Newton County native Nicole Duncan celebrated her 30th birthday on Valentine's Day, but it's not likely she was able to celebrate with any cake.
"On my birthday, I can't have cake or my favorite foods, so I'm going to Columbus, Ohio, to train," she said. "I've got to stay on the straight and narrow. If I get any cake at all, it will be under my trainer's direction - he'll be the one to decide if I get to cheat."
If missing out on sweets for a milestone birthday seems to be the height of self-sacrifice, then Duncan would be an excellent spokesperson. The professional fitness trainer and competitor - who spent four years as a cheerleader for the Atlanta Falcons - is preparing to enter one of the country's most prestigious fitness competitions in early March.
By virtue of her third-place finish in September in the Fitness Olympia in Las Vegas, Duncan earned an invitation for the International Federation of Body Builders-sponsored event known as the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, which showcases competition in events ranging from body building and power lifting to tae kwon do, fitness and gymnastics.
"The Arnold, of course, is named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the top six competitors in each event are eligible for cash and prizes," said Duncan, who lives in Oxford. "This is my first time to compete at The Arnold and it's a great honor to be there. This isn't something you can qualify for - it's by invite only. And this and the Olympia are great because they pay your transportation expenses and give you a per diem, and the biggest names in the body building and fitness world will be there."
Duncan is rapidly moving toward becoming one of those "biggest names," and she stays busy - and in remarkable shape - with her business, known as FitNic Inc., where she holds boot camps, does personal training and teaches and choreographs for cheerleaders, dancers and gymnasts.
"FitNic is my way of putting all my talents under one umbrella," she said. "It's all some form of fitness."
The daughter of Henry and Ellaweed Duncan of Oxford, Duncan graduated from Newton High School in 1997 and earned a cheerleading scholarship to Alabama, where in 2001 she earned a degree in broadcast production/communications. Returning to Newton County after her graduation, Duncan cheered for the Falcons for four years, retiring in 2007.
It wasn't until Duncan graduated from Alabama, however, that she began to take an interest in physical fitness.
"I had horrible eating habits in college," she admitted. "But I was lucky because I was so active, I never gained weight. As a cheerleader, we had to run on a regular basis and we did weight training two times a week with the football team's strength and conditioning coach. And then we had practice every day and games on the weekends. So when I was a student, I ate whatever I wanted to."
Duncan joined a gym after graduation but wasn't getting the results she sought in terms of maintaining her figure and her weight.
"I wasn't losing any weight, even though I went to the gym every day," she said. "And it was all because of my eating habits. I knew I had to get strong for body building, but I didn't want to look like a body builder. So about a year after I got out of college, I got a personal trainer."
She began actively competing in 2006 and has made appearances at shows in Alabama, Hawaii, New York, Miami, Houston and Dallas, among other spots. Because of her desire to compete in fitness events, Duncan decided to retire from cheerleading and began working with a new trainer, Mike Davies.
And even though Duncan's culinary choices are somewhat limited while she trains for the upcoming Arnold competition, that doesn't mean she's not getting enough to eat. Quite the contrary.
"I eat eight small meals a day," said Duncan, who was recently featured in Oxygen magazine as part of its coverage of the Europa Super Show in Dallas. "Some are more like snacks, like half a grapefruit, but it's easier for me to think of them as meals. I spread it out, so I'm eating every two to two-and-a-half hours."
As part of her training, she's often running 10 miles a day, with extensive workouts in the morning and the afternoon - nearly three hours per day. Duncan - whose early interest in fitness and movement came when she enrolled in Rockdale Gymnastics - is halfway through a four-month program to prepare her for the next competition.
She also holds boot camps in Covington on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and in Monroe on Monday and Wednesday evenings. For more information about Nicole Duncan, visit www.fitnicole.com.
Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens. If you have a feature story idea, contact Karen Rohr, features editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.