MILFORD, NH – Elise Maclaughlin enjoys having an alter ego.
Most days, she dons sage green boots and the camouflage uniform of a New Hampshire Air National Guardsman. But on special occasions, she swaps out her camo for a sequined swimsuit and spray-tan, worn under the bright lights of a stage.
Maclaughlin, a senior airman, trains and competes in organized bikini bodybuilding shows.
“You can only get out what you put in,” she said during a recent interview at Joint Force Headquarters in Concord. “You can’t fake it. That’s what I love about this sport.”
The 22-year-old personnel specialist from Milford balances the sport with her full-time Guard career and night classes at Plymouth State University.
“I feel like I’m going 100 miles an hour all the time,” said Maclaughlin, who joined the military in 2014. “I just want to be the best at whatever I’m doing.”
Her remarkable drive stems in part from her big brother, who serves in the Navy. “Everyone wants to be like their big brother,” Maclaughlin said. “My brother is my biggest mentor.”
Maclaughlin’s supervisor, Chief Master Sgt. David Obertanec, raves about her energetic approach at the office, where she performs various administrative duties.
“She dedicates herself to succeeding,” he said.
But there was a time when Maclaughlin’s drive, at least in the weight room, was lacking, according to an ex-boyfriend.
“He told me I didn’t work hard in the gym,” she recalled. “I did leg work and cardio, and that was it.”
The criticism “set a fire” that motivated Maclaughlin to recalibrate her approach to fitness and to ultimately train at a competitive level.
“I was like, ‘Watch me work hard in the gym!'” Maclaughlin said.
And so began her quest to lift weights and get ripped like a pro while still working as a full-time guardsman and student.
Maclaughlin was ill-equipped to do it on her own and confessed she barely knew her way around a weight room. “I didn’t even know what to do with a five-pound dumbbell.”
She sought guidance from a professional coach, who taught her how to better lift, eat and pose. The best physiques don’t necessarily produce wins, Maclaughin said. A lot of it comes down to posing. Knowing how to present on stage for judges is important.
Maclaughlin said she was placed on a grueling 16-week training regimen. She planned and tracked every meal right down to the gram. Her efforts resulted in a seventh-place finish out of 20 competitors in her first show in Dover.
Maclaughlin was less than satisfied with her performance. “I wanted top five,” she said. “I walked off stage crying. I’m very hard on myself.”
Determined to place higher, she signed up for another show and worked harder to sculpt her petite, 5-foot-1-inch frame. It’s a family brand of determination and work ethic that dates back to her childhood spent in upstate New York, helping at her grandfather’s horse farm.
“I grew up doing the farm thing,” Maclaughlin said. “Throwing around 40-pound bales of hay, I didn’t think anything of it. Getting hay to the barn. Helping neighbors put their hay in the barn. Stacking wood. We’ve always worked hard.”
Her grandfather, a professional rodeo cowboy who performed before thousands of people in his day, taught her to ride horses. He instilled in her the toughness of a ranch hand.
“As a career, he used to get bucked off horses,” Maclaughlin said. “This one horse would buck me off to the ground. He’d just tell me to get back on. ‘Okay, saddle back up! Get back on that horse!'”
Dusting off and getting back in the saddle is second nature for her now.
Maclaughlin went on to place first in a field of eight competitors in the novice class of a New Haven, CT, show last year.
Maclaughlin’s competition coach, professional bikini competitor Michela Raymond, wasn’t surprised.
“Elise is a hard worker,” Raymond said. “She’s driven, disciplined and not scared to challenge herself. She knows what it takes to be a champion.”
Despite her success in a sport considered glamorous by some, Maclaughlin considers herself just a farm girl at heart.
“It’s so not me to have a spray tan and makeup and a bejeweled bikini,” Maclaughlin said. “But it’s kind of fun to have an alter ego.”
With Raymond’s help, she hopes to one day earn her pro card, achieved by winning at the next level of competition.
“We want multiple championship titles,” Raymond said. “Together, we will surpass all of her goals and dreams.”
Maclaughlin is currently on hiatus from competitions. School and guard commitments are her primary focus, and she incorporates more running and yoga in her fitness routine these days. But the allure of the spotlight and competing at the highest level has not waned.
“It all pays off in the end when you’re on stage, and everyone’s looking at you and the lights are in your face,” Maclaughlin said. “You’re like, ‘Yeah, I worked hard for that.’ It’s amazing.”