Carla Dunlap

Carla Dunlap was a professional bodybuilding champion. She has the distinction of being one of a few female bodybuilders to compete in the sport for all three decades of its evolution. Carla Dunlap also was the first African American woman to win the Ms.Olympia contest. She was born in 1954 in Newark, New Jersey. Her introduction to sports came at an early age. When she was ten she competed in gymnastics and later developed an interest in swimming. Starting these activities at a young age probably gave her an advantage in the sport she was later to pursue. Dunlap’s educational background was in advertising design, for which she acquired a degree from the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. Carla had won medals in synchronized swimming and won a bronze medal in The Inaugural National Sports Festival in 1978. Carla would become involved in the sport around 1979.


 Carla entered bodybuilding on the suggestion of Steve Wennerstrom. He was a photographer involved deeply in the bodybuilding and fitness community. Carla did not train specifically for bodybuilding, but placed fifth in her first contest. That is an impressive feat for someone just entering. After that she adjusted her training. Carla was to go on to win the NPC Nationals in 1981 and 1982. She would make history by becoming the first African American Ms.Olympia in 1983. She would later participate in mixed pairs contests, winning both the 1984 and 1988 World Professional Mixed Pairs. Carla had competitive longevity doing the sport for three decades. She attributed her success to her mother, who was always encouraging to her. What she said about her mother encouraged her and her siblings to try new things. As Carla put it “mom had a developed sense of individuality.” Carla also explains that “I think it came from my grandmother, who with many other black women were taught to stand on their own two feet.” Growing up African American in 1950s America was not an easy experience, but many like Carla would overcome to be masters of their profession. Where Carla lived in New Jersey, it was not as oppressive as the deep South.

A supportive environment is critical to an athlete’s career. There are challenges that are both mental and physical; a support system reduces stress and tension. Bodybuilding provided an excellent outlet for Carla’s competitive nature. She excelled at competitive synchronized swimming and could have gone to the Olympics. The only problem is that Olympics at the time did not have that sport and in 1980 the US boycotted the games due to tensions with the Soviet Union. Although Carla entered amateur contests, her goal was not to become a professional bodybuilder.  Carla explains ” I actually wasn’t going to go pro but my mom had just gotten divorced and needed money to pat off a loan.”  She promised her mother if she won prize money she would give it to her. Other opportunities came her way as well. She appeared in  documentaries Pumping Iron II: The Women and Women of Iron . She was also on ABC’s “Battle of the Superstars” in 1984. This program was a special show casing athletic talent. Carla was making an amazing impact on this relatively new sport and represented it well when exposed to the mainstream. Carla said that she like the artistic element of the sport. The posing and the act of sculpting the body like a statue attracts many athletes.


From 1979 to 1993 Carla appeared in various professional contests. From the early 1980s to the later half of the decade she had dominance. Carla came up against a real challenge :  the appearance  of Corey Everson. Carla found it difficult to beat this competitor when she entered other Ms.Olympia contests.  Carla explained : ” I came up against an immovable  object with Corey Everson, who was one of the first women to show up with strong symmetry and good muscularity- a hard combination to beat.” That did not stop Carla from getting on stage. She did admit that her problem areas. Carla claims “while I did have good muscle and a decent structure, I had something wrong with my legs being long and my short torso.” Carla stated during her career she had to be perfect every time to be close to Corey. Carla Dunlap was an athlete of high caliber, but the sport was going through transition. The aesthetic was changing, the women were getting bigger, and as always the judging was inconsistent.  Carla describes the situation best as ” I was the bridge between natural and steroids.” Drugs have been a part of sports since their existence. Bodybuilding is no different, put athletes were pressured to use them if they wanted to remain competitive. Carla did not want to use and decided that she would take her athletic talent as far as her natural physiological limits could go. Carla says in blunt manner “in this sport you can’t run any faster.”Carla began to realize by 1988 it became more difficult to keep up with the more muscular women on stage. Looking back Carla describes it as this: ” enjoy it while you have it and let it go when it is time to go.” Carla was part of a different era and the torch had to be passed to a new generation of athletes. Carla says that it is more than sticking with something you love, but that ‘fans will not let you go.” Athletes do enjoy the support of their fans and this encourages them to remain in their sport. At some point retirement is inevitable. For Carla the sport was no long fun and she retired in 1993 competing in the Ms.International contest. She had a long and remarkable competitive career.


Her best wins before her Olympia victory include the AAU Ms. America (1980), the Eastern Cup (1980), the Bodybuilding Expo (1980),  the NPC Nationals (1981), the Night of Champions (1981), Super Bowl of Bodybuilding (1982), Pro World Championship (1982), the Swedish Grand Prix (1982), and the AWFB American Championships( 1982). Besides winning the Ms.Olympia in 1983, she won the IFBB Caesars World Cup. Carla Dunlap’s rapid victories are no surprise. The 5’3  and 126 pound power house astounded audiences with the might and beauty of her physique. Due to her contributions to the sport she was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 1999. Carla also would appear and host ESPN’s body shaping  which instructed viewers on exercise and weight training methods. She would also be a commentator on various bodybuilding events broadcast on NBC and ESPN. Her knowledge of training and competitions would add more credibility to the color commentary of the sporting events.


Even though she has retired from competition, she still is involved in fitness. She is a personal trainer that teaches yoga, belly dance, weight training, gym safety, swimming, interpretive dance, and stress management. Certainly, she keeps her self busy with various clients pursuing numerous fitness goals. She owns her own business training various clients by appointment only. She also has knowledge in Pilates and teaches that to clients as well. Carla also has a certification in nutritional counseling. Forty years of experience in fitness has made her very qualified in this field. Carla’s business was Flexfit Mind and Body Personal Training and Pilates Studio opened in 1995. Around 2006, Carla relocated to Florida where she would later become involved with Atlantic Avenue Pilates. Carla from 1995 up to the present has trained a wide range of athletes.


Visit Carla Dunlap’s website at : Carla

Due to her magnetism and remarkable body, Carla was able to do modeling in the 1990s for sports wear. Danskin Inc had  Carla model for their line of sports wear. This was a positive development, because it gave the public an exposure of a female bodybuilder in a positive manner. Carla still travels internationally and nationally serving as head  judge of the National and International Fitness  Sanctioning Body. The organization created the Ms.Fitness USA and Carla contributed to the criteria standards. Carla’s advice to athletes is to have a certain level of fortitude when facing challenges. Also, have alternative methods to training and fitness. Carla believes there needs to be alternative methods to best suit the needs of individuals and is always looking for different approaches. Carla will always remain one of the great female bodybuilding pioneers.

Carla Dunlap

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