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06.24.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Jessica Lussenhop
Say beefcake: The crowd went wild for the men's novice bodybuilding category.

Battle of The Bulge

Ripped rhomboids and buff biceps at the Santa Cruz Bodybuilding and Figure Championships.

By Jessica Lussenhop


GUYS," calls out Kelvin Fountano, president of the World Body & Fitness Association. "Make sure when you go onstage your wear your number on your left side." Left side, on the left.

The words ripple through the dimly lit Rio Theatre auditorium as family members and trainers fuss over bodybuilders of all sizes at Saturday's Santa Cruz Bodybuilding and Figure Championships in Seabright. "This isn't one of our biggest events," says Fountano. "But it's one of our funnest."

Since the Rio has no true backstage area, black curtains have been erected to the left of the stage, and inside it's dark and easy to trip on free weights scattered among gym bags. In the gloom it's still possible to make out the bodybuilders, in particular the snowy-haired 60-and-over qualifiers, who are pumping little weights and jogging in place, their muscles more sinewy than the twentysomethings wandering around. Everyone is practically naked, stripped down to thongs and glistening in tanning oil.

"It's best not to stay back there too long," warns Fountano. "People are spraying themselves down. You get a little dizzy after a while."

Christina Davis, a heavyweight bodybuilder from San Jose, is bent over, getting oiled up to a dark sheen by an assistant. "I'm really excited," she says. "Confident." She is one of only four female competitors and the only one in the heavyweight category.

Her two rivals in the figure event, a more feminine category in which the ladies wear clear plastic heels and do not flex, wait outside in the auditorium, the rhinestones studding their bikinis poking through their track suits. Both have been on a diet for the last five months. "Chicken and vegetables," says Sally McCollum, a 38-year-old Aromas resident.

"Tilapia. Egg whites. Protein powder," adds Shani O'Neill, a 27-year-old from the Westside. Even before I finish asking them what they're going to do after the competition, O'Neill interrupts, "Party. Afterparty at the Palomar."

"You can't have a body like this with alcohol," says last year's women's champion, Sondra Harrison, who drove in from Yuma. She trains all year round and participates in as many WBFA regional competitions as possible, along with her husband. "We travel a lot; we follow the circuit," she says. "[The goal] is to hopefully go to Germany with Team USA. Or to become a spokesmodel for a supplement company."

Today's competition is one of scores of regional contests leading to Team USA, members of whom compete for the Mr./Ms. Universe title against about 1,000 bodybuilders from around the world. Though Fountano is on the lookout for members to join Team USA, held this year in Hamburg, Germany, Judge Jeffrey Johnson says he much prefers the athletes who come out just for love of the sport. "You got to love it and want to be a part of it," he says. "I don't like people who are here for exposure, to be in the spotlight."

But one by one, they're all in the spotlight. Sixty-three-year-old Steve Franklin of Soquel, a powerful, tanklike man with skin the color and sheen of a rotisserie chicken, takes the 60-and-over title; Harrison loses her 2008 overall women's bodybuilding title to Davis and her overall figure title to O'Neill, who receives her first-place trophy to calls of "Party time!" from the audience.

Things get particularly heated in the men's novice bodybuilding category, when 25-year-old Watsonville resident Nino "Nico" Vega, a first-time competitor, faces off against three rivals in a round that briefly confounds the judges. "Audience, you can help the judges," says Fountano from the podium, and the crowd roars back.

"Nico!" someone screams from the front row. It's his trainer from Gold's Gym, L. Soekardi. Straining in his pose, beads of sweat stippling his chest, Vega's eyes flick down at her from the stage, like a child to his parent. "Squeeze!" she yells. "Hit it, Nico!" In the end, he clinches the first place. Johnson explains why.

"The tall kid, he had great symmetry, everything flowed nicely, but he was smooth, not cut. This guy at the end didn't have nice symmetry," he muses afterward. "Sometimes you get stuck, and I don't like to flip a coin. It's not easy."

Afterward in the black tent, Vega cradles his trophy and talks to his girlfriend Eva. "It feels good," he says of his win. "The hardest part is the diet, no carbs. I'm Filipino so it's rice, rice, rice. And I'm young. I used to go out a lot, but I haven't been drinking in four months--no partying or nothing."

Soekardi is overjoyed. "I'm so happy, I'm very proud," she says hoarsely. "I lost my voice."


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