Tampa, Florida, August 8, 2009: "What are the judges looking for?" It's a question that has loomed large for as long as women's bodybuilding events have been contested. And on Saturday night at the Tampa Performing Arts Center, the final results of the Tampa Pro Bodybuilding Championships left scores of fans and the competitors wondering the same thing.
Now in its second year, this contest almost didn't happen, when earlier in the year concerns over sponsorship caused the event to be cancelled. Fortunately, the cancellation was a momentary one, and after a valiant effort through a variety of sponsors and internet intervention, enough money was raised to re-instate the contest to its original date and the competition was on.
Of some surprise and even disappointment to many, the entry list totaled just 14 contestants - four less than the inaugural show in 2008. Equally surprising was the fact that of the 14 entries, only five were from the United States. Further, of the top ten finishers in 2008, only three were back to do battle once again. The bright side was that last year's winner, Canadian Nicole Ball, and Swedish runner-up Klaudia Larson were two of the three.
Promoters Tim and Brandie Gardner deserve a level of congratulations in putting together a memorable event in a very comfortable venue, although the sub-standard lighting proved to be an ongoing frustration for everyone during the entire show.
In Her Defense
Anytime a previous winner of a contest returns to defend her crown, there is an unmistakable pressure to solidify that championship level physical appearance - indeed, even improve on it. And that is exactly what Nicole Ball did for this year's Tampa event. Closely following the guidelines set down at the beginning of last year, Ball entered the 2008 contest presenting an aesthetically pleasing, well-conditioned overall look that judges quickly responded to with a unanimous first-place vote.
Assuming that formula would once again be in place this year, and heeding the advice of judges and observers who felt strongly that she needed to improve the balance between her legs (thighs specifically) and her upper body, Ball returned with notable improvement - not just in her quads - but with a general overall ‘polishing' of what was already a sharp looking chassis. Her fluid bodylines, sound structure and engaging stage persona all contributed considerably to what most consider the quintessential ‘package' that every bodybuilder strives to reach.
There is an old boxing adage that states, "To beat a champion, you've got to knock them out". It is certainly an adage that has held true at countless bodybuilding events in the past where winners have stacked up six or eight titles in a row before they were finally knocked off the top of the platform.
Here however, Ball's term at the top was to be short-lived when she was unceremoniously dropped to fourth-place in the final tallies. It was a placing that stunned many. Perhaps even more surprising than judges passing her over for the top spot was her final placement in fourth. Apparently judges had drifted from the guidelines set forth a year earlier , and with only the top three finishers qualifying for the Ms. Olympia, Ball's fourth-place finish was even more problematic considering the fact that she was deemed unqualified to compete at the Ms. Olympia level - a result that, for now at least, has a competitor who has placed eighth at the 2007 Ms. Olympia and 11th at the 2008 Ms. O, left hanging with serious questions as to what went so wrong. And those questions, of course, can only be answered by the judges who put pencils to paper.
For her effort, Ball claimed prize money amounting to $1,000.
Facing a similar situation the Nicole Ball, Sweden's Klaudia Larson finished in the fifth and final prize money-winning position. Like Ball, Larson had also entered this contest in top form. Carrying a very high level of well-defined muscle, and a set of the most remarkably-peaked biceps in female bodybuilding, Larson was also confused by her finish.
Both Ball and Larson made the first callout in prejudging, but the initial clue that Larson may be doomed to a lower position came when she was held on stage for the second callout (a group that included the eventual sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth finishers). The final placer at last year's Ms. Olympia, Larson will now have to scramble in an e
ffort to re-qualify for the Big Show. Here she won $500.
With the top two finishers from the 2008 Tampa Pro event relegated to the fourth and fifth-place positions, it made for an interesting variety of physiques and contest histories to jockey for the top three placements.
Finishing third and collecting her first pro prize money ($1,500) was Texan Tina Chandler. Entering this event in her best-ever condition, the former NPC USA and NPC National middleweight champion held her own in this field and was markedly better than when she made her pro debut placing seventh at the 2008 New York Pro Championships. Chandler's musculature was full and complete, and her overall look was deemed acceptable to the judges by way of her earning a Ms. Olympia qualifying berth. Several observers saw Chandler as a legitimate challenger for the title along with Ball.
The runner-up placing went to Georgia's Gale Frankie. No doubt ecstatic over her finish, Frankie cheerfully accepted $3,000 and a Ms. Olympia qualifying spot. Densely muscled, Frankie showed plenty of mature muscle throughout her physique, and fit in structurally somewhere between Nicole Ball and eventual winner Betty Pariso. An overall winner at the 2008 NPC Masters Nationals, Frankie will need to repeat the shape she showed at that event when she takes the stage in Las Vegas next month. That said, Frankie made a very strong showing in what was her pro debut.
With all due respect accorded we can say without hesitation that the winner of this year's Tampa Pro Championships is a grandmother. It is doubtful that too many IFBB pro events will be able to make that claim in the immediate future. But Texan Betty Pariso is, in fact, a proud grandmother, and at 53 years young she continues to defy the aging process. A seventh-place finisher at the 2008 Ms. Olympia, and a pro since 1997, Pariso has been waiting a long time for this victory. With 11 Ms. Internationals, and seven Ms. Olympia contests on her contest resume, Pariso's only other victory as a pro was eight years ago when she won the overall title at the 2001 Jan Tana Classic. This year Pariso made a concerted effort to win another pro event and came close earlier in the year placing second at the 2009 New York Pro Championships. Here in Tampa, however, all the stars were aligned and she came up with enough of what the judges decided they needed to see this night and she is now $5,000 richer and doubly qualified for her eighth Ms. O. And if you think for a second the stars weren't all in a row, how about the coincidence of Pariso drawing competitor number 53! So, whatever it is the judges are looking for, it suits Betty Pariso just fine.
Outside the top five, newly crowned NPC USA overall champion Angie Salvagno flexed her way to the sixth-place finish. Bravely managing to maintain the conditioning level that earned her the USA title two weeks earlier, Salvagno showed she was primed for the pro level with great stage presence and a flashy posing routine. Like Nicole Ball a year earlier, it remains to be seen if Salvagno can bring up her thighs to give her better overall structural balance. She certainly seems to have no problem meeting the requirements for top-notch physical conditioning and muscle definition.
Seventh went to Mexico's Myriam Bustamante. An experienced bodybuilder with nice muscular balance and proportions, she needs only to bring more muscular detail to her overall physique to move up. Bustamante was the Mexican National champion in 1994, and earned her pro status at the 1998 IFBB Iberoamerican Championships in Guatemala. Her highest placing as a pro came in 2002 when she placed third in the middleweight class at the Southwest Pro Cup in Dallas.
Hometown favorite and winner of the evening's ‘Best Poser' award went to eighth-place finisher Bev DiRenzo. Taking a step up from her 11th-place finish at the 2009 New York Pro Championships, her placing here matched the same finish she claimed at last year's Tampa show. A gymnastics teacher who can still perform many of the flexibility moves from her days as a competitive gymnast, her muscular 5-6 frame looks impressive during her posing routines. DiRenzo was the 2007 NPC National heavyweight champion to earn her pro status, and it is interesting to note that the fifth-place finisher in DiRenzo's class that year was one Gale Frankie.
Ninth went to England's Carmen Knights. A former figure competitor, and a winner of the 2005 United Kingdom Bodyfitness title to earn her pro status, the 5-5, 123-pound Brit decided to make the switch to bodybuilding after less-than-desirable finishes in pro figure events. A top-ten finish here is a step in the right direction.
Rounding out the top ten was 10th-placed Irene Andersen. At 175 pounds, the sizeable Swede was noticed in the second callout of prejudging, and she showed good overall muscular development and a balanced structure. A captive of the continuing theme at pro events which seems to score the larger contestants in the lower third of a given field, the 5-8 Andersen has all the physical tools to break out of that mold. Her 10th-place finish here is an improvement on the 15th-place spot she took at this event in 2008, and the 16th position she was assigned at the 2009 New York Pro. Andersen is the mother of three and trained in Muay Thai.
The 11th-place position went to Bahamian Jena Mackey. 12th went to Slavakia's Aurelia Grozajova. 13th was South African Nicole Acker, and Mexico's Elizabeth Gomez landed 14th.