Whatever happened to Meral Ertunc? You know'the pretty, dark-haired Turkish-born bodybuilder from Virginia who won her class at the '92 NPC Nationals, took third at the '93 Jan Tana Classic and made it to the Olympia in her first year as a pro? In the rush to develop bigger, harder bodies in the female bodybuilding ranks, then as now, a woman who possessed the truly total package of aesthetics'symmetry, proportion and looks'stood out even if she was only 5'2'. Besides, how could you forget a name like Meral Ertunc?
An aerobics instructor who was sidelined by shin splints, Ertunc started weightlifting in 1987 and entered her first show nine months later. After a slew of local and regional competitions'and a close third place at the '91 Junior Nationals, she took the National Lightweight Championship on her first try, triumphing over a class of 28. Enter the national muscle media, and before you could say Marjo Selin, she was starring in magazine features like, 'Beauty and Brawn,' 'A Model of Muscular Beauty' and 'Meral Ertunc Shows How Basic Movements Build a Feminine Chest.'
Meral got married and moved to Florida. She and her husband opened a gym, and, with her successful training business and her bodybuilding career starting to take off, well, if ever anyone seemed to be on the road to having it all, it was she. Then, suddenly, she disappeared from the scene.
What happened to Meral was every woman's nightmare: She was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a bodybuilder and personal trainer, however, she had some heavy weapons to use in her fight against the disease. She used them in spades. Not only did she beat it back, but she recently took on the rigors of contest prep again, making her debut in figure at the San Francisco Pro in March.
The bottom line: Meral Ertunc is one gutsy lady. Here's her story.
IM: When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
ME: July 4, 1996. I had found a mass under my right armpit.
IM: What was going on in your life then?
ME: I was in great shape, around 140 pounds. Going to Turkey, where I was born and raised, to do seminars and a radio talk show about my life as a Turkish pro female bodybuilder.
IM: What treatments did you undergo?
ME: I had surgery to take out the mass that was under my armpit. They went in three inches to my muscle and scraped. Then they took all my lymph nodes from that area, which is a very tender part of your arm. After that there were four treatments of chemo and nine straight weeks of radiation.
IM: I've talked with people who have gone through this, and most of them have said it was devastating. How did you handle it?
ME: I was very scared. I lost my mother to cancer in 1989. She was very young and healthy. She fought for her life for about 2 1/2 years, but the cancer took her life.
IM: What kept you strong?
ME: I saw what my mother went through, and I was determined to beat the disease. This was a mental focus for me. My ex-husband, Tony Vargas, was there for me mentally and emotionally. I feel very fortunate that he was part of my life back then. He kept me strong and very much loved no matter what I looked like or felt. My family and my friends were my support group as well.
IM: What role did weight training and exercise play?
ME: I looked at my cancer as a bodybuilding challenge. I thought, If I can diet six months out of the year and train like a champion, what's six months out of my life to overcome a deadly disease? My body was so strong from eating healthy and training with weights'I was so ready and focused to attack this illness. ALL IM: How soon did you get back into the gym? How did it go once you got there?
ME: Four weeks and I was back in the gym. It was very painful to work out. They said I would not be able to lift my arm over my head for about six months. They were wrong. With my training background and determination I was able to raise my arm over my head in weeks. I went to the gym every day and pushed through the pain and wanted so bad to get back to being normal as soon as possible.
IM: Can you remember the program you used?
ME: High, high repetitions, very light weights, circuit training the body. I started a Spinning program and riding mountain bikes and road bikes.
IM: You were a personal trainer and a competitive bodybuilder, so 'eating right' was probably a way of life for you. How did you use your knowledge of nutrition to aid your recovery?
ME: When you're going through chemo and radiation treatments, food does not taste the same. You get sick to your stomach. My favorite food used to be chicken with pasta, and I loved coffee. When I started my treatments, everything tasted like metal in my mouth.
I tried to eat healthy meals and drink lots of water to flush everything out of my system. Coffee tasted like mud. No more coffee. I would get sick to my stomach if I looked at chicken and pasta. However, pizza with anchovies was yummy. I craved salt at all times.
IM: So, basically, you ate what you could stand. How long did that last, and did you get your appetite back intact?
ME: I still tried to eat as healthy as possible. When I craved salty food, I would eat that as well. After my chemo was over, I still had that metal taste in my mouth for about four more months. Then, slowly, everything started tasting better.
IM: Any particular nutrients or supplements you relied on?
ME: In general, I didn't take too many supplements. I used protein powder; vitamins, minerals, antioxidants'anything that helped keep my energy up when I couldn't eat.
For the most part I used Parrillo Performance products, such as their mineral-electrolyte formula, essential vitamins and protein bars.
IM: How long did it take for your recovery?
ME: After my major surgery I started my chemo treatments right away. I would get three hours of injection; then I would go straight to the gym to work out and then go to work to train my clients.
IM: What have you been doing since then? (I'm sure that's a loaded question.)
ME: On July 4, 2005, it will be nine years that I'm cancer-free. Wow, so much has happened. I got divorced in May 2000. Opened my own studio, Bodylines by Meral and Johnny G. Spinning, in Winter Park, Florida. I specialize in one-on-one personal training, bodyfat analysis and nutrition, and I also offer Spinning classes.
I have my own home and two beautiful boxers, Shaba and Jewel. I have been dating, but there's no one special in my life as of right now. My training is going very well. I train with weights; I run and cycle. I do charity work for breast cancer every year.
IM: Looking back, what would you have done differently in fighting the disease and transitioning back into serious training if you knew then what you know now?
ME: Absolutely nothing. I did my best. IM: You were always one of the female bodybuilders who didn't want to 'get too big.' In fact, you said in an interview in 1994 that you were thinking of trying fitness competition. Now you're coming back in figure. Why now'after all these years?
ME: It took me a long time to even consider stepping back on that stage. I knew I was not going to go back to being a bodybuilder. Overall, I lost 22 pounds from my muscular offseason weight of around 140, and putting that back on to compete at the level that I was at was someting I had no desire to do. When pro figure came around in 2000, that interested me. The girls had nice lines'they were feminine and not too muscular'however, I felt that I was still too big. It took me a couple of years to decide that I wanted be up there with those girls and say I'm back.
IM: What would you say you have to prove now?
ME: To this day people ask about me and want to know how I'm doing. I want to share my story with all of you and let everyone know that I had a huge obstacle thrown at me, I survived, and I'm so happy and excited to step back onstage with such a different look and prove to people you can be a survivor. It's how bad you want something and how much you're willing to sacrfice in life to get there. I hope that I can help people overcome some of their fears.
IM: How did you approach training for pro figure? Did you need to build yourself up or tone down?
ME: I toned down. I did higher reps with less weight and more cardio.
IM: What's the biggest change in your contest prep'and your training in general'now that you're no longer 22?
ME: I eat less than when I was a pro bodybuilder. My training is still intense, and so are my cardio workouts.
IM: How often do you train, and what bodypart split do you use?
ME: I use a three-day split, dividing my upper body over two days and hitting legs on the third day. Then I rotate the workouts again. I listen to my body, and I only take days off from weight training if I feel tired.
IM: Can you list the routine'say, a typical round of bodyparts?
ME: I don't train my chest at all; it's been nine years. I only train my shoulders, back, triceps, biceps, abs legs and calfs. Here's the routine I was using eight weeks out from the show:
Shoulders, Biceps, Abs and Calves
presses 4 x 15-20
Dumbbell lateral raises 4 x 15-20
(with EZ-curl bar) 4 x 15-20
front raises 4 x 15-20
dumbbell curls 3 x 20
Preacher curls 3 x 20
EZ-curl-bar curls or
cable curls with curl bar 3 x 20
Bicycles 2 x 100
reverse crunches 3 x 20
Knee raises 3 x 20
Seated calf raises 4 x 20-30
Standing calf raises 4 x 20-30 Day 2
Legs and Abs
(legs wider than shoulders;
toes pointed out) 4 x 20
split squats (per leg) 5 x 20
Leg extensions 4 x 20
Leg curls 5 x 15
Abs: same as day 1
Back, Abs and Calves
pulldowns 2 x 15-20
pulldowns 2 x 15-20
Dumbbell rows 4 x 15-20
Seated rows 4 x 15-20
Abs: same as day 1
Calves: same as day 1
Legs and Abs
with dumbbells 4 x 20
Seated leg curls 4 x 15
Stepups with dumbbells 4 x 20
(with straight bar) 4 x 12-15
Abs: same as day 1
Cycle Begins Again
As for cardio, from 12 weeks out I was doing one hour of cardio every morning. At six weeks out I increased it to two hours every day.
Then four weeks out from my contest I made some changes to my weight routine. I put on upper-body muscle very quickly, so I dropped upper-body training altogether.
I also still have a lot of mass in my legs from my bodybuilding days and needed to drop some size there. So I did legs every day, high reps of 20, 30, 50; drop sets, supersets. You name it, I did it. I did lots of lunges, leg curls, leg extensions and split squats.
I also worked abdominals and calves every day.
Two weeks out I backed off on my cardio by a half hour and kept everything else the same. One week out I cut back to an hour of cardio, abs and calves. It's all very different from the way I trained in my bodybuilding days.
IM: On the subject of aerobics, you suffered from shin splints when you were younger. What kind of aerobic exercise do you do?
ME: I teach Spinning classes four times a week and do stair stepper, Stairmaster and running on the days when I'm not Spinning.
IM: For your contest prep, how many times a day did you eat? And would you list a typical day's diet plan?
ME: I ate five times a day'egg whites, fish, turkey some chicken and tofu for protein. I love sushi. I ate all kinds of veggies'zucchini, squash, mushrooms, etc.'and a small potato or some oatmeal once a day, usually in the morning, plus [protein] bars for a snack or treat.
IM: What's the one supplement you can't do without?
ME: I don't have any addictions to supplements.
IM: How can people get in touch with you?
ME: They can write to me at [email protected] IM