Canadian bodybuilder with MS and her dream of making it big on world stage

Marie Pontini is a force to be reckoned with.

The 43-year-old is training to compete in the wheelchair division of the Arnold Amateur international bodybuilding competition taking place in Columbus, Ohio at the end of February.

She’s hoping to be the first Canadian woman to do so.

“That’s the goal,” said Pontini, with a huge smile on her face. Her trainer at Buzzfit-Acadie in Montreal, Roudy Assaf, believes she can do it.

As hard as she pushes herself physically, her biggest strengths, he said, are her mental tenacity and determination.

“When she wants something she’s going for it.”

Diagnosed with MS

Pontini was diagnosed with an aggressive and rare form of Multiple Sclerosis in February 2016. A few months later, cognitive impairment stemming from her illness, meant her career as a chemical engineer was over.

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“I loved it, but I don’t have the brain for it anymore,” Pontini said.

For two years, she required home-care services “for absolutely everything” due to a loss of autonomy caused by executive disfunction.

“So I cannot figure out the steps to do a task,” she said. “If I want to wash myself… I don’t know to open the water, take the soap.”

Adjusting to that new reality was difficult.

“It was hard because my brain used to be my definition of myself,” she said. “I had to completely redefine myself and see life differently and without parameters of accomplishment or, performance.”

The illness came with physical challenges as well.

In 2017, Pontini started using a wheelchair and was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which affects the connective tissues in the body, like the skin and joints.

Pontini described it as “body pain” that mainly affects her legs but is present everywhere, all the time.

Marie Pontini and her coach Roudy Assaf during training. Monday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Tim Sargeant/Global News


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While she would hit the gym before her diagnosis, Pontini said she only started bodybuilding seriously with the goal of competing in 2018. She took part in her first competition in 2019, but the pandemic forced the cancellation of subsequent contests. She resumed competing in 2023.

Pontini said she started training as a way to take control of her pain.

“It’s a pain that I choose,” she explained, “and at least it’s giving me results.”

Improvement in core strength has helped her regain the ability the stand and walk short distances inside her home, giving her back some autonomy.

Working out has given her a sense of empowerment and provided her with a much-needed outlet to vent her frustrations.

“It’s all (about) the mental health for me,” Pontini said. “First it’s keeping me alive. It’s helping me face all the health challenges that happen.”

Marie Pontini in competition/ Photo credit: Simon Lau.

Credit: Simon Lau

Hurdles to overcome

Pontini trains five times a week but won’t do more than three days consecutively so she can rest her body. She knows when to push and to respect her limits.

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Pontini said she doesn’t train with the idea of lifting more weights or doing more repetitions, because it varies from day to day. Instead, she heads to the gym with the goal of doing her best in the moment. That’s something she said her coach understands.

The partnership with Assaf is a new one, not even two months old, but Pontini said it’s a relationship based on mutual respect.

“He understands the work that I put in,” she said.

Pontini used to train alone and having a team support her is making all the difference.

Reaching the Arnold Amateur felt like a “crazy dream,” before, and while it is now within reach, there are still hurdles to overcome.

Pontini competed last summer in Toronto, but maintaining that level has been very hard. Her health has deteriorated and she’s now on a medically-prescribed water diet with supplements.

She’s also waiting for surgery — her 30th since her initial diagnosis.

It was supposed to happen at the beginning of January, but has been delayed due to staffing issues. With the competition in Columbus nearing, Pontini is getting nervous.

“If I have the surgery, after that would be better,” she said.

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While overcoming the physical obstacles is one challenge, the other is finding the funds to pay for the trip to the U.S. to compete. She’s started a GoFundMe campaign to help.

“I’m hoping we can make the trip a success,” she said.

Despite the uncertainty, Pontini is maintaining a positive attitude and focusing on what she can do.

“There’s so much that I don’t have anymore but I still have a lot,” she said. “And when I lose some functions and when I lose some ability, when I gain them back, it’s like, it’s priceless.”

Not taking things for granted and making the most of the moment is a lesson she hopes others can learn from.

“I don’t care what you don’t have… Enjoy what you have now.”

 — With files from Global News’ Tim Sargeant

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