Neggy Shelton’s sister, Negar Shaltouki, left, and their mother, Sedighe Mousavi, tend to Shelton, who is on life support at a health-care facility in Alexandria, Va., on Sunday. While Shelton’s eyes sometimes open, she remains largely unresponsive with an extensive brain injury. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
A 36-year-old female bodybuilder who collapsed days before a November competition is on life support after following an aggressive conditioning plan from one of the industry’s most controversial coaches.
Neggy Shelton had been struggling to finish her 2½-hour workouts, subsisting on performance-enhancing drugs and an 890-calorie meal plan detailed by her coach, James Ayotte. “I’m very low energy and sometimes I have dizziness,” she messaged.
“No problem Do ur best,” Ayotte responded. “Just dont cheat on diet!”
Two days after the exchange, Shelton was found unconscious in her Ashburn, Va., apartment with a dangerously low blood glucose level, according to medical records reviewed by The Washington Post.
Doctors at Inova Loudoun Hospital concluded that Shelton’s hypoglycemic state was “likely [related to] diet, supplements, and extensive workouts” and likely led to her brain injury. They have warned her family that she may never recover, according to relatives and medical records. She is now in a health-care facility in Alexandria.
Shelton, an Iranian immigrant who dreamed of competing professionally, is a stark example of how bodybuilders are risking their lives, and sometimes dying, because of extreme measures that are encouraged by coaches, rewarded by judges and ignored by leaders of the industry, according to a recent investigation by The Post.
Ayotte denied any role or responsibility for what happened to Shelton. He said that from what he understood, if someone had found her sooner, “she would have been perfectly fine.”
“No way on me and anything I’ve done,” Ayotte said.
Shelton’s story underscores the perils of a sport with scant oversight, and no qualifications required for coaches, who often dictate every aspect of an athlete’s food and water intake, workout regimen and drug plan as they prepare for months to compete. But when something goes wrong, the athletes suffer the consequences — with few, if any, repercussions for the coaches, The Post found.
Shelton was getting ready for a contest in Virginia run by the National Physique Committee, the country’s premier amateur bodybuilding federation. There is no widespread testing for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs at hundreds of shows around the world sanctioned by the NPC and its professional counterpart, the IFBB Pro League. Federation officials have declined to answer specific questions from The Post, but in a previous company statement said, “The health, safety and welfare of all our competitors has, and always will be, of utmost importance to us.”
When Shelton first found Ayotte on Instagram last year, he had already built a large social media following, posting dramatic transformation photos of his clients, whom he refers to as “eggs.” He runs his company, Team Atlas, out of Montreal, where he lives.
Ayotte, 30, is an entrepreneur with no medical background. He worked as a trainer after battling obesity and did a year of “self-researching” before coaching his first bodybuilding client, according to an interview on a bodybuilding podcast from 2020. The Team Atlas website boasts of hundreds of clients with “unbelievable results” since 2015, many of whom compete as bodybuilders.
Ayotte has become a powerful player in the industry, helping to sponsor contests across the country, including the prestigious Olympia last year. Some of Ayotte’s top athletes, including Olympia competitor India Paulino, have praised him for helping them achieve their goals.
“Having the right coach is crucial to your success and overall health,” Paulino posted this fall on Instagram, about two months before Shelton was found unconscious. “James pays attention to detail and makes you feel like you are the only person he’s coaching even though he coaches hundreds of women.”
Ayotte also has been dogged for years by misconduct allegations. In 2018, two bodybuilding organizations in Canada suspended him for life after multiple athletes accused Ayotte of sexual misconduct, including making requests for nude photos, according to Georgina Dunnington, the former chairperson of the Canadian Bodybuilding Federation. A notice announcing his suspension cited Ayotte’s “words, actions and social media conduct.”
In recent years, Ayotte has been accused by former clients of engaging in sexual misconduct, providing risky contest preparation plans and helping to supply athletes with performance-enhancing drugs, according to interviews with a dozen bodybuilders and coaches, along with a review of emails, messages, videos, police reports and court records.
“I coach thousands of girls, right? And 99.9 percent are super pleased with my service and are happy,” Ayotte told The Post in one of multiple interviews over several weeks.
He dismissed the lifetime suspension as politically motivated and said there is “no merit” to any sexual misconduct accusations. He also denied providing drugs to clients, saying, “I haven’t mailed packages of drugs.”
Drug orders were sometimes allegedly handled with the help of his girlfriend, Hannah Mehregan, and labeled as essential oils or vitamins to evade customs, according to several former clients and messages documenting the transactions.
“Please make sure you order all non natural supplements from Hannah before this Sunday to last you until your show, as we won’t be able to ship anything until I’m back! Make sure you don’t run out of anything, ost, tamoxifen, clen, etc!” Ayotte posted on “Team Atlas Girls,” a private Facebook group, according to a screenshot reviewed by The Post.
The message referenced several drugs that are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency: ostarine, a synthetic drug known as a “SARM,” a selective androgen receptor modulator that mimics the effects of anabolic steroids and is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; tamoxifen, a prescription drug for breast cancer patients that bodybuilders use to try to burn fat more easily; and the fat-burner clenbuterol, a medicine that is approved only for horses in the United States and Canada.
“Sarms are 120 per bottle … The bottle will be labeled as essential oils or vitamin D so that it passes customs,” Ayotte wrote to a client in 2020, according to Facebook messages shared with The Post, along with a PayPal receipt.
Charla Drabant, a former client, said she paid about $270 last year to Team Atlas for ostarine that Ayotte advised her to take, and Mehregan sent a photo of a tracking label: “Please message James once your order was received! The bottle will be labeled as essential oils so that it passes customs.”
The Post reviewed these messages, along with a receipt and photos of the drugs. Ayotte and Mehregan declined to comment on these transactions or their clients’ use of performance-enhancing drugs.
‘Get the f— out of my gym’
Like Shelton, Drabant was a relative newcomer to the bodybuilding industry. She said she hired Ayotte in 2021 after seeing his name repeatedly on Instagram and noticing the success he had helping athletes get their pro cards, which allow amateur bodybuilders to compete professionally.
Ayotte, on the podcast, described himself as a marketing expert, saying, “I know how to manipulate social media. … I make a joke that, you know, my marketing is even better than my coaching.”
Drabant said she hadn’t heard about Ayotte’s lifetime suspension or the misconduct allegations against him. Ayotte was still welcomed at contests in the United States, and his company regularly advertised with the NPC and the IFBB Pro League.
But Drabant grew alarmed within minutes of meeting her new coach. Ayotte, she said, told her to take off her clothes, then touched her glutes and legs as she posed in a thong and bra. She claims he insisted on massaging her after she said no, and asked her to stay the night. Drabant posted a video on Instagram about the encounter to warn other bodybuilders, and later filed a complaint with police.
Drabant received a “legal notice” from an attorney demanding that she take down the video and remove her comments. But she decided to post a second video after hearing from many other women who, she says, shared similar experiences. She hoped to get the attention of federation leaders, including Jim Manion, who runs the NPC and IFBB Pro League.
She did. When Drabant showed up to the NPC gym in Pittsburgh in September 2021, she said, J.M. Manion, the son of Jim Manion, confronted her, saying she was trying to bring down the family and hurt their business.
“Get the f— out of my gym,” J.M. Manion barked at Drabant, warning her not to bother competing again. A witness confirmed the encounter on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation.
Drabant later emailed the Manions to “apologize for any pain or harm I have caused the NPC/IFBB and the Manion family,” according to a copy reviewed by The Post.
But she urged them to take action: “I am very willing to work with you, and all of the victims who have approached me, to find the appropriate actions/solutions to make the bodybuilding industry a safer place for everyone.”
Drabant said no one ever responded. The Manions declined to answer specific questions about Drabant and Ayotte, but issued a statement that Ayotte’s suspension in 2018 had “no bearing on the NPC or IFBB Pro League. These [other] organizations are not connected in any way and there is no way for the NPC or IFBB Pro League to know about the actions taken by other, foreign-based, organizations against individuals.”
Ayotte acknowledged touching Drabant as he helped her pose, but called her other allegations “100 percent fake, on my mother’s life.” Police did not issue criminal charges.
Ayotte said he has been falsely accused in the past, referencing a lawsuit he filed in Canada against two female athletes. Court records show Ayotte dropped his claim against one woman, and a $25,000 judgment was entered against the other after the matter proceeded by default when the woman did not respond to the claim against her.
Drabant ultimately discovered that the legal threat she had received in response to her Instagram video was not from a lawyer, but Ayotte posing as one. She filed a complaint with the Bar of Montreal. Ayotte was found guilty this year and fined $3,250, according to documents posted by the agency.
Ayotte acknowledged to The Post that he sent the letter to Drabant using “a fake lawyer’s name,” and compared the fine to a parking ticket.
Drabant has since left bodybuilding, no longer willing to participate in a sport that she says prioritizes coaches and sponsors like Ayotte over the health and safety of its athletes.
“How am I supposed to have a voice in this industry when not even the people at the top want to acknowledge me?” Drabant said. “I’m literally just trying to hold this guy accountable for his wrongdoing.”
‘An egg of the team Atlas’
As Drabant was growing more disillusioned with the sport, Neggy Shelton was looking for a bodybuilding coach.
Shelton had moved to the United States in 2018 on her own after winning a visa lottery. She came from a family of athletes – her dad won judo competitions and her brother was a bodybuilder. In 2021, Shelton decided to follow in her brother’s footsteps and competed in her first contest. She dreamed of one day opening a gym in the United States as her family had done in Iran.
But first, she needed to go pro. In November last year, Shelton hired Ayotte, unaware of the coach’s history or the allegations against him, her family said. Shelton paid about $1,200 every three months for coaching, according to PayPal receipts. She trusted Ayotte completely.
“Today I’m an egg of the team Atlas,” Shelton messaged him on Instagram earlier this year. “Sometimes I can not believe that I can achieve my dreams one by one, I’m serious about this journey.”
Shelton, who worked as a freelance graphic designer, spent nearly a year preparing with Ayotte through online check-ins. In the podcast interview, Ayotte said he prefers to work with women, explaining that men have “a bigger ego. … A girl is gonna listen and they want to learn.”
Shelton’s relatives said they started raising questions about Ayotte’s methods as Shelton complained of dizziness, fatigue, blurred vision and constant hunger. Her glowing brown skin faded to a ghostly pale, said Arian Mazloumi, Shelton’s best friend, who lived nearby and tried to persuade her to stray from her strict diet.
Shelton’s sister, Negar Shaltouki, told The Post that Shelton dismissed their concerns and insisted Ayotte knew what was best.
“She thought of James like a god,” said Shaltouki, who recently arrived in the United States with her mother, Sedighe Mousavi, on emergency visas to be with Shelton. Her family gave The Post access to Shelton’s medical records, along with her Instagram and Facebook exchanges with Ayotte to help piece together what happened.
Shelton had planned to compete in the wellness division, which rewards female physiques “that showcase more body mass in the hips, glutes and thigh areas,” according to the NPC’s website.
For months, Ayotte focused on getting Shelton thinner.
By the end of July, the 5-foot-6-inch Shelton reported weighing 134 pounds. When she asked Ayotte if she could reduce how many calories she was expected to burn each day, he rebuffed her request.
“Not yet,” he wrote in a Facebook message with a smiling face emoji. “Lets keep leaning down!”
Ayotte had instructed her in messages to order the fat-burner clenbuterol and two other performance-enhancing drugs, and directed her to a website to purchase them with the discount code “atlas.”
“Really,” Shelton wrote with a loudly crying emoji.
“tell me once received. Will help lean legs,” Ayotte responded.
Nearly every week, Shelton answered an extensive questionnaire for her coach, detailing all the “non natural supplements” she was taking: two types of steroids, human growth hormone, clenbuterol, three kinds of drugs for breast cancer patients and two SARMs. In other messages, Ayotte gave detailed dosages and instructions.
By early August, she hadn’t lost any more weight.
“We need to be a lot Leaner,” Ayotte messaged, then quizzed her on her diet. “What are you putting in your mouth that isn’t directly written on plan?”
Shelton responded that she hadn’t been cheating, but could burn only 550 calories during her workouts instead of the required 750.
“No more sugar free stuff. No gummies too,” Ayotte wrote. “Finish ur cardio.”
By early October, Shelton had dropped to 126 pounds. Her weekly Facebook check-ins revealed that she was on an 890-calorie meal plan while expected to burn nearly 1,000 calories — a task that often took her 2½ hours to complete.
Shelton had her eyes set on the NPC Mid-Atlantic Open on Nov. 12 in Virginia. And as the competition drew closer, Ayotte bumped her cardio up to 1,100 calories and advised her to increase dosages of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, according to Facebook exchanges and a voice message obtained by The Post.
On Oct. 27, Shelton reported weighing 124 pounds. She said her body ached, and she couldn’t get her heart rate up or burn more than 700 to 800 calories during workouts.
When she asked her coach which supplements would get her heart rate up, Ayotte wrote that she could increase her dosage of clenbuterol from 80 micrograms up to as much as 160 micrograms, and stay on the drug until the show roughly two weeks later.
Shelton’s siblings said her health continued to deteriorate as the competition neared. In one of the last messages to her brother on Nov. 4, Shelton wrote: “I’m sick of hunger. I shiver from night to morning and I am drenched in sweat.”
Shelton also confided to Ayotte that she wasn’t able to make it through her workouts.
“Last 2 days I couldn’t finish my cardio. I just did 700 calorie of my cardio,” Shelton wrote on Nov. 7.
The next day, Shelton reported to Ayotte with a heart-eyed emoji: she had dropped five pounds from the day before, to 118.
“Yay Wow 118,” Ayotte responded.
Shelton promised to send photos, but she never did.
When she FaceTimed her sister that day, Shaltouki said Shelton was too weak to hold up the phone and laid it on the bed.
On Nov. 9, Ayotte messaged Shelton and asked for her check-in. She never responded. Ayotte wrote her one last time, but unsent the message so that it was no longer visible when The Post reviewed the exchange.
Shelton’s sister grew desperate as she called and texted Shelton without an answer. A worried friend persuaded the landlord to open her apartment that night. They found Shelton unconscious near the door.
After the bodybuilder’s family shared a GoFundMe site on Instagram last month, Ayotte messaged through his Team Atlas account, “If she come out of coma I will help and give her 10,000$”
Shelton’s sister responded that they needed help now, and Ayotte eventually sent $1,000 through a PayPal account, according to a message he sent through Instagram with a photo of the transaction.
Shelton was hospitalized for nearly a month before being moved into long-term care. While her eyes sometimes open, she remains largely unresponsive and requires a ventilator and feeding tube.
Carla Janson, who worked as an emergency medicine doctor for more than 40 years, reviewed some of Shelton’s messages and medical records at The Post’s request.
Janson said Shelton was starving herself and hyper-exercising, and the drugs would only have worsened her condition. “She was on this cocktail of all these other things that nobody in their right mind would ever put together. … It’s just unbelievable.”
Claude Groulx, a former Olympia competitor who said he once trained Ayotte as a weight-loss client in Canada, described Shelton’s regimen as “dangerous” — and something he would never advise.
Groulx said Ayotte had been kicked out of the gym where they trained clients after he reported allegations that Ayotte was giving people steroids and had taken an inappropriate photo of a client. The gym owner at the time did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“He cares only about winning competitions and doesn’t care about their health risks,” Groulx, who works as a bodybuilding coach, said of Ayotte. “A lot of girls win but they end up sick after the show.”
Ayotte denied Groulx’s allegations, and told The Post he left the gym on his own, adding, “it wasn’t the right place for me.”
Ayotte did not address the health concerns raised by clients and other coaches. But he said that to be competitive, “the level of body fat that these girls need to get to sometimes require higher cardio and lower food.”
“It’s part of the game,” he said.
Lauralie Chapados, once one of Ayotte’s highest-profile athletes, said she was in a “very unhealthy state” last year after following her coach’s plan to severely restrict her calories, do two hours of cardio daily and take a cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs.
“My mental capacity was just awful … just not even a human being, like couldn’t laugh, couldn’t talk, couldn’t go to the bathroom,” she said.
Chapados said she didn’t follow Ayotte’s plan last year before the Olympia. When she placed well at the competition and didn’t give Ayotte credit on Instagram, he sued her in Canada. The case is ongoing.
Ayotte told The Post that he had “no other option” because Chapados owed thousands of dollars in expenses, and he lost potential clients and income after she failed to give him credit for the work they did together.
Ayotte and Team Atlas continue to maintain a high profile, with advertisements on the NPC’s website. One of the federation’s top show promoters lists Team Atlas in its directory “to help find the perfect coach.”
At the Olympia in Las Vegas this past weekend, Ayotte stood beaming backstage, surrounded by his female athletes in bikinis. He posted the photo and various others on Instagram: “I can’t believe how good all my girls look it’s unbelievable.”
Back in Virginia, Shelton’s family and friends are trying to raise money for medical and other expenses, because the bodybuilder had no health insurance. They celebrated her 36th birthday late last month in the hospital with cake and balloons. Her sister painted her nails bright pink.
Shaltouki and her mother spend nearly two hours traveling every day to see Shelton in the health-care facility.
Before they left one recent evening, Shaltouki nestled close to her older sister, whispered her full name, Naghmeh, and pleaded with her in Farsi: “Please wake up.”
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