Carla Birnberg '91 makes a long-term commitment--to bodybuilding

By her own admission, Carla Birnberg '91 was the kind of high-school student who was always coming up with a note to get out of gym class.

"I was completely unathletic," she confesses. "I only took a class in lifeguarding because it was marginally more appealing than co-ed ultimate frisbee. Not only was I not an athlete, I was not even particularly body-focused. When I gained the typical fifteen pounds in my first year at Kenyon, I absolutely did not care about it."

So, it's rather astonishing to find Birnberg in her current occupation of freelance writer . . . and bodybuilder. Although she continued in her apathy toward organized sports while at Kenyon, Birnberg did teach an aerobics class. Then, in 1991, the vision of Linda Hamilton's arms in the movie Terminator 2 inspired her to begin lifting weights.

In the academic realm, Birnberg was led by her interactions with College administrators and her experiences as a resident advisor toward the idea of a career in counseling and student personnel services. After graduating as an English major, she enrolled in a master of education program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her degree in 1994.

Birnberg crackles with energy; you can almost see the electrical pulses as her nimble mind leaps from idea to idea. While it's easy to picture her relating well to college students, it's less easy to imagine her sitting patiently, day after day, listening to students complain about roommates or food or the unfairness of a disciplinary action.

Birnberg met her husband, Christopher Harrison, in Pittsburgh and moved with him to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he was a doctoral candidate in law. Scanning the horizon for job opportunities and finding none to her liking, she began working as a personal trainer. "I'm one of those people who likes credentials," she says, "so I got certified by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America." After three years, and a steady growth in the number of clients, Birnberg and her husband decided it would be fun to open their own personal-training facility. "I found that I related to my clients very well because I wasn't an athlete and they, for the most part, were not athletes either. They were mostly middle-aged women who really needed to start from the very beginning and learn the basic techniques of breathing and arm placement."

But, despite the emphasis on the basics, Birnberg was interested in being more than just a "repetition counter." "I found, to my surprise, that my liberal-arts background was a useful tool in relating to my clients," she says. "Chapel Hill is an extremely educated community, and they love a trainer who has actually read Ibsen's plays or studied Nietzsche."

Eventually, Chris finished his Ph.D., and the couple had to make some hard decisions. Chris had been thinking of teaching, but in the end he chose to pursue a career in trademark law with a firm. They narrowed their list of potential homes to Atlanta, Georgia, Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, South Carolina, finally choosing Austin.

By then, Birnberg had been lifting weights for close to ten years and the bloom was off the rose. "I needed a new challenge," she says. "I still went to the gym regularly, but my enthusiasm had begun to wain." Flipping through a fitness magazine, inspiration struck. "Bodybuilding! I would enter a bodybuilding competition," she recalls. "It seemed like fate that there would be a competition in San Antonio just a few weeks later." Undaunted, by the name, The Texas House of Pain, she entered.

If you've seen photographs of bodybuilders who compete in events like the Arnold Schwartenegger Classic, those people are not like Birnberg. "The shows I compete in are supposed to be all natural," she explains. "You have to take a lie-detector test and offer a urine sample, and steroidal drugs are not permitted."

Birnberg is in the bodybuilding game strictly for fun. "It's very hard to earn a living as a bodybuilder," she says. "The women's prize money is small compared to the men's, and, in addition to that, there simply isn't the interest in the 'large' muscular women."

One of the things that adds to the enjoyment of the sport for Birnberg, aside from the fact that it requires no hand-eye coordination or speed, is that her husband shares her interest. "Although Chris has trained with me for quite a while," she says, "he has only recently entered his first competition, scheduled for mid-June in Dallas." They will perform together in a competition later in June in Austin. "Bodybuilding is a long-term commitment for me," she says. "I love feeling strong."

When not sculpting her body, Birnberg writes magazine articles and books for young women. "I'm not exactly in the Judy Blume mode, nor is what I write by any stretch of the imagination classic literature," she says. "I like to write about themes of identity and fitting in that are important to young girls. I'm very interested in helping girls and women realize how worthy they are."

Birnberg offers mother-daughter book groups at a few Barnes and Noble stores in Austin. She has created, where she plans to post the writings of young women in the groups.

Another project that has engrossed Birnberg is her involvement in the founding of the Girls School of Austin, which plans to open in the fall of 2002. "We'll begin with the early grades and gradually keep adding until we are a full K-12 school," she says. "It should keep me busy for a while."

If it doesn't, there's always, a marketing site for bobble-head dolls, which she and Chris are manufacturing, representing professional bodybuilders. First in the series is Shawn Ray, one of the top competitors in the sport. "I shall be our lovely spokesmodel," Birnberg jokes.


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