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Pump & Circumstance

Bodybuilders suffer for their art - and for a shot at the big time<



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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.

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