KITCHENER — Tanya Sablic’s biceps bulge as she runs her fingers through her blond hair.
“I intimidate people,” she says. “I know that.”
The Waterloo professional bodybuilder — and reigning amateur Canadian champ — is a five-foot ball of energy with muscles rippling from head to toe.
But there is a gentler side to the 41-year-old.
“I’m a softy,” she says, as she cuddles her four-month-old pup Misca, while three-year old Theo, both French bulldogs, looks on. “I am the opposite of the stereotype. People are shocked at how quiet, shy and reserved I am.”
Bodybuilding was the last thing Sablic ever expected to pursue.
To this day, the idea of getting on stage in a tiny bikini to flex her muscles in a series of poses while judges scrutinize every angle makes her nervous.
But, over the years, she has learned to conquer those fears, be proud of her body and become one of Canada’s budding bodybuilders.
“It has helped build who I am,” she said. “I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Sablic was born in Kitchener but moved to Waterloo when she was five and was raised, along with older sister Natasha, by Croatian parents — dad, Edi, and mom, Nevenka.
And while Sablic liked sports, she didn’t really play any sport at an early age.
“I grew up the chunky kid and got made fun of and that type of thing,” she recalled. “I wasn’t obese, but I wasn’t fit. I always kind of had an athletic build, so I could never be a tiny person, but trying to understand that as a kid and teenager wasn’t the easiest thing to do.”
So she decided to do something about it.
She got a gym membership and started working out while attending Waterloo’s St. David Catholic Secondary School and, as a young adult, joined recreational baseball and volleyball leagues.
But it wasn’t until her late 20s that she went all in on bodybuilding.
Sablic was attending an open house for a supplement store when the owner noticed her compact, strong frame and suggested she give the sport a try.
“I thought it would be a good way to get me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “Then I kind of became obsessed with it a little bit.”
Sablic entered her first competition when she was 29 and has been at it ever since.
Last year, she was crowned Miss Canada after winning the amateur lightweight bodybuilding title. The victory came with two pro cards, which means she can now compete against the best in the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness.
The sport is a year-round commitment but intensifies in the months leading up to competitions.
In those times, a typical day for Sablic goes like this: wake up early, spend about an hour on a step machine in her garage, eat, train a couple of clients at her gym (Sablic Strength on Victoria Street in Kitchener), high -intensity cardio classes in Waterloo, eat, lift weights, eat, train clients, eat, more cardio, eat, and then sleep.
The routine is repeated daily, with recovery periods and rest mixed in.
Sablic’s diet, which is monitored by her coach, Lise Thexton, is as strict as her schedule and heavy on chicken, fish, eggs, rice and potatoes. When competitions end, she treats herself to a hamburger.
Right now, she’s about seven weeks out from her first professional show in Chicago, where she’ll compete in the women’s physique category, which is one level lower than bodybuilder, a category featuring the biggest women.
Competitors are judged on a series of poses, performed alone and side by side with other athletes. Sablic’s back and side stomach are two of her best looks.
Win in Chicago, and she’ll punch her ticket to Olympia — the Super Bowl of bodybuilding, and Sablic’s ultimate goal.
Newcomers don’t usually reach the marquee event in their first pro season. But that’s OK, because Sablic thrives on having goals.
“I love seeing what I can do with my body, the progress and how far I can push myself mentally, physically, and emotionally,” she said. “The higher level you get, the more that takes effect.”
The journey involves discipline, time, dedication and sacrifice.
But Sablic continues to persevere — for her family, friends, clients, fiancé Michael, their two Frenchies, American bulldog Brinx and, also, for herself.
“The confidence on stage has helped me be OK with the outside world and being the short, stocky, dense person,” she said. “I love my muscles and I think being a strong woman is amazing.”