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Big and beautiful


'To be that
dedicated to a
sport, you have
to be addicted
to it' Blue’s wife,
Paula, was a top

'To be that dedicated to a sport, you have to be addicted to it' Blue’s wife, Paula, was a top bodybuilder

'To be that dedicated to a sport, you have to be addicted to it' Blue’s wife, Paula, was a top bodybuilder

Sitting in front of a man you've only just met who's in the process of stripping down to a tiny black pair of Speedos, it's hard to know where to look. Except when he is 5 foot 9 inches and 217 lbs of raw muscle. Then, believe me, you can't do anything but gawk.

It's a sunny afternoon in Limerick city and Blue Shinners, 44, the current Mr Ireland body building champion, is posing for photographs at the JJB fitness club.

As Blue turns back and forth, flexing his muscles tight as the camera flash goes off, and releasing them momentarily to change his pose, it's easy to see he has devoted his entire life to sculpting a body which is as close to perfection as he can possibly achieve.

Each strong, deep muscle, every taut ligament, moves smoothly and in harmony with the next as he glides into each position with effortless grace and poise.

Blue makes it look easy. Almost, that is. But any half-toned gym junkie would be able to tell you that it takes more than protein bars and nutrition shakes to look this chiselled.

To start with, you need to have taste buds tougher than a jockey's undercarriage to down some of the nutritious concoctions that Blue gulps in between workouts. I take a swig of a purple liquid he has laid on the table before the shoot and shudder: my gut and lips wince all at once. His body building buddy, Jason, laughs as I hold my stomach until it settles.

Team the nauseating shakes with a strict diet and six gruelling workouts a week and you're only starting to understand the pain that this man has put himself through to look the way he does.

So, why bother?

"As a child I was absolutely mesmerised by the size of strongmen," Blue explains. "Big muscles were very intriguing to me. I suppose it's the hero aspect of it, you just want to emulate people like that. Muscles say to me 'strength, confidence and power' and in those three things you could sum it all up."

But, he says, "I wouldn't feel any less of a man without my muscles. Passion for the sport is what has kept me going -- it's a physical journey."

Blue started training at the age of 16 in a makeshift gym in a garden shed, following the example of an uncle.

From there, he was encouraged by friends to compete in various competitions and, as he gained more muscle, he gained more confidence in his ability to show his physique before a panel of judges.

"You're up there [on stage] showing what you've done in the gym and how you've trained," he explains, "and everything about your regime shows up under those lights."

I remind him that earlier, when it came to stripping down, he seemed quite shy. Was this not a contradiction of sorts?

"That was because I felt that I wasn't in condition," confides Blue. "What you probably think is, 'Oh, look at the size of him', but for me, I'm more into detail and symmetry. For me, the body has to be perfect. We're all, I suppose, a little absorbed within our own person. And we do look at ourselves very critically. Anybody who ever says he's happy with his physique, it's time for him to stop."

In common with all body builders I interview, Blue seems driven by a striving for perfection, a strong critical streak regarding his physical appearance, and a motivation to do everything he can to achieve the ultimate body.

"It's something that's in me. If I say that I will do something, I give it 100 per cent, and I'm very committed. I could downsize and become a regular Joe Soap on the street but I don't want to do it," says Blue, "because I honestly enjoy the sport too much."

Downsizing is usually the last thing a body builder will do, but for Blue's gym buddy Jason Kenny, also from Limerick city, it was being oversized that drove him to the sport.

At 33, Jason weighed more than 17 stone and, with a body fat percentage tipping over 30 per cent, he was morbidly obese. At his lowest point, Jason was downing two packets of indigestion tablets a day to help him cope with his unhealthy diet and even practical tasks such as tying his shoelaces were a challenge.

"I used to have to breathe in before I bent down to tie one shoe," Jason says, "and then come up again and take another breath before I'd bend back down to do the other. It was awful.

"It was only when I saw a photograph of myself in New York that I thought: 'Oh no, is that me?' and I knew then that I'd have to change. I started training very hard in the gym, six days a week," he says, "and I got myself back down to 13 stone and 9.4 per cent body fat. People thought I was mad. It got to the stage where I was actually in the gym on Christmas morning.

"But I went through a major change. At the start, I wanted to be like everybody else," Jason observes, "and then everybody wants to be like you -- it was a major role reversal."

Now, he says, he is busy enjoying all the benefits intensive weight training has introduced into his life.

"I suppose people talk to me differently now: the respect is there. Because, obviously, somebody who looks after themselves respects themselves, which means they're going to get respect from others."

But one of Jason's discoveries in the course of his dramatic transformation is that no one is ever truly happy with their appearance.

"You're never happy with yourself and that's one thing I've learned," he says. "Most guys you talk to want to strive for something bigger and better. I don't want to be huge, but at the same time I want to be a bit bigger. I wouldn't mind being 15 stone with muscles but it's something I'll have to do first to decide if I'm happy enough with where I am."

It isn't only men who are committed to striving for bodily perfection. Blue's wife, Paula, smiles as she recalls how, on the mornings she gave birth to each of her children, she had headed into the gym with her exercise bag under one arm, maternity suitcase under the other, and carried out her workout routine, as normal, before heading off to hospital.

A former Miss Ireland body building champion, Paula has quit the professional side of the sport so she can support Blue. Now, sitting legs crossed and smiling as she watches her husband flex, the pretty brunette would turn anyone's perception of female body body builders on its head.

Paula looks perfectly feminine and is dressed immaculately, not a bulging muscle in sight. Until you ask her if you can squeeze her muscles. She politely obliges and tightens her biceps as my fingers land on what feels like a rock under the blouse of her upper arm. Her calf muscles are every bit as impressive, and it's easy to see why she has gained huge respect from the men in her gym.

Paula explains how, at 15 years of age, a desire to get rid of some teenage puppy fat turned into what she herself describes as an addiction.

"I was interested in getting heavy in muscle," Paula explains, "and I started to take shape when I was doing my Inter Cert. Then I became dedicated to the sport and I wanted to be the biggest and the best.

"That's when the addiction started to feed itself," she goes on. "When I saw changes in my biceps, I got addicted to making them bigger and getting them more shaped [until gradually] each body part had its own addiction."

She continues: "It's a strange sport in that it does take over. You see a small change, like a change in your bicep, and you say, 'I wonder what it would be like to change my tricep', and then you just start doing more and more. I suppose you'd want to have a slightly addictive personality for body building."

Is it an obsession?

She nods her head adamantly. "Yes. Short and sweet. There's no middle of the road with this, there's no grey area here, it's black or white, it has to be. To be that dedicated to a sport you have to be addicted to it."

At her peak, Paula was training twice a day, seven days a week for 20 weeks before a show. Once in the gym, she explains, she wasn't anybody's mother or wife. She just put her headphones on and did something that was purely for her.

"I just think the fact that I could go to the gym and lose myself was what really appealed to me," Paula says. "And the fact that I could change my whole appearance was part of it too."

She continues: "My obsession was with the gym and I really didn't care what people thought. This was for me. I had done so many things for everybody else, but this little pocket of training I had was for me. I felt so empowered that I could go into the gym and become a strong woman."

But then one day, an extremely direct comment at a national female body building competition made Paula take stock of everything she had worked so hard to achieve for the best part of a decade.

"When I stepped off the stage at my last Miss Ireland competition about 10 years ago, this particular gentleman came over to me and -- albeit in admiration for what I'd just done -- he just stood there and he said: 'I would give anything to have a six pack and a pair of legs like yours'.

"And so I thought, OK, this is a man telling a woman he wants a body like a woman, so I tried to pin him down on what he meant. He said, 'Oh no, don't get me wrong, you look grand and fair play to you and all that but I wouldn't like my wife to look like you -- I'd just like it for myself.'

"He went on by saying: 'Look, I really admire you for all the work you've put in, but you can't think that's attractive.' I was gutted," Paula recalls. "It felt as if he had kicked me in the stomach.

"So it made me think, 'Have I gone to the extreme here? Have I now begun to scare people off to the extent that this isn't feminine any more?'"

Paula ponders for a moment. "I suppose sometimes it takes one comment to knock you off your pedestal or make you stand in front of the mirror and say, 'ok, what am I doing here?' That's when I just took stock of everything. I had no breast tissue left, it was completely gone and only muscle was in its place. My arms were big, my legs were huge, I had a six pack and I was extremely strained from all the dieting I'd done.

"So I literally walked out the door of the Mansion House in Dublin that night and asked myself if I really wanted to continue with this. And I knew, then and there, that I didn't."

Now Paula is under no illusion as to how men view female body builders.

"No man thinks a female body builder is attractive. I have yet to come across any man who says they're gorgeous. They'd say, 'fair play to her, great body', but they wouldn't want their wife to look like that.

"They don't see how hard it is for a woman to get like that. Even Blue will turn around -- he is not into it at all -- and say that he prefers soft, feminine women. I suppose he's not into a woman who looks like himself basically," she quips before letting out a hearty laugh.

A couple of miles across the city I meet Brian Bullman and his uncle and fellow body builder, Sean Bullman (IFBB pro and Masters Olympia competitor) at the university arena gym in the University of Limerick.

Unbelievably, Brian started pumping iron at the age of seven: at an age when most boys were happy playing with their action figures and reading Incredible Hulk comics, Brian was transforming himself into the real thing.

Now aged 29, he has countless accolades under his belt, including a gold medal in his category for both the World Bench Press Championships 2006 and the National Body Building Championships in the same year.

But it seems, as far as Brian's concerned, that he hasn't pushed himself as far as he wants to go. And, as we flick through the pages of a glossy body building magazine in which he happens to feature, Bullers (a nickname which was given to him by Ireland's rugby international Paul O'Connell) tells me he has yet to achieve the "perfect" physique.

And so I ask Brian to point out a man in the publication who he thinks has the ultimate body. Without hesitation, he turns the page and points out an absolutely monstrous figure with veins protruding from every inch of his body.

He explains that he wants to move into a heavier weight category in the sport and that, in order to do that, he needs to put on another 20-odd pounds in weight.

I wonder if he will ever be happy with his ever-developing muscles, but Brian maintains that he has a positive body image, unlike some other competitors in the sport.

"There are a lot of body builders who do have negative self image," he says, "and that's why they work out, because they look at themselves in the mirror and see something else.

"There are people who do suffer from body dysmorphia," he goes on. "You'll get guys who look in the mirror and see one of the greatest body builders of all time and then you'll get others who look great but they don't think they're big enough. I simply have a burning desire to get where I want to be, but I also have a very positive body image. Some people take it as cockiness -- but I know that I have a good physique."

Brian's face cracks into a cheeky smile when I ask him how the opposite sex reacts to this physique when he's out on the tiles.

He explains that, nine times out of 10, the girls who approach him just want to see his arms and experience a quick feel of his six-pack.

"Obviously, when I'm out socialising, I tend to wear a tight T-shirt or shirt and you're going to get attention from girls," Brian says. "You get used to it and you enjoy it without being too egotistical."

So how much time does he spend each day posing in front of the mirror?

"Peak time, I'll probably pose for a half an hour," he says, rather matter-of-factly.

"Depending on what muscle group I'm after working out," he explains, "that's what I'm going to be looking at. So, say it's the chest area, I'll stand square-on in the mirror, sometimes in boxers and other times with nothing on, and see how my chest looks and see if I need to improve my upper or lower pectoral muscles, and then I might flex like this and turn to the side. Everything has to be in balance."

But, as his uncle Sean (who stands in front of the mirror for up to an hour a day at peak time) explains, this posing is strictly to judge how each muscle is developing as well as ensuring that everything is forming in perfect symmetry.

As Brian says: "If you stop and look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'man, I look fucking awesome', that's when you lose your competitive edge."

And what about body builders who use illegal substances such as steroids to give them that competitive edge, I ask. In the past few years the sport seems to have developed a reputation which follows the old adage 'by fair means if possible and foul means if necessary'. So I put the million-dollar question to Brian. Has he ever come across drugs in his sporting career?

"Anyone that's in any sport who tells you drugs aren't in their sport is telling a lie," he replies. "There are drugs in every sport and that's why you have anti-doping guidelines. You are going to get guys who cheat."

Brian describes how, at the age of 16, he was first offered an illegal substance.

"I had just won the teenage nationals and I was getting ready for the next competition," he recalls, "and someone came over and said, 'Oh, are you getting ready for the show? Would you not try a bit of stuff?' But I just said no. My father is the president of the Body Building Federation here and I've been brought up a different way. I'm 100 per cent for the rules of the sport."

And so, I ask, after all the blood, sweat and tears that he endures, when he finally gets up on stage, does it not frustrate him that there could be a guy down the line who has taken an illegal substance to improve his physique?

"Maybe if I lost all those times it might," Brian says, "but I haven't done too badly."

I ask him if drugs are easily available in Ireland and he nods, "every single gym".

Brian's uncle, Sean, has won 21 national championships and has competed in every international show in the world.

Sean was the youngest ever Mr Ireland body building champion, which he won a mere 12 months after he first started training. He was the first professional bodybuilder in Irish history. Now 49 and a father, Sean commands great respect in the world of Irish body building and could outdo men only half his age in the gym.

"The feeling of your muscles getting bigger is a great feeling," Sean says, "because you see the results of the effort you have been putting in. It gave me confidence I never had before."

Growing up in St Mary's Park in Limerick, Sean says his life could have taken many different directions if he hadn't found something on which to focus his attention.

"Weight training definitely kept me away from the rough element that you'd find in every area," says Sean. "It kept me away from the negative and it gave me a better outlook in life."

He continues: "I hung around with lads, some of whom are still my friends, and I can't knock them because I found something to make my life better, which they didn't. They'd come around and ask me to go out but I would be training so then I'd get the, 'Oh, what are you turning into?' They even stopped hanging around with me for a few years because they just thought I was going strange, they didn't understand the discipline it takes to be a body builder."

These days, Sean reminisces about his younger years, when people used to count his ribs because he was so thin. He maintains that these jibes instilled in him a need to be bigger and a passion for body building that has influence everything he has done.

But still, it's nice to see he keeps his priorities straight. "I have won more body building titles than anyone else here in Ireland," he says, "but you could throw that all into the corner because my two greatest achievements in my whole life, as far as I'm concerned, are my wife and my child, and I'd put them above anything."

Meanwhile, back in JJB fitness club, Blue Shinners echoes Sean's sentiments.

"We're perceived by the public as being meat-headed, uneducated men," says Blue, "but I'm trying to educate people that we're not all like that and show them that body building is a very positive sport that can change your life for the better.

"It brings stronger bone density, it boosts your posture, it gives you balance and it eliminates back ache, so there's a lot of massive health benefits to body building," Blue goes on. "That's why it's becoming incorporated into other sports such as hurling, boxing and sprinting, because muscle is aerodynamic and it makes you quicker and faster. And remember, muscle is armour so it protects your internal organs. The more muscle you have, the more protected you are."

Blue is immensely eager to communicate the positive aspects of the sport and shake off the image that has dogged it for so long.

But, as he answers his phone with the line: "Hello, this is Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking," and, tongue in cheek, asks the photographer if he wants a hug while he's standing in nothing but oil and skimpy underwear, it shows Blue can see the fun of it all too. Just don't mention the war, as they say. When I broach the subject of steroids, Blue is adamant he has never come across them, never been offered them and doesn't know anyone who takes them. End of story.

His argument is that, when it comes to winning competitions, it may help build a bit of muscle, but all the cattle hormones in the world won't give a body builder the definition and symmetry needed to scoop the top prize.

And you have to remember, these guys aren't in it for the bulk. They want to have a chiselled physique that wouldn't look out of place beside Michelangelo's masterpiece, David.

And just as David is the most recognisable statue in art, Blue is spotted everywhere in his home town. As we stroll around Limerick city after the shoot, there are beeps and waves from every second car that passes, and it's easy to see why these people feel safer with someone like Blue, with his good, old-fashioned armour, in their midst.

See www.foreverfitpromotions.com for more information on Blue Shinners and Jason Kenny: for more information on Brian Bullman, visit his blog at www.myspace.com/brianbullman

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