Her doctor said it was stress. Anxiety. Maybe a panic attack. So Sonja Williams, 51, a former paralegal living in rural Montana, dutifully tried to chill out, hoping the strange racing in her chest would go away. But her symptoms got worse, until one day last November, Sonja was airlifted to a hospital some 120 miles away. "There I was on a stretcher, my feet up by the pilot with my body wedged against the helicopter doors," she recalls. "I kept thinking, I hope we don't crash."
Sonja didn't know how serious things were. As the hospital's cardiologists would confirm, Sonja was suffering from ventricular tachycardia, a potentially fatal condition where the heart beats out of control—in Sonja's case, up to 200 times a minute. "The local doctors were not sure I'd survive," she says.
Luckily, Sonja had given herself a critical edge: Then age 50, she was in the best shape of her life. In fact, just weeks before, Sonja had gone up against some 25 other women—many of them years younger—in a national figure competition. According to Sonja's doctors, her training program of weight lifting and cardio, combined with a bodybuilder's diet, is what saved her life.
Sonja wasn't always so fit. Although she'd been active—she loves skiing, hiking, biking and golf-and despite hitting the gym regularly, she wasn't seeing the results she wanted. So in January 2008, she hired a personal trainer. She also overhauled her diet, upping her lean protein and cutting back on sweets and alcohol.
After a few months, Sonja's trainer suggested she enter the FAME figure competition in Calgary, Alberta. As Sonja explains, figure competitions aren't about hard-core bodybuilding—"they're more about an overall athletic look, with a degree of muscle definition." Still, the thought of competing scared Sonja. "I was afraid at my age I'd look like a fool," she says. But she kept working with her trainer, building up to doing 300-pound leg presses and whittling her body fat down.
Even though she didn't win, the event gave Sonja a healthy boost of confidence. "I had never felt frumpy, but more like I blended in with the crowd," she says. Now she's not as shy, and she doesn't back down from confrontations. Her hard work brought other perks, too: she sleeps through the night, and her mood swings have all but disappeared. "Exercise is a huge stress relief," Sonja laughs. "If I go three days without it, I get crabby."
These days, Sonja has almost fully recovered from her surgery. (Her doctors performed an ablation to bring the electrical impulses in her heart, which was apparently attacked by a viral infection, under control.) "I feel fantastic!" says Sonja, who credits much of her recovery to the support of Tom, her husband of 29 years. Along with getting stronger, she focuses on her two passions: visiting local schools as a volunteer for her local humane society to teach kids about taking care of pets responsibly and working to become a certified personal trainer. And she hasn't ruled out another figure competition down the road.
"I hope to show other women we can be sexy, healthy and fit through our middle years and beyond," Sonja says. "In my case, I think achieving optimum fitness really saved my life. My heart episode wasn't a good thing that happened," she adds. "But the timing was perfect."