FeatureNovember 1, 2012 at 5:28 am

Striking a Pose

Penn's student bodybuilders take to the stage and show off their hard work.

By 10:15 on a weekday morning, Wharton senior Robert Pless has done the following: weighed himself, entered that weight into a spreadsheet containing about 600 data points, run to Pottruck, worked out for 90 minutes in the weight room, eaten two breakfasts, planned the rest of his meals for the day and packed lunch. And he also might have studied before his 10:30 class, if he has the time.

As Pless explains, he keeps this rigid schedule mostly for his hobby — the thing he most likes to do for fun.

Pless is a bodybuilder and one of the contestants in this year’s Mr. and Mrs. Penn bodybuilding competition, which will take place in Annenberg’s Zellerbach Theatre next Wednesday night. The contest has been organized for the past 20 years by Tony Tenisci, a coach for the Penn women’s track and field team. For those of us whose knowledge in this arena comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger and random encounters with ESPN2, the word “bodybuilding” suggests something vaguely cartoonish: huge orange muscles, flexing, speedos. But step into the world of what bodybuilding demands  — working toward that moment onstage in your speedo, all in the name of physical prowess — and it becomes clear that the “cartoon” is just a facade.

These people mean business. They differ in their broader commitment levels — some came into Mr. and Mrs. Penn knowing nothing about bodybuilding, whereas past competitors have included pros. Anthony Balduzzi, Mr. Penn 2008 and 2010, participated in the 2011 Musclemania World Junior Championship. For pharmacology graduate student Jesse Carlin, this will be her seventh year of competition (she’s won four times). And since this is a natural, or steroid–free, competition, the contestants vary in how big each can actually get. But no matter their background, everyone’s got a routine, a diet, a mental catalogue of calorie counts and goals they seem to monitor hourly, if not minute–by–minute. If you ask one of these competitors why they do something — anything — they will almost certainly have an answer. And you can start with a question as simple, as, say, “why have that egg white sandwich for lunch?”

On a gray morning in mid–October, the egg white sandwich of interest belongs to Coach Tenisci. In the Pottruck lobby he points to his lunch as an example of what he considers “smart eating”: ingredients you see completely, because they aren’t smothered in unhealthy cheeses, sauces or fats. Tenisci’s preference for a “pure” diet is just one piece of advice he’s given to students over his past 27 years coaching at Penn. The idea for Mr. and Mrs. Penn came from a similar show put on at Washington State University, Tenisci’s alma mater, as a fundraiser for the track team. Since then, it’s been one of his yearly staples. “I never tire of it,” he says.

His tirelessness holds true not just across the years, but within each competition cycle. Tenisci is always running in and out of the gym, encouraging his athletes and sending them reminders to hydrate. And the way he talks about students and their fitness gives him a Mr. Miyagi, guru–type vibe: for him the competition is about a “mental journey” and the possibility for the “very profound event” of personal change. He himself is no bodybuilder, despite working with contestants on every aspect of the show (as he puts it, “I live vicariously through their happiness”). But he had friends who were into bodybuilding and was excited to share this aspect of fitness with students. “It has its own little world, the subculture of bodybuilding,” he says.

That subculture’s showmanship is on full display at a Tuesday night posing session taking place on Pottruck’s third floor. Tenisci stands before 18 young men and women who are having a hell of a time showcasing their rear ends. “You have to have a butt for this, and then you can show it off,” he jokes. The contestants must learn up to seven official poses for the show, and Tenisci guides them through each move half like a trainer, half like a cheerful dance choreographer. Mostly dressed in gym clothes or jeans, his students keep their eyes locked on the wall mirror facing them, watching their bodies. They finally let out a few giggles when Tenisci starts humming his own soundtrack and free–styling a routine to demonstrate the importance of moving to the beat. “Always do it to the bass,” he says. Later, he instructively reminisces about a past contestant’s routine that made the most out of a song by Nine Inch Nails.

Even amidst the enthusiasm and hard work, it’s tough to watch the competitive side of bodybuilding and not ask whether what it builds toward is vain, or at least image–obsessed. Penn Dental student Evan Rurak, who ultimately decided not to participate in the competition but is passionate about bodybuilding, concurs — with the caveat that what really matters is what he thinks fitness reveals about someone’s character, particularly self–control. “It is slightly vain, but it has to be — you’re focusing on where you’re deficient, what could be improved, and you’re trying to improve it.”

The notions of “self–improvement” and “self–control” come up repeatedly among competitors as something that’s big for them — bigger than how working out makes them look.  This year’s show will showcase 31 athletes total, 16 men and 15 women, ranging from soccer and lacrosse players to gymnasts, runners and all–around gym nuts. Kate Mulry, a Mr. and Mrs. Penn first–timer and post–grad architecture student studying environmental design, falls into that last category; she’s also spent less time in traditional sports and more on activities like break dancing and rock climbing. Like Pless, Mulry is laid–back in conversation, not at all immediately recognizable as the goal–obsessed type. Even so, she says that aspect of her personality always manages to come out. “Of all the comments anyone would make about me in my undergrad, if they knew me they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, she’s completely self–motivated,’” Mulry says. “I always did my own thing and pushed myself to do better, even if nobody else was telling me to do it.”

For her fifth grade yearbook Mulry was asked what she was going to be in 10 years, and she said an architect. More than a decade later, she’s still on that path. But she is somewhat anomalous among architecture students, in that despite having had an average of 70 hours of weekly homework as an undergraduate, she’s never pulled an all–nighter. And she attributes that record to her insistence on careful scheduling, something familiar to other Mr. and Mrs. Penn contenders.

“My life is kind of like a routine — that’s a fact,” says College senior Chris Galeano, who, despite being soft–spoken, punctuates many of his sentences by asserting that they are indeed facts. Nicknamed “Steroids” for his physique in high school, Galeano is a lifelong athlete and pretty hardcore planner, to a point he sometimes find frustrating. “I feel like everything I do has to have a purpose — I kind of wish I wouldn’t have that. It takes the fun out of things…you over–analyze everything, and you try to brush off things that won’t help you get to where you want to get to. I would change that aspect of it,” he says. “But I can’t. I literally can’t.”

Though he’s been lifting weights since the seventh grade, Galeano would not call himself a bodybuilder. Fitness as a whole has just always been a big deal in the Galeano household. “I come from a family of gym rats — that’s a fact,” he says.  “My dad pushed me in the gym when I was back home, and it followed me here…I want to be stronger than my dad, and that’s the reason why I do it.” He and his brother both ran track in high school, and in addition to sharing a regular workout routine when they’re all home in California, the three Galeano men continually rib each other about their strength and speed.

This doesn’t exactly extinguish stereotypes about the nature of male competition, a point that also comes up with Pless. Regarding the physical comparisons of “who’s bigger” or “who’s stronger,” his opinion is straightforward. “That’s kind of a sub–context in all male interactions,” he says. To whatever extent this is true (and inevitably it will seem more so among men who commit to a bodybuilding competition) it puts another sense of purpose on the table — namely, the purpose of intimidating someone when you take your shirt off. For Galeano, the only “someones” who really matter are his dad and brother. For the true male bodybuilder, “someone” might just be every other guy around.

While there’s no reason to believe women can’t be as competitive, Mulry does think the female side of this contest has taken a different tone. “It’s totally different. I don’t think we’re in it — maybe a few of us — but [generally] I don’t think we’re in it for the competitive nature. I think we’re just doing it ‘cause we’re in shape and we want to show off, if anything,” Mulry says, laughing. Though she describes bodybuilding as male–dominated, she sounds not one bit intimidated  — if anything, she just sounds amused.

College sophomore and mid–distance runner Shakele Seaton’s first foray into the world of Mr. and Mrs. Penn has been something of an empowering eye–opener. Seaton was encouraged to sign up by Tenisci, some of her Penn teammates and sprints and hurdles coach Porscha Dobson. But Seaton says she was most surprised by all the positive reactions from her friends, who she thought might find the decision a bit strange. “For a woman to be doing it — I didn’t think that a woman would constantly go after looking very, very strong,” she says. “Now I see [bodybuilding] as inclusive to both genders.”

As the show nears, gender looks all but irrelevant in the last lurch toward what the competitors view as a testament to their self–discipline. 10 days before the show, those who feel they need it will apply bronze dye to their bodies to make their muscles look more defined. Plans abound to modify water and sodium intake to appear as cut as possible for the big moment in Zellerbach, when everyone walks out together onto the stage. And all the contestants have to work on their individual routines, which will last between 1 minute, 15 seconds and 1 minute, 30 seconds. Unlike in typical bodybuilding competitions, the individual routine is worth twice as much as contestants’ showing in the lineup — a scoring system Tenisci developed so that having the genes to be bigger than most other people may not guarantee you the Penn bodybuilding title.

The flavor of these routines runs the gamut, using music from reggae to action movie soundtracks, from prog rock to hip–hop–influenced techno. College senior Reuben Hampton, who has participated in Mr. and Mrs. Penn all four of his years on campus, once imitated the goofy Carlton dance from “The Fresh Prince of Bel–Air” in his stage routine to George Michael’s “Faith.” Hampton also helps sum up how bodybuilders prioritize their lives. According to Pless it’s no sacrifice, because it’s just what he wants to do: “My hour and 20 minutes of working out every day, that’s my time.”  Hampton puts it a bit differently. “If it’s a choice between going to a house party, and I have to miss my lifting – it’s a no–brainer,” he says. “And it’s not the one you would think.”

So in addition to training, playing soccer and tennis and doing all the other things that he loves, Hampton will make time over the next week to be sure: when the spotlight shines, and that music drops, he is going to hit every last beat. He and the other contestants will probably have reviewed their choreography in their heads hundreds of times. Aside from the final crowning of this year’s Mr. and Mrs. Penn, they will encounter few surprises.

Because in this world — in their world — there isn’t room for surprises. You’ve got to have a plan.


Elena Gooray is a senior from Silver Spring, MD. She studies Cognitive Science.

 
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