A Dragon's Eye View of the Extravaganza
The following is my account of the Women's Strength Extravaganza held on August 2, 1997 at the Meadowlands Hilton in Secaucus, NJ. This was the first show of any type I've ever attended, and I hope to give everybody who's never attended anything like this some idea of what it's like. I never intended to do a contest report, and I wasn't taking any notes, so I apologize for any inaccuracies. I'm also no photographer, but it's impossible to take a bad picture when you have this kind of subject matter. I didn't go there with the intention of inserting myself in so many shots, and I probably wouldn't have except for the fact that the women seemed to enjoy the star treatment as much as I enjoyed giving it to them. I know that my presence isn't adding anything aesthetically, but I think that it will give you an idea of just how big these women are that you can't get from the magazines. I'm a fairly big guy, almost 6'0", 230lbs - no ab blaster jokes please, I promised Amy Pazzo that I'd work on it and I am - and it's interesting to see that a woman like Christa Bauch who looks like she has an upper body the size of Volkswagen, is actually fairly small. On the other extreme, Nicole Bass really is every bit as big as you'd think she'd be and then some. As I stated before, I wasn't there as a reporter. When you go to something like this, the bottom line should be whether or not you had a good time. So did I? You tell me:
From the moment I pulled into the driveway of the Hilton in Secaucus, NJ, and saw a fitness competitor bending over to get something out of her trunk, it was clear that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Walking down the steps from the parking lot, I found myself right behind a couple of FBB's. Entering the hotel, the first thing I saw was Nicole Bass blocking half the lobby with a lat spread. Making my way past vendor's tables, I was suffering sensory overload as fitness, bodybuilding, and strength competitors swirled around me. My first order of business was to find Rambler. As it turned out, he was easy to spot in his AMC Rambler shirt. Joining him, we talked for a few minutes before I spotted my first "name."
Intercepting her I said, "Excuse me, Annie Rivieccio? I'm a really big fan of yours. Could I get a picture with you?" Annie smiled, dropped her bag, and said, "Sure." Handing Rambler my camera (Thanks Rambler for all of your help.), I stood next to Annie as she did a front lat spread with one of her arms pressed across my chest. Looking down, I couldn't believe how huge she was! This woman is a mushroom cloud of muscle. Afterwards, I shook her hand and wished her luck in the strength competition.
The morning show started at eleven. Entering the ballroom, we took our sponsor seats in the second row right behind the photographers for WPW, MuscleMag, and Flex. It was great! We were about ten to twenty feet away from the action the entire time. But not all of the excitement was happening on stage. I had heard that one of my favorite fitness competitors, Debbie Kruck, was going to be there, and I had hoped to meet her. So who sits down in the first row, two seats to the right of me, and lays a perfectly tanned and muscled arm across the back of the chairs, so close that I could touch her hand? Waiting for a break in the action, I said, "Excuse me Debbie, could I get a picture?" Looking over her shoulder at me, Debbie flashed me a pearly white smile and a gave me a big thumbs up.
The ballroom was about half full for the morning portion of the show. There were a decent number of women present in the audience, and it was clear that they had more than a passing interest in fitness. In fact, women without some degree of muscularity were a distinct minority in the hotel that weekend.
The first event was the pre-judging for the bodybuilding competition. The women were called on stage in groups to do their mandatory poses, and then went through their individual posing routines without any music which seemed rather odd. Next, the fitness competitors went through their routines. I've seen these events on TV, but it's a lot more impressive up close. The amount of energy these women expend is incredible.
The final part of the morning show was the strength competition.
There were nine competitors that could be divided into three categories.
Some of the women like Amy Pazzo and Christie Wolf were bodybuilders showing
up in their off-season shape. A few of the women like Lisa Smith and Gayle
Mohler were in contest shape. And finally, there were the women who are
just plain BIG all year round. Women like Annie Rivieccio, Dawn Whitham,
and Vickie Walker Shay, so massive, they effect the tides.
The first strength event was the pull-up competition. I've seen a lot of figures cited from this competition, and I'd like to point out that these are not full range pull-ups. The women were allowed to use almost any type of grip, were allowed to change their grips during their set, and were only required to start with their arms bent ninety degrees at the bottom and get their chin over the bar for a good rep. It was a surprise to everybody when Vickie Walker Shay, the heaviest competitor at 175lbs, won easily. I don't remember exactly how many she did, but I think it was around sixty. The MC had said that she was so dense, she could walk across the bottom of a swimming pool (Yes, with water.), and based on the kind of development she displayed, I can believe it.
The second strength event consisted of squats at 150% of body weight. To measure a good squat, the contest organizers were going to use a rope strung under the women's thighs. They where going to set it for each competitor so that they would touch when their thighs were parallel to the floor. But right there on the spot, somebody came up with the idea of making it easier to adjust by setting the height of the rope at the crease in each competitor's knee, which would change it to more of a "sissy" squat. Well Dawn Whitham had a problem with that, and I don't blame her. This woman trains seriously for this competition, and they were messing with her best event (Dawn holds the record at sixty something.). I believe they relented to her, but she lost anyway. Dawn only managed forty something, and then got to watch in disbelief as first-timer Christie Wolf blew by her, setting the stage for what was to come.
At three o'clock, the morning show ended and Rambler and I got another chance to socialize. In addition to the women, we also talked to a number of guys like ourselves who admire muscular women and who regularly attend these shows. Some of them knew us from Diana's site. And despite what some people might think, they seemed more normal to me than your average Star Trek convention attendee (No e-mails please, I've been to them, and I refuse to take anybody who wears pointed ears seriously.).
Outside of the ballroom, we met Diana's correspondent Al, a pleasant, intelligent fellow who made the journey from England just to cover this event. Wearing a blue pin striped suit and loaded down with standard, digital, and video cameras, he spent every minute bringing you the pictures and interviews which now grace Diana's site. I just hope Diana appreciated how hard he was working and rewarded him appropriately.
Al introduced us to Nicole Bass, and Rambler couldn't resist getting an up close and personal picture with her. As he stood next to her, Nicole leaned over and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. Straightening up, she lifted him about eight inches off of the floor and held him there patiently for about ten seconds while I fumbled with his camera. After she put him down, it was my turn. Putting her arm around me, Ms. BigBass said, "I'd do the same thing to you, but I can't with these heels on." As I reciprocated by placing my arm across her incredibly broad back, she said "I'm sorry, my back's all sweaty." "Makes it better," I replied. "I won't wash this arm for a week." Nicole laughed and we got the shot. Al then introduced us to Nicole's husband and he told us a bit about the care and feeding of the world's largest female bodybuilder. And based on what we learned, I'm surprised there are any tuna left in the ocean or chickens on the range. This woman eats enough meat to make a Siberian tiger say, "no mas."
Back in the ballroom, we found Cheryl Harris busy doing Iron Belle's business, but she was nice enough to take a few minutes out of her hectic schedule to talk with us. She remembered Rambler from her message boards, but she didn't remember me until I told her that I was the "lunch with Doughdee" guy. I guess that even in her business, that's an unusual request. Prior to this, I had only seen a couple of pictures of Cheryl on the web, and I've got to say that they don't do her justice. In addition to being beautiful, she's got a Southern accent that's as sweet as syrup. Anybody who arranges a session with her won't be disappointed
Bumping into Christie Wolf, I wished her luck in the strength competition, and it must have helped because she went on to win. As you can see from her picture, she's one wild looking woman. I'm not sure if her last name comes from her parents or the animals that raised her. And even in North Jersey, big hair capital of the world, her doo would be considered extreme.
Breaking for a late lunch, Rambler and I drove around Secaucus looking for film for my camera. After finding a couple of rolls, we got a pizza and went back to my hotel room where we discussed our common interests: muscle cars and muscle girls. Let there be no doubt that Rambler knows his cars, and his knowledge isn't limited to AMC's. Unfortunately, neither of us brought our classics since both of us really wanted to be sure of making it to the show. After changing clothes for the dinner party, we returned to the Hilton for the evening show.
As soon as we made it through the doors I spotted a cute little blonde bodybuilder (Can you say that three times fast?) standing around and just assumed she was competing. It turned out that she was actually one of the show's organizers. Unfortunately, I didn't catch her name, but she was kind enough to pose for us.
As Rambler and I made our way outside of the ballroom, the crowds parted and I saw an incredible vision of loveliness gliding towards us. Her name was Annie Klepaki, and she's the perfect combination of girl next door good looks, personality, and muscle. It was obvious that she was a big girl, but I was amazed by just how big. When I asked her, she told me that she was 5'9", 167lbs. All I can say is, she wears it well. Not to take anything away from any of the other FBB's I met that day, I've got to say that Annie was my favorite. She's an incredible woman with a lot of potential and I hope she goes far.
I was surprised by how small Christa Bauch looked. Small that is, until she pulled back the sleeve of her sweatshirt and flexed her bicep under my nose. That thing exploded towards me like an erupting volcano. I also found her thick German accent incredibly cute. Guest posing later that evening, she started her routine serving up a couple of mugs of beer in native dress, and ended up in a yellow string bikini displaying the muscles that come from lifting kegs all day. I still can't believe this woman is 49 years old!
During a lull in the action, I noticed that one of the girls working at a table selling supplements was being ignored, a situation I had to rectify. I started off with the customary, "Hi, how are you doing." But then as I got close enough to get a good look at her, the following flew out of my mouth totally unbidden: "I've got to tell you that you're the most beautiful woman here." She smiled angelically at me and replied, "Well I don't know about that. There are a lot of beautiful women here, but thank you. Things like that really lift my spirits." Talking to her for a few minutes, we found out that her name was April Liquori, and she had been a fitness competitor, but was now doing modeling and fitness choreography. And I meant what I said to her. She has the most beautiful face of any woman I've ever seen in my life.
Even in a crowd like this, I was still surprised to meet former Ms. Olympia Lenda Murray. And after seeing her up close, all I can say is that she's in a different league from the women who were competing at this show. Her arms looked like a couple of canned hams stuffed into her shirt!
The next woman I spotted was also a Ms. O. competitor, Tazzie Colomb. This woman is massive. Next to Nicole of course, she was probably the biggest woman there. I never understood why this woman made so many of your favorite FBB lists, but I do now. She did an incredibly hot guest posing routine that evening that left the men in the audience loosening their collars.
When I took a picture with Gayle Moher, I was shocked when I rested my hand on her shoulder. I swear it felt exactly like a small pumpkin. It's cliché, but this women really is as hard as a rock! She's also a standout for her beauty even amongst this crowd. I also loved the English accent.
Making our way back into the ballroom for the evening show, we found that the sponsor's section had been moved back to the fourth row to make room for more media types and a video crew, but they were still excellent seats. To give you some idea of how we were treated, we were sitting five rows in front of Lenda. A situation which didn't seem quite right to me, but I wasn't the one who put her there.
The evening show consisted of the fitness, bodybuilding, and strength finals. Though it was more crowded than the morning show, there were still a few empty seats. There were also a lot more fitness/BB women in the audience, most of whom appeared to be accompanied by men.
The strength competition resumed with curls at 60% of body weight. I believe Amy Pazzo won this event and she also treated us to one of the competition's highlights. All throughout the competition, the MC had been making comments about Amy's weight gain since the Las Vegas Nationals. Evidently she had gone from 132lbs to 168lbs in three weeks. Well after the tenth comment about her not being able to pass a buffet table, she finally had enough. Walking over to him, she snatched the man up in a front bear hug and gently body slammed him on the stage. During the intermission, I got the chance to meet Amy, and based on what I saw, that weight gain was mostly muscle.
We also met the entrancing Lisa Smith. She was the only woman who was competing in both the bodybuilding and the strength competitions. Unfortunately, she came in last in the strength event which should probably serve as a warning to future competitors not to try and mix these two events.
The final event of the strength competition was body weight bench presses. Christie Wolf was the point leader from the first three events, and the competition was extremely close. As she started her set, she lost her balance. Everybody held their breath as she spent a few seconds struggling to regain control of the bar. Managing to straighten it, she went on to do 27 reps, good enough for the overall win. After the show was over, I was lucky enough to get a chance to congratulate her.
Outside of the ballroom, I got another reminder of just who's the world's largest bodybuilder. Christa Bauch and Nicole Bass were sitting at the same table signing autographs. Christa flexed for a fan, her arm less than a foot away from Nicole's, and I remember being amazed that Christa's flexed arm was only barely as wide as Nicole's relaxed arm. Now that's big!
Arriving at the private party for competitors and sponsors, the first person I talked to was Jeff Everson, former husband of Cory Everson. He is currently host of "TN2000", a bodybuilding and fitness show that features a couple of shapely women per episode. Shaking his hand, I said, "I'd just like you to know that I really enjoy your show, and I even watch the educational parts."
After hitting the tuna laden buffet, Rambler and I found ourselves sitting at the same table with Annie Rivieccio, Vicki Cole, and Lisa Smith as our dining companions Oh, and to answer the question of whether FBB's eat like ladies or ravenous wolves after a competition: Despite everything you've heard, they eat like ladies.
After eating, we spent the rest of the evening mingling with the competitors. A lot of the women had changed into evening dresses and looked spectacular. Debbie Kruck made a brief appearance and I got a chance to tell her how much I enjoyed her guest routine.
All of the women were nice to us, but one that struck me in particular was fitness show winner Vicki Anderson. I've seen her on television before, and I used to think she was kind of scrawny, but this blue eyed, raven haired beauty surprised me with her development. It's clear that in her natural state, she'd be a thin as a rail. But she's obviously been pumping a lot of iron to build the knots of muscle that cover her slight frame. She'll never be a mass monster, but she's probably worked just as hard as one to get where she is. I was also impressed by her manners, as she took a moment to thank me for coming out to sponsor the show.
One of the unexpected surprises of the evening was that the WWF was in town. No, I didn't get to meet Chyna, but I did meet one of her victims, former Ultimate Fighting Champion and current WWF wrestler Ken Shamrock. I thought I had gotten myself in trouble when I accidentally addressed him as "Mr. Severn". For those of you who don't know, Dan Severn was one of Ken's biggest rivals in the UFC. Ordinarily, I wouldn't be too worried about making a little faux pas like this, but when you do it with somebody who with some justification bills himself as "the world's most dangerous man," you've got to be a little concerned. It wouldn't have even been so bad, except that I accidentally did it again while I was apologizing for the first instance. Ken's a good guy, and he took it in stride, which was fortunate for me, because I'd have about as much chance as an ant in front of a steamroller against him. Ken was accompanied by "Animal" from The Legion of Doom (Formerly the Road Warriors.) who just recently became the WWF tag team champions.
Meeting these guys really made for an interesting contrast with the ladies. Ken Shamrock is about 6'1", 240lbs, and Animal is around 6'3", 265lbs. Both of these guys are huge with arms that must have been in the twenty inch range. Not even Nicole Bass carries that kind of mass. Some of the women like Annie Rivieccio might be proportionately as large, but in absolute terms, there's just no comparison.
Most of the sponsors had cameras, and there was a lot of impromptu posing going on. This picture shows middleweights Christine Lydon, Tammy Simpson, and class winner Mariana Kolmos getting together for a group shot.
I caught up with a woman that had impressed me during the fitness show. Kathy Meyers, a former nationally ranked powerlifter, was a standout, towering above her competition both in height and muscularity. I like Lucy Lawless, but this is the woman who should be playing Xena. She's bigger, stronger, better looking, and if you can believe it, I think her eyes are actually bluer. They could also save a lot of money on stunts, because this woman can really do jumps and flips like Xena. She also had the best looking abs I saw that day. Even just standing around relaxed, her midsection appeared deeply cut.
My second surprise of the evening was getting the chance to meet fellow dragon, kickboxing legend Don "The Dragon" Wilson. Don started his kickboxing career in 1974 and went on to win ten world titles in three weight divisions. He retired from the ring a couple of years ago and is now a major martial arts film star. Earlier during the fitness competition, one of the competitors was doing a routine with a jump rope. Halfway through, she twirled the rope, released it towards the audience, and hit "The Dragon" in the face. Now I can't be certain about this, but it looked as though it might have been the same girl that he had his arm wrapped around at the party. If so, all I have to say to him is "Way to go Don!" And to her, "Good aim!"
Earlier that evening, Christine Lydon had competed in the middleweight bodybuilding class, and had placed third out of four competitors. I just couldn't help but notice how disappointed she looked at her low placing, and I really felt for her. Now, I might be wrong about that, but I wasn't about to sit idly by and take the chance that this lovely young lady might go to bed that night feeling bad about herself if there was something I could say to make her feel better. So when I got the opportunity to have a word with her, I said sincerely, "I'd just like you to know that if these contests were judged on beauty, charm, and intelligence, you'd be Ms. Olympia." Christine let out a heartfelt laugh that made this Dragon's evening, and replied, "Yeah, but unfortunately it's based on who's hardest." My impression of her was that she's a really down to earth person, and I wish I could have talked with her longer. I understand that she's trying to get some sort of film career going, and I think that she might just be the FBB who makes the breakthrough.
OK, maybe I was getting a little carried away with the pictures, but when I saw this scene with the heavyweight winner, I just couldn't help myself.
I had left Rambler alone for awhile with Amy Pazzo and her friend. When I returned fifteen minutes later, I was surprised to find him still entertaining the ladies with tales of American Motors Corporation. Way to go Rambler!
I have no idea what this means, but I made an interesting observation as I shook hands with middleweight bodybuilder Tammy Simpson. She clamped down on my hand on the hard side of firm. Right afterward, it struck me that even though a lot of the women I met were capable of some serious bone creaking, all of them up to that point had shaken my hand like "regular" women.
Al introduced us to fitness competitor Lindsey Higgens, a beautiful woman with an important issue. It seems that there is a certain organization out there sponsoring fitness contests, and not coming through with the prizes. These girls put a great deal of time, money, and effort into competing which these prizes don't reimburse them for, even if they are paid out. Lindsey was trying to organize the girls who have been wronged in order to seek some restitution. She also made it quite clear that the other organizations like the NPC which sponsored the Extravaganza show, are ethical and award their prizes on the spot.
I'm from South Jersey. Down here, the home team for football is the Eagles, for hockey it's the Flyers, and for fitness it's Maria Gonzales. I capped off my night by meeting this top ranked fitness competitor who had earlier done a "knockout" guest routine. Maria lives right down the road from me in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and after seeing her perform and meeting her in person, I've got to say that South Jersey couldn't have a better representative.
Wrapping up at the end of the night, we joined Al who was in a conversation with Charlie Peeples, owner of The Valkyries clothing line. Charlie goes to a lot of female bodybuilding events selling his wares, and he had an interesting observation on these women. He said that if you look at what's happening, the guys are hanging around fitness competitors, while for the most part, the female bodybuilders are being ignored. and based on my observations, he's right. Charlie's one of those rare people who isn't afraid to admit that he likes muscular females, and he told us about a couple of incidents he's been involved in. On one occasion, a friend of his involved in male bodybuilding asked him, "Why do you waste your time hanging around those women's shows?" To which he replied, "Because I like women. What do you like?" On another occasion, a pair of women saw him wearing one of his T-shirts and sneered, "You like those kind of women?" "As a matter of fact, they're the only kind of women I like," Charlie replied. If you want to support a guy who makes his living promoting images of strong women, I'd suggest that you take a look at his designs available at this site. Even if you wouldn't wear one yourself, It'd make the perfect gift for your favorite FBB.
Well, it was two in the morning by the time Rambler and I decided to pack it in. Most of the women had since left for their rooms, though there were still a couple of them hanging around, engaged in small group conversations. Saying good night to Al and Charlie, we left after spending sixteen hours at the Women's Extravaganza.
So what did I take away from this experience? First off, it changed my whole perception of FBB's. Up until that point, I'd actually seen maybe ten in my life, and I'd never spoken to one. The impression I got, despite all of the characteristics that each of us likes to associate with muscular women, is that except for their sport, they're "regular" women, and I don't think that they'd disagree with that characterization. I was also struck by the fact that they weren't as big as I thought they'd be. The pictures you see of these women usually don't give you any sense of scale, and their physiques tend to make them look huge. But most of them just aren't that large in person. Which brings me to the thing I found most surprising: These women really do look as good or better than their pictures would indicate. In fact, most of these women were gorgeous. And I'm not just talking about those extra curves which we all admire, they also had beautiful faces. No matter how high my expectations were, I was never disappointed.
I was also impressed by how nicely all of the women treated us. None of them made us feel as if we were bothering them when we introduced ourselves. And I really think that most of these women were flattered by the attention we were giving them, particularly the unknowns. But even one of the biggest names in bodybuilding, Lenda Murray, seemed happy when I asked her for a picture. You'd think that a former Ms. O. would be mobbed showing up to an event like this, but that just wasn't the case.
The show itself was extremely entertaining and I'd like to thank all of the competitors, sponsors, guests, and the people behind the scenes who worked so hard to make this event possible. The strength competition was filled with humor and drama. The fitness competition was exciting and entertaining. And as you'd expect, the bodybuilding competition was packed with feminine muscle. All told, there were seven hours worth of shows which flew by like seven minutes.
I went to the Women's Extravaganza hoping to have a great time, and I did. But more importantly, it changed the way I view these special women that I've always admired. Now I no longer think of them as pictures, I think of them as people.
Hope to see a few more of you at the next Extravaganza - Dragon