Big muscles, a visible six pack cube set on her tummy, streamlined waist and muscle-bound physique is a clear testament to Evelyn Okinyi Owala’s journey in body building.
The charming 39-year-old, commonly known as “Eve”, is the reigning African Women Bodybuilding champion. Looking at her, one would not immediately know that success did not come easy for the athlete whose family considered her a rebel “for going against strict religious upbringing as a Seventh Day Adventist.”
"Venturing into body building was tough. The hardest part was convincing my father who is a priest and a staunch Seventh Day Adventist as to why my job entailed showcasing my naked body in a bikini set," Okinyi told Nation Sport.
However, Okinyi’s efforts aimed at getting her father to accept her choice of career finally bore fruit. He now religiously votes for her and cheers her on in any competition that she features in, including at the 2020 Sports Personality of the Year Awards (Soya) where she was nominated in the Sportswoman of the Year category in recognition of her excellent year of ground-breaking achievements in 2019.
Although she did not finish among the top three in the category, she maintains that it was an honour for a participant in a “rare sport” such as her to be recognised, especially as a woman venturing into a male-dominated field that very few people understand.
“I always get emotional when I see him (my father) post my photos on social media and sharing them with friends and family because since I lost my mother, my father’s approval on this road less travelled by women is key in my growth and stability,” she says.
Although Okinyi stands tall now as the reigning fitness queen in the continent, her story of resilience stems from being bullied as an overweight child early in life after suffering from chronic asthma.
She did not see herself as an athlete throughout her early school life at Sango Primary School in Homabay County and later at Asumbi Girls High School in Kisumu County.
“When I first heard of the Soya nomination, I was obviously overjoyed because my hard work was finally paying off and since I had already had a taste of what it feels like to be celebrated outside the country, being recognised in my own country on such a platform was double the excitement,” she revealed.
She has become a household name and is among the top female athletes in the local sporting scene. Okinyi, who is five feet, four inches tall, has earned her right to sit among the trailblazers, 2019 being her best year in the sport so far.
"My initial plan was never to be a body builder, like many ladies I just wanted to get into shape and stay fit after battling overweight since childhood. However, while on this journey I stumbled upon body building and I have never looked back," Okinyi says.
The third born in a family of six, first burst onto the body building scene in 2014 when she competed in Mr and Miss Nairobi Bodybuilding contest and finished second. She says she realised how powerful the sport is when she saw herself in the newspapers the following day, followed by distressed calls from her uninformed family.
“My father thought I had lost my mind and urged me to go back home if I couldn’t find a job in the city,” she says.
The media coverage motivated her to sign up for more competitions, including Mr and Miss Kenya contest where she won in 2016 and came second a year later.
At this time, she had quit her job in banking which she had taken up after transitioning from teaching Literature and Physical Education at Jamhuri High School in Nairobi.
But it was her achievements in 2019 that made the Bachelor of Education graduate from St Paul’s University popular in local sporting circles. She started the year on a high by winning the two trophies in her category, and went on to emerge the overall champion in the annual Arnold Classics Schwarzenegger Sports Festival held in South Africa in May last year.
She later signed up for the African championship held in Angola in August last year. There, she put Kenya on the world map of bodybuilding for the second time in a year after winning the 2019 Women Bodybuilding Championship title.
The win opened doors for her to compete in her second annual Arnold classics Schwarzenegger Sports Festival, this time in Europe. She finished eighth out of 80 contestants.
Okinyi, who currently weighs 65 kilogrammes and has a waist line of 26.5 inches, has attributed her sluggish performance to the fact that she was penalised because of her hair make-up.
“Among the requirements the organisers specified was that all contestants have flowing hair similar to European hair which is now mimicked in wigs and weaves but I Ignorantly braided my hair and ended up being penalised,” she recalls.
Okinyi, who specialises in the wellness category of body building competitions (for “thick and curvy competitors but with muscle”) wrapped up 2019 with another good performance, emerging third in Bodybuilding World Cup held in Spain.
She commits two hours a day to cardiovascular exercises. All her meals contain protein for muscle build-up and to help her maintain low levels of calories by generally avoiding greasy foods that take longer time to break down.
Apart from her body building career, Eve is also a personal trainer and is currently the Kenyan brand ambassador for Ultimate Sports Nutrition (USN).
She ventured into professional physical fitness and wellness after meeting her husband and trainer Charles Owala.
“I don’t think I would have achieved what I have without my husband’s support. He wears many hats in our relationship, including that of my trainer, always keeping me in check with my workout schedules and diets. Most importantly, he has embraced a woman with full muscles,” she said.
Okinyi aspires to be like Brazilian body builder Angela Bogers who won the 2019 Giovanni classic wellness category. Her lowest moments? Preparing to compete in international championships, only to end up missing it due to lack of adequate funds.
She has urged the government to invest more in body building as a sport by increasing the number of local championships to encourage more participants to take up the sport.