•Evelyne worked as a banker for nine and a half years before she quit to become a bodybuilder
•She won the African Championship in the Wellness category and the Arnold Classic in 2019 and came third in the IFBB World Cup Amateur Competition
•She hopes to one day compete in IFBB Ms Olympia championship
As a young girl growing up in Suba, Homa Bay County, Evelyne Okinyi Owala was a chronic asthmatic who hated working out.
She had always wanted to be a banker, a dream she eventually realised when she was employed in the banking industry for close to a decade.
However, just before her tenth year in the industry, she traded the allure of sitting in an office desk for a career in bodybuilding.
“I wanted to be a banker ever since my childhood because I believed that I would be touching a lot of money. Then I got to the bank and I realised that the money belongs to the bank and not you,” Evelyne says.
With many titles to her name — and additional accolades — she has not regretted this career choice.
She is the 2019 African champion in the Wellness division of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness and the 2019 Arnold Classic Championships winner, which were held in Angola and South Africa respectively.
What makes her achievements more impressive is the fact that she enlisted for both competitions as an amateur.
Evelyne is also a fitness trainer whipping many Nairobians into shape.
However, Evelyne's family, friends and colleagues are not surprised by her meteoric rise as a bodybuilder considering her discipline and tactical nous.
She is a lady with a rigorous programme that she adheres to religiously whether there is a competition coming up or not.
“I train six days a week. I have to keep working out whether off-season or not. Actually, most muscle is made off-season whereas the training ahead of a competition is just to shed off any extra fat that you may have gained during the off-season,” Evelyne says.
Her physique is an amalgamation of the beauty and the beast — a well-chiselled and mountainous beauty who is ever smiling and chuckling as she provides a run-down of her career in bodybuilding.
Indeed, years after she answered her calling in the bodybuilding industry, most weights in the gym feel like a feather in her hand — just like the pen she used to sign papers with during her banking career.
“The maximum number of weights depends on the particular exercise I am doing. For leg press, I can go to as high as 260kg or for squats I can reach 140kg on a good day,” she says.
However, Evelyne is quick to reiterate that her current focus is not lifting heavy weights but increasing muscle tension so as to amplify the muscles in her body at various points.
She is a stickler for a healthy diet and would not eat anything for the sake of it — although predictably the girl from Suba can never say no to fish.
“Why would I not love fish? This is because the body readily processes it and when you eat, it is not hard to feel bloated,” she says.
E for effort
Her efforts have paid dividends as evidenced by her exploits on the world stage and at home.
After her success in Angola and South Africa, she was nominated for the 2019 SOYA Sportswoman of the Year Award alongside world 3,000m steeplechase record holder Beatrice Chepkoech, the world 5,000m champion Hellen Obiri, among others.
Although she did not take top honours, she was elated that her efforts had not gone unnoticed by her fellow countrymen and women.
“It was a very great year for me. From winning the Arnold Classic, the Wellness Championship and earning a SOYA nomination, 2019 was actually the best year for me,” she says.
In the same year, she came third at the 2019 IFBB World Cup Amateur competition in Barcelona, Spain.
However, she almost missed out of the competition after a delayed flight from Nairobi at which point she arrived at the tournament venue five minutes to the registration deadline.
“Due to unavoidable circumstances, I was travelling on the day before the competition. Upon changing flights in Qatar, my baggage had not been transferred from the previous flight and I only realised that when I got in Barcelona. The airport and the venue were almost an hour apart and only an hour was remaining for me to register,” she narrates.
At the start of her career, Evelyne had challenges in settling in a proper category suited for her physique.
“Because there are few female bodybuilders in the country, there are only two categories in which you can fit. I started off as a figure training but when I went international, I came to learn that my physique is more suited to the wellness category,” she says.
Financial challenges — especially when going for international events — have also affected her from soaring at times.
With her rigorous routine, injuries have also reared their ugly heads up at times.
"I broke my arm some weeks ago and dislocated my wrist. So, it has been a bit uncomfortable when lifting weights at the start but once I settle into the routine, I get used to it. I once suffered a torn back muscle because of lifting heavy weights," she says.
Her rise to the top has been laden with misconceptions that require psychological resilience without which she would veer off course.
When she started out, Evelyne had to battle misconceptions that she was parading herself naked on the stage.
“There is a lot of judgment of bodybuilders — not just women. People don’t understand that the main art of a bodybuilder is to show muscles. It is just like swimming, you cannot jump into the pool with a dera (Swahili traditional dress) just because your parent is a pastor,” Evelyne says.
She bemoans the fact that such misconception has killed many talents before they blossom for fear of being judged by society.
“Bodybuilding is a talent that can take one far and even provide alternative means of earning income for those who are unemployed,” she says.
Considering that she is a rare breed of a Kenyan woman, Evelyne has also had to answer some weird questions.
“Sometimes, people ask me whether I can beat my husband. Then I ask them whether they have ever seen my husband. The only way I can do that is when he just stands there and decides not to fight back because he is more muscular,” she says.
Evelyne credits bodybuilding for forging her into a disciplined woman who would rather seek alternative ways of dispute resolution before throwing a punch or a kick.
As a personal trainer, she has encountered many doubting Thomases who feel that she is not competent enough to help them attain their fitness goals.
“We do not have many female trainers in Kenya so sometimes I encounter people who you can feel as if they doubt my qualifications. They do not even have to say it because you can see it in their body language,” Evelyne says.
Evelyne is in no hurry to exit the bodybuilding stage anytime soon, equating the career to playing, which never stops regardless of the age.
"My plan for the next 10 years is to grow myself and my brand to the global stage. When you are doing something that you are passionate about, you do not feel the need to step away from it unless your body can no longer allow it," she says.
Part of her plan to stamp her mark on the world stage is to grace the grandest stage of bodybuilding — the IFBB Ms Olympia championship.
She is an admirer of two-time Ms Olympia, Brazilian Angela Borges, for the way the she has inspired many female athletes into bodybuilding.
Evelyne is herself a life coach and mentors to many ladies, some of whom have expressed a desire to follow in her footsteps.
However, she is careful not to forcefully mentor anyone into the career — especially her children.
"I do not want to be the one to choose for them the career path to follow. They have to do it voluntarily and not forcing them to do it. If your mom was a teacher, it does not mean you should be one because you may not do it with the same passion," Evelyne says.
She credits her husband, Charles Owala, for being her strong pillar of support — outwardly exemplified by his athletic physique that motivated her to enter the gym and eventually become a fitness enthusiast.
Never say never has been the mantra that Evelyne has lived all her life.
She traded the pen for lifting weights in the gym and sitting in an office for bench and leg presses.
Her continued success in the industry may just awake sleeping talents in other Kenyan women, who saw the barriers in the bodybuilding industry and gave up.
Name: Evelyne Okinyi Owala
Place of birth: Suba, Homa Bay County
Family: Married (to Charles Owala)
Hobbies: Sleeping, watching movies and listening to audiobooks (inspirational, Christian and business topics)
Favourite book: Chicken Soup series
Honours: Ms Kenya Figure 2016; IFBB African Champion in Wellness category (2019); Arnold Classic championship (2019)