Sergeant Vanessa Hernandez of the United States Marine Corps could be considered the embodiment of fitness. Aside from regularly completing her physical training (PT) tasks that come with her job, she is also a physical athlete - she competes in the NPC as part of the Wellness and Shape departments. She is an example that you can train and perform for both Show and Go. That's because she knows how to push herself past the point where many others would stop.
"When your body wants to stop because of that 'burning' feeling [not pain], train your mind to get past it. Your body will do what your mind tells it to do. Challenge yourself to go on it one more time,” she said. She admitted that may not have been the case before enlisting in the Marines.
"I was never really fit, I just enjoyed working out and seeing the progress I would make," Hernandez said. She entered college after graduating from high school and one semester. Hernandez had no one in her family who served before her, making her a first-generation member of the armed forces.
A friend of mine first told me about her joining, and next thing I would be sent out," she joked. Her family got the news that she registered with reservations.
"In the beginning they didn't like the idea of the military and instead wanted me to go to school," Hernandez explained. "When I showed them I could do my schooling, they thought maybe it wasn't so bad."
Hernandez already has an associate's degree and is working toward her bachelor's degree. She is also working to advance in rank to staff sergeant. Her commitment to fitness is also blossoming. Staying fit is part of what a Marine does, but the dedication became a passion while on the job.
“I was already good at running in a way, and I was really good on the track. But when I was on the job there really wasn't much else to do other than train during downtime. So I just started learning more," she explained. "When I came back I had my first bodybuilding show in California."
Courtesy of Vanessa Hernandez
The idea for the contest came about when another Marine took the stage. Seeing the possibility that an active Marine could balance work and competition was the only inspiration Hernandez needed.
"I decided, 'Okay, if she can do it, I want to do it,' so I just went for it."
She had other people who inspired her to get on stage and face the judges. Among them are wellness star Yarishna Ayala and NPC USA 2021 Wellness winner Julia Rene. She also credits her sister, Sandy Hernandez, as a key figure in her support. After winning her first show and moving to Washington, DC, Hernandez embraced her sport. She worked with trainer Zack Blackeney and they've been a cohesive team ever since. In 2021, Hernandez would compete in the prestigious NPC Armed Forces Nationals and NPC Battle Royale in Alexandria, Virginia. She won Wellness Class A in both competitions. Being on a show dedicated specifically to service members and their families made it more important for Vanessa Hernandez to win.
“I think it was a great experience to see other forces and other branches compete for the same thing on the same show. They all had the same passion and they were all capable of doing their jobs and doing bodybuilding. It's not easy," she said. “There are many sacrifices, and I give props to everyone. We're all out here doing it. Being able to experience it with them gives you a sense of camaraderie.”
One might think that the discipline and dedication that comes with serving in the US military would make sticking to fitness easier, but Hernandez explained that wasn't the case. Following a specific exercise plan and eating plan with food restrictions can be incredibly challenging. However, her ability to stick to both commitments at the level she does has inspired those around her.
"They just admire my discipline," Hernandez said. "When they see me eating my food, they also offer me some of what they had and I say 'no.' They admire that because it's tempting to eat what they had. They've actually started eating healthier and exercising more now. I think it has influenced them and is helping them to change their lifestyle.”
This ability to inspire others to do what she did is now helping her launch another career. She has explored the possibility of coaching others based on their success. While she's just beginning this process, she's already seeing the difference she can make.
"It's just been so crazy talking to clients and seeing how much their lives are changing and they're making small changes that make them so happy. It touches me and makes me feel good.”
Her athletic career is far from over and she has her eyes set on achieving IFBB Pro League status in the future. She has commitments with her full-time career that must come first, but she and Blackeney feel she has the tools to win her pro card.
"I'm still training like I'm competing, but I'm not going to be as strict on the diet right now," she shared. She also mentioned that she would like to become an officer in the Marines in the future.
Vanessa Hernandez has inspired athletes, soldiers, veterans and countless others by being a positive example and showing that anyone can succeed who is willing to put in the work and stay disciplined. For anyone else considering the military for their future, she offered solid wisdom to apply.
"It's definitely worth it. Take every opportunity you can. Volunteer whenever possible because you're missing out on opportunities you're not taking," she advised. “Anything you put your mind to, you can achieve. It's okay to feel uncomfortable when you're learning to push your limits.”