Semret Russom: First of Her Kind

Semret Russom defied cultural norms and overcame a debilitating illness to finally reach her ultimate goal.

Photo: Before - Courtesy Semret Russom / After - Rommel Grepo

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The Shame Game

Semret Russom’s fitness journey began in 2013 when she decided to train for her first bikini show, and she quickly fell in love with the sport. “I enjoyed the strict discipline and the challenge to my willpower,” Russom says. When she finally walked onstage in her bikini, she was proud — but also ashamed.

Russom comes from Eritrea, a small country in East Africa where female modesty is prized — and expected. “Women don’t go to the gym, and we don’t have muscle,” she says. And although Russom moved to California when she was 13, she still feels deeply connected to East Africa and the culture that shaped who she is today — hence the reason why she frequently fights feelings of indignity when in public wearing an itsy-bitsy bikini.

Despite criticism from people in Eritrea, Russom continued to compete. “I am a strong, independent woman, and I wanted to show other women, especially young Eritrean girls, that it’s OK to be strong,” she says.

Scary Sick

In 2017, Russom began having flu-like symptoms that were getting worse, so she drove herself to the hospital — just in the nick of time: Doctors diagnosed her with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your nervous system. If she had waited any longer, doctors told her, the disease could have paralyzed her.

Russom spent 30 days in the hospital, including 20 in the intensive care unit, and underwent innumerable tests and treatments to fight the infection. She was on oxygen and was in an incredible amount of pain, and even though she left the hospital in a wheelchair, she was determined to rally. “I decided that nothing was going to stop me from getting my health and strength back,” she says.

Thanks to physical therapy, patience and undying persistence, Russom traded the wheelchair for a walker and started back at the gym. “I did whatever meager workout I could muster with my walker,” she says. “It was more about just being there.” Within three months, she was on her way to a near-full recovery.

Babies and Bikinis

Despite a little neuropathy pain, Russom rejoined the competition crowd, and in 2018, she earned her IFBB Bikini pro card — a longtime goal of hers. Elated, Russom began prepping for her next show, only to be interrupted by more life-changing news: She was pregnant! “I hit pause on my bodybuilding career,” she says. “Being a mom is the one thing I had always longed for.”

In 2020, Russom and her husband Robert welcomed a beautiful girl, Delina, to the world. Afterward, Russom had a minor relapse of GBS and spent a week in the hospital recovering while also adapting to her new life as a mom.

Once she was mobile, Russom began to exercise again. “It took me four months to lose the 40 pounds of baby weight,” she says. “I started by walking with the stroller, then worked my way up to the treadmill at the gym, then weights.” Today, Russom works with a personal trainer six days a week, hitting legs three days and upper body two days, and doing cardio all six days.

Her next goal is to compete as a mom. “I want to prove to other women — and to myself! — that it can be done,” Russom says. “I want to lead by example and show my daughter that she can do anything she sets her mind to.”


Location: San Diego
Age: 40
Height: 5′5″
Weight before: 193
Weight after: 139
Occupation: Business owner

Semret’s Favorites

What is your go-to late-night snack? Egg whites.

What is your daily mantra? I’m worth it! Why not me?

What do you do when you come face to face with some of your old food vices? I don’t buy anything that tempts me. Only healthy food is allowed in the house.

Did you lose a ton of weight? Overcome insurmountable obstacles and come out the other side fit and healthy? Then we want to hear from you! The Oxygen Transform section is dedicated to giving women a chance to share their journeys with others who may also be struggling with weight loss, and give them the hope and motivation to continue forward and succeed as well. Apply here.