HARLINGEN — From her Harlingen gym, Rachel McLish helped launch a fitness revolution that transformed women’s health 30 years ago.
Now a new Public Broadcasting Service project features McLish, the first Ms. Olympia, among a roster of women who have helped change America.
The project, Makers: Women Who Make America, includes a PBS documentary that will air at 7 p.m. Feb. 26 on KMBH-TV.
“By spotlighting some of the remarkable women in our nation’s modern history, Makers: Women Who Make America will tell the comprehensive story of how women have advanced in our country during the last half century,” PBS President Paula Kerger said in a press release.
McLish “put the sport of women’s bodybuilding on the map and became an international role model for women’s and girl’s fitness,” the Maker’s website said.
“It’s an incredible privilege,” McLish said from her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. “To be regarded as a groundbreaker is quite an honor.”
The website features an interview in which McLish, a 1973 Harlingen High School graduate, describes her rise in the fitness world. The interview is not included in the documentary, but is available at the project’s website, makers.com.
“My intent was to really empower women for their own good and for their own self confidence,” McLish told interviewers. “In the past, beauty was always determined by a man’s vision of what a female should look like …. I wanted to show them you could be sexy, beautiful and as strong as a man.”
McLish’s mother, Rachel Elizondo, has seen her second-youngest daughter become a symbol of women’s fitness.
“I’ve always been very proud of my daughter,” Elizondo said. “Everything she does is for the good of other people.”
As a little girl, she saw her father’s weight set as a symbol of power, McLish said in an interview with the Valley Morning Star.
“I was just very impressed with the idea of weightlifting to get stronger,” she said.
At Harlingen High School, she was a cheerleader and twice-named Cardinal’s Football Sweetheart, her sister Sandra Lopez said.
“She was very popular because of her personality and her character,” said Lopez, wife of Nat Lopez, former president of the Harlingen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “I’m very, very proud of her accomplishments. She has changed lives. She’s a self-made person. She believes in what she’s doing.”
After high school, McLish graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American with a degree in physiology and health and nutrition before co-founding the Sport Palace fitness center in Harlingen.
After she won the first Ms. Olympia competition in 1980, she became an international fitness icon.
“I thought I had a wonderful secret to share with the women of the world,” McLish said.
McLish went on to win the United States Bodybuilding Championships before writing two New York Times best-selling fitness books, 1984’s “Flex Appeal” and “Perfect Parts” in 1987.
Her fame led her to star in action films that include “Aces: Iron Eagle III,” which premiered in Harlingen on Nov. 21, 1991.
Now she’s working on two books that focus on fitness and nutrition, she said.
“Lifestyle and healthy eating — that’s my new passion,” said McLish, an advocate of organic foods who calls genetically modified foods “poison.”
“Food should be medicine,” McLish said. “It’s all about quality of life. It’s lifestyle — the choices you make. I’m still very passionate about what I do.”