Just a hair under five foot tall, Claire Rohrbacker-O’connell calls herself Mighty Mouse and for good reason. Not only is she an IFBB Pro bodybuilder but a wife, mother, and one of the strongest people I know inside and out.
Bedridden and sick with the flu and a case of pneumonia while trying to prepare for a show, Claire still took the time to answer some questions for us via email.
First let's start with a little biographical info.... Who is Claire? Where did she come from and how did she get to where she is today?
I grew up in Olney, Maryland, and my parents and I moved to Northern California my freshman year of High school. By then my two older brothers were already away at college starting their own lives. I had played softball and been a gymnast most of my life and my freshman year in high school I made the varsity gymnastics team.
My sophomore year budget cuts were handed down by the school board and the gymnastics had been cut. From there I just fell into weightlifting. My sophomore P.E. class offered several sports to choose from and weight lifting was one of the options. I thought, “Here’s something I’ve never tried” and I went for it.
I was small, under one hundred pounds and under five feet tall, but I was pretty strong for my size. My coach saw that and commented on it. Power lifting was a serious option for me but then I saw a local Bodybuilding show and that was it. I was hooked.
I joined a gym and was taking under the tutelage of some of the local bodybuilders. I entered my first show when I was almost 16 years old. I had good structure, shape, put on muscle easier then a lot of females and most important I had the drive and I loved getting on stage and competing.
I spent the next five years competing. I placed, if not first than in the top three, at nearly every show I entered and almost always competing against adult females.
My favorite victories were winning in 1986 lightweight teen USA title and in 1987 winning the lightweight teen National title.
There are only two women I remember competing against that went on to become pro. Nancy Lewis was one and Cathey Palyo was the other. Both of them were in the 80's.I didn’t beat them but I did take 2nd to both and won most muscular in the North Bay against Cathey. Those were in my first years of competition.
Later I would meet Mary Roberts, a pro bodybuilder, and she started training me.
Back to the original question… what happened after those wins. What came next?
Well by the time I reached twenty-one things changed a bit. I needed to grow up and get a real job, or at least that’s how my parents put it. They had pretty much supported me financially up to that point. I fought it. I wasn't ready to move on yet but fate stepped in. I was hit by car and injured pretty bad…bad enough where I had to take time away from training to recover properly.
I got a job as an accounts payable clerk and from there life changed for me for the next decade and a half. Most of those years were spent working in the accounting field but I also began working as a personal trainer or fitness instructor. I never really stopped lifting weights; I just did it differently at times.
In that time I had my two daughters, got married, and got divorced. Things weren't bad in that time away from bodybuilding… just different.
It wasn’t until 2002, when I met Shawn my husband of six years that I got the bug to really lift and compete again. The desire never really went away. It was always there but now it was an itch I had to scratch. I made my comeback in 2004 and the rest is history.
Its obvious bodybuilding has always been in your blood. What does bodybuilding means to you, personally?
What bodybuilding means to me, wow, it defines me I think. It’s who I am. Having muscle feels so natural to me. I love going to the gym, lifting weights… it was what I was meant to do.
How has your decision to lift weights, to body build, been meet by family, by friends, by your peers over the years?
My mom and dad always thought it somewhat odd, but when I was a teenager my mom took me to every competition so they were very supportive. I’m the only athlete in the family so I think that was just different for them.
For the most part I get a lot of positive feedback from friends, my peers, and my husband is my biggest fan. My girls are very proud of me and they like when their friends are all "cool your mom’s a bodybuilder". I go to a gym where I am pretty much the token bodybuilder and people are always very supportive, old and young alike.
I think it’s great you mention how your girls think it’s awesome their mom is a bodybuilder. Is bodybuilding something you'll pass on to them? Is it something you'll educate them about if they wish to pursue it?
If either girl showed interest in body building themselves I would hope I would be supportive. More importantly I have tried to pass on the importance of fitness and nutrition in moderation. Body building, like many kinds of sports, has some very extreme elements to it. All of them have to in order for you to break records or move up in the ranks… become pro. Right now, at their age, I think it’s better to teach moderation.
Having been in and around the sport for so long, what are some of the lessons bodybuilding has taught you over the years? Are these lessons you can use in everyday life or do they strictly pertain to the gym?
Fitness in general has been a way of life for me for so long, even when I wasn't competing and body building is such an important part of my everyday life that the two mesh with each other. It all goes hand in hand.
The biggest lesson it’s taught me is patience. This isn't a sport where changes do not come over night. It takes lots of time and hard work. That has been a helpful lesson in everyday life.
So much about the sport for many of the athletes is the drive to go Pro but some get their Pro card and are never heard from again. Now that you have your Pro card, is that drive still there? I know you won’t just give up lifting but does a Pro card make you want to lift harder? Keep pushing?
The drive to compete is definitely still there. I’m very interested to see where I fit in as a pro. It has been a bit stressful with all this talk of the end of female bodybuilding. Lots of us wonder what we will do but I’m just trying to focus on this year. I am going to be doing the Pro Bodybuilding Weekly Championships in Tampa. Tim Gardner promotes that one and he is always very supportive of female bodybuilding.
So far you've mentioned a lot of positive things about bodybuilding in your life. What are some of the negative things you’ve encountered? How do you over come these?
Well, unfortunately, there has been more and more negative stuff made towards female bodybuilding in the past few years. Lately I have found it very hard to deal with. In my everyday life I don't get negative feedback. I don't have to justify what I do and why. Most people see me as a normal mother of two, wife and hardworking women pursuing a goal.
How to deal with the negative vibe around female bodybuilding? Well, you got me there. I just do not know.
Then let me ask you this… If you were asked what the best way to promote female bodybuilding would be in a positive way, what do you think it would be?
To promote female bodybuilding in a positive way would have to be done at a national level. More pro cards awarded and more pro level shows to compete in.
I would love to see them let female bodybuilders be just that, female bodybuilders. Award us for our hard work and let us be ripped and muscular. I feel it is easier for women to get ripped then be giant and huge. I would love to see that awarded.
If the media would show us in more normal, more positive light for once, that would be awesome as well.
I agree 100%.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, Claire. It was great talking to you.
Thanks so much for asking.