The black-haired woman in the heavy eyeliner is wearing sequined strips of fabric masquerading as a one-piece swimsuit. Her chiseled face betrays her nerves as she totters toward Julie Palmer on clear, spiked heels.

The black-haired woman in the heavy eyeliner is wearing sequined strips of fabric masquerading as a one-piece swimsuit. Her chiseled face betrays her nerves as she totters toward Julie Palmer on clear, spiked heels.

"Go back and walk sexy," Julie tells her, gently. "Be confident."

Julie trains her eyes on the woman, a fitness competitor, during a Saturday-morning posing clinic at Metro Fitness in Worthington. Here, women are learning how to walk, how to stand and how to strike poses that best show off their muscle and shape. They aspire to be like Julie, a 35-year-old Powell woman who is one of the top fitness competitors in the world.

Few people understand the precision needed to succeed in the sport like Julie. Few are as driven to the impossibility of perfection. And few work as hard to achieve it.

Fitness competitors aren't bodybuilders. They're more like bikini models who could take down most men in an arm-wrestling match. The ideal look is lean yet muscular, showing both strength and femininity. Julie, for example, has a tiny, sculpted waist, bulging shoulders and powerful quadriceps. She finishes the look with a massive smile and French-tipped nails.

The Arnold Sports Festival--which includes one of the biggest fitness competitions in the sport--will be held in Columbus in March. Julie won third place in it in 2008, and second place in 2009 (an award worth $13,000 in prize money). This year, she wants the title.

"She has one of the best bodies out there, and her routines are interesting," said Debi Lee, an Arnold judge and former fitness competitor. "She will take a risk and try things nobody else has tried."

But at this particular posing clinic, Julie is there to observe, not practice. These women, all jitters and thigh muscles, have come to Julie and her partner and trainer, Mike Davies, for help. Julie is approachable and encouraging.

"I just felt very comfortable asking her questions," said Paula Eversole, a 28-year-old who is just starting out in the fitness world. Julie stood behind her in a mirror, giving one-on-one posing help. Eversole marveled at Julie's perfect definition and near-total lack of body fat. "Just trying," Eversole said, "to get there myself."

Every weekday, Julie's alarm sounds at 4:20 a.m. in the six-bedroom house she shares with Mike and his two sons. On one day, she might do cardio at 5:30, and then work as a personal trainer at Metro Fitness at 6:15. She takes Daryian, Mike's 14-year-old son, to the bus stop by 7:30. Then she wakes 10-year-old Trent, who has dyslexia, and they work on reading skills over breakfast before getting him off to school.

Julie and Mike have lived together for nine years, but never married. She is helping raise Daryian and Trent, who spend much of their time at Julie and Mike's house. "When the chips are down, something's got to be done, [Daryian] doesn't come to me," Mike said. "He goes right to Julie."

After the boys are gone, it's back to the gym for weight training at 8:45. Another group arrives for personal training with Julie at 9:30. Two or three days a week, the former high school cheerleader squeezes in a gymnastics class, since she tumbles during the routines she performs at fitness competitions.

If it's not too hot outside, her goldendoodles Nugget and Noodles await her in her orange Hummer, sticking their noses out the windows at the hardbodies walking into the gym.

For four hours a week, Julie works as a registered nurse at Nationwide Children's Hospital. Nursing is "a total escape" from fitness, she says, but another way to help people be healthy.

Other days, she goes home and tends to about 150 daily e-mails for the web-based business she runs with Mike, The Fitness Factory. The company provides workouts and nutrition plans to people who want to shape up. Though some of them compete against Julie, she never peeks at other competitors' strategies, she said. It's not about them anyway. "I don't look at it, because I don't care," she said. "I'm there to compete against myself."

Julie often shuttles the boys to afternoon sports practices and then heads back to the gym for more training. At night, she helps with homework and keeps working on the business. She's got solo endeavors to tend to as well, as the author of a self-published cookbook and the creator of a fitness clothing line.

All the while, she's eating the frequent, small meals that make up the odd diet of a fitness competitor. It's something different every two hours: chicken and oats, orange roughy and asparagus, cream of rice and tuna. Her diet changes every three weeks, and she drinks two gallons of water a day.

Julie carries a cooler full of prepared food everywhere she goes, even to parties. She jokes with her fellow nurses about keeping organs in there.

She never skimps on her workout or splurges on her diet, unless it's time for one of her designated "cheat meals." They're designed to keep weight on her 5-foot-3, 124-pound frame after as many as three-and-a-half hours of exercise a day.

Bedtime is supposed to be 10 p.m., but it's usually closer to 11 when the lights go out. Her sole leisure time comes when she reads magazines on the exercise bike.

She knows her schedule is crazy but said she needs to stay busy. "If I'm not doing something, I'm bored," she said. "If there's nothing to do, I'll start scrubbing the walls in the house or something."

Even Jen Hendershott, a fitness competitor from North Carolina who won the Arnold in 2009, said Julie outworks her. "There is nobody that probably works harder than she does," Hendershott said. "I would even say she works harder than me."

The uncompromising discipline Julie shows in fitness and work was once a dark force in her life.

She was a high-school student in Youngstown when she started skipping breakfast. She weighed just 114 pounds, but like so many teen girls, thought she had fat to lose. By the time she left for Ohio State University in 1992, her mom had given her an ultimatum: Eat 19 of the 24 meals I buy for you in your meal plan each week, or you're coming home.

Julie didn't, or rather couldn't, listen. She remembers feeling a lot of pressure, wanting to maintain the straight A's she got in high school. She started taking, and then teaching, every aerobics class she could find. Soon, not only breakfast was skipped, but dinner too. By springtime, her daily intake was a bowl of raisins.

People commented on her appearance, but no matter how skinny she got--at one point the doctor weighed her at 92 pounds--Julie saw a big girl in the mirror.

Then, sophomore year, Julie dated a guy who was into bodybuilding competitions. He convinced her to lift weights. After they broke up, she started watching fitness competitions on TV. She began to think she could have a lean, super-fit body and still eat. In fact, she learned, she had to eat to succeed in her new hobby.

Just before her first amateur show, in May 1997, she met Mike at Metro Fitness. He was on a treadmill and started chatting her up. He'd heard she was preparing for a competition for which he was training women. He asked her about her diet.
Julie still remembers the moment, and laughs at her youthful sassiness. "Why would I tell you what my diet's like?" she responded. "You're the enemy."

Julie learned early that Mike isn't one to mince words. He told her after that first show that she had no business being on stage. He put her on his program, and their first competition together was in the fall of 1997.

Mike, now 44, was then married to another fitness competitor. He and his wife separated in 1999 and divorced soon after.

The world of fitness is a competitive and self-absorbed one, and Julie was picked on by other women Mike trained. She started to feel like he was the only one who understood her. Romance bloomed.

In 2000, Julie went pro. She has competed in 33 professional shows of the International Federation of Body Building and Fitness, winning five. But she hasn't won the Arnold.

Today, she wears a sizeable diamond on her left ring finger. The couple calls it an "appreciation ring." She thinks Mike has trust issues, and doesn't push him toward marriage.

The two of them butt heads often. They laugh a lot, too. He wants her to retire soon, in part so she can focus on the boys. She says she hasn't yet reached all of her goals.

When they're alone at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, taking turns pulling 80 pounds of weights over their heads, they chat about silly TV shows and old friends. Then Julie is a student in Mike's boot camp, and he goads her along with the rest of the class. For an hour, he puts the group through a series of frantic movements--bear crawls, crab walks, bunny hops and backwards runs.

Without warning, he'll send them on impromptu quarter-mile jogs around nearby buildings. Julie's always at the head of the line, and the first one finished with push-ups.

"Daddy's in a bad mood," he told the class one day. "Julie made me work 'til 11 last night. I'm in a bad mood."

"I didn't make you do anything," she retorted, snapping her bright blue gum.

Despite the bickering, Julie makes time with Mike to eat her weekly "cheat meal" on Saturdays. It's always the same: two chicken and black bean burritos from Chipotle. She also allows herself one weekly sweet treat, like a Dairy Queen cookie-dough Blizzard (no chocolate syrup).

"He truly is my guardian angel because he taught me how to eat," she said. "He taught me it's OK to eat."

Asked what drives his partner and star, Mike is at a loss. "I don't know," he said. "She's been this way since she was 22." For Julie, it's simple. She thinks that if she stays at it long enough, and exerts more effort than anybody else, she'll get what she's wanted for so long. "I guess I believe in my heart," she said, "my day will come."
And she hopes that, at the Arnold in March, it does.