Cheryl Szarmach has found plenty of advantages to working in a restaurant.
She has gotten to meet plenty of people, have a lot of fun, make a few dollars and been able to eat just about whatever she wants.
Her career, though, made pursuing her hobby more difficult than expected. Szarmach, 46, of Penn Hills, won the 2007 Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders Yorton's Cup National Women's Bodybuilding Championship in Bowie, Md., Oct. 27, just a little more than a year after she started taking the sport seriously. She took first place in the 35-and-older age group and the overall competition.
She never knew when she started how difficult her full-time job at Mohan's Restaurant in Penn Hills would make winning a championship.
"The weightlifting for something like this is the easy part," she said. "The diet was the hard part, especially when you work in a restaurant and nibble all day long. I used to eat and drink whatever I wanted. Changing my lifestyle, my eating habits, was the hardest part,"
Szarmach dabbled in bodybuilding for about a year during her mid-20s. But she was married and eventually had five children, and the time it took raising a family took her out of the sport.
She continued to work out with friends, though and started training more seriously about a year ago with Tina Randazzo, a friend from Penn Hills and former bodybuilding champion. She also was motivated by a comment from trainer Cecil Rice, who saw her in the gym weighing 170-pounds and realized she had great potential.
Szarmach always enjoyed lifting weights, saying she found it a therapeutic hobby. She began working out more seriously with Randazzo and Penn Hills' Doreen Harris, who won the Yorton Cup two years ago. She also got a hand from Tracie Tucker of Wilkinsburg, who taught her how to pose in competition.
"I was always kind of afraid to compete on a national level," Szarmach said. "It was stage fright more than anything else. But they convinced me that I could do it and really worked hard with me. I figured I was 46, my kids were grown -- my youngest was 19 -- and why not try it? I wasn't getting any younger.
"I decided to do it, and I told people I was going to do it. Once you start telling people something like that, you can't go back. I was fortunate because everyone -- all my friends and family -- were really supportive."
Szarmach rewarded that support with outstanding performances, although she never had participated in any significant athletic competitions in the past. She was in the marching band at Plum when she was in high school, playing the clarinet, but never was involved in any team sport in school.
She eyed national bodybuilding competitions this fall as her first serious attempts at winning and came away with victories in the heavyweight and masters divisions of the Cardinal Classic in Youngstown, Ohio, Oct. 13 before winning her first Yorton Cup two weeks later.
Szarmach began training seriously about 12 weeks before the Yorton Cup, altering her diet from pastas and fried chicken to one that included baked or grilled chicken, grilled no-fat steak, steamed broccoli and other natural foods. Once she thought her body was getting the right nutrition, she was able to concentrate on the other facets that lead to bodybuilding success.
"The mental approach is huge," she said. "But one of the hardest parts is posing. It's unbelievably difficult. I had to practice posing every day. It's hard, and it hurts. But you have to stand up there and do it and keep on smiling."
Szarmach said her goals for the future include participating in professional bodybuilding events. She competed in both the Cardinal Cup and Yorton Cup as an amateur, but earned her pro card with her performances.
Now, she wants to spend a year dieting properly, working out and preparing to enter next year's Yorton Cup as a professional after a year of doing everything right.
"I just want to see what I am capable of," she said. "I enjoy the camaraderie of being out there. I enjoy being with my friends. There is a good group of people in this sport who have helped me a lot. There are a lot of benefits to it -- self-esteem and better health. But I really want to see what I can do."