Elizabeth Galvan knows no limits. The 40-year-old bodybuilder from Fargo, North Dakota, has been a high achiever all her life. Not despite the challenges she's faced from the start, but because of them. Where others saw limitations, she saw invitations to rise to greatness and prove them wrong.
A summary of the difficulties Galvan has overcome almost requires the tagline, "Let that sink in." Born and raised in Fargo, she was 3 years old when an accident involving an old wringer washer led to the loss of her right arm below the elbow. Also at age 3, Galvan lost her hearing after an illness, leaving her to face life with a double disability.
At age 16, Galvan was diagnosed with Usher syndrome, a condition causing her vision to slowly diminish. Then as an adult, she endured a series of health issues capped by major back surgery, with four steel rods inserted in her back. Oh, and by the way, she's a single mom, a challenge in itself. Her daughter, Brianna, is now 17.
Fueled by Adversity
From the start, Galvan was told she wouldn't be able to do things other girls could. From the start, she would not take no—or you can't—for an answer.
"It inspires me when someone tells me no," she says. "It gives me the drive to fire my soul to be the lion, to change that 'no' to, 'I can.'"
Galvan played team sports throughout school. As she got older, she competed in pageants, got into modeling, and became a lifeguard, undeterred by the inevitable opposition and bullying.
After her back surgeries, the doctors told her she'd never be the same. Galvan rejected her dire diagnosis and decided to join a gym. Soon, she was training for competition, and she made a successful debut as an NPC figure athlete in 2018.
At the time of this interview, Galvan was looking ahead to her next figure contest, in October 2019. Though she had been forced to cancel plans to compete in March due to illness, it's no big deal, she says.
"It's another obstacle I will get past with determination and continue training for the next competition."
In the gym, Galvan uses a lifting device with hooks to connect her arm to the weights, and she and her trainer Kathy Kemper have worked to build Galvan's even development. (Check out Galvan's YouTube channel to see how she trains.)
The real key to Galvan's achievements may be her vivacious personality. Galvan's spirit and enthusiasm are infectious, and she's on a mission to share them. In high school she had the opportunity to empower a little girl who also had a missing arm, and was determined to become a messenger to the people.
Elizabeth Galvan's message is simple. "If I can do it, you can, too," she says.
You lost your arm and hearing at age 3. When was the first time you can remember being told you couldn't do something?
Wow, that's a good question. I can remember the many times I was told I couldn't do things and I have proved them wrong, such as playing sports. Where I didn't need assistance because I can do it myself. Where I went ahead with my stubbornness and determination. But specifically "when was the first time" is tough to answer.
That stubbornness you have, that strength. Where does it come from?
From the obstacles, challenges, being told I cannot where I felt it's not fair. The stubbornness runs in my family. My dad has told me that many times.
You played sports from an early age. What are some of the challenges you faced in sports?
Being different, the bullyings, the mockings of me being an amputee with a metal hook...It was difficult to feel I fit in. Then, throughout my teens, with things like wanting to be a lifeguard and being faced with doubts, I had to push harder to show that I was no different than anyone and that I could do everything like the others at school, activities, and my job.
What was the best moment of your sports career?
Being MVP and breaking the school record for the shotput.
You also did pageants—where does that come into your story?
My stepmom, who I considered to be my own mom, believed I could make a difference and inspire others with my beauty and positive spirit. I started doing pageants because she believed in me and encouraged me. I had an amazing experience in teen and adult pageants. As a teen I won Best Photogenic, Teen Spirit, and Best Talent trophies. As an adult, I was crowned Miss North Dakota and won a few awards for runway model, best fashion, best eyes and smile, and a few others. I went to the Nationals in St. Louis and won first runner-up. Doing pageants gave me the perspective that I do inspire others, in ways I don't see in my daily life.
What happened when you decided to become a lifeguard?
At first, I was rejected. The school board felt I wasn't the best choice, because how can I save people in the water, especially someone heavier or two people at the same time? They felt it was risky. I was determined, and with the help of an interpreter, I was able to voice my opinions and ask them to give me the chance to take all the tests that are required to be a certified lifeguard. They agreed, and I passed all the tests—in the water, on the floor, CPR, first aid, and written tests. I proved them wrong and worked as a certified lifeguard for four years.
At age 16, you found out you had Usher syndrome. Your vision was deteriorating. More challenges. How did you adapt?
It has been a slow progress of the vision decreasing on the sides and top and bottom. Many times I've missed stuff, like bumping into people I didn't see. I have been adjusting my lifestyle so I am often in daylight or am guided by someone at night. At my home, I make sure there is nothing on the floor in order to avoid tripping and harming myself.
After your back surgery, what made you decide to start training?
The doctor warned that I wouldn't be the same after the surgery due to four rods on my spinal cord. That hit me really hard. After a year and a half of recovery and weight gain, I did some research and learned that bodybuilding would improve my strength and health. That doctor's comment was stuck in my mind, and I looked back at who I was. "Gotta get up, get moving, roll my sleeves up to prove everyone wrong," I said. That led to my passion for bodybuilding, and then NPC competitions became one of my interests with which to inspire people.
You had never trained with weights before?
Nope! I was only into cardio and being active. I fell in love with weightlifting because it made me younger, more active mentally and physically.
How long before you wanted to compete?
Under a year!
Why figure? Why not bikini or women's physique?
Bikini wasn't my thing, especially as I had a skinny back when I was young. I had never been muscular, but muscles on women attracted me because they look as strong as warriors. That fits my personality of a strong woman. So I went with figure; however, it's my plan to move up to physique in a few years. It takes years to build muscles. I am only two years in to bodybuilding, and everyone is impressed with my muscle building and determination. So physique is definitely in my book for the future. Plus, that way I wouldn't need to wear heels!
Where did you compete, and how did you do?
I competed at NPC Upper Midwest in March 2018 and brought home three trophies—second place, third place (in the masters category), and the inspiration trophy. In June 2018 I competed at the State of Minnesota Sports Expo in Minneapolis, and I came home with third- and fourth-place trophies.
How did your daughter react to your becoming a figure competitor? Was she cheering you on, or was it more, "Eww, Mom!"?
She was in tears, screaming and crying with excitement. She even posted the pictures and heartfelt message of how proud she was. So sweet! It hit me so hard.
At this stage of your development, with two years under your belt and a competition six months off, what does a training week look like for you?
In bulking season, I normally go to the gym five or six days per week. I train upper body three times a week and lower body two times a week, plus six days of cardio. I continue building muscle in the off season because of my goal to move up to physique in a couple of years. Spending time in the gym got me hooked, and I don't know what I would do if it wasn't for the training or my passion for bodybuilding.
High reps, low reps? How heavy do you push the weights?
I go in turns between high reps and low reps. On the heaviest sets, I challenge myself to push harder. Two years ago, I was only able to do 10 pounds on my amputee arm. Now, I do 60 pounds. That is a big gain. For deadlifting I am able to do 185 pounds.
What's your preferred form of cardio?
In bulking season, as I am currently, I do kickboxing classes once a week for 45 minutes. I also do five days of 20 minutes on cardio machines. In prep season, I increase the cardio to lean out. The StairMaster and bike machines are my favorites.
How did weight training and becoming a competitor change the way you eat?
My coach, Kathy Kemper, helps me with my diet and nutrition. It was a huge change in my meals. I had never eaten six meals in a day, but it made sense that it's important to keep feeding the muscles.
What about your supplements?
My supplements are all natural and standard. I take vitamins, MCT oils, BCAAs/EAAs, and a pre-workout supplement. Active athletes need those nutritional supplements, but foods are the key.
What do you want to conquer next?
Boxing and kickboxing, plus continue my bodybuilding journey. My goal is to travel more widely to do more NPC competitions, if budget permits.
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