07/08/2011 04:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It Ain't Over Till It's Over - Debra Berney

By Lori Weiss

As Debra Berney walked out onto the stage of the Liberty High School auditorium, in Eldersburg, Maryland, she was stepping into a spotlight she'd avoided for more than 40 years. Clad only in a tiny purple velvet bikini and six-inch heels, she took a deep breath, put a smile on her face and prayed she wouldn't trip.

"I wanted, at least once in my life, to be in really good shape - at my very best," she says laughing, realizing that most women who had accomplished that goal might have just gone out and bought a slinky new dress.

This was the moment she'd spent a year training for - the NCP BWI Body Building /Figure Competition - and at 53, she was shedding the baggy clothes she'd used to camouflage what she saw as a-less-than perfect body and finally showing the world who she really was. And she was doing it with women who were two and three decades younger than her, in a room packed with strangers.

"I was trying to remember the poses and not look at anyone in particular in the audience," she recalls. "But then I heard the screams - 'Go Debra! Looking hot!' My daughters and daughters-in-law were cheering for me! They'd even made t-shirts and posters!

"It was like a reversal of roles," she says with a smile. "If I had made signs for them in high school, they would have said, 'Oh, Mom, you embarrassed me!' But it made me feel so good. I realized that they saw their mom wasn't old, and that you can continue to reach goals at every point in your life."

But body building? And parading onto a stage - nearly naked? Really? Debra didn't see it coming either. She'd spent her high school years singing and acting in plays, but always as part of an ensemble or one step away from the lead role. "I was a skinny kid, but when I hit puberty, it was like adding water to a sponge. I was very self-conscious about my appearance, but on stage, I could be whoever I wanted to be."

Even as an adult, as she moved into a career as a speech pathologist and became a wife and mother, she felt like she had to cover up what others probably would have seen as a pretty cute figure. "From high school on, I was just never comfortable with my body," she adds, her voice reflecting the sadness she must have felt. "There was always that extra 15 pounds. So I never dressed flashy. I'd wear full skirts, nothing form-fitting. I probably made myself look worse. I guess I didn't want people to notice me."

But as Debra approached her mid-40's, she began to feel like she needed to change things. It was time for her to do something different - to step out of the shadows. "I wasn't completely sure what I wanted to do, but I made a conscious choice that I was going to go from pathology to wellness. But I felt guilty. With 5 kids - 3 of them in college - bringing yet another tuition into the picture and taking time away from my husband seemed like a lot to ask."

So she began taking classes, squeezing them in whenever she could, until she discovered an opening for a graduate assistantship that allowed her to immerse herself in her new passion and have her credits paid for. Somehow, she even found time to work out in the university gym three times a week. And it was there, on a weight machine, that the stars aligned.

"I saw these young students who were trainers and I thought, I'm a good motivator and there are lots of older graduate students and faculty members who are dealing with the same issues I've dealt with. Why can't I do this?"

It wasn't long before Debra became certified herself and decided to use her new Masters degree in wellness to help other women live their best lives, too. She began Charm City Adventure Boot Camp, which meets in a local park every morning from six to seven AM, from May to October.

"It's part of my 'Kick in the Pants' personal coaching program," she says, laughing at her own company's name. "I don't yell at people like some other trainers. Women have body issues and I'm not going to add to that. So rather than giving them a kick where you might think, I believe in doing it in a softer way. I'm going to push you to go beyond what you believe to be your limitations, but in a way that works for you."

And it was the women she trained who motivated Debra to push beyond her own boundaries. "I knew I had to walk my own walk, and when I'd look around the training center and see other trainers preparing people for competitions, I'd think, This is the next step - this is my next goal."

Slowly she began lifting heavier weights, and learning how to pose and flex her muscles in the way bodybuilders do. She went to a nutritionist and stopped eating processed foods - and even managed to find her balance on the six-inch heels she'd need to walk across the stage.

"It was the heels that almost threw me, not to mention the tiny little posing suits that the women wear! They're almost like a thong in back! I couldn't handle that, so I found one that covered up a little bit more. And then there were the tanning sessions," she says, rolling her eyes. "They spray-tan you in your birthday suit, and they take their tanning seriously! After the woman sprayed my back, she asked me to squat - so I wouldn't have any lines - and then she sprayed me where the sun don't shine!

"I'm normally pretty conservative, and here I was, about to step out on a stage - almost naked - in front of an auditorium of people. But, you know, I wasn't looking so shabby!"

"Shabby" is not a word that anyone was thinking as they saw Debra appear on stage. As her daughters cheered, her husband proudly snapped photographs, which he now keeps in his phone and shows off to friends. "One of the wives actually thought I was posing behind a cardboard cut-out," she says with a chuckle. "You know, the kind you see in amusement parks - where it's your face and someone else's body! I suppose she was thinking, How could you possibly do that at your age?

"But that's the point," Debra says. "Age does not have to be a limitation. You can start a whole new path whenever you want. Yes, I absolutely put myself outside of my comfort zone - and guess what? I survived. That's what I want other women to know. You'll do more than just survive. You'll live the life you want - and you'll actually thrive. "

Debra (Kotelchuck) Berney is based in Baltimore and the owner of "A Kick in the Pants." She can be reached at debra@kickinthepants.net.

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