What strikes you first when you see Cheryl Dolan is how tiny and compact she is. She’s 5’5 in height however she dips and dives on the chin up bar with effortless speed and grace. Her pony-tailed blonde hair sprawls over her defined shoulders as she skips like a flashing strobe light with a jump-rope. The other thing that bewilders you when you see her is that she has a huge smile as she races through her workout routine, most people grimace, puff, curse and question their life decisions as they swing a kettlebell through their legs.
Her beautiful smile is frequent when she talks. She has a warmth that translates into someone that is very down to earth. Her accent has a homeliness infused in to it, it just makes you think of biscuits and tea in front of the fire on a winter’s night.
Childhood for Dolan meant full immersion in sports, a decision that was spearheaded by her mother. ‘We always grew up around sport. That was our outings at the weekends. We’d head down the country to different competitions.’ Her brother still holds the Irish record for the longest jump and she used to run for Ireland too.
She grew up in Enfield, County Meath. It was a place that she called home up until five years ago. ‘I was working in a gym in Enfield and I was doing really well for myself, I trained football teams as well.’ Then the economy slumped dramatically, ‘they cut my hours and then demanded that I take a 25% pay cut on top of the reduced hours. I just couldn’t afford to stay there. I was still getting the same amount of bills but not the same amount of money. I sent out loads of CV’s to gyms, bars, restaurants, McDonalds but I heard nothing back. When I went to the social welfare office they told me that there was a backlog of six weeks. I said you know what, don’t worry about it I will think of something else.’ That something else was clearing off all her debt in Ireland and booking two tickets to Brisbane, Australia. A ticket for one of her brothers and another for her. ‘My younger brother who was then only twenty was in the same boat too as he had lost his job.’
Ironically it was in Australia that she turned her back on fitness. ‘I couldn’t get a job in a gym. Over there you have to find your own clients and then you have to pay the gym but I had no network so that was not a possibility. I said I’m never going to make money so I quit all sports.’ She eventually got sponsored to work, the work entailed twelve hour shifts, six days a week. ‘I didn’t get to enjoy the sunshine! A lot of the Irish that go over there get taken advantage of. When you’re sponsored they essentially own you. All my time was spent working, you have to start from scratch again. I lost all motivation for everything.’
Then she started to gain weight, ‘the first year it was ten kilos and then the same the second year. ‘I had a big appetite when I would play sports but that appetite never changed. I was just very unhappy with myself and I was nearly afraid to go home to visit, because when I was in Ireland I was fit and athletic.’
‘My brother committed suicide last year.’ She found herself unable to cope with the tragedy that had happened back in Ireland and ended up hospitalised. ‘I started drinking heavily then. I’d go to work, come home and open a bottle of wine each night then it was two bottles of wine every night and eventually I ended up in hospital with ulcers in my stomach. Basically I was so run down. I didn’t even tell my mother as she was having such a hard time over Tomas. I was crying and crying.’
Somehow she had the wherewithal to focus herself away from that route of self destruction, fitness was what pulled her attention, ‘I know Tomas wouldn’t of wanted to see me that way.’ Living on her road was a fitness instructor that she decided to hire to help her. ‘Mentally it was good for me, it occupied my spare time in the evenings. It gave me drive, it gave me purpose.’
She immersed herself in getting healthy again, she cut out drinking and smoking. But to do that meant withdrawing from the boozy lifestyle that she had before. ‘I pretty much cut everyone out,’ she fiddles with the cap on her bottle, ‘every weekend some people would say, oh you’re not fun, you’re so dry.’ It was during her sobriety that she gained insight into the, ‘old me. It opened my eyes looking at people drinking to the point of no return. They got so loud and as the night went on they would get louder. I was irritated by their carry on, by the way they conducted themselves on their night out. I thought, oh my God that was me and my friend said, no you were much worse. I was ashamed of myself, I thought I’m a thirty one year old woman I should have more respect for myself.’ She now is at a ‘happy medium, I still go out and socialise but there was a point that I didn’t.’
The number of suicides in Ireland shocks her, she starts to well up with tears at the emotional meaning of it all. Part of her thinks the weather is a factor, ‘it can be so hard to motivate yourself to exercise in this weather,’ and another part of her thinks that the Irish drinking culture is part of the problem. ‘When I was seventeen I had great opportunities but I choose to go out at the weekend, it’s a culture thing. My money would be gone because I would blow it. I was a sheep, everyone else was doing it so I had to do it too.’ Breaking that cultural cycle with the Irish community in Brisbane meant that she lost a lot of friends, something that she has come to accept. ‘I tried to get them into other things that did not involve alcohol but it just wasn’t for them and that’s OK.’
Dolan surprised herself with her quick success in the sport, being placed second and third in several competitions. When she started training she could not climb the stairs in her house without becoming out of breath. It is an impressive feat that it took her just twelve weeks to get to competition level. ‘I dropped twenty kilos in two months. That’s down to weight training and food.’
Nutrition was something that was ignorant to until she begun this fitness journey. ‘I used to only eat 1500 calories a day. You’re not going to build any muscle on that amount of calories so I started eating 4000 calories a day, all clean and I was losing weight!’ She attributes her better understanding of food as a reason why her asthma and stomach problems are a thing of the past, ‘I don’t need to medicate anymore and I believe it’s due to the quality of the food I eat. Food can either help you or hinder you, that’s my philosophy.’
Dolan competed in the fitness category, ‘the judges look for a nice lean figure, not too bulky or muscular. They need to see definition.’ To see the six pack clearly and all the muscle lines they put on tanning but they also dehydrate their bodies. ‘A week before competition I will drink seven to nine litres of water a day to flush out the body. Then two to three days beforehand you stop drinking water. You can only have dry food, so that’s oats and rice cakes. You take diuretics to flush out whatever fluid is left which isn’t really that healthy,’ she admits.
‘It really takes a lot out of you and then of course your hormones have you acting like a maniac! You get this metal taste in your mouth because you’ve dropped so much fat so quickly. I was brushing my teeth five times a day. You smell because all the toxins are leaving your pores.’ During this body metamorphosis she still needed to continue with the high intensity training. ‘On competition day you’ve gone nearly two days without water, you’re practically delirious. I was drinking mouthfuls of honey just to stay upright,’ she laughs. Once offstage the process of re-hydration and re-feeding starts with vigour. ‘You couldn’t maintain this all year round and for the fitness models that do,’ she takes a drink of water, ‘well it’s such a serious pressure on your body, it’s not natural. It’s OK to do this for a short term period.’
The world of bodybuilding is a fascinating sub-culture in itself, for further reading consider Alan M Klein’s Pumping Irony: Crisis And Contradiction In Bodybuilding.
This is Dolan’s new life, ‘my whole lifestyle has changed I’m not the same person.’ She acknowledges that she is very lucky to have met her partner before she embarked on this as coupled with a full time job it’s very time consuming. It’s comparable to the schedule of a county Gaelic football player. It’s also an expensive sport, she cites food as one of the largest expenses but her success has resulted in sponsorship from a gym and a nutrition store.
‘I used to get very stressed out and worry about things that never happened, I think that was because I was eating so much sugar and processed foods. I’m definitely a lot more relaxed and calm.’ On the subject of mental health Dolan returns to the benefit of exercise and how it saved her, ‘no matter what level you’re at just to do something,’ tears start to glisten in her eyes again, ‘it’s just so good for your self confidence.’