When Jodi Harrison Bauer, 58, arrived to the Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit open casting call at 5 a.m. on a rainy July morning in Miami, she knew exactly what to expect: hours of waiting on line, bouncing around from room to room and standing next to thousands of women 20 years her junior for a chance to join the SI Swim family.
But the Branford, Connecticut native didn’t consider the age difference a disadvantage.
“I believed I had a lot to share with people,” the mother-of-two told PEOPLE. “The SI Swim Issue is inclusive of every woman. They have every shape and size, yet they don’t have an older woman who isn’t a famous professional model.”
While she says she doubted herself “one million times, she was determined to go through the try-out process. “I thought, what do I tell my daughters? I tell them that it’s about the journey, it’s about stepping boldly out of your box and it’s about standing in your truth. And that’s what I did.”
Bauer made it to the top 60 contestants (out of 5,000) before being eliminated, and is already considering going back to next year’s casting call to give it another go.
“I believed in myself, but I [also] knew change couldn’t happen without action,” she says.
Bauer has always aspired to work in the fitness industry. But it wasn’t until she left her “cushy life” with her ex-husband and became a single, working mother that she decided to take her passion to the next level.
“I lost myself in my marriage,” she adds. “I felt like there was something much more to me and I knew it included fitness or something [being] physical.”
After divorcing her husband at 43, she quickly became a certified personal trainer and went on to open a gym of her own, JodiFit Boutique Fitness Studio, at 50.
“I [wanted] to be a different kind of role model for my daughters,” Bauer says of daughters Elyssa, 30, and Lexi, 26. “They only knew the mommy who volunteered at school and did the laundry. I was boxed in. But then I started creating my own journey and I got out of that box.”
While trying to build a new path as a trainer, Bauer decided to enter in her first fitness show, a longtime dream of hers.
Bauer wasted no time diving into fitness competitions. She found a coach and entered her first show. “Nobody knew what to do with me,” she describes. “The divisions were only for 35 and up, and I was 47 at the time. Everybody told me I was too old.”
But she didn’t take no for an answer. She worked with the competition executives to create a 45 and up division and won two world shows. In 2010, she took a hiatus from competing to focus on her fitness business, but returned at age 56. After her mother suffered from a stroke, she felt compelled to compete one last time in honor of her and won second place in her division.
With the support of her two daughters and her now-second husband at the show, Bauer felt the utmost confidence in herself and her ability to finally try out for Sports Illustrated Swim issue.
“I feel my most confident at 58 because, in my mind, I’m really only 38,” Bauer says. “I have had so many experiences that have taught me how to really, really trust myself. When I met my [now] husband, I knew I was never going to ever be in a relationship where somebody boxed me in, told me how to dress or told me how to talk, again. That was the old Jodi and now I’m not waiting for anybody’s approval.”
And at 58, Bauer has never felt sexier, and looks to former model Cindy Crawford as inspiration. “I felt super sexy when I was doing the [Sports Illustrated Swim audition] photo shoot – that’s when I got to get my mojo on,” Bauer notes. “When I am feeling really strong and healthy in my body, or I’m on stage for fitness competition, I feel the boldest, strongest and fiercest.”
Bauer’s regular fitness routine consists of 45 minutes to an hour of weight-lifting four times a week and a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) cardio workout three to four times a week. She also credits yoga and meditation for keeping her mind and body healthy.
As she considers entering in the contest again next year, she’s proud of how far she’s come.
“We are in charge of our own lives and changing it when we’re ready, and fear should never stop us from doing that,” she says. “Embrace fear and let it be your friend. And I’m here to show my daughters and women that age was never a factor for me and it’s never stopped me from pursuing my dreams.”