Stacey Payton, 44, lives by one motto: to be uniquely herself. Her coined phrase, “UBU,” means just that – choosing to be different over the sake of normality. Kicking off the new year with confidence, she’s training to compete in her first-ever bikini competition, but her journey thus far hasn’t come without its obstacles.

Born with Klippel-Feil Syndrome, a rare bone disorder characterized by the fusion of two or more vertebrae in the neck, Stacey’s early years consisted of one doctor’s appointment after another. From navigating crowded airports to bustling school hallways, extreme precaution was required everywhere she went.

“They had people walk with me so nobody would touch me,” she recalls. “Someone could push me wrong, or I could fall, and I could be paralyzed for the rest of my life in a vegetative state.”

In 1991, Stacey underwent spinal fusion surgery, where doctors installed a titanium rod in her neck to prevent her spinal cord from moving any further. As a result, her neck mobility remains limited to 20% motion up-and-down and 30-40% left-to-right. According to Stacey, however, it’s never slowed her down from achieving her fitness goals.

When she first started attending Transforming Bodies & Minds (Elite Sports Training) back in May 2021, Stacey’s main objective was to lose a few extra COVID pounds, which she accomplished in just a few weeks. “Then I just kept on going and going,” Stacey adds. She eventually got connected with Sabrina Price, a certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist, whom Stacey credits for inspiring her to compete in the first place.

“She’s my therapist,” Stacey says. “She has motivated me to be not just a healthier person, as in physically, but mentally as well.” Together, they developed a weekly diet and exercise regimen designed to get Stacey’s body competition-ready. Three days out of the week, Sabrina leads her through hour-long training sessions, with a special focus on strength training drills with conditioning movements.

“I’m not stopping. This is a way of life now.”

Courtesy of Sabrina, Stacey also started incorporating protein shakes and supplements into her low-carb, lean-protein diet. She veers away from anything white, opting instead for more nutrientdense snacks, like avocados, eggs, or sweet potatoes.

“It’s not a chore for me anymore,” Stacey adds. “I push myself because I’m not just motivating myself – I’m motivating other people. I don’t want to let myself down, nor do I want to let other people [down] that have seen me evolve into the person that I am now.”

“Like my mother said, I’m here for a purpose. And I finally found my purpose. It took 44 years to get here.”

Staying motivated is made possible by the support she receives from her coaching staff and friends. But, more importantly than that, her 12-year-old son, Mason, remains one of her biggest fans.

“I do a lot of this for my son,” she says. “Your kids don’t see anything wrong with you, because you’re their parent. But something was told to him one day [about me]…I had that conversation with him about what happened to me. And he was like, ‘Mom, you’re beautiful.’ I cried, of course.”

Looking ahead, Stacey’s first objective is to take home the firstplace prize at competition. Next up, she has her sights set on launching her own line of activewear, featuring hoodies, sports bras, and leggings with the tagline, “Pretty Rich & Fit.”

With a desire to hone her public speaking skills, Stacey hopes to one day share her testimony with others and promote encouragement along the way.

“No one’s normal. Everybody has something wrong with them,” Stacey says. “We, as women, are beautiful at any age. So, go out and do the darn thing.”

By Colleen May
Photo by Tindall Stephens