Two years ago, she had a stroke; two months from now, she’s taking the bikini stage

One of the things I do as a fitness professional is help people get ready to compete in physique competitions. You know, like bodybuilders and figure and bikini athletes. I gotta tell you, every one of my clients betrays the stereotype society tends to hold of people who get involved in such things. They’re focused and disciplined, they work hard when no one else is looking, and they are just plain good folk.

jodiafter2The other day I saw Jodi Leighton, one of my competition prep clients, working out at the gym and I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, but I pretty much begged her to share her story on this blog.

Bottom line, Jodi rocks. In the gym, she’s quiet, flying under the radar, but when I look at the amount of weight she is lifting and how hard she pushes herself during every workout, I always crack a smile. It’s impressive anyway, but especially  so for a woman who not very long ago didn’t trust her body one bit, and for good reason.

“I want to express to people that you don’t have to play victim. If your body has let you down in some way, step up and take control. You have one body. Take care of it.  Heart, body, mind and soul,” she says.

Two years ago, Jodi, a hairstylist and co-owner of the L Factor Salon in Brewer, was finishing up work when she bent over to wipe down her chair. When she stood up, she knew something was wrong: her right side was tingling, she couldn’t move her face, and her arm felt like a boulder, hanging heavy from her body. In her head she was screaming, “Help me! Something is wrong,” but all that came out of her mouth was gibberish.

Her symptoms soon passed but her docs ordered an MRI and confirmed that Jodi, who was only 34 at the time, had had a stroke. The news came as a shock as she had always had a healthy, active lifestyle.

jodiheartAfter numerous trips to a Boston stroke center, she found out the cause of her stroke – PFO, or a “hole” in her heart, a condition afflicting some 30 percent of Americans, most of them never knowing they have it unless another issue flares up. In Jodi’s case, they think a blood clot in her leg set up the chain of events that led to the stroke. The clot likely traveled through the hole in her heart up to her brain.

A year later, Jodi had heart surgery to close the hole with an implanted device. And in another surgery, a vascular surgeon removed a faulty varicose vein in her leg.

“In the past two years, I’ve had a stroke, heart surgery and vascular surgery,” she says. “During that time I also dealt with something I never have experienced before. Anxiety – bad anxiety. To the point where I couldn’t go to the grocery store, work was difficult because that was where it all happened. Large crowds scared me. What if it was to happen again? I felt I had no control.”

Her doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication despite the fact she hates taking pills. “But they did help. After a year and me feeling like I kind of had a grip again, I wanted to be off the pills. I wanted to be myself, wanted to be healthy.”

Last fall she joined the gym to regain that feeling.

“After 2 weeks of going I noticed these strong women. Women who were working hard, who looked amazing and were having fun. I wanted that,” she says. Those women were part of a team of figure and physique competitors who trained at the gym. “I have always enjoyed a challenge. I’m a very goal-oriented person, so why not sign up?”

Plus, Jodi, who plans to compete in two bikini shows in April (one in Westbrook, Me., and another in Carver, Mass.), admits she has a flair for the glamorous part of physique competitions. “I love the pageantry of competing. Hair, makeup, rhinestones, bright lights. What’s not to love? Sounds fun and scary to me,” she jokes.photo(49)

Since October 2013, she’s lost more than 16 pounds and 10 inches, gotten stronger and fitter and – most importantly — has regained confidence in her body. “I rarely think of my stroke anymore. That was my past, I’m more looking forward to my future self, happy and healthy.”

Wendy Watkins

About Wendy Watkins

Wendy Watkins is a Brewer-based personal trainer and author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Losing 20 Pounds in 2 Months. Visit her website at wendyfitness.com.