Women's Bodybuilding: Decades of Changes – Part II
As the fledgling 80's gave way to the 90's, women's bodybuilding continued to grow, and with the 90's, numbers continued to soar – in more ways than one. A fitness class within the NPC was born and by 1995 the fitness division was also introduced at the Ms. Olympia. A new breed of competitor came with this class as lean, strong, athletes – many of whom were former gymnasts - stormed the stages at amateur events.....anxious to reach the pro level. Industry mags were quick to cover this dynamic group and the inevitable comparisons to women's bodybuilding weren't far behind. And as could have been easily predicted, those comparisons were seldom flattering to women's bodybuilding. Yet bodybuilding was growing in another way – the increased size of the competitors weight-wise was unmistakable – and concerns grew within the organization as to how to control a situation that was considered undesirable.
In the decade from 1992 to 2002 the size of the competitors and the accompanying muscle weight became an issue with administrators seeing the increased muscular levels as a possible runaway train.
While the natural evolution of the sport was noticeable, it was growing at a predictable rate when looking at, say, the heavyweight class from 1992 where the average weight of the 31 contestants was 142 pounds, to 2002 where the same class averaged 151 pounds. More, it became a matter of specific individuals in the years during this decade that gave rise for the concern (although they were never mentioned by name), and the fear that other competitors would follow suit. In 1996 the average weight for the 23 entrants in the HW class was 157 pounds and Betty Pariso won that class weighing 153 ¼ . But the overall title went to middleweight Gayle Moher who weighed 131 ½. The alarm bell at this event was the fact that five HW's weighed over 169 pounds including Leza Lewis at 180, Ann-Marie Crooks at 185 ¾ , and Nicole Bass at 199 ¾. A year later Bass won the HW and overall titles at 204 pounds. But of the 14 entrants in that class only one other competitor weighed over 160 pounds, while half the field weighed less than 148.
Meanwhile the decade was busy producing some of the most eye-catching female bodybuilders ever. 1993 NPC National middleweight winner Vickie Gates would go on to win three Ms. International titles and a group of future Olympians including Sue Price, Michele Ralabate, Denise Masino, Brenda Raganot, Betty Pariso and Nicole Bass fed the never-ending (and fascinating) variety that has always been the hallmark of women's bodybuilding. And along with the many other future pros from this decade, they all collectively set the stage for the coming years of change.
A NEW MILLENNIUM AND PLENTY OF CHANGE
By 2000 additional attention was being paid to the general direction of women's bodybuilding and on January 5th of the new millennium NPC President Jim Manion wasted little time in sending a very short directive to all female bodybuilding members of the NPC. It read, “The following is the criteria for which all NPC Women Bodybuilding competitors will be judged: Full General Assessment: Healthy Appearance, Face, Makeup, Separations and Muscularity BUT NOT TO THE EXTREME!” That was it. Short and sweet. Later that year, Heather Foster won the HW and overall NPC National title in supreme condition at 160 pounds. Interestingly, with all the concern centering around the size of the competitors, the reality was not reflected in the judging choices for the overall NPC National champion. From 2000 to 2012 those 13 years saw the overall NPC National title go to the heavyweight 12 times. The exception was light-heavyweight Kristy Hawkins who featured an eye-boggling level of muscular separation and detail on her 138-pound frame to earn the title. Coincidentally, the sum total poundage of the 13 overall National champions in those years was exactly 2,000 pounds, and divided by 13, the average winner was 153.8 pounds.
As the decade moved forward more changes came with it. A new Figure division was added bringing more opportunity for the women who decided against training for a more muscular physique in Bodybuilding, or those who lacked a gymnastic or dance background to be competitive in Fitness. The Figure division grew so fast, more and more height classes were added, seemingly with each passing year. Entries in this new division were commonly over 100 at national-level events.
Meanwhile bodybuilding continued to hold its own, and in 2002 the field produced an outstanding group of competitors from the field of 71 contestants in three divisions. Among the 25 competitors in the heavyweight class several future stars chased Sarah Dunlap to her title. With an average weight of 151 ½ pounds in this class, Dunlap checked in at 143 pounds and it was good enough to propel her to the overall National crown. Third was Sherry Smith who continued on by winning the HW class at the NPC USA in 2004 and the overall title at the IFBB North American in 2006. As a pro she won the Europa Supershow HW class and placed 16th at the Ms. Olympia the same year. Smith made a comeback in 2012 placing 12th at the Wings of Strength contest in Chicago. Showing a stunning level of potential, fifth placer Heather Armbrust was destined for the pro ranks and after an overall victory at the 2006 NPC USA, she followed with a string of top level placements beginning in 2007 with a victory at the Sacramento Pro, third at the Ms. International and fifth at the Ms. Olympia. In 2009 she added a fourth-place finish at the Ms. International and placed second to Iris Kyle at the Ms. Olympia before leaving the competitive stage for good.
Another Texan and future pro in eighth was Bonny Priest. It only took one year before she won the overall 2003 NPC USA title and move into the pro ranks in 2004. That year she won the heavyweight class at the Southwest Pro as well as having her first competitive experiences at the Ms. International and Ms. Olympia. She was also an overall winner at the 2005 Europa Supershow. Priest finished her pro career in 2007 having competed in four Ms. Olympias where she placed as high as sixth in 2006.
The 10th placed HW was Bev DiRenzo. A Florida native, turned pro at the 2007 NPC Nationals where she won the heavyweight class. Since then she has competed annually at several pro events.
Going almost unnoticed (and certainly by the judges) was Texan Gina Davis in 13th place. With striking looks and an impressively developed physique, Davis moved up to seventh in 2003. By 2004 she won the HW and overall NPC National title. Unfortunately, her efforts at the pro level faded after a seventh-place finish at the Europa Supershow and she never competed again. That said, her rise from 13th to 7th to 1st and overall at the NPC Nationals should serve as motivation to any serious bodybuilder aspiring to reach the pro ranks.
Nevada's Jeannie Paparone was the winner of a very competitive middleweight class that included 22 contestants. Following her victory she moved into the pro ranks and has competed over a dozen times highlighted by a ninth-place finish at the Ms. Olympia in 2008 along with a pair of invites to the Ms. International.
Sixth went to Angie Salvagno. Few could argue that she didn't earn her trek to the pros after winning the light-heavyweight class at the NPC USA in 2006 and 2007. In 2009 she again won the LtHW class for a record third time along with the overall to earn her trip to the pro ranks. In 14th place was Gayle Frankie. Undeterred by her low placement she continued competing annually and at the 2008 NPC Masters Nationals she won the overall title and her pro status. A year later Frankie placed second at the Tampa Pro which vaulted her into a qualifying spot for the 2009 Ms. Olympia where she placed 13th.
In the lightweight class of 15 entrants Pennsylvania's Susan Facini topped the field but never pursued the pro level. Fourth placer Michelle Davis, on the other hand, returned in 2003 and handily won the lightweight class. She competed three times as a pro in 2004.
AND SPEAKING OF 2004.............
In 2004 another advisory notice was sent out by Jim Manion, this time as the Vice Chairman of the IFBB Professional Division to all IFBB Professional Female Athletes. It read, “For aesthetics and health reasons, the IFBB Professional Division requests that female athletes in Bodybuilding, Fitness and Figure decrease the amount of muscularity by a factor of 20%. This request for a 20% decrease in the amount of muscularity applies to those female athletes whose physiques require the decrease regardless of whether they compete in Bodybuilding, Fitness or Figure. All professional judges have been advised of the proper criteria for assessing female physiques.” Needless to say the directive created quite a stir, and left many women wondering if they were one of “those female athletes whose physiques require the decrease”.
Just a year earlier, the 2003 NPC Nationals enjoyed a record-setting 82 contestants in the bodybuilding division and the three weight classes buoyed by a strong contingent of outstanding competitors, made for a great contest and one of the most memorable on record.
Now familiar names surfaced in every class. The lightweight featured 46-year-old winner Michelle Davis followed by Lindsay Mulinazzi, Pam Kusar, Ellen Woodley and Emery Miller among the 27 entrants. In the middleweights, winner Tonia Williams led the way with Bev DiRenzo, Terri Harris, Angie Salvagno, Yvette Bova, and Janet Kaufman. In 15th place Stephanie Kessler would reach the pro ranks by winning the overall NPC Team Universe in 2006 and win the HW class of the 2007 Jan Tana Classic in her pro debut to go with her entry in the Ms. Olympia where she landed 13th. The MW field totaled 22 competitors. The heavyweight class was really loaded. The division featured 32 entrants and it was a who's who of women's bodybuilding notables. For example, the top six in order was Annie Rivieccio, Mimi Jabalee, Lora Ottenad, Sherry Smith, Yamile Marrero and Sheila Bleck. Seventh was Gina Davis, and eighth-placed Sheilahe Brown won the tall class and overall at the 2011 NPC USA in the Physique division. The ever-present Michelle Ivers was 11th, and rounding out the top 16 was Nekole Hamrick who is now an IFBB pro in the Physique division. Outside the top 16 was Colette Nelson, and all she did was move on to win the overall 2004 NPC Team Universe AND the IFBB World Amateur Championships the same year! In addition, a quartet of 170-plus pound competitors who missed cracking the top 16 included Amber DeLuca at 175, Heather Darling 174, Linda Cancel 172 and Ella Williams 171. The average weight of the 32 entrants in the HW class was 156 pounds, and may have been at least part of the determining factor for the 20% directive that was requested in 2004.
Another significant element of change in 2004 was the return of the light-heavyweight class. This class existed at the NPC Nationals for just two years in 1984 and '85 to help accommodate the sport's rapid growth spurt at the time. It was excluded in 1986 by request of the IFBB to fall in line with the three weight classes recognized internationally to coincide with events such as the IFBB World Amateur Championships. The NPC Nationals served as the qualifier for the Worlds until 1994 when the NPC Team Universe was created as an international qualifier. The addition of the light-heavyweight class worked well and at the '04 Nationals the class carried 20 entries – the largest class of the event. As the inaugural year of this class the top six made for an impressive group led by winner Cindy Gonzales. Elena Seiple, Kim Perez, Dena Westerfield, Robin Parker and Debbie Bramwell filled out the additional placings respectively. With the lightweight and middleweight classes each totaling 10 entries, Pam Kusar won the LW and Emery Miller the MW's. The heavyweight class was of particular interest as the 16 entries - who collectively averaged 162 pounds - was the largest average weight in the history of the NPC Nationals. The top three in the group also impressed. With Gina Davis winning the class and the overall title, she was followed by Lora Ottenad and another Texan, Leighsa Bailey, in third. Bailey, unfortunately, never competed again, but showed a very strong level of potential, easily worthy of the pro level. Bailey was the smallest of the heavyweights, while Heather Darling, at 191 pounds, was the heaviest.
Atlanta's Mimi Jabalee was the hometown favorite as she won the overall National crown in 2005 topping a field of 63. In 2006 Washington's Lora Ottenad won the overall out-flexing a field of 76 entrants. Californian Kristy Hawkins stole the usual heavyweight thunder in winning the overall National title as a light-heavyweight. The four-class total of the event was 61. A pair of Floridians won the next two overall NPC National crowns with Sheila Bleck turning pro with her 2008 victory, while Kris Murrell led the way in 2009. The two events were almost carbon copy in size as 69 entrants took part in 2008 and 70 entered the 2009 event.
With the continued popularity of the Figure class and the introduction of the Bikini division along with the talk of instituting a new Physique division to the national level, the 2010 NPC Nationals Bodybuilding class experienced a notable dip in entries when only 42 contestants competed at the event in Atlanta. Pennsylvanian Amber DeFrancesco won the heavyweight and overall titles at a beautifully balanced 148 pounds – considerably smaller than Kris Murrell's 169-pound physique from a year earlier.
The 2011 NPC Nationals marked the highly anticipated addition of the Physique class , and entries for this group turned out in droves with the majority of contestants entering as former Figure competitors stepping up, while former Bodybuilders took a step down. The total entries for the new division was 106 and were divided into three height classes. Idaho's Karin Kimura – who had competed both as a figure competitor and bodybuilder in the past claimed the inaugural Physique division overall title. Meanwhile New Yorker Michelle Cummings – entering her first NPC Nationals - claimed the heavyweight and overall titles in a field of 48 bodybuilders. Cummings was the first competitor from New York to win the overall title since Heather Foster in 2000.
Returning once again to Atlanta last year, a field of 43 contestants vied for the overall NPC National bodybuilding title with Juanita Blaino capturing the coveted trophy and pro qualification. The 167-pound Blaino became the first competitor from Illinois to win the overall NPC National title. Lightweight Crystal Rieke, middleweight Rene Marven, and light-heavyweight Kira Neuman joined Blaino in securing pro status. In the Physique division, a fourth height class was added, but with a year for the initial excitement to settle down over the new Physique class – a field of 63 contestants took part with Pennsylvanian Toni West winning the overall title.
So, with four different devisions to choose from as we enter 2013, the women's side of the sport most assuredly shows its strength in numbers. But we can only guess what the state of women's bodybuilding will with the passing of another decade.