Sunday, August 19, 2007

Building bonds

Five sisters grow closer - and


AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Monday, August 20, 2007

The five sisters had been through a lot. Now it was time, as one of them said, to get their sexy back.

Inspired by their mother, who died last year after a decade-long battle with emphysema and breast cancer, Sarah Latham Perez, 43, of Austin and her four sisters changed their eating habits, lost weight and grew muscles — lots of muscles.

stronger - after they find a common interest

After training rigorously for seven months, the sisters entered the Europa Super Show, an international bodybuilding show, in Dallas recently. They competed in the figure competition — a combination of bodybuilding and beauty. As newcomers to the sport, they didn't place. But their dedication has earned them plenty of other rewards: Smaller dress sizes. Muscles. The discipline to say no to junk food. And of course, the compliments.

"I guess it's like the feeling people have when they say they are born-again Christians," says Perez. "For us, it's been a transformation of our minds, bodies and spirit. We always go back and say we did this for Mom, but really it's been a way for us to take control of our lives."

Leave it to Oprah Winfrey to have had a hand in this. One of Perez's sisters, Mary Jane Barnes, 40, of Frisco, caught a show in 2005 that focused on women 40 and older getting fit. That led to Barnes and another sister, 35-year-old Christy Ramirez, also of Frisco, attending a bodybuilding competition.

Then came the death of their mother, Susan Daniels, 67, in April 2006. Daniels' lengthy illness had rallied her daughters to become caretakers. Naturally, a family illness strains relationships. The daughters drew closer over phone conversations and e-mail, but the focus was their mother's illness. Barnes and Ramirez bore the brunt of it because their mother lived in Frisco as well.

"Don't get me wrong," says Perez. "Mom was an incredibly inspirational to us during the whole time. She worked until she couldn't. With an oxygen tank in tow, she took art classes. She always said, 'I have this illness; now let's deal with it.' But her cancer became our cancer."

"And like all families, when we all got married, had babies, and went through divorces, we all went our different ways," Barnes says. "We had the typical family ups and downs. When mom got sick, it brought us together."

But it became difficult for everyone. The communication wasn't all that positive. "It's just that our goal was different at the time. We were seeing that Mom was taken care of," Perez says.

This past January, Perez put out the challenge: Let's work out and enter one of these beauty/fitness competitions. Hence, the Europa show earlier this month.

"What an amazing experience for all of us," said Perez. "I've never seen my sisters look so good."

Six-pack tummies, rock-solid legs and bulging arms. That is what the eye sees. The sisters know their personal journey goes much deeper.

"We were doing something to better prepare our bodies in case we ever have to deal with an illness," says sister Amanda Daniels, 25, of Dallas.

The get-fit project they started as a tribute to their mother was bringing them back together.

"We had something in common again," said Ramirez. "This time it was fitness and health, but in a way it was due to Mom."

Sister Shelly Nelson, 45, of Las Vegas, says the sisters became one another's support group.

"Our communication now is about something positive. We got close again," Perez says.

All of the sisters had worked out in the past, but those efforts paled in comparison to the regimen of the past few months. Barnes and Ramirez began running together at 5:30 every morning. They began to lift weights.

"I even put up a mirror, a music system and a fan," says Barnes, who has 4-year-old twins. Ramirez got educated at www.bodybuilding.com and also bought equipment to work out at home.

Perez joined a gym, hired a trainer and began a rigid regimen of five small meals a day. "Basically, I began to look at food like fuel," she says. "I think about it in terms of a campfire. Every time I eat, I am adding small pieces of wood to keep the fire burning. It's helped me understand the concept of smaller meals but eating more often."

The sisters' phone calls and e-mails centered on exercise and better eating. When one of them cheated with chocolate or a margarita, the others got her in line again.

Perez's "transformation" goes beyond her desire to look better in jeans. Earlier this month, the single mom quit her teaching job at Perez Elementary School in Austin. The long hours and time away from her 5-year-old son, Xander, took their toll. "It was the pay, too, but then I fell in love with my new lifestyle," she says.

She has launched a personal training Web site, www.bodybygenesis.com. "Yes, it's a risk," she says. "I thought about health insurance, but hey, I started one business several years ago when I was on chemotherapy. I can do it."

Oh yes, Perez is a breast cancer survivor. At 35, she endured a double mastectomy. "Looking back on the cancer now, it was a blessing because it helped me with priorities in life," she said. She had a "miracle" child after being not given much of a chance to get pregnant. "That's when I discovered the body can be amazing," she said. "That's why I know now that I can be a good personal trainer."

She hopes to be an inspiration to others. "Our story," she says of her sisters, "should be proof to other women that it's never too late to exercise and eat healthier. I tell people they need to put a carrot out in front of them, whether it's a weight goal or fitting into a certain dress."

Ramirez, who is 5-foot-3, lost 21 pounds and now weighs 108. "At first it was a vanity thing," she said. "Now, it's a health-conscious thing plus the vanity."

"When you're 45 and still want to be a hot cougar, you have to work at it," says Nelson, who is 5-foot-7 and weighs 125 pounds.

Barnes and Perez seem to be the ones more serious about future figure competitions. Perez, who is 5-foot-7 and weighs 145 pounds, plans to enter the Alamo Natural Classic Show in San Antonio in late September. "I've entered two shows," she says, "and the women I've gone up against are really cut and shredded and have been in this longer. At the show in San Antonio, I have a better chance to place because they test for steroids," she says.

"She's a natural," says personal trainer Austin Barbisch during a workout at Hyde Park Gym. "She's a beast on some of these machines."

Perez proceeds to easily do 20 repetitions of 450 pounds on the leg press.

She gets up and smiles. She didn't have to say a word.

rgandara@statesman.com; 445-3632

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