come to be there.”
Growing up in Hawaii, Rombaoa was always active, particularly in dance — she started learning hula at age 5 and continued dancing through high school. When she hung up her hula skirt after high school, however, the discipline and consistent activity she once knew gave way to a much more sedentary lifestyle, plus she was eating way too many calorie-packed restaurant meals. The weight started creeping on without much warning.
By the time her 29th birthday loomed, Rombaoa was 197 pounds, which she felt was too much for her 5-foot-6 frame.
“My life and my body kind of felt out of control,” she recalls. “I hated the way I felt and the way I had to keep buying new clothes because I was growing out of sizes so quickly. It got to the point where I didn’t want to go shopping anymore, because I was not physically happy with myself. I didn’t want to stand in front of a mirror.”
In June 2016, her then-boyfriend was also looking to make a change and wanted to start the ketogenic diet. Even though it was her birthday month — normally cause for a weeks-long celebration with many indulgent treats — Rombaoa decided to join him. To keep each other accountable, they both downloaded MyFitnessPal and began tracking everything they ate. It worked right away, she says.
“We could see what each other was eating, and that helped keep us on track,” she says. “Honestly, we didn’t really know what we were doing at first; we didn’t know about macros or anything. But something about tracking our food and looking at what we were eating was helpful as a first step.”
Around the same time, a local gym sent her a one-month free pass and she decided to take advantage of it. After that trial month, she loved it so much, there was no question she would become a full-time member. Pretty soon, she was exercising consistently and decided to hire a personal trainer so she could learn how to lift weights properly.
The combination of her consistent exercise, personal training sessions and healthy nutrition habits helped Rombaoa get down to her goal weight of 165 pounds. She then decided to take on a different kind of goal: becoming a bikini competitor. Although she thought her trainer would shoot down the idea, he actually embraced the challenge. They ramped up her training and created a strict meal plan for her to follow.
Contrary to the belief many people hold about these kind of events, bikini competitions aren’t akin to a spring-break beach parade. Instead, they’re specifically designed to highlight women’s fitness, musculature and strength.
Training for a competition is intense, requiring incredible focus on proper conditioning and nutrition in order to attain a certain body composition. Consistent workouts of the right kind are key, but so is staying on top of macronutrient balance, food choice and calorie intake.
“My coach has me on a regimented diet in order to be where I need to be to support my training program,” says Rombaoa. “MyFitnessPal is really helpful for tracking, and it’s helped me evolve my approach as well. I used to just track calories, but now I use it to stay consistent, identify the foods I can tweak in terms of amount and stay within particular macros.”
Most of all, she adds, it’s helped her be more mindful about foods that make her feel better about herself and her goals, as opposed to eating mindlessly just for taste. Not only does that help her reach an ideal competition level, but she also sees food tracking as way to stay healthy for the long haul.
“I used to be a super foodie who ate out all the time and didn’t pay attention to anything like amount or calories,” she says. “But now I’m embracing the discipline that comes with being mindful about my food. I feel thankful for the change, it brings me back to when I was dancing as a kid. That kind of appreciation for my body has come back, and I love it.”