Shari Pittenger

When former Doane basketball player and track athlete Shari Pittenger learned she had degenerative cartilage in both of her knees, she switched to workouts with less impact. She will be competing Saturday in the Heartland Classic Bodybuilding and Figure Championship in Omaha.

JULIE CARTER PHOTOGRAPHY

Shari Pittenger has always been a body in motion.

The former Doane basketball player and track athlete ran regularly, sweated through workout boot camps and played city recreational volleyball. So when she found out she had degenerative cartilage in the back of both knees, the bad news hit her hard.

“It was like a part of me had died,” Pittenger said. “I cried for two hours straight.”

The knee issues forced her to rethink her active lifestyle, but it didn’t take long for the ultra-competitive Lincoln resident to seek a solution.

“I realized it wasn’t the end of the world,” Pittenger said. “I just needed to find a new way to challenge myself, to push my body in a different way.”

The new path involved lower-impact workouts with more weightlifting, biking and swimming. The 36-year-old Pittenger, a married mother of three small children, also took on the challenge of learning to strike a quarter pose on stage, how to look relaxed while flexing and how to flare her lats. On Saturday, Pittenger will compete in the Heartland Classic Bodybuilding and Figure Championship in Omaha. She has entered her first figure competition, which can be described as a physique exhibition event. But unlike bodybuilding, the emphasis is on muscle definition, not size.

The knee problem sneaked up on her. Pittenger began to notice her knees were always sore. She attempted to train for the Lincoln Half-Marathon, but after running seven miles, she was forced to stop and ice her knees. By the fall of 2013, Pittenger was spending many sleepless nights because of the pain.

She opted for physical therapy, an MRI and X-rays. She met with former Husker football player Scott Strasburger, a Lincoln orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine. Strasburger helped Pittenger develop a new workout strategy and was so impressed with her effort and results he became one of her competition sponsors. Pittenger’s support team includes her husband, Trey, a financial planner and investment adviser, and a training coach in Bryant Travis of PowerFuel Fitness.

Pittenger taught seventh-grade English in the past but is now a stay-at-home mom. She embraced her lighter-impact workout routine and added a new nutrition regimen. Part of her training included taking posing lessons in Omaha — “If there was a level zero, that’s where I started” she said — and working out from 4:30 to 7 a.m. so as to not interfere with her responsibilities as a wife and mother. Pittenger even picked up an alternative-sport stage name from her friends: "Diamond."

There are four potential categories at the Heartland Classic: bikini, figure, physique and bodybuilding. More than 150 athletes have signed up for Saturday’s event.

“I’m so excited for the competition,” Pittenger said. “My 4-year-old daughter is practicing the posing. She says, ‘Mommy, look at this pose.’ My kids don’t fully understand it all. My husband was hesitant at first, but he’s been incredibly supportive. I just needed to have something to work toward. I needed to compete. I wanted to challenge myself. This is who I am.”

Reach the sports editor at 402-473-7320 or ddickson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSDarnellD.

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Darnell graduated from BYU and covered Cougar football for the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah, before taking over as sports editor of the Journal Star in 2011.

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