Bodybuilding grandmother Sue Bettridge shivered with fear in a homemade bikini when she first entered a bodybuilding competition.
She didn’t take up the hobby until she was 40, but to her shock, she won the competition – and since her shaky start, 54-year-old Sue from Palmerston North on New Zealand’s North Island has won a number of championships.
Sue also says that exercising helped rebuild her confidence after her divorce, and she has now found new love at the gym – where she still works out 90 minutes a day, six days a week – with athletic fiancé Simon Roelants, 60.
Sue, mother of three sons, Mason, 29, Kayne, 27 and Hemi, 24, and grandma of Mason’s young daughters Mackenzie (four) and Toria (two), said of her first competition: “I was shaking with nerves when the day of the competition arrived.
“I bit off almost all of my fingernails. I was so nervous that I thought I was going to pass out. “
But bodybuilding later gave her a boost after her 25-year marriage to her high school sweetheart, who she had three sons with, divorced in 2013.
Sue admitted, “Breaking up with someone I was with since I was 15 hit me very hard, but exercising has helped me rebuild my confidence.”
And now sport has brought her new love for Simon.
She said, “We are just a perfect match. We both love bodybuilding and nutrition, and physically our bodies have a similar definition – people often say we mirror each other!”
Before she started bodybuilding, 5’4 ″ Sue was just a regular gymnast – until six years later a trainer suggested she try.
“I’ve always liked exercise and was competitive, but I never thought about bodybuilding until one of the trainers at my local gym told me I was in the right shape and should compete in the local competition,” she recalled.
“He continued and finally I agreed.”
Leading up to her debut at the 2007 Hawke’s Bay Bodybuilding Show, Sue faced a dilemma – what to wear to show off her burgeoning triceps, back and hamstrings.
She said, “I struggled to get a lot of information about what to wear as it was a very male-dominated sport and not many women competed.
“Bikinis were mandatory, so in the end I decided to make my own.”
Fortunately, Sue had worked in fashion and design and had run her own clothing brand in her twenties and thirties. So the turquoise bikini made of stretchy velvet with diamond embossing, which took her about a month to make, looked good.
And her movements – from the rear back poses to the front, side, and abdominal curves that show off her biceps, quads, and abs – clearly did her job too, because she won.
Sue said, “It was a tremendous confidence boost – especially when one of the judges told me I had the right genetic makeup – slim with narrow hips – for bodybuilding.”
She added, “He told me I was good at it and not to give it up.”
On his advice, Sue won a number of national and international titles, including the 2014 Miss Universe competition of the WWF (World Fitness Federation) in South Korea.
She was also named the Southern Hemisphere Champion after competing in Australia that same year, crowned WWF Asia Pacific Champion after competing in Singapore in 2017, and won six years in a row between 2013 and 2019 the championship title of the New Zealand Nationals.
And nowadays Sue still competes at the highest level in New Zealand and abroad – with plans to return to the national championship in 2021 and represent overseas to represent her country if Covid restrictions allow.
She also works as a nutritionist and body conversion trainer at the local gym, training six days a week with weights, free weights, cable resistance and plate-loaded machines.
It was there in October 2018 that she met her fiancé Simon, a movie cameraman who trained alone while Sue worked out with a male client who praised her fiancé’s strong leg muscles from all over the gym.
Sue said, “Simon moved to this area from Auckland and joined the same gym.
“I saw him and one day he just asked me for coffee after he’d worked out.”
Now the two train together every chance they get – though Simon is too shy to measure himself – and share a passion for nutrition to aid their workout.
They moved in together in April 2019 and in February 2020 Simon proposed while the couple danced to a live band in each other’s arms at a friend’s wedding in Hamilton.
Now they plan to get married on April 10 this year in a rose garden in Palmerston North.
Sue’s backless dress will show her muscle definition, even though the couple have no plans to bring bodybuilding into their big day.
“It’s not about our sport, it’s about our love for one another,” said Sue.
“My granddaughters are flower girls and will lead us down the aisle while my eldest son gives a speech, my middle son is my witness and my youngest son is our ring bearer.”
After seeing how bodybuilding has changed her own life, Sue wants to show other women of all ages how powerful exercise can be.
She said, “It’s an incredible way to build self-esteem. It’s never too late and you’re never too old to transform.
“It’s an inner feeling of trust that is almost difficult to put into words.”
Determination is the key to success, she explained.
“When you get your diet right, your body gets the tools it needs, but how much you change your body depends on how much you want it,” she said.
“But if you apply with dedication and focus, you can see these changes within the first month.”
But one thing not to worry about, she said, is your weight when you are building muscle.
“Scales don’t tell us what’s wrong with our bodies,” she said. “I don’t have any scales in the house.”
Despite all of her own motivation and drive, Sue experienced setbacks and injuries along the way.
A bad tear in one of her hamstrings caused by overtraining meant Sue needed eight months of physical therapy in 2009.
She has also torn muscles in her shoulder and back from exerting too much – but so far she has only had three serious injuries in her career.
Navigating menopause was also a challenge.
“Your body wants to fight you more as you get older, that’s right – but I’m almost 55 and if nothing else, I hope I can inspire other women to see that you can still do what you can want, “she said.
Sue continued, “You can hit rock bottom and you want to crawl away and find a place to hide, but I’m proof you can get back from it.”
Sue offers nutritional advice and assessments online – including a full daily menu and snack plan with recipes and follow-up exams.