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It Figures: My First Exposure to the World of Bodybuilding Competition

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Last weekend I headed to the Granite State to support my friend Tammy Thomas’ first NPC (National Physique Committee) figure competition. I had no idea what to expect. Hell, I didn’t even know what it was beyond a class of female bodybuilding. It’s kind of like when you attend a ceremony in a religious setting very different from your own: it’s a foray into a completely different world.

Not going was never an option. Tammy is one of the reasons I’ve come so far in my weight loss/fitness quest this year. I was hobbling along on the circuit machines at Snap Fitness three times a week, unsure of what I was doing but determined to do something. I had known Tammy peripherally for many years and had been following her own quest for weight loss and fitness on Facebook. In the pictures she was getting thinner, there was no doubt about that, but one day there was a shot of her at Snap flexing a quite impressive set of biceps. I’ve always wanted biceps. I’ve lost weight before, but have never built up my upper body, and with age my arms are only getting weaker and floppier. Though I never tried it, at that time, if I had shaken my arms fast enough, I’m certain I would have taken flight.

One morning she walked by as I was struggling on the lateral raise machine and I congratulated her on her transformation and told her she inspired me. What followed was pure Tammy: a barrage of support, passing on of Oxygen Magazines, loaning of books, and an introduction to her trainer. Honestly, Tammy could power a small town with the amount of energy she produces, but our friendship? It was off and running. From that point on, she would check in on me, and invite me to train with her and join boot camp. I found myself caught up in her wake, and I had never felt better.

Her friend Leslie Dzindzalet Jones is an established fitness competitor, and one weekend Tammy went with her to The Arnold (I didn’t know what it was either…it’s a big-ass sports fest named for Arnold Schwarzenegger…who knew?). Tammy came back determined to compete in her first fitness competition a year later. I supported her – hell, she supported me unfailingly – but the idea of parading across the stage in a tiny, sparkly bikini and five-inch Lucite heels was bizarre to me. Over the next few months, I watched Tammy’s body and her diet get leaner and stronger. She was taking posing lessons (I know, the joke possibilities are endless), and to me it was all like a foreign language, fascinating but incomprehensible.

When the date of her competition came closer, a group of us at the gym – her friends and fellow gym rats – bought tickets and drove down. I had the luxury of going with our friend Tracy who is my age and fiercely fit (though she will deny it) and our trainer and friend, Jeff Rutledge. We drilled Jeff on the way down as he’s a regular bodybuilding competitor.

“What’s up with the spray tans?” (They show the definition of the muscles better.)

“What are the judges looking for?” (Muscularity, stage presence, posing, and confidence.)

“What the hell is the bikini division?” (A new division, controversial, more focused on beauty.)

He answered all our questions with verve, it seemed he really enjoyed this, and when we arrived and he got a whiff of Pro Tan spray tan, his eyes got all glossy and nostalgic as he waxed sentimental about his own experiences competing. Tracy and I just took all this info in, watching the occasional juice-head wander by (Jeff does natural shows; drug-testing ensures no steroid use; this show was “don’t ask, don’t tell”). As we filed into the auditorium, ’80s music blasted from the loudspeakers.

“Why do they play ’80s music?” I inquired of Jeff.

“Because it’s freaking awesome.”

I had prepared myself to be bored out of my mind. Nine hours of spray-tanned fitness fanatics parading across a high school stage? Kill me now. I was there to support Tammy, but I was certainly not going to enjoy the rest of it.

As with many assumptions in my life, I was completely off the mark.

From the first competitor who struck poses in the center of the stage, the harsh spotlights picking up every cut and rip on his body, I was fascinated. Tammy was third, and as I watched my friend stride across the stage in impossibly high clear-plastic shoes, I was awed. She looked incredible. There was nothing advertising “novice” about her even though it was her first show.

Jeff, Tracy, and I whispered questions and answers back and forth, asking about the poses and the rules, one woman’s really bad silicone boob job, and another guy’s massive hamstrings. Jeff’s enthusiasm was infectious, and when Tammy’s section was done (she did great!) and many of her friends left to the hotel, the three of us stayed, wanting to see each and every competitor.

In this competition there were three classes of women’s physique-exhibition. From what I can tell, from easiest to hardest there’s Bikini, Figure, and Fitness. Tammy’s category was Figure in which, according to Wikipedia, “the emphasis is on the feminine. Curves are compulsory, and facial beauty is prized.” There was only one woman in a fitness category and rumor has it it’s a dying field. “In a Fitness contest, the competitors show off their physiques (still not as big as bodybuilders) and perform a demanding aerobic routine.” The bikini class held the least interest for me, being much more of a beauty contest and less about the strength and fitness of the competitors (yes, I know I will get nasty comments on this, but it’s just my opinion, ladies).

Tammy was brought out as the only competitor in her height class, and then one of four in the Master category (women over 40). The competition was tough, the other women were strong and well-poised, but there was something about Tammy’s fierce joy in the competition and in being on stage. I had taken a video of her practicing her walk and poses at the gym, but none of her deer-in-the-headlights look was evident that night. I asked Jeff about her chances as the women posed facing front, side, and back, and he pointed out how the other women’s backs were not as defined as Tammy’s, how one of the women’s muscles (and her spray tan, I might add) were too much.

After a three-hour break, we returned that night for the results portion of the event, and Tammy’s group was one of the first. It seemed when she was on stage that half the audience was there for her (there was quite a large group of us there, cheering her on) and when she won first place in her Master’s group we all went wild. Even from in the audience I could see the look in her eyes: she was hooked. She had said she would do one show, and see how she felt: maybe that would be all. But when you do your first show and win first place in your division, how can you walk away in your five-inch clear heels?

But what was really surprising was that as we were leaving the theater, Tracy and I started saying, “Hey, the next one is a year away…we could do this, you know.” I couldn’t believe it was coming out of my mouth. There had been only one woman over the age of 50. For the next few months my focus has to be on losing the rest of my weight by my 50th birthday in February, but after that…what better way to celebrate the fittest year of my life than to participate in this spray-tanned craziness? And perhaps there’s a book there.

I’m not saying I’m doing it, but let’s just say I’m thinking about it.

…Anybody got any size 10 clear hooker heels I can borrow?

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About Ann Hagman Cardinal

  • Tammy

    Awesome article. I want more

  • Ann Cardinal

    Thanks, Tracy! Next year it’s you and me up there!

  • Tracy

    Excellent! Thank you Ann. You are truly an inspiration. I am so proud to be a part of your journey and Tammy’s succes!