Choosing to be healthy through veganism and body building

Choosing to be healthy through veganism and body building
Gourley sports a vegan bold builder t-shirt at her most recent body-building event, The World Vegan Body-Building Championship in Fort Lauderdale in 2018.

Rebecca Gourley of Ortega carefully weighed, measured and tracked every morsel of food in the five “clean” mini-meals she ate each day for carbs, protein and fat, a time-consuming process that became routine by the second month of her 365-day journey. Almost as routine is the two- to three-hour cardio and weight-training routines she also performed daily. But it was all worth it on the big day of competition, when she strutted on the stage, her sequined bikini sparkling in the bright lights almost as much as her toned and oiled body glistened.

Gourley sports a vegan bold builder t-shirt at her most recent body-building event, The World Vegan Body-Building Championship in Fort Lauderdale in 2018.
Gourley sports a vegan bold builder t-shirt at her most recent body-building event, The World Vegan Body-Building Championship in Fort Lauderdale in 2018.

It was a triumphant moment when her name was called, and she placed in the world body-building competition. Gourley later surprised everyone by donning a cut-off t-shirt that read, “Vegan Body Building,” with a big grin on her face. This was the culmination of years of discipline that changed an obese teenager eating the “standard American diet” into a focused vegan, body-building 20-something, all because she chose “to be healthy.”

Back in her high-school days growing up in Utah, the youngest of six kids, if anyone would have suggested even a week of trying a plant-based diet, Gourley would have laughed-out-loud at such a crazy thought, snorting a bit of chocolate milkshake out her nose! This was especially true being raised on the typical Midwest meat and white-starch diet with an occasional vitamin-depleted, canned veggie on the side.

Gourley’s health journey began in college out of necessity. She lost half her weight by graduation simply because her tight budget as a student at Savannah College of Art and Design meant less meals and no meat. Although down to 120 pounds, she was still munching on junk and wanted to keep the weight off with nutrient-dense foods and exercising.  Taking a fun pole-dancing class with a friend on a dare, Gourley found her first personal trainer in Sabrina Madison, the U.S. top pole athlete, gymnast and body builder, who encouraged Gourley to get in shape through body building.

Although not yet a vegan because Madison’s program was animal protein based, Gourley got so sick of eating round-the-clock, fish, chicken and eggs that she began experimenting with vegetarian foods.  Then one day, much to her surprise, her sister, Susan, called her and declared, “I’m going vegan!” and suggested she watch the documentary, “What the Health.” This was Gourley’s final push to go full vegan two years ago. She had given up on body building after the first lengthy dedication stint resulted in her not even placing in her first competition.

However, it was her bosses’ negative words that got her back into competition body building. He, like others, openly doubted her ability to build strength as a vegan. “You will never be able to get enough protein to gain muscle,” Gourley recalled him saying to her.

“His words provoked me, and I became determined to prove him wrong,” said Gourley. Another big motivator was the idea of being judged in a bikini by strangers.

“The only way I knew I’d be accountable and consistent was to remember all the areas I was going to be judged and wanting to be real competition for the other contenders,” said Gourley. “Everyone needs an end goal to remind them to make healthy choices daily, even hourly.

“I wanted to see if I could build muscle cleanly with only plant sources, avoid trans and saturated fats, and have a body that could do well competing,” Gourley continued.

Ortega body builder Rebecca Gourley
Ortega body builder Rebecca Gourley

Now 28, Gourley has placed in the bikini under age 35 category in all her four competitions, the most recent being Nationally Fit Federation’s first international vegan competition, “World Vegan Bodybuilding Championship,” in Ft Lauderdale in December 2018. Placing fifth in bikini and fourth in athletic during this world championship was especially satisfying as this was a “pure” competition – one that drug tested all participants for steroids and fat burners.

Gourley has accomplished so much in less than three years, and all since moving to Jacksonville from Savannah, following her boyfriend to Ortega. With all the strict requirements as a vegan body builder, she also has a time-intensive career as an Aflac insurance agent, covering all of Florida and southeast Georgia territory. Traveling every other week, means she packs coolers with precise food preparation and has to make time to work-out. 

“Just going vegan affects every decision you make on a daily basis,” explained Gourley. “If I want to eat out with friends, I either bring containers of food or eat before, and if we decide to go dancing, you can’t drink alcohol.”

Even though she did not train for competition in 2019, Gourley continued to work on building muscle and bulk to prepare for competing in 2020. For those who want to try plant-based meals for health or ethical reasons, she tells people to just try it for a few weeks and see how they feel, noting her mother, a type 2 diabetic requiring insulin, was dead-set against veganism, until she recently reversed her disease by following it. “I tell doubters they are already vegan, because they’ve ate veggies all their life, so they are 80% there,” said Gourley. 

“I feel like my shows are my activism, and I love to answer people’s questions on the vegan lifestyle and making healthy choices,” she said.

By Christina Swanson
Resident Community News

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