One of the many reasons for applauding Wings of Strength in their efforts this year was the increase in the number of qualifying shows for the Rising Phoenix from four to six with the addition of the Female Bodybuilding class to the Puerto Rico Pro, and the creation of the Lenda Murray Pro-Am (aka Norfolk Pro). As is the norm, the winners of these shows gained automatic qualification for the Rising Phoenix, although in the case of one of the women, qualification had long been guaranteed anyway.
Last seen: IFBB Puerto Rico Pro (Winner)
RP 2015: N/A
With a field of just six women, it was a fairly low-key start to the FBB season in Puerto Rico at the end of May, and - perhaps fittingly - the extremely low-key Kim Buck saw off the challenge of the more fancied Isabelle Turell to claim the title.
I don't mean to be rude when I say Kim is "low-key", but as FMS noted at the time, Kim keeps her head down on social media, and when she does raise it, it's almost always to promote her posing suit designs rather than to add to the female muscle selfie tsunami. Even in the run-up to the Rising Phoenix, Melody Spetko was contacting Kim via an Instagram comment to let her know about the Best Poser Award that Muscle Girlz Live is sponsoring at the RP. You aren't on Facebook, says Melody, as though addressing an elderly aunt with questionable IT skills, so just letting you know here...
My game plan is to get on the plane and get off the plane and go train, said Kim after her win, and that literally was the last we saw or heard of her. She was, however, a winner with all the judges in Puerto Rico, and she certainly has the pedigree to deliver just the sort of classy package that might catch the judges' eyes again in Arizona.
Last seen: IFBB Toronto Pro (Winner)
RP 2015: N/A
This, it seems to me, is female bodybuilding at its most visceral, its most extreme, its most unapologetic, and in all its freakish glory. Imagine trying to explain what exactly it is that appeals to you about Laura's body to - for example - your best non-female muscle lovin' friend. What could you say? Where would you begin?
FREAK! Laura Carolan @IFBB Toronto Pro (FMS 12/06/16)
Canadian champion as long ago as 1992, the first part of Laura Carolan's career - during which she had graced the Ms International - ended in 1995 after the Jan Tana Pro Classic. She resurfaced briefly in 2012 at the Toronto Pro, but it wasn't until she made her second comeback in Tampa last year and subsequently worked with Awefilms that the full freakish glory of her body became apparent. I've seen some glutes in my time, but I have never, ever seen any like Laura's.
Many fans thought she should have won that 2015 Tampa show. Her conditioning was the best in the show, hands down, but she wasn't a "name", noted one poster, explaining her 8th place there. Her win this year in Toronto was her first since that 1992 Canadian title, and was enthusiastically applauded across the female muscle fan forums. She looked as genuinely surprised and delighted when her name was announced as any of our winners this year, but there are many who hope the second part of Laura Carolan's career is just getting started.
Last seen: IFBB Omaha Pro (Winner)
RP 2015: 7th
Isabelle certainly left the fans wanting more after she had finished runner-up to Kim Buck in Puerto Rico. Her vascular inner thigh close-ups and her post-show balcony posing gave us - for my money - some of the most memorable images of 2016 so far.
The contest itself was, in some ways (and this blog is as guilty as any of not focusing on the contest itself), slightly overshadowed by Elena Oana Hreapca's guest posing, but a couple of weeks later Isabelle was back on stage in Nebraska, claiming her first pro title. And in typically generous "fitrockstar" style, she immediately set about complimenting everyone except herself - WoS "for putting on a great show and supporting the sport of female bodybuilding", "rare gems" Elena and Yaxeni Oriquen (who had finished 2nd behind her), and the rest of the field for the "fun times".
After a stellar amateur career followed by a five-year competitive break, Isabelle returned in 2014 with no doubts about what her future would be, and she has become one of the most committed supporters and enthusiastic competitors in the remodelled Wings of Strength-led Pro Female Bodybuilding World. This is something that I love, something that I’m very good at, she says. This is something that I’ve done for a long time and I’m going to be doing for a very long time. For her fans and her fellow female bodybuilders alike, that is good news. Very good news.
JACQUELINE "JAY" FUCHS
Last seen: IFBB Chicago Pro (Winner)
RP 2015: N/A
I'm so excited, said Jay after she had won the first professional title of her career in Chicago at the start of July. My life, my dream, my work... Next goal, Arizona!
Chicago is a big show, and it's always taken a big woman to win there - Monique Jones in 2012 and 2013, Rita Bello in 2014, and, last year, Helle Trevino. Now we all know what the most recent of those past winners went on to achieve at the Rising Phoenix, and while I'm not necessarily saying Jay is going to replicate Helle's feats, she has international amateur and pro titles now, and it wouldn't be too much of a surprise to see her name somewhere near the top of the scorecard come Saturday night.
She's about as close to perfect as you can get, one of her fans wrote after her win, and while I imagine they were only thinking about her physique, they could have equally been referring to her swoonworthy attitude. Muscle... I like the power, she wrote as she basked in her post-Chicago afterglow. Arizona, Rising Phoenix... Yesssss...
Last seen: IFBB Lenda Murray Pro-Am (Winner)
RP 2015: 4th
The brand new event in the calendar was, sadly I think, an event that barely registered for many fans. With Wings of Strength (as is their right but not necessarily right in terms of promotion of the sport) retaining the images of the contest, less has been said on the fan forums about the Lenda Murray Pro-Am than any other.
And that is a shame, I think, because from what I can tell, it was a major success story, not least because in what was her third show of the year, Yaxeni Oriquen won her first title since the 2012 Ms International. Now why exactly Yaxeni has been flying all over the US from Puerto Rico to Omaha to Norfolk, Virginia to compete at the age of 49 (she turned 50 last Saturday) when she was already qualified for the RP by virtue of her 4th place last year is anyone's guess. I'm not complaining though. And nor, I dare say, is our old friend JL, who must surely have been as excited as anybody as he's watched Yaxeni prepping and prepping and prepping again in 2016.
She seemed to expect to win in Puerto Rico and came 3rd. In Omaha there was that old sinking 2nd place feeling again, but in Norfolk, she got her reward for slogging it out. [I] Thank my God for the first place at the Lenda Murray show, she told her Instagram followers afterwards. Time was, and it was a time not so long ago, when as long as Iris wasn't in the line-up, Yaxeni was a certainty for the first prize. Times have changed.
Last seen: IFBB Tampa Pro (Winner)
RP 2015: N/A
Sheila's win in the final qualifier of the year was probably the most controversial of the six, but then again, Sheila has never been one to shy away from controversy (she has got herself into some epic slanging matches in the past - most notably in 2014 with Shereen Fons aka Dominique Danger), so perhaps it is fitting that this was so!
Actually the scorecards reveal that Sheila was a unanimous first with the judges in the first round, then tied first with runner-up Lisa Cross in the finals to win, so it's not like she won by a point or anything. And anyway, Sheila has form in Tampa - she's competed there three times now and only Sarah Hayes (back in 2012) has ever beaten her there. So, controversial if you must, but hardly surprising. In fact, Sheila has never been outside of the top 2 at any pro show except for the Ms Olympia, where she never cracked the top 3 - her best result was 4th on her debut in 2010.
If last year's result is anything to go by, she won't get the same smaller-but-perfectly-formed-wins kind of treatment from the RP judges as she has had from those in Tampa, but as always her elegance and her unique routine will bring something different to the show, and make her an invaluable part of the Greatest Female Muscle Show on Earth.
Tomorrow, the 8 women who made it on points.