TELEVISION wrestling shows back in the 1980s and 1990s certainly had many people hooked, and Aja Saza was no different.
But at that time, the ‘gusti’ (wrestling) on TV was more than just entertainment for the young Melanau girl.
“I was inspired by the American wrestler superstar, Hulk Hogan. After that came The Rock (stage name of American actor Dwayne Johnson back then). I decided there and then to become a professional wrestler,” the 36-year-old muscle mum told thesundaypost.
So determined was she that once she finished secondary school, she straight away signed up at Gimnasium Tepian Gelanggang in Kuching.
“Unlike many other 18-year-old girls at the time, I wanted big muscles instead of fancy dresses,” she chuckled.
Aja eventually built the physique she strove for, but her dream of becoming a professional wrestler took a different turn.
Although she remained focused on her training, she couldn’t go all out due to personal and career commitments. Still, the Sibu-born musclewoman’s determination never dimmed.
“My serious training began in 2015. I worked out like a competitive bodybuilder. It was then I realised I might have a shot at women’s bodybuilding. So I prepared for my maiden competition – ‘Men of Steel’ – in Kuala Lumpur in 2016,” recalled the enforcement personnel and mother of a teenage girl.
Aja put up a good performance, placing fifth in the Women’s Physique category. That kicked off a series of bodybuilding contests across the region for her.
After ‘Men of Steel’, she competed in the Shawn Rhoden Classic 2016 in the Philippines, finishing sixth in the
Women’s Figure Open category. This was followed by the FitWhey Classic 2017 tournament in Thailand where she was the third runner-up in the Women’s Athletic Physique category.
Aja’s scope goes beyond bodybuilding as she also competes regularly in the ‘Spartan Race’ – the gruelling, obstacle-riddled ultra-marathon.
Her best achievement, thus far, was the Iskandar Putri edition in Johor in December last year where she placed fourth in the Super Female–Age 35-39 category.
First major win
This year marked Aja’s first major bodybuilding victory.
She won the Women’s Figure Masters 35 Class A at the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) Muscle Contest Pro 2019 in Vietnam and took the first runner-up spot in the Women’s Physique Pro
Class A in the same championship.
“It has been a very encouraging year. At times, I still dream about becoming a wrestler but being a competitive bodybuilder isn’t so bad either,” she quipped.
Women in bodybuilding
Historically, the notion of women being just as muscular and physically strong as men is not uncommon. In Greek ancient civilisation, the Spartan society believed that physically fit women would bear physically fit offspring.
In 16th century Europe, women who performed various stunts with heavyweights were among the key attractions at carnivals. Later, female trapeze artists in circuses and vaudeville shows traded curvaceous figures for sinewy limbs – the latter being definitely more useful in their trade.
Arguably, the modern history of international women’s bodybuilding began on Aug 18, 1978, when promoter George Snyder organised IFBB’s ‘Best in the World’ competition, the Federation’s maiden (pun-intended) event for all-female bodybuilding.
It became a sub-culture in the US in the 1970s in line with the development of the women’s rights movement, the emergence of women in what used to be male-dominated sports, and the fight for girls’ athletic programmes in educational institutions.
In Malaysia, women bodybuilding was quite common throughout the 1970s.
Renowned authority on Malaysian bodybuilding, Patrick Chin, listed 1977 up to 1989 as the “most active years for women in this sport.”
The former Malaysian Bodybuilding Federation (MBF) executive committee member penned a book – ‘Malaysia Bodybuilding History and All-Stars Bodybuilders Album’ – published in 2010 in which he dedicated a two-page all-photo section to female bodybuilding, listing names that, perhaps, not many in the Malaysian bodybuilding circle today would recognise.
“Our Iron Butterfly of the 70s” was how he described Kuala Lumpur musclewoman Doh Me
Hong. And it was “Meet Malaysia’s first posing couple in the 70s” for the brawny duo, Jeff Lim and Roslin Wong.
In Mr Malaysia 1988 Championships, there was even a women’s category which was won by GL Lee of Selangor.
This, however, appeared to signal the end of women’s participation in any major bodybuilding events in Malaysia at the time. No bodybuilding competition for women was allowed throughout the 1990s due to sensitivities over contestants wearing skimpy suits.
“The female bodybuilders, at the time, were only able to compete outside Malaysia. Before Kota Kinabalu this year, the situation was more or less the same,” said Kapitan Desmond Thian, former president of Sarawak Bodybuilding Association.
His mention of Kota Kinabalu is a reference to this year’s Mr Malaysia Championships in Sabah, where women’s bodybuilding made a comeback after a hiatus of more than two decades.
“I remember back in the late 1970s to the 1980s, we had a line-up of good female bodybuilders, many of whom even competed in regional events.
“It’s great to see this category making a comeback. I understand Kedah will also host several women’s categories in Mr Malaysia 2020,” added the Mr Malaysia 1986 lightweight champion.
Sharing her views, Aja said this might explain why she was so drawn to wrestling at first.
“There were no role models for women’s bodybuilding during my teenage years. It was only much later that coach Lilian Tan came along. I dare say that she spearheaded the re-emergence of women’s bodybuilding in Malaysia.”
Tan’s outstanding achievements should suffice to justify her as the prime mover behind the present generation of female bodybuilders in Malaysia, including Aja, Law Pei Ing, Meilaura Dora Jimmy, Tina Nubib, Philomena Dexclyn Siar, Aiesha Asmadi, Maggie Wong, Shelen Adriana Kok, Samsiah Gangau, Shee Wai Yeah and Junaidah Mohammad.
Penang-born Tan, 46, announced her retirement from the sport last year after clinching the International Female Bodybuilding title for the fourth time at the World Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Championships 2018 in Chiangmai, Thailand.
She was hailed as the only Asian athlete to have ever achieved such feat. Before Chiangmai, Tan was triumphant in the Bangkok (2012), Mumbai (2014) and Pattaya (2016) editions.
In Chiangmai, she won two gold medals, one each from the Women’s 55kg and Women-Age 30 Years and Above categories.
“Sadly, Coach Lilian has retired but one thing I know about passion is that once you have it, it stays. I know she’s still very much involved in the sport, like she was when she started in 2010 – only no longer as an athlete,” said Aja.
Moving forward, Aja remains enthusiastic but admits there are challenges ahead.
“Bodybuilding in Malaysia still lacks recognition – unlike the huge support given to other sports like football, badminton and even golf. When it comes to bodybuilding, even with the grand achievements of Lilian Tan, Buda Anchah and Sazali Samad, sponsors are very hard to come by. The sponsors don’t seem interested, even with proof after proof of bodybuilding being a high potential medal contributor for Malaysia in international competitions,” she lamented.
Aja said she felt blessed to have a family and circle of friends who strongly supported her.
“My husband is not a bodybuilder but to me, he’s the most understanding human being in the world. So is my daughter.
“I’m also indebted to my coach Awang Azizul Ghani who has been a crucial part of competitive bodybuilding journey. Moreover, I can never forget my bodybuilding friends who are all prime examples of being into this sport not solely because of the rewards but because of their passion.
“Believe me, only those who are passionate will sacrifice so many things. Bodybuilding is a demanding sport, not just in terms of money. It’s very easy to quit if you don’t have the will power,” she stressed.
However, Aja remains motivated, saying: “Winning isn’t everything, but having specific targets does keep you going.”
On her game plan, she finds it works better concentrating on one or two key events per season, rather than joining every competition that comes along.
“It’s more focused that way and I train and prepare better. I’m taking a break now and haven’t decided which Pro competition I will enter next year. The most important thing is whatever that decision is, I will be ready.”
To those serious about bodybuilding, Aja has this advice: “Be prepared to face disappointments. Success doesn’t come instantly. You have to put in the hard yards to earn it.
“Also, ignore the haters. Unless they’re paying your bills, pay them no heed.”