Candice Lewis-Carter is preparing for the biggest challenge of her life.
When you’re a bodybuilding champion in the prime of your career, deciding to become a mother isn’t easy. Many female competitors often put off having children because getting pregnant means a whole lot of letting go: It means being okay with potentially gaining weight, losing “gainz” (among other bodily changes) and maybe losing sponsors.
For four-time Arnold Classic champion Candice Lewis-Carter — arguably the “winningest” figure competitor in her division — her body has been the core of her livelihood. Over the past decade of her career, having a child was risky.
The 35-year-old has 13 IFBB championships to her name. She’s sponsored by Yamamoto Nutrition and Celsius and is a brand ambassador to many other companies. She has over 240,000 followers on Instagram and has a business training other women for fitness competitions. In 2018, she finished second at Ms. Olympia, one of the most prestigious competitions in the world.
For years, Lewis-Carter had grappled with the idea of starting a family, thinking that it would derail her from all of her progress. But today, if you talk to her about babies, she will not stutter or bat an eye: The time is now, she told the Shadow League.
“That internal clock is ticking and it’s already like overdue,” Lewis-Carter said. “Before I was like ‘No I can’t. Like my body is going to change and all these little things that you worry about. But now I don’t care. I could gain 200 pounds. Starting a family is so important to me.”
Lewis-Carter has always been a family-oriented woman. She attributes some of that to her childhood growing up in Chandler, Arizona. As the second-oldest of 10 siblings, she loved being someone that her younger brothers and sisters looked up to. She also loved having little ones to boss around, she said with laugh. There was never a dull moment in her home.
“It was always an adventure every day,” she said. “It was chaotic, but I didn’t know any different. You know, when you’re younger, you fight [your siblings] and get angry. But when you get older, it’s amazing to have best friends. You’re not really searching for that kind of friendship because you already have it.”
Her passion for sports, and later, fitness is rooted in her family’s culture. Some of her fondest memories growing up were running with her siblings for the local track and field teams. At the time, Lewis-Carter put all of her energy into being the best sprinter she could be.
“I definitely couldn’t see anything past the track,” she said. “I wanted to run in the Olympics and that was just like my dream.”
Chandler High School is known for developing some of the most competitive track athletes in the state. There, Lewis-Carter found a team of young women who loved training and lifting weights. She learned that her small frame was actually good at lifting a barbell.
She was barely over five feet tall and weighed only 100 pounds, yet she was lifting heavier than some of her peers. From an early age, she knew she was strong and she quickly learned how to embrace herself and her body.
“I was surrounded by so many athletes so I always would see this image of muscular women and their being feminine,” said Lewis-Carter. “I looked up to Marion Jones. I looked up to Serena Williams. I was always pretty muscular as a child, even without lifting weights. I was just running track and not really caring what I ate. So to identify with someone who looks powerful and still feminine … I was like, ‘I want to be like that. I fit in the world.’”
Track didn’t end up working out as she planned and she decided to walk away from the sport after a disappointing college experience. But it wasn’t long until she discovered her place in the world again.
Her friend had introduced her to bodybuilding in 2007. After two months of training, she entered her first show, The Arizona Open, and to her surprise, she won it. She even jokes about eating Chinese food right before the show, having not known how to manage her nutrition as she was running around trying to get her act together.
“So I was like, ‘Oh my God what if I just take this seriously? How good could I really be?’” she said.
Apparently very good and it’s because of the discipline she’s built over the years with her intense training and extremely regimented diet. But it took some time for her to get everything fully down pat.
“I struggled for many years trying to get the diet right and really understand what affects your body,” Lewis-Carter said.
But all of her trophies and medals speak to how much she’s grown since her debut.
Lewis-Carter can now look back at all of the knowledge she’s acquired and no longer feel fear about getting pregnant. She knows her body inside and out.
“I know what to do,” she said. “Like the good thing about being a bodybuilder is that you know what you need to do in order to get back in shape. So it’s something that I’m not even worried about.”
But there is another challenge that she’ll have to overcome if she’s going to carry a child. When she was 30 years old, she was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that affects roughly 5 million women across the United States. It occurs when the body produces too much androgen. Women with PCOS often experience irregular periods, weight gain, fatigue, excess hair growth, acne and infertility.
When Lewis-Carter first felt like something was off with her body, she thought it was just the normal aging process.
“Around 30, your body changes and they say that you can’t lose weight and things like that,” she said. “So when that was happening to me I’m like, ‘Oh my God what they say is so true.’ And so I wasn’t really questioning. But then I had to train harder in order to be the same amount of weight for a competition. Even when the diet was 100 percent on point. Like what’s going on? It got so bad where I would literally be in the gym crying like, ‘I can’t do this.’”
PCOS is a syndrome that commonly goes undiagnosed until women experience drastic bodily changes or try to get pregnant. Lewis-Carter didn’t start connecting the dots until she saw the doctor about her mysterious weight gain.
She realized that all throughout and high school and college, she thought it was normal to miss your menstrual cycle for two to three months.
“From a kid, you’re always told, ‘Oh if you’re athletic you’ll miss you’ll miss your cycle and things like that. And I had back acne, thinking it was just pure puberty.”
She also frequently experienced fatigue as a teenager, but she didn’t think anything of it. Even today, she says, there are days where she feels too tired or depressed to hit the gym.
“But now that I know I’m not lazy or unmotivated,” Lewis-Carter said.
Knowing all of the obstacles that Lewis-Carter has had to overcome makes her success as a figure athlete even more inspiring. Right now, she does not take any medication to treat PCOS and is instead focuses on controlling her diet. For example, She tends to avoid sweets so as to not overly increase her blood sugar. Women with PCOS are often borderline diabetic.
Beyond the kitchen, though, she’s finding strength in sharing her story wherever she can.
“Once I started opening up about PCOS people are like ‘Oh my gosh I feel the same way,’” said Lewis-Carter. “I even had two girls go to their doctors and actually were diagnosed after just kind telling my story.”
It’s that sort of inspiration that she carries with her as she walks into this next chapter in her life away from competition. Lewis-Carter and her husband have been exploring all the options to get pregnant, and in certain respects, they are fighting an uphill battle.
“It’s so weird,” she said. “My body thinks I’m pregnant. So I’m taking medication so my body doesn’t think I’m pregnant so I can get pregnant. It’s kind of like a puzzle trying to figure out what’s going on.
“[At first] I was very stressed out,” she added. “We literally had probably eight pregnancy apps. Like reading so much stuff and just stressing about it because I think it’s part of my personality. If I want to do something it needs to happen today. But then I was kind of sitting back and I just realized that our whole life as a woman sometimes we fight not getting pregnant. But it’s not that easy for certain people. I realized it’s not going to happen overnight. One day I was like, ‘You know what? It’s going to be OK.’ In our medical field there’s so many different things that are out there that we can take. So I’m very hopeful right now. ”
She and her husband are also prepared to adopt if she’s unable to conceive. Regardless, she’s going to be a mom no matter what. She hopes that any person following her journey knows that they are capable of creating the life that they want despite any obstacles that come their way. As perfect as her life has seemed on stage, she wants others to understand the trials she’s faced behind the curtain.
“I just want women to feel inspired and powerful,” Lewis-Carter said. “I want to be relatable and let them know that, ‘Hey you guys can do it too.’ I struggle too. We can struggle together and get to where we want.”
And for Lewis-Carter, that place — that place where she wants to go — includes her child-to-be and her loving new family.