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Mirror, mirror: Bodybuilder among fairest in the land

(ran PC edition)

Wendy Hoogsteden always had a measure of confidence and self-respect.

Until she looked in the mirror, that is.

"I'd always been real confident with my intellect and personality," she said. "But I was never terribly proud of my physique."

That inspired her to become a competitive bodybuilder two years ago and join Bodies in Bronze, gym owner Debbie Milton's bodybuilding team based at her Crescent Fitness Center in Dade City.

Now, when Hoogsteden looks in the mirror, she sees a champion.

The 28-year-old skydiving instructor and personal trainer was the 1998 Coast-to-Coast Florida lightweight and overall champion. And at this past June's Mid-Florida Muscle Classic in Orlando, she was the 1999 Mrs. Mid-Florida Open women's champion.

That victory secured Hoogsteden's invitation to the nationally-renowned Team Universe Championships on Saturday at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City.

"I didn't set out to be a bodybuilder per se," she said. "I'm just fortunate enough to have some success."

So after just two years in the sport, the Zephyrhills resident who used to frown at her own body is about to break out onto the national bodybuilding scene in only her third contest.

Does she still harbor those old doubts?

"Initially, for my first contest, it wasn't about becoming a bodybuilder," she said. "It was just to get on the stage and have that kind of confidence and self-esteem in my own physique."

While bodybuilding was paying off for Hoogsteden on a personal level, she wasn't sure if she had what it took to compete on stage. So that's just what she did.

"(Winning in 1998) was crazy. That was the icing on the cake. That was phenomenal," she said. "It was very exciting to have set out a goal and to achieve it to that extent."

That was last year, though. And what did one contest matter? So Hoogsteden tried again.

"I had some success, but I guess to some degree I wanted to see if it wasn't a fluke," she said. "I'm the kind of person, I don't believe I have the money until it's in my hand or in my bank account."

And now that she's about to go national?

"I'm well let's just say I'm sure that I can take it further than the local shows," she said.

The Team Universe competition is an invitation-only contest, and Hoogsteden's win in Orlando convinced the National Physique Committee to extend her one of its Florida invitations.

Team Universe isn't just a great opportunity for Hoogsteden, but also her team, Bodies in Bronze.

"To have her appear with that level of athletes is just causing people to strive harder," Milton said, "to see that they can do it."

Said team trainer Bill Cordrey: "This is about as big as you can get for us. We really aspire to make progress in the drug-testing leagues, and this is the premier drug-tested show in the country. This is like trying out for the Olympic team for us."

And she has been training appropriately: cardio workouts two hours a day and weight training 45 minutes a day while on a minimal amount of calories. Not to mention the hour spent every day honing her posing techniques and the 30 minutes a day tanning.

The challenge of every bodybuilder is to shed fat _ not muscle. Hoogsteden weighed 122 pounds when she won in Orlando. She weighs 120 now but has lost 1\ pounds of fat. She said she expects to hit the 114-116 range by Saturday.

"It's just water weight," she said confidently.

Her teammates have been busy, too, raising the $1,200 necessary to cover Hoogsteden and Cordrey's expenses.

"I'm awed by people's generosity," she said. "I can't come into the gym without someone encouraging me or congratulating me, and I haven't even been there yet."

So can she keep the winning streak alive?

She'll certainly try. But it's not like this will be her last national contest.

'"The most realistic expectation I have is getting the experience at a national competition," she said.

"As corny as it sounds, just having been invited is quite an honor. And the fact that I'm allowed this experience this early in my bodybuilding career is pretty fantastic."