So, here we are. Tomorrow the inaugural (one would hope not the first and last!) Rising Phoenix Women's World Bodybuilding Championship takes place in San Antonio, Texas. For once, it's going to be the women with the top billing, the "rock star" stage, and the big prize money. The organisers, Wings of Strength, have come in for some stick from fans, mainly re the handing out of the three "invites" after the final qualifying event in Tampa at the beginning of August, but that aside, I've sensed a genuine "dawning of a new era" excitement on the forum boards in the last week.
For one thing, it's very difficult to say who might win, and when was the last time you could say that about the Ms Olympia (or indeed the Ms International)? And what's more, despite the criticism over the invites, it truly is a mouth-watering line-up.
My only gripe is that the search for a definitive list of the competitors has proved a little frustrating, with one of the invited, Shawna Strong, appearing as "confirmed" to compete on the Wings of Strength Facebook page although she doesn't appear on the "official" lists of competitors published elsewhere. I'm writing a few days in advance so an editorial decision had to be made and I've gone with the Wings of Strength info (reasoning if anyone should know who's competing, they should) so Shawna's in.
And I hope she really is, too!
Here's Shawna and the rest of the "confirmed" muscle goddesses in no particular order; the fifteen women who are in contention to be the first ever Ms Rising Phoenix.
DEBI LASZEWSKI (USA)
Last seen: Ms Olympia 2014 (3rd)
Is it an advantage to only have to prep for the one show a year? It worked for Debi last year, and her calf, at least, was looking freakishly ready at the start of the week (see here). She only finished out of the top three at the Olympia once between 2009 and 2014, and last year only Iris and Alina - neither of whom she'll have to beat here - finished above her. Plus, she has more than 20 years of contest experience behind her, so all in all there is a strong case for making Debi the favourite for the title.
GILLIAN KOVACK (Can)
Last seen: Toronto Pro 2015 (4th)
Two fourth-place finishes (first in Omaha and then Toronto) were enough to see the gorgeous Gillian through to the big show - what she calls the biggest & most exciting stage I've ever competed on - on points. Her prep hasn't exactly been smooth - a month out and she was off cardio and training legs with a hip problem for a few days, and at the time of writing she still reckoned she was a couple of hundred dollars short of covering her expenses for the San Antonio trip - but despite that, this FMS fave is clearly fired up. I am ready to see exactly what is possible when you believe in the strength behind every little fibre you're made of, she said recently. Go Gillian!
LISA CROSS (UK)
Last seen: Omaha Pro 2015 (Winner)
Nine years after Gayle Moher last competed at the Ms Olympia and finally us Brits have someone to cheer for in the world's premier female bodybuilding contest. Want an objective assessment of our Lisa and her chances? Then look elsewhere. I hope she wins, gets her prize Jeep painted in the colours of the Union Jack, and parades it and her hot muscle packed raw power body around the country for the rest of the month (in her Union Jack posing suit, perhaps?!) to ever-increasing public hysteria. You never know. Being trained by Alina Popa has worked wonders for Lisa so far...
HELLE TREVINO (Den)
Last seen: Chicago Pro 2015 (Winner)
After she had won the Jan Tana in 2003 while still in her twenties, Helle's career should have ended in 2005 when she suffered a back injury. However, six years later she returned to competition at the 2011 FIBO Power Pro - and won. And in Chicago this year, looking absolutely sensational, she nailed the 3rd pro win of her two-part career. I can't describe how happy I am to have won, she said on her Instagram afterwards, that pre-injury potential finally being realised. Not to be underestimated.
ISABELLE TURELL (USA)
Last seen: Tampa Pro 2015 (3rd)
The return of Isabelle Turell to the contest stage has been many fans' highlight of the year, and a fourth place in Chicago and a third place in Tampa ensured she wasn't just back, she was back among the elite. Isabelle has always had that wondrous level of genetics goin' on, said no lesser authority than Steve Wennerstrom after her return had been announced. She certainly hasn't lost that now, has she?
ALEESHA YOUNG (USA)
Last seen: Tampa Pro 2015 (9th)
The walking talking pumping flexing female muscle head fantasy made flesh that is Aleesha (no surname necessary) had to rely on one of those special invites to get here after a disappointing 9th place in her one and only show so far this year. But with a few more weeks to prepare for the "RP", who knows how much better her conditioning might be when she steps out onto that stage tomorrow? She certainly won't be outsized by anyone, nor will she be short of popular support from among the attending brethren. The most likely competitor to cause actual fainting in the audience.
MARGIE MARTIN (USA)
Last seen: Tampa Pro 2015 (Winner)
Margie was, as we noted here on FMS recently, so hot she was virtually on fire in Tampa, an irresistible force in her fourth pro show of the year. Tampa was her last chance to get to the RP, and she certainly took it. Since then, the fire has been burning as bright as ever, renaming herself "Queen of Quads" (why not?) and experiencing "ridiculous" pumps as she enters yet another peak week. My arms have never been so full of blood! she told her Instagram followers recently. Could she be the Queen tomorrow night? Her top level pedigree - 10th at the Olympia last year - suggests not, but she certainly has the belief, the muscle, AND the momentum right now.
SHAWNA STRONG (USA)
Last seen: Tampa Pro 2015 (11th)
As mentioned above, Shawna - one of the three invites - isn't universally listed as competing but any excuse to raid the Shawna archive is a good excuse, so here she is. The special invites, according to WoS, are picked by Wings of Strength based on our evaluation of what the athlete could contribute to our show and to the future of the Women's Bodybuilding Division, so I reckon this endlessly exciting woman fits that bill. With all due respect I think she's unlikely to be there come final posedown time, but - if she is indeed going to be there - Shawna will most certainly "contribute", as she always does, to the show and the enjoyment of at least one fan - ME!
CHRISTINE ENVALL (Aus)
Last seen: Toronto Pro 2015 (Winner)
With lats that each had their own postcode Christine booked her place at the RP by winning in Toronto. It was the first win of a career that spans two decades. There's no hiding the quality and quantity of the muscle this 42-year-old female muscle legend carries, even - as we can see above - when it's hidden under layers of clothing at check-in time. Like Debi Laszewski (top of post), Christine is finding the San Antonio climate conducive to achieving freakish vascularity - see here. Truly huge.
IRENE ANDERSEN (Swe)
Last seen: Tampa Pro 2015 (12th)
The only one of the field to have had a professional documentary crew following her battles for the last couple of years, I imagine Irene will be as proud as anyone to be on that stage. Her dream of standing with the biggest and best female bodybuilders in the world will finally come true, even if the location and title of the show isn't what she had always envisaged. Honestly, I'm very pleased for her, I think she looks better than she has ever done, and I really hope Too Big for the World will be as good as its trailer, because if it is, a lot of people will know Irene's name by this time next year.
RITA BELLO (Arg)
Last seen: Chicago Pro 2015 (2nd)
Virtually every part of her structure is lathered with highly defined groups of muscle tissue, writes Steve Wennerstrom. Her back, real delts, triceps, gluteal tie-ins and pecs that are striated right up to her clavicles are all primary focal points of her physique. Even in repose, she appears flexed. In the decades that have passed since women's bodybuilding has taken hold, few, if any women have displayed her level of chiseled muscularity. But when did any of that ever win female bodybuilding contests?!
YAXENI ORIQUEN (Ven)
Last seen: Ms Olympia 2014 (5th)
The only woman in the field to have been Ms Olympia, in fact this year is the 10th anniversary of her win. Rumours of her attending the event as a Physique competitor were, I felt, totally and utterly ludicrous until it was pointed out that Anne Freitas was doing exactly that. But I'm happy to say we will have the pleasure of seeing this legendary woman as a competitive female bodybuilder at least one more time. I wonder if Yaxeni will miss Iris tomorrow night. Will she put her arm out during the final posedown and feel a little sad that Iris isn't there to put it around?
VIRGINIA SANCHEZ (Spa)
Last seen: Tampa Pro 2015 (7th)
Now I may get crucified for saying this, but does anyone else feel like if the judging was done on what the competitors looked like in their hotel rooms, Virginia would win every time? For me she is TOTAL shock and awe in the days leading up to showtime, and then on stage, well, she just doesn't seem to be as exciting. Maybe it's the hair. Maybe if she ditched the wig tomorrow and just stood up shaved and proud... Wouldn't that be GREAT? Perhaps not exactly the image the promoters are looking for, but wouldn't that be just GREAT? Eres hermosa sin la peluca, Virginia!
ALANA SHIPP (USA)
Last seen: Tampa Pro 2015 (2nd)
With automatic qualification from her fourth-place finish at the Olympia last year, Alana didn't have to compete in Tampa or anywhere else this year, but compete she did, finishing runner-up to Margie Martin. Suggests to me she has a plan, and also that the form she showed in her pro debut year was no beginner's luck, she's such a tight, aesthetically-pleasing package at every show she does. I think it's incredibly sexy how she proudly displays the battle scars earned during her pregnancies and don't get me started on that bum. Hard and heavenly. I expect she's expecting to end up at or at least near the top of the judges' scorecards tomorrow, and I expect she will be too.
MONIQUE JONES (USA)
Last seen: Omaha Pro 2015 (2nd)
Now, if you want a champion with a story behind her victory, look no further. There was a brief time last weekend - either because Mmmmonique had actually missed a deadline for registering for the RP or because she thought she had - when she was officially retired from competitive female bodybuilding. Now wouldn't that be ironic, if Mmmmonique, having thrown her toys out and given up completely on even being there, went on to win the damn thing? And she could. She really could.
A line-up, I'm sure you'll agree, most worthy of the premier female bodybuilding contest in the world. We may have lost the Ms Olympia, but us fans haven't lost anything in terms of the quantity and quality of the MUSCLE that will be on display at the show that's risen from its ashes. Check out the social media of any of these fifteen magnificent women and I'm sure you'll get the feeling, as I do, that there is genuine excitement among them about this show, or, more accurately, their show. For once, they will be the stars of the event. Excitement and a few nerves too. They need it to be a success for the sake of their sport. They need it and they deserve it.