Lifting Weights and Spirits: Charlene Muskego Shares Fitness for Wellness
“I've always had a passion for fitness,” says Charlene Muskego, a Tla’amin mother of two and personal training student at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. She’s preparing for the World Natural Bodybuilding in the small bikini category, which refers to her smaller definition in muscle mass. She’s experienced a big transformation through fitness, placing fifth on the world stage after learning that lifting the weight of iron could help her set down the emotional weight of her past.
Muskego’s love of being active started at a young age and her grandfather was a soccer player. Growing up, she was in the foster care system as her parents were quite young when they had her and because she experienced abuse. Her grandmother got her out of the foster care system and raised her, putting her in dance and soccer.
She fell in love with soccer and showed natural talent, becoming an all-star player at 12. When it came to fitness, she focused a lot on cardio and didn’t do as much weight training as she wished she did. Muskego was running, working on her abs and she has a high metabolism, making bodybuilding extra challenging for her.
“All I knew was that I loved working out. I wanted to get in shape. It was my outlet for everything, my entire life.”
It’s something she got into after she had her daughter and saw a friend who lost a lot of weight and gained a great deal of muscle. Muskego decided to jump in and try it out and hired a coach. It’s been hard work but she loves it.
Something else that was challenging was that she never had a chance to go to her nation and spend time in community. She wasn’t connected to her extended family and she saw a lot of alcohol and drug use in her immediate family, which claimed the lives of her mother and youngest sister. Muskego still has one sister. The experience of losing her family in that way means that she wants to work with Indigenous communities to provide healthy outlets for coping with hard times through exercise.
When she was grieving the loss of her mother and sister, she was preparing for a competition and the sadness made things harder. She had them cremated into a necklace which she wore on stage when she placed in the top five, coincidentally on her late mother’s birthday. The emotional experience leading to the win was so challenging but being active helped. “The working out helped me release those emotions. I was so hurt and angry and sad,” she recalls.
“Now that I have an understanding and education of how to use the gym equipment, I can share that with other people.”
Family life these days includes her husband of sixteen years and her 10 and 13-year-old daughters are competitive gymnasts, most recently travelling to Las Vegas to compete. Her eldest placed first while her youngest daughter placed ninth. There were 2600 athletes competing at the event.
Muskego herself has been placing at the top herself, landing on the honour roll, driven by her passion for what she does. When she needs inspiration to keep going, she looks to her children. “I just want to be everything that I wanted as a mom for my daughter,” she muses. To make that happen she’s looking to the example of her grandmother and to the information she learns through the Institute of Child Psychology. She also goes to therapy.
The experience of meeting her own mother was overwhelming, looking at someone she had always wanted to meet and loved so much who looked like a stranger. Her mother’s home was full of Indigenous art and that’s where she learned to make a drum and to powwow dance. She also learned about her mother’s history, something that provided important context for her, and also that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, a difficult lesson. Muskego moved away to Alberta when she was looking for a change.
Muskego’s vision for the future is full of hope and love. “I just want my children to feel loved and live a happy life and I just wish to help them with their dreams,” she smiles. As for her own dreams, she hopes to become an overall WNBF bikini pro champion of the world. She hopes to help share the news that there’s another outlet or way to cope through her work, introducing more people to fitness.
What she wants to tell Indigenous youth is “Never give up. Keep pushing. Believe in yourself and don't be afraid to ask for help. Charlene Muskego has always had a passion for fitness and that’s the spirit she brings to her own journey to the competition stage. She learned that lifting the weight of iron could help her set down the emotional weight of her past and that she’s stronger than she ever imagined.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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