Sunday, 24 September 2017

FMS@RP2017: The Beef & the Beauty

After an up and down season for IFBB pro Female Bodybuilding, the 2017 Rising Phoenix was, I think, a pretty much unqualified success. With a line-up of 23 women there were more competitors than ever - you have to go back to the 90s to find a Ms Olympia with that many - and while it's never been easier to qualify for the world's premier professional Female Bodybuilding competition, this didn't mean that the quality of muscle on display was lower than at previous RPs. Quite the opposite in fact, with, and this is just my opinion, only a handful of the ladies below their very best.

Watching the free live feed was an absolute joy. I had the luxury of an empty house and believe me, I did what every self-respecting female muscle fan would have done and indulged in pretty much the whole damn show - Bikini included! The Rising Phoenix was, as it should be, the unrivalled highlight and I don't mind admitting that the sight of personal faves like Theresa Ivancik and Elena Oana Hreapca had me swooning all over the place. Even the callouts - never my favourite bit, they do go on - had pockets of excitement as Britain's own Lisa Cross flexed her way inwards during the third, and the top two were called out again by the judges for a one-on-one battle royale.

It was also a big plus that among the veterans were newer pros. Theresa, Elena, Pauline Nelson, and Nicki Chartrand were all making their Rising Phoenix debuts in the first season as IFBB pros - in Pauline's case just a couple of months after she'd got her pro card. Only Nicki, the 2016 Canadians champ and winner on her pro debut in Norfolk, placed, but it's crucial that there is a constant supply of high quality women to keep Female Bodybuilding healthy. Sometimes it's hard to think where they will come from (few NPC events, even at national level, have an FBB class) but the cream, it seems, keeps rising - and with Brittney O'Veal and Jennie Roosa potentially to come in 2018, it doesn't seem as though we're going to run out of FBBs for a while.

As far as the show itself is concerned, it's been one of the most refreshing features of all three RPs that without Iris there has been little predictability to the outcomes, and this year was the most dramatic. Even up to the final moments there was no way of knowing who'd won, and it was genuinely exiting to watch, there was suspense and excitement, as there should be in sport. And as it was the first time I watched live I got the full force of the evening show - video presentations and all. These "introductions", made by the women themselves, make each routine more of an event, something sadly lacking at any other show you care to mention. Not all were winners - Irene Andersen's was the trailer for her film, for example - but here, at last, the women are not just given time for their routines, but each has their very own build-up of their own design, and there's even prize money for the best - Silvia Matta's in case you were wondering.

I think having the feed free this year was a genius move, and I would bet that the worldwide audience for the Rising Phoenix was much much bigger than in previous years when a fee needed to be paid. I was lucky in being able to see the whole thing, and given the circumstances I had found myself in, I probably would have coughed up a modest amount. But the fella catching snippets of the prejudging then waiting for the missus to go to bed before watching the evening show with the sound down probably wouldn't, and the majority of female muscle fans fall into the latter category. As a consequence, more of the show was seen by more of the people who wanted to see it, and there's more talk about it - and for once, it's informed. The collective "we" seem to me to be feeling more enthused about "the sport", and that can't be a bad thing.

What I and others have noticed though is the apparent complete absence of Kristal Wood while her (soon to be ex-) husband Jake was lauded before the FBB evening routines - stood up and took a bow to the applause he did. The guy who did the bigging up made no mention of Kristal at all, and intriguingly it was Alina Popa who stepped in as his sidekick when presentation time came. Apart from feeling sorry for Kristal in that she seems to have been sidelined so summarily and so quickly, only time will tell whether Jake can steer the ship more or less effectively without her. Bodybuilding organisations with one man (plus cronies) in control have a mixed history, after all.

The only other slight downer I can find is, and again I am sorry to say this out loud but it needs to be said, were the Kim Buck-designed tracksuits given out to all the RP ladies. Now, I'm no fashion expert but I know what I like and I think Kim may have hit upon the only thing I've ever seen a muscular female wear that didn't make her look sexy. Perhaps that was her true intention. If so, she really really succeeded.

Jake's (and Kristal's) original intention was that FBBs would have not only a stage to compete on and prize money that reflected their efforts, but also that they'd be treated and feel like stars. Every one of those aims has been realised, particularly at the Rising Phoenix. Tribute after tribute was paid by the women on their social media - to the organisers, and to their peers - some of them coining the phrase "our Olympia".

What's most important is that they keep feeling like this, and that as many FBBs as possible, not just the ones who compete at this annual love-in, feel the same way - the pre-show shenanigans on Kristal Wood's Facebook revealed that not all of the "iron sisters" feel very sisterly towards their peers. There are still issues that need to be sorted out, not least how FBBing outside North America might survive. But for now, Jake can look back on a season of ups and downs that very much finished on an up, with the beef and beauty of these sensational women showcased with some style.

Let's end with a pep talk from our new Queen:

I am so happy that I won this title this weekend, and I want EVERYBODY to feel they won too. I want to be the best possible ambassador for Female Bodybuilding I possibly can, and together we will elevate our sport through teamwork and support. We all have our part to play. We're coming in stronger numbers each year, and we will continue to do so. On all levels: WE ARE ON THE RISE BIG TIME!

For the first time in a long time, I'm more convinced than not that she's right.

Miss the evening show? Download/view here.

Saturday, 23 September 2017


When, after the Chicago Pro this year, Wendy McCready had guaranteed her qualification for the Rising Phoenix, I did a bit of a full bio, thinking that this would probably be the high point of her competitive year. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't assuming Wendy would automatically do poorly in the placings, I just didn't imagine her in the first callout. Lisa Cross, on the other hand, well, as regular readers will know, I get a bit patriotic when Lisa's on stage, and after she had looked so amazing in Tampa, my mind had started to race. What if Alina's plan for her client was all about peaking not for Tampa in August but for the Rising Phoenix in September? Lisa had been at her best ever in Tampa, absolutely resplendent. What if, I wondered, she could look even better in Scottsdale? Could our Lisa win the whole thing? Bring it home for Britain for the first time since the one and only Andrulla Blanchette?

I dared to dream.

As I watched the live feed, it became apparent I should ditch any thoughts of Lisa winning as the names for first callout were announced. But Wendy McCready was there, beaming with pride as she stood next to Helle, with Sheila and Yaxeni the only other women at the front of the stage. We had to wait for the 3rd callout to see our Lisa, and as she gradually flexed her way into the centre of it, this Brit was cheering her on.

After Tampa, I imagine Lisa was probably aiming for the top 5, or at least going one better than her 7th last year. She knew full well what her callout position meant. I have a lot of catching up to do, she wrote before the evening show. Ultimately she placed 9th, behind Aleesha, behind Kim Buck, behind Rita Bello, and behind her 2016 self - the first time her upward curve under Alina Popa's guidance has dipped.

I, quite obviously, have no expertise, but with the greatest respect to the other competitors, I couldn't while watching the live feed, and still can't see what it was that made the judges call her out after Irene Andersen, or indeed place her below Rita Bello and Kim Buck. To me she looked as good as she had in Tampa, and deserved better; but these were different judges, this was a different show, and it wasn't to be Lisa's night after all, despite my (and her - and probably too Alina's) dreaming.

However, Lisa may, I hope, perhaps take some comfort from the fact that while this wasn't such a great day for her, her mere presence with Wendy in the line-up made it a historic day for British Female Bodybuilding - the first time in 16 years that the UK has had more than one competitor at the sport's premier professional event.

Wendy's 4th place was as well-deserved as it was surprising. Her rear double biceps was as good as any in the show, and she didn't put a foot wrong. All the years she has spent accumulating competition experience paid off on this night, by far her biggest ever success. I still can't believe it! she exclaimed afterwards. 4th in the world!!!

And this was the best result by a British woman since Andrulla was 2nd in the Lightweight class in 2001. And if you're talking about an Open class, well, Lisa, at last year's Rising Phoenix, and Andrulla, at the Ms Olympia in 1999, were the best ever placed Brits. They both placed 7th. So now the record belongs to Wendy.

Tomorrow, some of FMS' favourite images from the show, the 16 other women who competed and who we haven't focused on yet this week, and our inexpert, possibly incoherent take on the 2017 Rising Phoenix, and what it might tell us about the current state of the sport and the Wings of Strength regime. Bet you can't wait!

Friday, 22 September 2017

FMS@RP2017: ¡Viva Virginia!

A 4th place in Tampa hadn't initially been enough to qualify Spain's most muscular for the Rising Phoenix, but after the shenanigans detailed in our Wings of Strength Goes Wild post, Virginia's name had been added to the list. A most popular addition too.

I truly love Virginia, her physique is amazing, wrote one of her devotees during the Rising Phoenix build-up, a sentiment shared by many. I've talked with her on webcam and she is a very nice lady, he added. A couple times she invited me to Spain, but I don't think my wife would like that. Indeed. OK with the webcam chats though?

Others noted how spectacular Virginia can look before a contest but not so spectacular when stage time arrives, a point we've made here before. Her physique always looks unreal and almost unbeatable, says one. Every time I see an image of her, she looks closer and closer to being one of the most dominant competitors on the scene until... she's on stage and is dwarfed by some of the other girls and I realize she actually isn't as big as she looks. Still, her arms are massive and her back is phenomenal.

Maybe she's got better at hiding her flaws and getting the judges to focus on that phenomenal back and those dreamy arms because she still looked ridiculously big and unbeatable before, but less so next to the competition in Scottsdale. However, that 4th in Tampa and a very popular 5th here (plus the 3rd place award for her pre-routine video presentation) makes for easily her most successful professional year to date. Result: she's sponsored for 2018, and pre-qualified for the next Rising Phoenix.

Un año triunfal, as they say in Madrid. I'm so happy, she wrote after the show, one of the few-and-far-between occasions she has posted on her Instagram in English.

After the show some photo shoots, and then it was back home. About to scare the living mierda out of the person who's waiting patiently for that lift to arrive...