Wow! What a show. Although the competitive 2014 season is still young, the IFBB Emerald Cup Women's Pro Physique Division event held at the immense Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, Washington, on the April 25-26 weekend pumped some high octane energy into what will most assuredly follow in the upcoming schedule of events over the months leading up to the Physique Olympia in September.
Promoters Brad and Elaine Craig pulled out all the stops with a classy promotion for this field of 16 Pro WPD contestants as they flexed for an Olympia qualifying spot, points in the Olympia Qualification Series, and $4,200 in contest prize money.
With a seemingly endless trail of themes connected to this 32nd annual event, all of it made for what was an exciting and highly competitive competition. And if you favor more plot twists and storylines than a Stephen King novel, this first Pro Physique Division event at the Emerald Cup featured more than its share.
With the reality of this 'Sweet 16' carrying mega-reputations and notable lists of accomplishments among the entrants, the drama was so thick you could cut it with an X-Acto knife. Home-towner, Tanji Johnson was entering her first-ever Physique division event after enjoying an iconic career as a pro fitness competitor. So, with a resume that included 44 contests and among them 11 Ms. Olympia entries and a victory at the 2005 Emerald Cup Pro Fitness among others, all eyes were on her and how she would stack up in the Physique division.
Meanwhile, Sabrina Taylor was also making a return to the Emerald Cup for the first time in 10 years after winning the overall amateur fitness title which led to her reaching the pro ranks in 2004.
This Emerald Cup was also special to Venus Nguyen, and while it was her first entry at this event, her mother, Catherine Nguyen, was the overall women's bodybuilding winner at this contest in 1985.
And to add additional prestige to this contingent, former Ms. Olympia winner Valentina Chepiga spun herself into outstanding muscular condition at age 52.
And so, after a quick count of trips to the Olympia stage (Tanji Johnson with 11, Valentina Chepiga totaling 7, and Sabrina Taylor and Venus Nguyen with one each) the foursome had made a total of 20 entries at the Olympia level. Surpassing that number of Olympia visits will take some doing at a future WPD event. But the aforementioned quartet was far from the only group who had an eye on a top-five placing, another foursome that included Californian Roxie Beckles, striking new pro star Katerina Kyptova from the Czech Republic, Oregon's Erica Blockman, and Colorado's Jacklyn Sutton-Abrams were all hotter than Georgia asphalt in July.
JUDGES SORT IT OUT…
Led by head judge Sandi Williamson, the E-Cup judging crew was saddled with the task of putting this stellar field in some semblance of order. It wasn't easy. With the all-important first call-out being filled by Katerina Kyptova, Roxie Beckles, Tanji Johnson, Erica Blockman, Venus Nguyen and Sabrina Taylor (who was moved to the middle of the lineup), the race was on to arrange this top group for a final placement.
The tallies that tell the tale illustrated just how strongly competitive the competition was. But it was left to Sabrina Taylor, fresh from her win at the LA Pro Grand Prix, to once again display a structural and muscular balance that put her in the driver's seat. Now past 40, Taylor is enjoying the best shape and success of her long competitive career. Her victory here is significant as well as memorable.
First, Taylor won the overall fitness title at the E-Cup in 2004 and it was later that year she added a victory at the NPC USA to earn her pro status. For Taylor, however, turning pro was far from magical. As both a fitness and figure competitor as a pro she spent several years struggling to climb the ladder of placings, never finishing higher than 8th and just as often placing as low as 16th, 17th or 18th. In fact, she returned to the Emerald Cup in 2005 to place 11th in the Pro Fitness event won by Tanji Johnson.
But the coming of the Pro Physique Division in 2012 brought her salvation. In short order Taylor's stage efforts were resurrected in spades. And her victory here carries with it a level of significance. She is now the only IFBB Pro Physique competitor with four contest wins. And there is no doubt she is enjoying the current ride. Last year as a contestant at the first Physique Olympia Sabrina Taylor finished 13th, but just ask her what it meant to be part of that history making moment. She'll be there again this year, and with a notably improved overall look, she can aspire to a higher placing with a primo physique that was almost lost in time. For her victory, Taylor pocketed $2,000 in prize money as an exclamation point to go with her unanimous win.
Finishing second and just as unanimously was Roxie Beckles. In short order this dynamic transplanted New Yorker is a poster girl for just how quickly the fortunes can change in the still fluid judging realm of Pro Physique. Last year, Beckles made her pro debut (after an NPC Team Universe class victory) at the Europa Supershow in Dallas where she placed 11th.
It was a finish she wasn't exactly writing home about. But this year the 5’6 ½”, 139-pound Beckles brought a more refined look and placed third at the LA Pro Grand Prix before adding her runner-up placing here. Another notable element of improvement is ever-growing stage presence and increased confidence that had its beginnings with a BFA degree in dance from Fordham University, to go with several years of professional dance on her resume, and as a disciple of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Beckles collected $1,000 in 2nd place prize money and a very valuable four points towards her Olympia Qualification Series total.
If there was an energizer bunny in this field of contestants it was Oregon's Erica Blockman. A former gymnast, track athlete, and wrestler on the boys’ team in high school, this spitfire with an infectious personality showed plenty of athleticism on her 5’1”, 114-pound frame. A fan in the audience coined her perfectly by calling her the 'Eager Beaver from Beaverton'. Turning pro last year by winning the overall physique title at the NPC Junior Nationals, Blockman's pro debut was a solid one by grabbing sixth at the 2013 Europa Supershow in Dallas. Balanced and proportionate for her size, and showing an excellent level of conditioning, she will fit right in with the growing group of competitors in that 5’ to 5’4” range. Blockman accepted $500 for her third-place finish and tallied 10 points on the final score sheet.
The competitive closeness of this event was most vividly illustrated by the fact that just one point behind Erica Blockman was the presence of fitness superstar Tanji Johnson in fourth with a total of 11.
For Johnson, entering the pro Physique division was new territory – her first time competing outside the pro fitness division since 2002. But what a show she put on for her appreciative hometown crowd. Johnson drew great moves from her bag of fitness tricks and combined them with strength moves and a level of stage presence she has cultivated from her many years in the fitness realm.
It was truly a 'Best Poser' level performance. And it was one of the finest posing performances seen so far in these early years of the pro WPD. On the other hand, it shouldn't have been a surprise considering her storied competitive career – there's the 11 Ms. O's that includes three runner-up finishes, 11 Fitness Internationals at the Arnold Classic which she won last year, eight additional pro fitness victories and all in 44 contests. This event was her 45th, and she still lights up a stage.
Now the question is, will Johnson remain in the Physique division or backtrack to Fitness? Either way, her legendary status will continue to grow. Johnson's financial reward for her fourth place finish was worth $400, but her posing performance was well worth the price of admission.
Capturing the fifth-place spot just four points behind Tanji Johnson was Californian Venus Nguyen. The 16th-place finisher at last year's inaugural Physique Olympia, Nguyen has been a steady placer in the Physique division since turning pro at the 2010 NPC Team Universe as a fitness competitor. A former gymnast who also ran track at Arizona State, Nguyen is another of the well-proportioned competitors who balances a well-shaped musculature on a 5’1” frame.
On this weekend, Nguyen served as half of the best example of the passing of time by way of competing at the Emerald Cup. It was 29 years ago that her mother – Catherine Nguyen – won the heavyweight and overall titles at the 1985 NPC Emerald Cup. Fittingly, Venus's mother was on hand to see her daughter compete. Said Venus of the mother/daughter connection, "It's pretty crazy to think that when my mom was training for bodybuilding, I was crawling around on the gym floor as a baby.” Like mother, like daughter! Nguyen's check for fifth came to $300, a sum that will buy a very nice dinner to celebrate the family occasion.
MORE E-CUP QUALITY
As Venus Nguyen checked in with a final total of 15 points, sixth-placer Katerina Kyptova was close behind at 17. A sparkling new Physique division star from the Czech Republic with world class legs and a stage presence that combines superb athleticism with an exotic flare, Kyptova moved well through her posing routine displaying every muscle on her 5’6” frame.
Many observers felt she was good enough to squeeze into the top five, and she did occupy a spot in the first call-out, so the judging panel was well aware of her presence. Another competitor with a knack for presenting her physique to its best advantage, Kyptova's floor poses drew audience raves as her legs continued to capture the center of attention, not unlike that of bodybuilding pro Sheila Bleck.
A former figure competitor turned bodybuilder, Kyptova has found the Physique division to her liking and higher placings will likely follow. Said Kyptova of the Emerald Cup, "Being on stage with so many great and famous ladies was so exciting. I was so nervous. I was worried I would forget to pose in the comparisons. And it was such a thrill to be in the first group to be called out. It was an amazing experience."
Four points off Kyptova's pace was 7th placer Jacklyn Sutton-Abrams from Colorado. Another dazzler, Abrams used her past pro cheerleading background to mark her notable presence on stage. A former overall fitness winner at the 2012 NPC Emerald Cup and turning pro at the NPC Junior USA the same year, Abrams made the switch from Fitness to Physique last year and notched a 7th-place finish at the Mile High Pro Physique in Denver. Here, the field was dramatically tougher than in Denver, and Abrams was hugely improved in every aspect of her physique. Higher placings for her should follow as the year progresses.
HOW'S THIS FOR A TIGHT RACE?
Following the top seven, it didn't get any easier to earn a placing. Check out the chase for the next four spots:
8- Cinzia Clapp, Alaska 27
9- Michelle Krack, Canada 28
10- Susan Graham, California 29
11- Valentina Chepiga, Alaska 30
And speaking of Valentina Chepiga… the former Ms. Olympia from Ukraine was in outstanding condition for this event and fortunately she was chosen to perform at the evening show. Winner of the heavyweight class Ms. O in 2000, it was difficult to believe it had been 14 years since that victory. Chepiga's contest history is impressive to say the least. Not only did she compete in seven Ms. Olympias, she also won the middleweight class at the 2000 Jan Tana Pro Classic, and 2002 Ms. International as a lightweight.
Before turning pro, Chepiga was an IFBB European champion, and was the overall winner at the IFBB World Amateur Championships in 1997. To her credit she represented her stature as a former Ms. O beautifully at this event with a nicely choreographed routine and plenty of well-shaped muscle – a level of muscle which may have had something to do with her missing the top ten placings. Too much of a good thing, maybe? Still, Czech Republic's Katerina Kyptova put it best when she mentioned, "It was such an honor to be on stage next to Valentina, she is such a hero in Europe. I had only been training one year when she won Ms. Olympia. So to be on stage with her was very exciting."
THE REST OF THE BEST!
12- Stephanie Willes, Las Vegas, Nevada 36
13- Loan Leonard, Sacramento, California 39
14- Kimberley Kosmas, Portland, Oregon 40
15- Ann Gannon, Spokane, Washington 44
16- Tammy Ross, Lakewood, Washington 46