Senior Airman Terrence Ruffin was crushed when he washed out of training to be a Tactical Air Control Party specialist three years ago.

To deal with the disappointment of losing his dream, he threw himself into working out. And in the process, he found a new passion for bodybuilding and set his career on a new path.

Ruffin, 21, became the youngest professional bodybuilder on the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness circuit in 28 years in November when he won the 150-pound lightweight category at a competition in Miami.

And because he showed so much dedication and discipline in his bodybuilding regimen, Ruffin earlier this month joined the Air Force's honor guard.

Ruffin, of Beatrice, Alabama, said he joined the Air Force in 2011 at age 17 because he was tired of school and didn't want to go to college after graduating from high school a year early. He went to a recruiter and when he found out about the TACP career field, he knew that is what he wanted to do.

But nine months after joining, he failed out of TACP training when he couldn't pass the week-long field training exercise in the woods.

"It was the first real failure of my adult life," Ruffin said. "It was tough. I was upset. But I found out that I could push myself a lot further and a lot harder than I ever thought I could."

That's when Ruffin returned to the gym in earnest, to keep busy and in shape while waiting to be reassigned.

"When I went to the gym, all the worries and trials and whatnot, they all just sort of left," Ruffin said in an Monday interview. "It was kind of a therapy. You can get out any frustrations, and you're too tired to worry about anything afterwards."

He continued pursuing his weightlifting hobby when he was reassigned to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi for avionics training. He met another airman there who was involved in bodybuilding and sparked his interest in the sport, and when he transferred to Eglin Air Force Base — where he currently is — bodybuilding friends encouraged him to start competing even earlier than he planned.

"I could always see myself progressing," Ruffin said. "That was really cool, to see how your body changes, from month to month, or week to week, or year to year."

Ruffin first competed in April 2013 and won second in the teen class and fifth in the lightweight 150-pound class. He was hooked. At his next competition the following March, he won first place in several categories and qualified to compete for pro status at the November event in Miami.

After performing his posing routine there — which included a full split to stand out from the competition — Ruffin won in the lightweight class. He said the judges didn't have to take a second look at him, which he took as a sign that he had decisively "outshined" the other bodybuilders.

"It felt great," Ruffin said. "My family was there to support me, and a couple of friends and even some co-workers [two fellow airmen] came down. It was a great moment, that all your hard work and dedication, it just paid off."

His supervisors took notice. They asked him to join the Honor Guard, which he did in early February.

"That's one of the main reasons they asked me to join, because [his bodybuilding efforts showed he had] the mental fortitude and the dedication it takes to be a part of the Honor Guard," Ruffin said.

Ruffin said maintaining a strict diet is the hardest part of bodybuilding. He is currently trying to bulk up to compete at a higher weight class, so he eats six times a day. His meals include 10 egg whites and three whole eggs and oatmeal in the morning, and white rice and eight ounces of chicken, beef or turkey three times throughout the day, as well as a potato for starch and two protein shakes. His final meal of the day is usually another round of 10 egg whites and three whole eggs.

Twice a week, he allows himself a cheat meal, where he gets a hamburger or pizza. He drinks more than a gallon of water each day. Ruffin said his groceries cost him anywhere from $120 to $150 a week.

He works out on an eight-day schedule, focusing on a different body part each day. He works out his chest the first day, his quads the second day, his back the fourth day, his arms the fifth day, his hamstrings the sixth day, and his shoulders on the seventh day. He takes the third and eighth days of his schedule off to rest. He said he usually starts with free weights, and then goes over to the machines.

Ruffin also does aerobic exercise five times a week, for about 20 minutes. Sometimes that means running as part of the exercise required by being part of the Air Force's Honor Guard, but when he's on his own, he either uses a stair climber or an elliptical machine.

But he said it's all worth it when he gets on stage to perform.

"I like to entertain," Ruffin said. "Being on stage and being able to make people excited is pretty fun."

Ruffin, who is five feet, five inches tall, now weighs 180 pounds. He said he wants to bulk up to 200 pounds, before getting back into prime bodybuilding shape of 180 pounds. About three months before a competition, Ruffin starts cutting carbohydrates, increasing cardio workouts, and adding more protein to his diet, Eglin said in a Feb. 2 release. This cuts his body fat and leaves lean muscle.

Before competing, he shaves his body, and applies a tanning bronzer to better show his muscle definition.

The Air Force sometimes allows airmen to take permissive leave to compete in approved sporting events, but Ruffin said he has not been granted permissive leave for his events. He said he had to take two weeks of leave to prepare for and compete in the November event, and a week for the March 2014 event.

Ruffin said he would like the Air Force to allow him to take permissive leave for his bodybuilding competitions.

"If any of the higher ups want to help, that'd be cool," he said.

He doesn't have any competitions planned at the moment, but he hopes to be ready to compete again at a higher weight class in fall 2016.

"That'll give me enough time to get down there and represent myself in the best shape possible," Ruffin said.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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