Promoter Tim Gardner may be unique in all of bodybuilding when it comes to his annual contest held in Tampa, Florida. And the primary reason is that the event carries with it so many names. Of course there's the NPC Tim Gardner Extravaganza, and at the IFBB pro level it's known as the Tampa Wings of Strength Pro, the Pro Bodybuilding Weekly Championships or simply the Tampa Pro.
Call it what you will, it has grown steadily over the past several years and for the 2014 edition with all the divisions both amateur and pro, they're probably still counting all the entries. Someone mentioned there were 223 men and women pro entries making it the biggest IFBB pro event ever.
The pro women's bodybuilding portion of the Tampa event began in 2008 with Canadian Nicole Ball winning the first one, and since that time the average number of entries in the bodybuilding division has been 23 competitors – and that's exactly what Gardner saw on his entry sheet for this year. No doubt this event has been as consistent as it has been one of quality.
And where quality is considered, this year's contest has a boast that few if any other pro qualifiers can make when it comes to the bodybuilding division. A total of nine contestants among the 23 had previously competed in the Ms. Olympia, and several of those had been to the Olympia on more than two occasions. If you're a rookie, that can be pretty unnerving. Two entrants who were making their pro debuts both cracked the top ten, and another was making an impressive comeback after being away from the competitive stage for nine years. All of this may have something to do with the family feeling this contest offers the competitors. Competitors are simply drawn to it. As one said this year, "There's definitely a welcome feel to this show. But hey, we're bodybuilders. We're family!"
That said, there was still the business of competing – the primary reason why most were in Tampa in the first place. The event was a qualifier for the Ms. Olympia. There were points to be scored in the Qualification Points race, and there was $9,500 in prize money to soften the blow of expense preparing for events like this one.
SHEILA BLECK – A WINNER ON SO MANY LEVELS
It's doubtful that anyone will remember this Tampa Pro event longer than Sheila Bleck… and she will remember it for a very long time. But along with the winning of a contest there is often so much more that goes into reaching the top of the awards stand the audience never sees. And if you are a female bodybuilder, those victories can be few and far between unless, of course, you're Iris Kyle.
But Sheila Bleck's victory at this contest is special for several reasons. First of all, and primarily because bodybuilding magazines have failed in their responsibility to give any kind of coverage to the female side of the sport in the past decade, Sheila Bleck has missed out on becoming a household name in the sport. After her performance this weekend, hopefully, we’ll all know her better now. But it took the effort she put forth in her prep for this event to lift herself to her best-ever level of condition in a very long career.
When I say very long career, I mean one that began at the 1993 NPC Bill Pearl Classic in Oregon where she finished second in the HW class of the Novice division. Some quick math will tell you that's been 21 years ago. But you might respond with the obvious – how could that be, she looks so young. Well, Bleck is just two months away from her 40th birthday coming in October. Surprising? Yes. Just two years ago a fan guessed that she must be 25.
Nineteen ninety-three was a beginning for her competitively, but she was only just getting started in 2000 when she won the NPC Emerald Cup. Her 2000 season also gave her a first taste of the bitterness of losing. After winning the Emerald Cup she entered the 2000 NPC USA with high hopes and promptly plummeted to 16th… welcome to the national level! From that point until 2008, she entered both USA and National contests placing in a variety of positions, but all serving as valuable experience for what was to come.
Her career highpoint as an amateur came in 2008 when she won the HW and overall NPC National crowns. Having always approached her bodybuilding with a blue collar love of training, it was about to pay off. Turning pro in 2010 at the New York Pro Championships she finished second, a nice pro debut indeed. Later in the year she entered her first Ms. Olympia and placed fourth, a nice debut at the Olympia as well. In 2011 she notched a sixth-place finish at the Ms. Olympia and she had established herself as a major player on the pro level. Again in 2012 she placed sixth at the Olympia after finishing second at the Tampa Pro.
At this juncture in what anyone would consider a successful career, Bleck was still missing an element that had eluded her. She hadn't yet won a pro show. As good as her physique was and is, and as great a posing performer as she was and is, first place simply hadn't been in the cards. Until this Friday evening. Suddenly, all the stars aligned. Bleck was in dazzling shape, she looked rested, fresh, enthusiastic and eager to perform… all the elements that contribute to a winning effort. But more importantly, the elephant was off her back. Her wait for a pro contest victory was over – and it came in a stacked field. This was no gimme show. Her win was unanimous, universally accepted by the Tampa town folk on hand. There was no controversy, no one-point edgy victory.
And again, in dream-like fashion, the victory came at the same Tampa show where she had finished second just two years earlier. Could it possibly get any better than that? Well, actually it could! She also was honored with the 'Best Poser' award that, for anyone who knows her well, means the world to her. It was Sheila Bleck's night. Now, onward to her fourth visit to the Olympia.
SO, WHO IS JENNIFER SEDIA?
Like so many other names of top bodybuilders in the women's pro ranks, Jennifer Sedia just doesn't ring a bell for most fans. In her case, the lack of familiarity is partly of her own doing. She has competed sparingly since 2006, and this event was only her seventh pro contest since she turned pro by winning the MW and overall titles at the NPC USA in 2007.
There is much more to know about this Texan from Lubbock, but you had to be paying attention over the past eight years to notice her accomplishments. Put simply, Sedia is not the style of personality who is anxious to blow her own horn – although she would have every right to.
To understand Jennifer Sedia, you had to see her surrounded by family and friends in the contest lobby after she had won the overall USA Championships in 2007. With eyes the size of Pluto Platters, to put it mildly she was in an utter state of shock. What she had just accomplished simply wasn't registering in her gray matter. It's been seven years ago now, and there might even be some tarnish on the trophies. But it didn't end there.
A year later and much closer to home in Dallas she entered her first pro contest – the Europa Supershow So, it's easy to imagine that when she was about to make her pro debut in front of an audience that was jammed with people she knew – she was basically a nervous wreck. And again, it didn't end there. In her pro debut show she won the lightweight class. More Pluto Platters. Another state of shock.
And again, it didn't end there. The year wasn't over yet. In winning her class at the Europa event, she had qualified for the Ms. Olympia – that contest every bodybuilder dreams of entering. Her dream was coming true. She would be standing on stage with Iris Kyle, Yaxeni Oriquen, Dayana Cadeau, Cathy Lefrancois, Betty Pariso and many others she had only read about or seen on the internet. The Olympia is always an elite contingent of seldom more than 20 women, and all with sterling contest resumes. She set about to prep as best she could and the result was more than she could have ever wished for. She placed 10th… at the Ms. Olympia. A top ten finish at her first Ms. Olympia. More saucer eyes!
But then came 2009. She competed twice cracking the top ten at both contests. In 2010 she didn't compete. Then in 2011 after an 8th place finish at the Battle of Champions, she entered the Tampa Pro and found herself mired in 17th place along with seven others in what amounted to a dead last finish. That was it. She left the competitive scene for three years. And in a gutsy move if there ever was one, she decided to make a comeback at the very contest where she had suffered her worst result – the 2014 Tampa Pro.
So who is Jennifer Sedia? She's the runner-up to fellow Olympian Sheila Bleck and sandwiched between another fellow Olympian Monique Jones. Along with that reality comes a new level of belief in herself and $2,500 in prize money to sweeten the moment. Most importantly, she's back. Let's hope she stays for a while.
MO JO WORKING IN THIRD
You know a women's bodybuilding contest is deep with talent when the top three finishers have all finished in the top ten of at least one Ms. Olympia in their competitive career. And as it happened, the third place finisher – Monique Jones – has competed in and finished in the top ten in each of the past three years. For so many who have seen her compete in the past, the adjectives are many when describing her physique on stage. But the one that seems to resonate with the most truth is 'majestic'.
In lineups where Jones competes everyone seems to fall short of either her height or most certainly her weight – or both. She brings back immediate memories of the 90's when competitors like Lesa Lewis, Anne-Marie Crooks and Nicole Bass roamed the stages with bodies on the order of 5-8 to 6-2 range in height, and between 180 and 200 pounds in body weight. Each had their own special stage persona – as does Monique Jones. And the one element that binds them forever will be their overall size – or as Dr. Al Thomas would gush, "They have the magical ability to take up lots of space. Their 'bigness' creates the majesty. You can't help but admire with a sense of awe."
And that's what the Tampa crowd did on Friday – both at the preliminaries and the finals. How could she not command ones attention? Many were surprised by her third place finish. But remember, it is a bodybuilding contest with specific criteria, and both Bleck and Sedia held strong suits in areas where Jones became vulnerable. Bleck held the wild card where a complete level of high-end conditioning left Jones wanting. Meanwhile, Sedia (the little engine that could compared to Jones' overwhelming size) showed clean bodylines, and structural shapes throughout her physique, even though Jones outmuscled both Bleck and Sedia.
So, it is now left to Jones to create an approach to her conditioning that will help carve sharp separations in her muscle groups. Thin her skin, and cut loose with a posing display that will make no apologies for her stunning musculature. There is little doubt she can be a dominating figure in women's bodybuilding at the Olympia level considering she has already placed 9th in 2011, 7th in 2012, and 8th in 2013. And those two wins at the Wings of Strength in Chicago the past two years weren't by accident either.
You can almost hear the chant building… MO-JO… MO-JO… MO-JO! Jones' prize winnings for the Tampa weekend totaled $1,500.
KAHLA, KAHLA, KAHLA, OI, OI, OI
Relax, the above title isn't a typo. It's merely an Aussie chant with a bodybuilding tilt to it. Anyway, yes, there is always an unknown entity in a pro contest of this size, and for the Tampa Pro muscle festival the unofficial prize went to Australia's Kahla Bullemor. Even in my files I could only find four short lines about her. From Queensland, Australia, Bullemor began her competitive efforts in 2003. By 2009, the 5’3”, 121 pound Aussie had already established herself as 'that ripped girl'.
At this event she showed those qualities in plentiful quantities with rigidly deep abs, and incredible hamstrings that showed highly visible tie-ins to her glutes even when standing normally. And these days she's notably bigger than the height and weight she had carried years earlier. Put simply, she was in remarkable condition overall. Bullemor was the Queensland State champion in 2009, and won the heavyweight and overall crowns at the 2010 Australian National Championships. In making her pro debut, fourth place in this field was a very respectable result that no one could have seen coming. An added perk was the cash prize of $1,000 for her fourth place finish.
MELODY TUNES UP FOR A 5TH PLACE FINISH
Just six points shy of Kahla Bullemor's fourth place finish was Canadian Melody Spetko. Tattoos and all, she's a piece of work. A Canadian who spends as much time in Florida as she does north of the border, Spetko has a unique look that isn't immediately eye-catching, but she grows on you. She has all the tools of a very good bodybuilder – that's a fact. But it's her overall look that gets her noticed. She's different… like an erector set in progress.
In Canadian amateur events she has fared well, winning the 2009 Canadian Masters Championship, and a year later she won the heavyweight Canadian Nationals to capture her pro status.
A pro since 2011, Spetko has been consistent in her placings, with more than a handful of top-ten placings including a pair of fourth-place finishes at the 2012 Tampa Pro, and 2013 Toronto Super Show. In fact, four of her pro entries have been at the Tampa Pro, and since 2009 there hasn't been a year where she hasn't competed at least once – and usually twice. So, her fifth-place finish here fits right in with her overall average placings with all events considered. And, as the final placer among those winning prize money, she pocketed $500. On meals alone, Bleck and Spetko could easily whittle that amount down to nothing before Monday morning!
THE REST OF THE BEST
6- Mimi Jabalee, Marietta, Georgia 54
7- Juanita Blaino, Chicago, Illinois 74
8- Kim Buck, Jonesboro, Georgia 76
9- Aleesha Young, Lehi, Utah 94
10- Zoa Linsey, Canada 96
11- Virginia Sanchez, Spain 110
12- Roxanne Edwards, Brooklyn, New York 124
13- Alicia Alfaro, Argentina 126
14- Olga Puzanova, Russia 140
15- Lisa Giesbrecht, BC, Canada 154
16- Janeen Lankowski, Ontario, Canada 156
17- Lisa Cross, England 160
17- Judy Gaillard, Ripley, Mississippi 160
17-Alevtina Goroshinskaya, Russia 160
17- Mary Ellen Jerumbo, El Paso, Texas 160
17- Beth Wachter, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida 160
17- Miriam Gerard, Curacao 160