Ironically, the first time Natalia Kovaleva stepped into a gym, her goal was actually to lose her muscle mass. Since then, Kovaleva has become a world-class IFBB Pro League bodybuilder with close to 100,000 Instagram followers and a sponsorship with female bodybuilding’s top brand, Wings of Strength. Getting to this part of her career was also a feat of strength for the Russian-born 30-year-old.

Kovaleva’s mother died when she was 12. Then her father left her and her older sister to be raised by their aunt. To cope, Kovaleva’s sister began practicing judo, eventually becoming a national champ.

Kovaleva took up wrestling—then a schoolmate made a remark about her developed shoulder muscles, “and I quit.”

In order to instead “look like a model,” Kovaleva soon joined a gym to help her lose weight. That goal didn’t last too long. “That was the first and the last time I have let someone’s opinion influence me,” she says.

That’s partly true. While flipping through a fitness magazine, she stumbled upon a picture of 1990 Ms. Olympia Lenda Murray. Captivated by her aesthetics and flowing musculature, Kovaleva began collecting magazines and videos featuring Murray.

Inspired and influenced by the Olympia icon, the young Russian was on a mission to compete like her newfound idol. “Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day I’d be on the same stage with professional bodybuilders,” says Kovaleva, who initially competed in the physique division.

Besides her brawny accomplishments, Kovaleva also holds degrees in Russian literature and journalism and was pursuing a teaching career before becoming a bodybuilder.

Despite how seriously Kovaleva takes her career and her achievements outside of training, she maintains a humble—sometimes even silly—demeanor. “When Natalia first got to America, the first thing she wanted to do was go country line dancing,” says Jake Wood, co-founder of Wings of Strength.

It’s this goofiness and humility that, ironically, make her such a fierce competitor. “I’m grateful to Wings of Strength for changing my life. I was a simple girl from a small town in Russia, and nobody cared about me. Now my life has changed,” Kovaleva says. “I dreamed that someday I would be a champion—now I would like to win the Olympia.”

Height: 5’7″
Contest Weight: 167 lbs.
Residence: Venice Beach, CA
Instagram: @natalia.kovaleva.ifbbpro