THE INTERVIEW: Bodybuilder Emily Zelinka

THE INTERVIEW JUNE 2016: Emily Zelinka

Photo: Dan Ray

Photo: Dan Ray

Every successful athlete has it: the look. Just stare into their eyes, and you see it. Focus. Dedication. Never-say-die. And the ability to put your foot down on the throat of a competitor to finish the kill. But in the case of Emily Zelinka of London, that doesn’t mean it’s all about the kill. In fact, you won’t meet a more personable, caring professional athlete than this 33-year-old bodybuilder. Zelinka’s story is an amazing, continuing journey of hope, determination and inspiration. She left home at age 16, worked two jobs to pay for food and rent, and still made the high school honour roll. Zelinka also suffered from Bulimia, and endured an abusive relationship. But that was just the beginning of her journey.
A graduate of Fanshawe College’s Fitness and Health Promotion program, Zelinka then graduated from the college’s Paramedic program and was voted class valedictorian. She was hired as a paramedic with Middlesex-London EMS, which promoted her to Operations Superintendent in 2014.
In November 2007, and after much training in the gym, Zelinka competed in her first figure competition – she promptly won first place overall at the Ontario Physique Association event, and hasn’t looked back. With multiple impressive showings on stage, and more importantly a renewed love for health and fitness, Zelinka is now a mentor to other women entering the world of bodybuilding. Competing world-wide as an International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) Pro Figure athlete, she placed first overall at the Canadian Bodybuilding Federation (CBBF) nationals just six years into competition. Today, she enjoys sponsorship from Magnum Nutraceuticals sports nutrition supplments, and Titika Active Couture apparel.
Emily 2In 2013, Zelinka gave birth to her daughter, Brooke, who was born with Congenital Cystic Adenamatoid Malformation (CCAM), a rare disease that saw two-thirds of Brooke’s right lung removed. Today, although living with CCAM, she is a happy, bright young girl who has given more reason for Zelinka to inspire others and live a healthy lifestyle.
Now a single mom (she recently separated from husband Brad Fowler, a retired world champion kickboxer who remains Emily’s best friend), and with a full schedule, Zelinka recently sat down with LondonOntarioSports.com editor Jeffrey Reed at her north London home to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of competitive bodybuilding.

Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioSports.com: Emily, it has been a few years since we’ve spent time chatting, and I must say you are looking rather buff – as if you never are! Please don’t challenge me to an arm wrestling contest. I know you have a competition around the corner.
SONY DSCEmily Zelinka: (Laughing)  Yes, the Toronto Pro Supershow June 4-5, and then I’ll be competing at the Vancouver Pro Show July 9-10.
Reed: I want to start by talking about your childhood. You moved out on your own at age 16, made good grades in high school and held down two jobs to pay for food and rent. That in itself is an incredible story.
Zelinka: When I was in Grade 10 and living in Woodstock, I moved out to a friends’ house while I was going to high school. Then, when I was 16 I was out on my own paying rent. I worked at Tim Hortons. I maintained honour roll at high school.
Reed: You obviously were driven, even at an early age.
Zelinka: It was really important to me, yes. I wanted to prove to everybody that I was going to succeed, no matter what anybody said. I felt that a lot of people thought I would just cave to the stereotype of, you move out on your own, you’re young, you work at Tim Hortons, working at a low-income wage for the rest of your life. You’re doomed. But I wanted to persevere, do well at school, follow my passions and be what I considered successful for me.
Reed: You never gave up on your dreams.
Zelinka: This is going to sound really odd coming out of my mouth, but like I have always said to myself, I was made for bigger and better things in this world. That is one thing that I always tell myself to this date. I know I’m meant to do good things, and help people, be happy. I’m just on a road to see what that is for me.

“I felt that a lot of people thought I would just cave to the stereotype of, you move out on your own, you’re young, you work at Tim Hortons, working at a low-income wage for the rest of your life. You’re doomed. But I wanted to persevere, do well at school, follow my passions.” – Emily Zelinka

Reed: During that time of transition for you during your teen years, you were involved in an abusive relationship.
Zelinka: Yes, it goes hand-in-hand, verbal and physical abusive at that time in my life. Luckily, I’m not in it anymore. It was a horrible time that I went through, but at the same time I look back at the things I’ve learned. A very negative time has helped shape me into who I am today. I don’t look at it as a regret. I look at it as making me stronger.
Reed: Speaking of stronger, your mental toughness goes hand-in-hand with your passion for everything you do, including, of course, professional bodybuilding. Was there a defining moment when you said, ‘You know what? This is my sport – my passion. It’s what I want to give 100 per cent to now?’
SONY DSCZelinka: I’ve always wanted to do fitness competitions. I had an eating disorder in the past. After I got myself healthy. I got to know Stephanie Worsfold, and my former husband, who was my personal trainer. I had the two best people in my corner – a great trainer and a mentor. I said, if I’m not going to do it now, I’ll never do it. So I decided to do my first show, and I won first place overall. Then I thought, wow, I am really good at this! And the journey continues to make me appreciate health and wellness. Nutrition and fitness. They help me set goals.
Reed: I mentioned how defined your muscles are, heading into the competition season. But I’ve never seen you grotesquely big with help from performance-enhancing drugs.
Zelinka: No. I don’t want to be ‘big.’ People assume that I wish to look like a huge bodybuilder. Bodybuilding is sculpting. I am body sculpting. I pride myself on my strength, I pride myself on the amount of effort that it has taken to be where I am. I’ve spent a lot of hours in the gym. I’m three weeks out from competition, so it’s more than normal right now – about two hours a day. Normally when I’m not competing for a show, it’s an hour a day, five days a week.
Reed: You’re a single parent now, having recently separated from your husband. And you are a supervisor with Middlesex-London EMS. Plus you’re a pro bodybuilder. How do you do it?
Zelinka: It’s a big commitment. It’s being a mom and working full time. Working out is not an option. It’s my lifestyle.
Reed: You’re an insider in the world of local bodybuilding, and I am sure you have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Is it a tightly-knit group?
Zelinka: Everyone knows everyone else. It’s a very, very small community. It is a close family. I have met some of my best friends through this industry. We have the same interests and hobbies, so you tend to get along with them very well.
Reed: In a small group, you had better get along well.
Zelinka: Yes. But on the other side of that, like with anyone there are always going to be a few bad apples. There is a side where people are in it for the wrong reasons. It can be a cutthroat industry. But as you get further along with success, those people get weeded out. They don’t last. At the pro level, I have met some amazing people and life-long friends. But those bad apples reach a certain height, and then they crash and burn.
Reed: Speaking of which … when you are immediately finished with a competition, to you cave in to your food cravings? Your diet is a strict one, to say the least. Don’t you just crave that big piece of chocolate cake when you leave the stage?
Zelinka: I do go crazy for a few days. But my crazy is very different than most people’s crazy. I enjoy healthy foods, so that doesn’t bother me at all. I miss a glass of wine, or being on the patio with my friends and enjoying nachos or hamburgers.
Reed: What’s fame like for you now? When you’re out on the patio with your friends, do you get recognized as Emily Zelinka the professional bodybuilder?SONY DSC
Zelinka: I do, and it’s weird. Very weird. I don’t consider myself to be anyone special. When I go to work I’m Emily the paramedic. But while I was at work one time a local business employee came up to me and asked me for my autograph. He said he saw me on the computer and he’s been ‘following’ me. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or afraid (laughing)! But you know what? It made me step back and realize maybe I do influence people. I have a group of girls that I train, and I know that I’m their mentor. So much good is coming out of the fame. I said, okay, if people are going to recognize me then I’m going to give back by working with these girls.
Reed: Again, you see the positive in something and make it work for you – and for others.
Zelinka: Yes!  I pick girls who want to compete for the right reasons. I’ve trained a 60-year-old woman, and women in their 20s.
Reed: Sixty? That’s awesome. Sixty is the new 40. But that’s a great story.
Zelinka: She looked amazing. All of these girls have a good head on their shoulders. They’re building their bodies for the right reasons. My job is to lead them down the path to get on stage, but it’s also to show them how to love their body, how to respect their body, and how to cope with stress.
Reed: Do you see yourself training to get on stage at age 60?
Zelinka: People ask me all the time, ‘When will you stop competing?” And I say, when it doesn’t make me happy anymore. So, I don’t have a number. There are a lot of ‘older’ women who compete as pros who are my idols. They look amazing. They don’t just do it to win: they do it because they live it. Realistically, though? I see myself at 60 mentoring, or at least still being a part of the industry. But I don’t think I’ll be on stage at age 60.
SONY DSC Reed: Let’s talk about the big shows. What’s it like backstage? Because we’ve all seen the documentaries and what a freak show it can be backstage before the lights and the applause shine down on you.
Zelinka: There’s definitely some weird stuff back there. If a ‘normal’ person, someone not in the industry, went backstage, they would see it as a circus. There are people spray tanning. A lot of orange people running around backstage. People are gluing suits to other people’s butts (laughing). Lots of rice cakes and peanut butter. People are eating, pumping up. But there is also a lot of laughter, and a lot of joy backstage. I find a lot of positive energy before a show. People are focused. But yes, it is another world.
Reed: Yet there are some sad stories stemming from the world of professional bodybuilding.
Zelinka: Of course. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen people who have dieted wrong, people who are lined up to go out on stage and almost passing out, and then have to back out. Think about all those weeks of training, right down the drain. They’ve dieted wrong or hydrated wrong. They have health problems.

“There’s definitely some weird stuff back there. If a ‘normal’ person, someone not in the industry, went backstage, they would see it as a circus. There are people spray tanning. A lot of orange people running around backstage. People are gluing suits to other people’s butts.” – Emily Zelinka

Reed: You and I recently chatted about post-competition syndrome. Some competitors struggle with life off stage.
Zelinka: They do. And they don’t realize that the body that you bring on stage is not what your normal body should be throughout the year. A lot of the girls, actually, will say, ‘I don’t have abs anymore, I’m getting fat.’ That’s when you start causing eating disorders. When I am training girls, I prepare them for how to eat in a healthy manner.
SONY DSCReed: What’s your weight now, weeks before a big show?
Zelinka: This is the best I’ve ever looked.
Reed: I’m not going to argue!
Zelinka:  I’m 149 lbs this morning. I think the lowest I’ve ever gotten is probably 151 lbs. My goal is to be 145 lbs before I cut water, so another four pounds to go.
Reed: Explain, ‘Cut water?’
Zelinka: I drink a lot of water during the week, loading my body of water. And then I’ll dehydrate one day before the show – 24 hours before I am on stage, to lose lots of water so my body just tightens everything up.

“Drugs, steroids, they are everywhere. They’re in every gym. But I pride myself on that body I was given and the one I’ve worked hard for. I don’t have to be a massive bodybuilder. I don’t have to have freaky muscles. I have muscles that are the result of eight years of hard work. – Emily Zelinka

Reed: For that competition look – totally defining your muscles on stage.
Zelinka: Yes, skins just sticks to you like Saran Wrap.
Reed: I am sure anyone who has had the opportunity to speak with you sees the drive and determination in your eyes. I’ve interviewed professional athletes for 35 years – Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Fergie Jenkins – and they all have one thing in common: fierce determination when you look into their eyes. I see it with you as well.
Zelinka: It’s funny, because it was the same way when I became a supervisor with EMS. Even when I was hired as a paramedic, I knew as soon as I was hired that I wanted to be supervisor.
SONY DSCReed: Most people would have been happy just to get the job.
Zelinka: But that’s not me. I took courses, volunteered, did what I had to do. And I knew it would take time. I didn’t realize I would get it this early. But the position came up. I didn’t think I would get it at this age and with my experience. There are a lot of older men in this job. But I even saw a head hunter, did all of the preparation necessary, so that when I went in for the job interview I knew I would bring my best package with me. And I got the job.
Reed: A ton of PGA Tour golfers don’t win the big tournaments because they believe they can’t handle the responsibilities that come with winning on the big stage. Obviously, you don’t buy into that way of life.
Zelinka: No. It’s about achieving with me.
Reed: Obviously, as a paramedic, what you see day to day is much worse than what you would see backstage at a bodybuilding contest.
Zelinka: You can’t even imagine the things I’ve seen. I feel like I have the personality where I can cope well with it. I put that to good use. That’s why I am good within this industry. Most things don’t bother me, to tell you the truth. My outlook is that it’s going to happen whether I’m there or not. I’m there just to help. Someone has to do it. Why not me? But I do have a problem with kid calls, now that I have a 3-year-old. That personally hits home with me.
Reed: Getting back to bodybuilding, you are anti-drug. You’re about living a healthy lifestyle. Do the drug-enhanced competitors rub you the wrong way?jzelinka
Zelinka: There’s a lot of it. It’s funny, because a lot of people asked me when I first started bodybuilding if I was taking stuff. Of course I said no, but they didn’t believe me. I think genetics play a huge role in your physical makeup. Work ethic, too.
Reed: Olympian Jessica Zelinka is your cousin. There are obviously some good genes in the mix.
Zelinka: Yes, JL is my cousin, and she gets tested for drugs. She’s an Olympian. And we have almost the exact same physique, when you look at us side by side. But drugs, steroids, they are everywhere. They’re in every gym. But I pride myself on that body I was given and the one I’ve worked hard for. I don’t have to be a massive bodybuilder. I don’t have to have freaky muscles. I have muscles that are the result of eight years of hard work.SONY DSC
Reed: You’re 33 now, and apparently really coming into your own as a professional bodybuilder. You’re beautiful, sexy, athletic, and confident. Would you use all of that for a career outside of bodybuilding, perhaps in action movies?
Zelinka: You’ve seen me in front of a camera (laughing). It’s not pretty.
Reed: Hey, they dubbed English over Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dialogue in, Conan The Barbarian!
Zelinka: I think doing movies would be fun. Stephanie has been an extra in a few movies.
Reed: Do you want to push forward with the corporate branding of, Emily Zelinka?
Zelinka: Right now I’m happy where I am. I’m so busy with my daughter. Being the best mom I can be is my first priority. My career, and my fitness are both huge commitments, too. There’s only so much time to brand myself. At this point in my life, I’m focusing on making myself happy and trying to achieve certain goals that I set for myself this year. But who knows what the future holds?

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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office https://www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989. Publisher/Editor of this website and https://londonontariogolf.com. Sports journalist since 1980.

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