Carol Whitenack is a grandmother of five and a soft-spoken nurse who takes care of premature babies—until it’s time to show off her chiseled body onstage.

Then the tall, lean Spotsylvania County woman slips into a sequined bikini and 4-inch acrylic heels. She puts on makeup (which she never wears otherwise), flashy jewelry, and paint and oil to make her toned body look tanned.

The 55-year-old participates in figure competitions, a less masculine version of bodybuilding. She’s judged on muscle tone, symmetry and how feminine she looks while flexing every muscle in her body.

Her 5-foot-7-inch frame is rated against those of women less than half her age, and she comes out pretty well, if she says so herself.

At the 2012 Arnold Classic in Ohio five months ago, Whitenack placed ninth in her class among women from around the world, many in their 20s and 30s.

“There she was, the oldest one from all the countries represented,” said Medina Roberts, her trainer at Sport & Health Club in Fredericksburg. “I was so proud of her.”

Whitenack, who has worked out at the gym for 20 years and always has eaten a healthy diet, was pretty proud, too, that she had the courage to bare it all.

Well, almost.

Backstage at the event, she was with younger women who ate Gummi Bears and drank alcohol—to get needed carbohydrates—and pranced around naked.

Whitenack did not join them.

“I’ve had four kids,” she said, adding that no matter how much weight she lifts or how many squats she does, “things still kind of fly south a little bit.”

Whitenack, who turns 56 in October, had been taking classes at Sport & Health with Roberts. She admired how well Roberts did in figure competitions, and asked a lot of questions about it.

In May, Roberts placed in the top five in the International Federation of Physique Athletes’ Super Bowl in Richmond.

Roberts, who’s 43, encouraged Whitenack to try it.

“You have the genetics, you have the body, you can do it, too,” she told her.

Last year, Whitenack committed to investing the time and effort needed to compete. It wasn’t easy, given her schedule.

She works three 12-hour shifts a week in the neonatal intensive care unit at Mary Washington Hospital.

“When I’m not at work, I’m here,” Whitenack said about the gym.

Roberts devised an exercise plan to build up areas that needed strengthening and to whittle away at the few fat pockets on Whitenack’s trim body.

Whitenack has great legs, Roberts said, and she focused on tightening them. She gave Whitenack barbells to lift and do lunges with on the gym floor to build her shoulder muscles, so her thin waist would appear even smaller.

Whitenack did whatever was asked of her, cheerfully, even as Roberts loomed over her and asked her to yank on the cable machine or lift her back up in a bridge position one more time.

“One more, give me one more, baby,” said Roberts, who’s from Bosnia and lived in Germany. “You got it, come on, one more. Nice.”

Whitenack was always conscious of her weight and has been reading food labels since she was a child. When she was at the University of Maryland, she persuaded the cook to make healthier options for her, such as buckwheat pancakes instead of those made with white flour.

She got a degree in dietetics and worked briefly as a nutritionist. But she had little sympathy for people who said they wanted to lose weight but weren’t willing to change their lifestyles.

She got aggravated when they told her they ate a whole cake over the weekend.

So she worked in a nursing home, hoping to entice those around her into healthy diets. As she watched nurses work, she decided that’s what she wanted to do.

She went back to school and got her nursing degree. She has been tending to sick babies for 30 years.

Whitenack hasn’t changed her strong opinions about food and exercise. She put a pool in her backyard and made her kids swim regularly and eat three square meals and a healthy snack before bedtime.

She’s so careful about what she eats that her co-workers call her the “food nazi.”

She has even helped train her trainer, Roberts, on achieving a better diet.

Whitenack raves about the courage Roberts has given her, grateful that she has helped her strut her stuff among younger competitors. Roberts also does all of Whitenack’s makeup and body painting.

“I’m more excited when she is onstage than when I am,” Roberts said.

Whitenack has quite the cheering section at Sport & Health. Roberts said people were talking about her showing in the Arnold Classic for months.

“Let’s be honest, you’re a star here,” Roberts said.

Whitenack doesn’t know about all that, but she is gratified by the response she’s gotten.

When she’s at a competition and the announcer calls her name—and tells her age—audience members and judges alike stand up and applaud.

“That’s when I win,” Whitenack said. “That’s my trophy right there.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425