The crowd begins filing in about 5:30pm, resembling the genetic cream-of-the-crop of what you might find at an uptown bar -- unnaturally tan, tight t-shirts, lots of hair gel, long nails and monumental pumps.
At about 6pm Roger Morrison, the event's promoter, calls the 85 competitors gathered backstage to attention and runs down the instructions, including when and where to proceed on and off stage. As they ready themselves for showtime, many strip down to tiny swimsuits and head for the "pump-up" room -- a makeshift backstage gym where they get in a few last-minute reps to gorge their muscles with blood. From there it's over to the designated oiling and tanning area, where they're turned into shiny brown mannequins. There is much preening and posing going on in front of the double full-length mirrors as the contestants run through their routines and make sure all the right parts are strategically covered and/or exposed.
Wandering around this surreal scene -- feeling every bit the proverbial 98-pound weakling -- I'm struck by the cartoonish nature of it all. Nearly everyone present is a walking exaggeration of our culture's sexual and physical characteristics. But that's just what people have paid their $20 to see.
The Mountaineer Championships competition is a national qualifier, meaning that the top two finalists in each weight class will automatically qualify for a national competition, where first place winners are awarded their pro card. Turning pro means bigger and better sponsors, national recognition, and the chance -- albeit a small one -- to earn a living as a professional bodybuilder. It's a goal that's attainable only to the most genetically gifted, and even then it takes tremendous dedication and commitment, as well as -- according to many of those in the sport's upper ranks -- a boost from steroids and other supplements.
"The sport of bodybuilding has gotten far more competitive and demanding," said Morrison, who was a competitive bodybuilder himself for over 10 years, and won Mr. NC in '94. He now owns a World Gym in Concord, and runs Morrison Productions, which sponsors bodybuilding events like the Mountaineer all across the region. "Like any sport, there are sacrifices and dangers involved. It's a good sport for someone who is single, doesn't have kids or another demanding job."
Indeed, many of the competitors here tonight already base their entire schedules around the hours they spend training in the gym and working on their routine. While friends and family members are happily munching on pizza and beer, they stick to an extremely regimented and bland diet observed more for its protein, calorie and carbohydrate percentages than taste and variety. It's a lifestyle defined by intensity and sacrifice, and not many people could maintain it -- nor would they want to.
Walking the Walk
Tony Harris is in the gym most mornings by 6am. As opposed to the casual fitness enthusiast who might spend about an hour working out his or her entire body, Tony will spend at least an hour, sometimes two, working one body part. That's followed by about an hour on the treadmill or stationary bicycle. He usually eats six small meals a day, and his diet is as simple as it is bland -- oatmeal, applesauce, chicken, broccoli, sweet potatoes, rice cakes and water. Of course, no sugar or butter. Weighing in at a deceptive 150 pounds, Tony is no hulking monster, but all that training and dieting has paid off, as every muscle in his body is pumped and superbly well-defined.
The month of September was crunch-time for Tony and he stepped up his already demanding training regiment in preparation for two bodybuilding competitions -- one in Virginia, and the Mountaineer at ASU. The strenuous pace has taken its toll.
"I might fall asleep around midnight, but I'll be up by 3am because my mind is always running," he said. "I'm constantly thinking about my routine, my music, my training, and making time for my kids and girlfriend. It's very hectic. I don't have any time for myself."
When Tony isn't working out or practicing his routine, he's usually training others at Powerhouse 24 Hour Gym on Independence Blvd. Powerhouse is home to many of the city's hard-core weightlifters, where the lack of shiny new equipment is offset by an expansive, no-frills weight room in the basement.
Tony has always been an athlete; he started lifting weights in high school while playing football and running track.
"By the time I was in 10th grade I was probably the strongest guy in my school," he says. After he graduated, Tony flirted briefly with a career in semi-pro football, but eventually wound up working at Family Dollar Warehouse. All the while, he continued to lift weights, mostly to just stay in shape. But about five years ago he started getting serious, and began training others.
"I was making more money as a personal trainer than I was at Family Dollar," he says, "so I quit that and really started focusing on competing."
It didn't take long for Tony, now 30, to start winning national and state titles, an achievement due as much to his flamboyant stage show as his impressive physique. "I may not be as big or thick as a lot of the other guys, but I can hold my own when it comes to the performance. You have to know how to work the stage. A lot of guys are just going through the motions. I'm going to do something to make people take notice. I've got good rhythm, I can dance and I just let it flow. If you got it, you have to know how to use it. I know how to use it."
Like Tony, Demi Goodman, 31, grew up an athlete, running track in high school and playing football with her three older brothers. She started training seriously about five years ago, and eventually became a personal trainer at Charlotte's uptown YMCA. One day she saw a fitness competition on TV, and knew it was an event in which she could excel. She entered her first competition in June, and finished in the top third of about 90 women. "It was a wonderful learning experience, and I really caught the fitness competition bug."
September was crunch time for Demi, too, as she trained for the Mountaineer competition. Her daily routine typically begins with a 30-minute run or bike ride. She trains at Powerhouse six days a week, typically for an hour and a half. At a lean 129 pounds, she can bench press 135 pounds, and squats 185 pounds. She curls 35-pound dumbbells. Her diet is remarkably similar to Tony's. Breakfast is typically egg whites or plain oatmeal. A few hours later she has a protein shake. For lunch and dinner it's usually fish or chicken, with veggies and maybe brown rice or a sweet potato. Typically she measures out her food portions on a scale, and then records each meal into a diet journal.
"My eating routine is very regimented," she says. "You do kind of become a slave to that, but I try not to take it too seriously. You have to go out and let loose sometimes. Otherwise you get burnt-out and you'll lose focus."
Goodman says she doesn't see this kind of regimentation as obsessive or unnatural, but does agree that fitness and working out is an extremely important part of her everyday personal and professional life.
"Being in shape is an integral part of my livelihood," she says. "For clients to take you seriously you have to talk the talk and walk the walk."
Whatever It Takes
Tony and Demi's stories are similar to most of the folks competing at the Mountaineer. Both were athletic growing up, they thrive on competition, are goal-oriented, and their livelihood depends on their fitness level and physique. But what is it that drives some people to the extremes found in professional bodybuilding? To dedicate all their time, money and effort in order to possess the gargantuan, sculpted -- and some say freakish -- physique of the sport's elite? Especially when you consider the pay off.
In order to make any money as a bodybuilder one must first reach pro status. This can only be accomplished by qualifying for the necessary national competitions. Once you win first place at a national competition, you're granted a pro card by the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB), which is to professional bodybuilding what the NFL, NBA and PGA are to their respective sports. An IFBB Pro Card allows you to compete in world championships, which provide greater exposure and cash prizes. The best of these competitors are put under contract by the IFBB, and are paid a yearly salary to make a certain number of personal appearances at places like gyms and health stores. Some of them land lucrative spokesperson deals with athletic gear manufacturers, supplement companies and the like. However, the vast majority must handle their own appearances and negotiate their own deals, with the bigger names getting the better packages. And just like in professional golf or tennis, there are various professional bodybuilding tours and tournaments, where appearance fees and purses vary according to the size of the event. The bottom line, though, is that because of the sport's limited public appeal, it's the rare individual who can earn a living as a professional bodybuilder.
"I'd say only about the top 10 percent of bodybuilders actually make a living as professionals," Morrison said. "It's not like pro golfers who can finish way down on the leader board and still make good money. If you finish way down in a bodybuilding competition you're not going to see much money. Bodybuilding is a more extreme sport, sort of on the fringe. You mention a top NFL player and everybody knows who he is. You mention some of the top bodybuilders in the world and most people have no idea who they are. It's almost like a cult."
In addition to the limited career opportunities, the physical punishment and demanding lifestyle, there's also the ongoing controversy over steroid use -- notoriously widespread among the sport's upper ranks -- and its many negative side effects. The heavy irony is that these side effects impact the very traits of masculinity male competitors are trying so hard to enhance.
"Steroids can cause things like rectal bleeding, liver and kidney malfunction, mood swings, hair loss, decreased libido and testicular atrophy," said Dr. Glenn Perry, of Perry and Barron Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. Perry is also head team physician with the Charlotte Hornets, Checkers, Knights and Sting. "Many competitive bodybuilders understand the risks, but are still willing to take them. They tend to be extremely intense and dedicated to their sport, and in some cases I would say fanatical about their training. It's a drive to succeed at whatever the costs."
Of course, not all bodybuilders use steroids, and there are some professional organizations like the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF) that don't allow supplements. Yet it's also true that a WNBF event will usually draw a crowd about half the size of the shows that feature the steroid-induced monsters.
"Today the stakes are so much higher; there's really nothing that some people won't do to win," Morrison said. "When you see these guys step out on stage who are 5'10" and weigh 265 pounds with 3 percent body fat -- that's not normal. Obviously there is some steroid use taking place in order to reach and maintain that level. But that's what makes it extreme, and that's what people pay to see. No professional bodybuilder can compete more than five or six years. It's just too tough and punishing on the body. It'll take years off your life."
However, folks like Dr. Joe Estwanik of Metrolina Orthopedic Sports Medicine says bodybuilders oftentimes get an unfair rap. Estwanik, who is past sports medicine chairman for USA Boxing and ringside physician for the Ultimate Fighting Championships, says that bodybuilders are no different than any other dedicated athlete.
"Every sport has its eccentrics," said Estwanik, who at one time was a competitive bodybuilder himself. "Look at people on the professional golf circuit. I bet that if you talk to some of their family members or wives -- and probably their ex-wives -- that many of them had nothing else in their life but golf. At the same time, what about the corporate executive who gets up at 5am everyday to go to work and doesn't get home until 8 or 9 at night? So that kind of behavior can be present in any field, competition or endeavor. Some can lead a successful, balanced life, some can't.
"We have a need to compete and excel," Estwanik continued. "Because weightlifters take off their clothes and step out into the spotlight, the results are more spectacularly exposed. It's not that obvious with, say, a gymnast, or even the Little Leaguer or junior tennis player who absolutely destroys their elbow joints in pursuit of their sport. So I prefer to use the term dedication when discussing professional bodybuilders. Others may use terms less complimentary."
Strike a Pose
Back at the Mountaineer Competition it's just about showtime, and things are starting to get a little frantic. Lee Lipscomb, a burly, no-nonsense guy, maintains order backstage with the blunt effectiveness of a Marine drill sergeant, barking out orders, calling contestants by their numbers, and making sure everyone is where they're supposed to be.
Once the competition starts, things move pretty fast. There are several different divisions and classes, which cover every conceivable shape, size, age and experience level. While there are plenty of muscular and rippled guys here, none of them yet have the impossibly overdeveloped bodies you see gracing the covers of bodybuilding magazines where every muscle fiber and blood vessel is bulging and visible. While there are many impressive-looking female bodybuilders present, some who could undoubtedly bench press me with only mild exertion, there are none of the Amazonian variety who look like Hercules in a string bikini. Even within the hard-core bodybuilding subculture, this extreme end of the sport's spectrum has largely fallen out of favor. Today, more emphasis is being placed on "fitness," and "figure" competitions, which are essentially combinations of swimsuit, gymnastics and beauty contests.
Such competitions have attracted a gaggle of exceptionally fit women to the Mountaineer, and I've found myself in the unusual position of being able to ogle beautiful, bikini-clad women with complete impunity. In fact, when my camera points their way they automatically assume the much practiced and rather peculiar looking Beauty Queen Pose: arms held just so, shoulders back, feet pointed at 45-degrees, and body turned at a slight angle to give them a more slimming appearance. This bit of gymnastics is all the more impressive when you consider it's done while teetering atop six-inch heels and maintaining a big white grin.
As they wait to be called onto stage, the fitness and figure girls nervously mill about backstage. However, girlfriends Joelle Tyler, a breathtakingly pretty blond from Alabama, and her equally pretty friend Krista Massey, an exotic dancer from Wilmington, laugh and dance around, seemingly immune to pre-show jitters. When I ask Massey how she got started in figure competitions, she's honest and blunt.
"I used to weigh 210 pounds," she said. "Two years ago my boyfriend told me that no one would ever love such a fat girl except for him. That day, I joined the gym. The boyfriend is history, but here I am," she says with a rowdy laugh.
Jennifer Griffin, 32, a public relations executive with an ad agency in Greenville, SC, drove up by herself the night before in order to compete. Once you add up the costs of her hotel room, the entry fees, food and her bathing suits, she's spent about $500 to be here. The only prizes awarded tonight will be trophies.
"I've competed in beauty pageants all my life," she said. "But there's just not much for women over 30 to do. To walk out on stage and be judged alongside your peers. . .it's a great mental and physical challenge."
When the women are finally called out, they parade across the stage, make a quarter turn, hold the Beauty Queen Pose for a few seconds, and then parade back. Demi, who is already 5'8", towers over most of the other girls in her high heels.
The men and women's bodybuilding competitions are next. With heavy metal and hip-hop music blasting, they make their way onto the stage first in groups. As the field is narrowed down, the top finalists are called back out one by one and they perform their routines.
Trish Campbell, a personal trainer at Gold's Gym in Pineville, is 46, but could easily pass for a very healthy and fit 36-year-old. She's been training seriously for about three years, and this is her first competition. She wins second place in the women's masters division, for those 35 and over.
Tami Tucker, 34, a personal trainer from Darlington, SC, is competing in the women's open division. She won the SC State Championships in 1996 and looks superbly fit. I'm shocked when she tells me she had a baby less than two years ago. "I was back to my old self in three months," she said. "That would never have been possible unless I had spent most of my life exercising and lifting weights."
Tucker is one of those people you can tell is in fantastic shape, just by looking at the lean and angular shape of her face. However, she tells me that the way she and so many others at the competition get that look is through severe dehydration.
"Just about everyone here right now is unhealthy," she said. "We may look good on the outside, but inside we're starving for nutrients and water, and most of us feel drained, fatigued and weak. One of the most unnatural and dangerous things you can do is compete in a bodybuilding show."
Indeed, as the competitors exit the stage following their posing routines -- a workout in and of itself -- many are sweating profusely and huffing and puffing.
"Posing is one of the most demanding parts of this sport," says David Pratt, an immensely muscular and striking man who's been competing since 1980. In contrast to his appearance, Pratt is a polite middle school English teacher in Rocky Mount, NC.
Finally, after keeping a low profile for most of the night, it's Tony's turn to take the stage. True to his word, he puts on an electric stage show.
When all is said and done, Demi walks away with second place in the figure competition, and Tony is awarded first place in the men's open division, lightweight class.
For most of the competitors, the end of the Mountaineer means it's time to relax and take a break from all the rigorous training and dieting. However, for Tony and Demi, the vacation is a short one. Both were back to the 6am workouts and around-the-clock dieting in a matter of days as they ready themselves for the big national show in Atlanta in November. A first place finish there means turning pro. And then what?
Demi hopes to continue to appear in bigger and better competitions, perhaps catching the eye of a supplement company and becoming a spokesperson. Tony is taking a laidback approach to the whole thing. "I'm just working towards being in peak condition," he says. "But if I do turn pro, who knows? I'll guess I'll have to decide how far I want to go with this."
Contact Sam Boykin at (704) 944-3623 or [email protected]. *