“Go for it while you can. I know you have it in you. I can’t promise you’ll get everything you want, but I can promise nothing will change if you don’t try.” J.M. Darhower
June 1992 – Baltimore, Maryland: Fifty-six-year-old Ernestine Shepherd and her 57-year-old sister, Mildred Blackburn, drove to the mall on a swimsuit-buying mission. They were excited about a friend’s pool party the following week. Trying on suits, they eyed each other in the mirror and had a laugh. Mildred bemoaned, “Girl, we’ve got some work to do.” They didn’t buy the suits.
The sisters grew up in Baltimore and were closer than twins. They did everything together. As a child, Ernestine was too prissy to exercise. She preferred painting her nails and doing her hair to the sweat and pain of exercise. Mildred was the athletic one, usually choosing to play outside.
At Mildred’s urging, the week after the pool party both sisters joined an aerobics class.As their fitness improved and they began to lose a few pounds, a trainer suggested that they lift weights. After he finally convinced them that they did not have enough testosterone to develop big muscles, they became avid weightlifters.
In early 1993, Mildred had a bizarre dream: The sisters were champion bodybuilders recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. Mildred inexplicably confided in Ernestine, “If I don’t make it, you must fulfill this dream. If anything happens to me, do not fall apart. Continue what we started.” Mildred made Ernestine make a pinkie promise to follow through on her dream should something happen. A few months later, Mildred died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.
Ernestine fell apart. She was traumatized and suffered severe depression over Mildred’s death. She quit working out, developed high blood pressure, and had frequent panic attacks. She rarely left the house and disengaged from friends and family. Her depression lasted for five years.
Finally, a close friend confronted Ernestine, “You know Mildred would not want you to do this. You need to stop it.” Ernestine recalled Mildred’s mysterious last request. It was a turning point, a call to action. The next day, she went to the gym to work out. During the next 12 years, Mildred’s dream drove Ernestine to work harder and harder in the gym. She won bodybuilding competitions and ran marathons.
In 2011 the Guinness Book of World Records declared 74-year-old Ernestine Shepherd the oldest competitive bodybuilder in the world. When she traveled to Rome to participate in the Guinness ceremony, she took Mildred’s ashes with her. She cried as she scattered them at the Roman Coliseum. “I spread those ashes because it was something Mildred dreamed about,” said Ernestine. “I try to keep her dream alive. Now, it is my dream.”
Today at 85, Ernestine still wakes up every morning at 3 a.m. for a 10-mile run. Two mornings each week, she drives an hour to a gym in Ft. Washington, Maryland. There she trains with Yohnnie Shambourger, a 64-year-old who won the gold medal in bodybuilding in the Pan American Games in 1995. Shepherd runs 80 miles a week and limits her diet to 1,700 calories daily of lean chicken, fish, vegetables and boiled eggs. She continues to train but has stopped competing in bodybuilding events.
Twice a week, Ernestine teaches exercise classes for seniors at Union Memorial United Methodist Church in north Baltimore. She also works as a certified personal trainer in a nearby gym. The first thing people notice about their instructor is her six-pack abs and ripped shoulders and back muscles. They are shocked that the grandmother is in her 80s. With the body of a college cheerleader, Ernestine is in better shape than most people decades younger.
People often ask Ernestine how long she plans to keep running, and how long she will body build and train so strenuously. They remind her, “You will die soon.” Ernestine responds, “We are all going to die, but it’s the quality of life while I’m living that is important. Age is nothing but a number – nothing but a date on a calendar.”