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Miss America, With Muscles
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Rachel Ibbison in competitionRachel Ibbison in competitionRachel Ibbison bounds onto the stage. Her muscles bulge through a glittery green costume. The twenty eight year old teacher contorts her sculpted body into different positions, showing off her perfected physique from every angle. Ibbison uses her upper body strength to lift herself off the ground, legs flung in the air. With the energy of Jane Fonda circa 1982, she doesn’t once break the peppy smile that matches her bright white sneaks.

Following Ibbison to the stage is a lineup of stunningly fit beauties who do their fitness routines in clever costumes - A pirate, a nerd, even an American Idol.

The "costume" stageThe "costume" stage

OK, so I’m a little jealous.

Ibbison struts back onto the stage wearing a tiny black skirt, pink leg warmers and stilettos.

Ibbison was inspired to compete after going to a fitness show with her husband. She’s been training for almost a year, more intensely in the past three months preparing for this competition. In that time, her body has transformed.

"Its kind of strange looking in the mirror" says Ibbison, "I don’t feel like its me".

She admits people do look at her differently. It’s been a lifestyle change.

"I can’t go certain places", she continues. "I have to pack my food everywhere I go, I can’t drink. It’s a lot different. I lost some friends. Some friends don’t understand, don’t want to be around you – feel guilty. Its hard." Rachel Ibbison with WNPR's Catie TalarskiRachel Ibbison with WNPR's Catie Talarski

Every Sunday she drives to Massachusetts to train with a group of girls, who she calls “the savage family” – All trained by fitness guru Cathy Savage. Savage runs one of the only training programs for fitness competitors. She's done this for more than fifteen years and says right now there are close to a thousand women competing in the country.

"Executives, teachers, nurses, lawyers. We have a lot of women who don't want to compete, they just want to look like they compete."

Savage says Fitness and Figure is nothing like the aerobic craze of the 80s. The Jane Fonda days, she says were about excess and overuse. Fitness athletes are about power, and using food as fuel.

"As opposed to someone getting up in the morning and having a bagel and coffee – they get up and have egg whites and oatmeal with their coffee. They’re eating… just eating healthier foods," she says.

Savage can whip a woman into shape in 2 to 6 months, using an all natural method. No steroids obviously, but no supplements either.
A strict nutrition plan paired with 30 to 40 minutes of cardio, along with stretching and free weights, four to five days a week. All of this can even be done online, for a thirty six dollar monthly fee, she tracks bi-weekly progress by photos she receives through email. She often helps the women craft their routines and choose costumes and in preparation for competition.

"You're judged on symmetry, conditioning, appearance. And then in the routine round you’re judged on your talent, entertainment, strength, flexibility, endurance."

Fitness competitors head outside for a photo shootFitness competitors head outside for a photo shoot

"Did you see the girl who didn't face the curtain? One thing that’s consistent throughout the competitions is you don’t want to annoy the judges."

That’s Bill Scanlan. He’s not a fitness competitor. He’s a photographer, and has attended twenty to thirty events per year for the past twenty years. A super fan and self admitted autograph junkie, he carries around binders of pictures. When he isn’t shooting photos, he’s trying to get autographs. What does he think of the competition so far?

"Right now there’s no one that’s star material."


WNPR's Catie Talarski talks to Amy Russel and her daughter Sharon.WNPR's Catie Talarski talks to Amy Russel and her daughter Sharon.A few rows from Scanlan is 85 year old Amy Russell, who I notice right away because of her silver hair. She’s here watching her granddaughter in the competition. As the women line up on stage and give the audience a view of their scantily clad bronzed rear ends, the proud, and maybe a little embarrassed grandma eyes me, clasps her brown knit sweater and shakes her head.

What do you think about the little outfits?
"Too much, its really too much", she says. "I’ve seen my own behind and it doesn’t make me any happier."

Her daughter Sharon Disagrees,
"I think they’re attractive! The girls need to show off what they’ve worked so hard to achieve."

"Alright they’ve worked hard, but leave that part out"

But tiny costumes and lots of skin are part of the draw of the sport fitness expert Cathy Savage calls “Miss America with Muscles”. After all, what’s a pageant without swimsuits? Competitor Rachel Ibbison wow-ed the judges in hers, winning fourth place in the Miss Bikini Competition.


All photos by WNPR's Chion Wolf. For a slideshow of Chion's photos from the "Musclemania" competition, go to our WNPR Flickr page.