CHESHIRE — Growing up in Cheshire, Ava Melillo recalls struggling with self-confidence. She had concerns about her weight and didn’t feel comfortable standing up in front of other people.
“I was picked on a bit growing up,” reflected Melillo, a 2014 Cheshire High School graduate. “When I got to college, I wanted to take care of myself. I went to the gym and focused on a low-calorie diet.”
At first, Melillo just wanted to adopt a healthier lifestyle, but as time moved on, she discovered a passion for bodybuilding.
“Picking it up gave me an identity,” explained Melillo. “Not that I don’t still struggle today (with confidence), but now I know who I am.”
Recently, she overcame her nerves to stand tall on a big stage. Making her International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) professional league debut in September, Melillo won the National Physique Committee North American Women’s Heavyweight and Overall Division crowns at the Sheraton Station Square in Pittsburgh.
“I’ve never felt anything like that in my life. I was proud be first in my divisions,” said Melillo.
Competition started with pre-judging in the morning.
“I was excited and nervous,” recalled Melillo. “It was tough backstage, but once I got out there, my body took over.”
Judges look at size, symmetry and muscularity of competitors. Top preliminary performers are asked to move into the center and, to her surprise, Melillo was picked for the honor in Pittsburgh.
“You don’t expect that,” said Melillo. “When they moved me, my family, boyfriend and friends went nuts.”
After the night program, she was announced as the champion of two divisions. Melillo said that it was truly awesome to have so many people supporting her in the crowd.
In the past, she had thought about having her father Robert come to a show.
“It meant a lot that he was there to see that achievement,” added Melillo.
She felt that the honors were years in the making. After graduating from CHS, Melillo initially attended Meredith College in North Carolina, but decided that the school wasn’t right for her, so she moved back to Connecticut and took online classes at Gateway Community College.
Melillo started lifting at age 17, but didn’t pick up bodybuilding until she was 20.
A year and a half ago, Melillo chose to get serious about bodybuilding after moving to Pittsburgh with her boyfriend, 2019 Mr. USA winner Zach Merkel. Melillo initially wanted to have him coach her, but then Merkel introduced her to Morgan Rice at Powerhouse Gym.
“Coming to Pittsburgh was a game-changer,” reflected Melillo. “My body has always been bigger. My confidence just held me back in the past.”
Melillo appreciated Rice’s help in building her physique.
“Morgan is a no (excuse) kind-of-guy,” said Melillo. “He said that, ‘We are going to do this,’ and we did it.”
After deciding that the time was right to start performing, Melillo estimated that it took five months to get ready for her first show.
“Training can be different, but the intensity is always high,” stated Melillo. “You are watching your food to see how many calories you are taking in.”
She found that the posing was something that she really had to work on.
“I don’t think that people realize how much goes into it,” explained Melillo. “Posing has a big impact on your performance.”
While participating in an individual sport, she has enjoyed building relationships with other competitors and watching them perform in shows.
“I think there is a (common) friendship in women’s body building,” said Melillo.
She also feels that friends and family have helped her persevere through tough times, like when countless gyms were shut down at the start of the pandemic two years ago.
“That was hard. At the time, (going to the gym) was the surest thing that I could rely on,” recalled Melillo. “I had friends open their homes to me to work out. I was (training) on bar bells and dumb bells for a while.”
Melillo is currently heading into her off-season from bodybuilding, but feels that there is still work to do.
“I’m going to focus on my performance,” stated Melillo.
As she has grown up, Melillo feels more comfortable sharing her story. She has become a coach and used her training to help people with their fitness goals.
Melillo has also created a page on Instagram and has already garnered over 2,800 followers.
“I don’t post a lot on social media, but I’ve started to drop more stuff on that platform,” said Melillo.
Her big goal is to make the Olympia competition and compete among the world’s elite. The weekend event is annually held in Las Vegas.
“That is the biggest stage in bodybuilding,” said Melillo.