By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Natalie Pennington works on her muscles at the gym and on cavities at the office. As a professional fitness competitor, Pennington spends much of her free time training. As a full-time dentist, she spends her days working on patients. Pennington competes in the bikini division of the International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB) — a major federation for bodybuilding competitors.
The 31-year-old native of Federal Way is 5’8″ and 126 pounds. She currently lives in Emeryville, Calif., a small city near San Francisco.
Raised by her Korean mother, Pennington is half Korean and half French. As a youth, she went to a Korean church and is able to read, write, and speak Korean fluently. Pennington says her childhood was filled with music lessons. She played piano and violin from age 6 and onward.
“That’s the Asian side. That’s mom taking control,” Pennington said, speaking about her six years of violin and 10 years of piano instructions. “It wasn’t by choice, but I appreciate it now,” said Pennington who dreams of having a baby grand piano one day. “I would practice one hour a day on violin and one hour a day on the piano.”
Today, Pennington’s mother supports her two passions. “My mother always thought I should model, but education came first.”
Pennington attended the University of Washington from 1996 to 2001. She majored in business but took many science classes because she originally wanted to go to medical school. Instead, she chose to pursue dentistry because she wanted people to feel good and “wanted to change people’s smiles.” After graduation, Pennington went to the University of the Pacific in San Francisco for dental school.
The urge to compete
Before she was 30 years old, Pennington wanted to participate in fitness competitions. “I always worked out and led a very healthy lifestyle. However, I never had the courage to go to that level.”
Pennington chose to compete in the bikini division of the IFBB because she felt it best reflected how she felt about her body. “It’s a very healthy look. It emphasizes muscle tone and leanness, but has a feminine and curvy shape.”
Pennington began training for the competition in July 2008. She has been on the professional circuit since August 2009. In order to become a pro, amateurs must place in amateur shows. It took her only four months to get her pro card.
At her first show, Pennington was nervous before going onstage. “I saw a videotape of the competition, and I was rushing through everything. I remember my knees shaking so bad.” Despite being nervous, Pennington won in her first competition.
Since her first show, Pennington has traveled to North America, paying her own way to compete in shows. Although a professional, Pennington’s winnings do not cover the travel costs. Recently, Pennington traveled to New Zealand for a competition. She placed second and secured a spot in the Ms. Olympia competition to be held this September in Las Vegas.
As a Korean American, Pennington feels that her race has helped her in competitions. “Many see my look as exotic,” said Pennington. She believes it has helped her stand out from the rest of the competitors.
Training and diet
Pennington works out two times a day, six days a week. She gets up early to go to the gym to work on cardio before her 40-minute commute to work. After a full day with patients, Pennington hits the gym to lift weights. She focuses on a different body part each day. Rather than bulking up, Pennington focuses on sculpting her body for the competition.
Proper nutrition is crucial in fitness competitions since Pennington is in a bikini onstage, in front of judges. Each night, Pennington spends an hour preparing her food for the next day. Pennington eats six small meals a day, one every two to three hours. She follows a strict diet tailored to her needs, balancing protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
The balancing act
Although Pennington enjoys her two careers, she still has difficult days.
“My biggest challenge is that some days, I deal with patient management issues, yet in the back of my mind, I know I can’t go home and relax with a glass of wine. You know you have to go to the gym after work.”
Pennington realizes that her career demands are unique in the world of fitness competitions. “Most girls [I compete with] do not have the stress of the job that I do.”
At work, some of her patients are interested in her fitness competitions. “I don’t go out of my way to tell my patients what I do,” Pennington said. “Some are very excited about my progress. But, my primary focus is on my patient.”
Even though Pennington follows a busy schedule, she has found her two careers to be rewarding. In fact, her future plans include a dual business.
“I would love to have a spa/dental practice,” said Pennington.
She envisions patients walking into a very relaxing environment where they would have a dental procedure and then get a spa treatment to relax. ♦
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/nataliepenningtonfit.
Jason Cruz can be reached at email@example.com.