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Udo's Choice

Team UK takes on the World again

Report by Lee Kemp

No sooner had the dust settled from this years record breaking UK Championships, it was time to take on the World once again!

On Thursday 7th November 2013, nine athletes from this years “Team UK” and their supporters assembled at Heathrow Airport to set off for Boston, Massachusetts, USA for the INBF/WNBF World Championships. Reigning Pro World Heavyweight Champion Rich Gozdecki, Pro Womens Overall Champ Helen Stack and their significant others and 2 time UK Heavyweight Champ and last years Worlds runner up Gordie Adam would be meeting us on the other side of the Atlantic where our group would number 20 in total once fully assembled. With each member fired up and promising to bring their very best to the upcoming competition, our assault on the Worlds was on paper due to be as strong as usual.

It wasn’t long before the team were bonding, and camaraderie began with an almost hilarious trip through check in, security and departures before getting on the plane for the flight. Nic Joyce and her “shins of steel” setting off a metal detector, a visit from UKDFBA member Nigel St Lewis to wave us off and wish us well and my usual attempts at keeping myself amused to try and take my mind off the impending flight (did I mention that I don’t like flying?) all helped the first few hours of our weekend to set the tone for the great time which lay ahead. But highlight of the day so far was the hilarious catalogue of disasters which befell newly nick named Plamen “The Suspect” Handarov, our 2 time Bantamweight Champ. Plamen, the absolute nicest bloke you could wish to meet does (by his own admission) look a little “mean” when dieted down and drew the suspicions of practically every member of airport staff between the front door and his plane seat. Oh how we chuckled as Plamen was stopped, searched, questioned and generally harassed at every opportunity, to the point where in the end even he saw the funny side! Of course, the rest of the team joined in the fun and supported him through the comical ordeal as only Team UK can and once again I found myself comforted and proud of what a fantastic team we had picked.

A “short” 10 hours later (2 of which were spent in a queue at customs, much to my annoyance) we were breathing in New England air and boarding the coach to take the team to our home for the weekend. On the coach, the team passed around a lovely “good luck” card that had been sent by the legendary Cheryl Myers which we all agreed was a lovely touch. Our hotel was top notch, with ample facilities for all and a very convenient grocery delivery service to make sure that the teams needs were catered for over the weekend (at which point Enis Peltek opted to cater for the needs of a small nation with his hilarious and ridiculously excessive meat order, once again reducing me to howls of laughter as I saw the butchers shop sized faux pas that lay before him). Meat disaster taken care of, a tired Team UK headed for a well needed nights sleep as Amy and I battled our tiredness to spend a couple of hours hanging out with our new friends Bob Bell and Tina Smith, fellow show promoters from California (who we were incredibly envious of at this point due to their far kinder body clock shift). Once again, we howled with laughter as we shared stories of how the contest scene really is no different whichever side of the World you’re on, some of which cannot be repeated in print here, until tiredness eventually took over and we were off to sleep, leaving Bob and Tina wide awake in the bar.

Friday morning soon came around and after a very early morning stroll around some truly lovely New England scenery it was time for the team to weigh in. Other athletes looked on with great interest as the guys and girls weighed in and it soon became apparent that every one of ours was in superb shape. Jaws hung open as Big Rich tipped the scales at about 230lb, then hung open again when Oakesy stripped off and looked so ripped that it appeared his skin had come off with his clothes. All weighed in and happy, some of the team took advantage of a guest pass at the local World Gym while others either went shopping or took it easy in their rooms. I joined the guys at the gym (for what was humorously heckled as a “rare” workout for me) which was exactly what one would expect from a Stateside facility. Huge, high ceilinged and packed with a ridiculous amount of equipment which covers literally anything you have ever seen or can think of. Stepping into such gyms (usually every Worlds trip) takes me back to my teenage years, when I looked forlornly upon the pictures in the American magazines and hoped that one day I’d get to see such places for real. Sure, the UK gym scene has come a long way from those days and we have some really impressive places of our own now but to me there’s always a different “feel” about training in the States and it never fails to make me appreciate how fortunate we all are to be able to experience such things.

In another Kodak moment, the gym staff who were slightly taken aback with the size (both in numbers and mass) of our party scratched their heads in confusion about how they were going to give us the tour/induction (yawn) of the gym before they let us loose. After some careful negotiation, they agreed to let us train “induction free” once we had presented our ID (which none of us had bought with us) before opening the turnstiles slightly red faced as I confirmed Mr Gozdecki’s identity for them by pointing at the picture they had of him on the wall behind them in the form of the poster for the upcoming contest!

I was going to offer them an induction too, but though that would be going too far.

After a leisurely paced workout, a team posing session took place (which I’m happy to say didn’t get us thrown out of the gym this time, a la 2011) where tips were swapped and team bonds were further strengthened. On our way out, the gym manager gave us a bunch of free t-shirts and wished us well for the contest and it was back to the hotel for rest ahead of the registration and competitor meetings which were due to take place that night.

On that Friday night, absolute pandemonium descended on the hotel lobby as a couple of hundred hungry and confused bodybuilders confirmed their entries for what was looking to be a monster of an event. Suspicious eyes darted around the room as each athlete tried to spot their potential opponents for the following day and several volunteers worked feverishly to get through the huge crowd, doing a great job of getting everybody checked in and ready for the show. Once again, it was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends including fellow affiliates and promoters, and WNBF officials. We all felt at home in no time and comforted to feel like a big, if not tired and somewhat stressed out family. Soon, it was time for bed again and in true “night before” fashion I’m pretty sure hardly a wink of sleep was had.

The sight of a fully kitted out Team UK descending on the hotel lobby the next morning really stirred the competitive spirit in me. As the door slid shut on the minibus that would take us to the contest venue and the tense and excited atmosphere in the van for the short journey went through us all, it clear to everyone present that it truly was “show time”. Having all checked in, it was straight to our respective positions in the dressing rooms (having bagged “UK Corner” as usual) and audience in readiness for the battles to begin. The scenes backstage at the Worlds are never too different from year to year, with one or two things and people that never fail to amuse me in a funny “groundhog day” kind of manner. But we stayed focused on the task at hand and worked through a long and hard fought prejudging (which I’ll write about shortly) before sloping off to the local McDonalds where it was nothing short of an absolute pleasure to watch the team dig into their first junk food for possibly months to help refuel and lift their spirits for the night show. A kid in a sweet shop is the phrase that springs to mind.

But of course, you want to read about the contest itself, right? So athlete by athlete, here’s how the day played out for the team.

The first member of the team onstage was our newly crowned UK Champ and WNBF Pro Nicky Fogarty. The lightweight women’s class was 12 deep and would be a real headache for the judges with physiques ranging from the shorter and more heavily muscled to the lighter and leaner. At first glance, I saw probably 9 or 10 athletes that would be pushing for a top 5 spot, and Nicky was one of them. Right out on the end of the line initially, Nicky was gradually moved further and further in towards the middle as the comparisons wore on. With easily the hardest conditioned upper body in the class, and the back from hell which stuck out like a sore thumb in the rear comparisons, Nicky gave the judges no option but to sit up and take notice of her. Soon locked in a 3 way battle for 3rd place with Janet Esterkes and Sheila Zitano (the winners and second slots looking earmarked by Irhasette McClean and Kristin Fonseca respectively) which went right down to the wire in my opinion. At the night show, Nicky wowed the audience with her trademark picture perfect free posing display before taking a fantastic 4th place in her Worlds debut. A great result to start the tally.

Helen Stack, our reigning overall World Champ and recently crowned Pro European Cup winner was up next. Before her class filed onstage for prejudging, it was clear from the sight in the pump room that we were in for a real dust up of a contest, with the quality of the Heavyweight women Helen looked superb. Huge, symmetrically blessed and in awesome condition, Helen was every inch the consummate athlete we all know her to be. As strong as the class was, a clear 3 way battle for the top spot soon emerged between Helen, Melissa Scott and the legendary Cathy Vail. Melissa soon appeared to be a firm third, as Helen fiercely battled to defend her title against Vail in a contest between arguably the 2 best Pro women in the World. Vail was perhaps a touch heavier muscled than Helen in a couple of body parts, with Helen a little better put together structurally and both as sharp as a razor and competent in their presentation. In the end, a gracious Helen conceded a close fought decision as Cathy took the crown and went on to win the overall. It was a real honour to see such a World class battle and no doubt an honour for Helen to be involved in it. We were all immensely proud and look forward to the rematch!

Next, it was on to the men’s pro classes. With a huge entry into the lightweight this year, the class was split and for the first time ever 4 weight divisions were contested in the men. Team UK’s pro debutant Mark Oakes just made the bantamweight cut and from the second he took the stage at the very end of the 11 man line up it was clear to all that his lightest ever bodyweight had come with his tightest ever condition. Possibly the hardest man in the entire contest, Marks level of detail was staggering. Truly shredded glutes from top to bottom rested between hamstrings so defined they looked like steel cables and a “Christmas Tree” lower back with striations deep enough to swipe a credit card in! In all the years I’ve known, judged and otherwise seen Mark I had never seen him either so conditioned or so hungry for success. It was clear that the step up to this very highest level of competition had spurred Mark on to his very best. And he needed to be. Last years lightweight runner up and WNBF Rookie of the year Patrick Harris, long time WNBF Pros Rich Lauro and Andy Kalinowski, Italy’s Luigi Del Piano and the experienced Ivor Brown and Tony Ruffin all featured in the class in superb shape and were aiming for the money spots. One by one however, they were respectfully brushed aside as Oakes unleashed the metaphorical Hell which he’d promised to bring with him to the contest and by the time his trademark free posing display had bought the house down at the night show, Team UK had claimed it’s first World Title of the day, and more importantly Mark Oakes had forever etched his name into the history books as the WNBF Pro World Champion.

Two classes later, after Brian Whitacre had claimed his 5th Lightweight title after a tough battle with Levi Burge (who had won the World Amateur Middleweight title 2 years ago ahead of our own Mark Oakes) and a best ever Shevon Cunningham had literally smashed the Middleweight class to claim his place in the overall it was time for the much anticipated heavyweight division.

In a battle which had caused some keen debate over the internet in the weeks leading up to the contest, Team UK’s defending World Heavyweight Champ Richard Gozdecki came head to head with the fast rising African star Abraham Tchabe, fresh from his win at the IFPA Yorton Cup, where he had shocked the World by claiming a victory over legendary Martin Daniels.

As imagined, and with no disrespect to the other men in this class it was a head to head battle for the winners spot between Rich and Abraham. Rich was perfectly balanced, hard as nails in the upper body and only a fraction behind in terms of his leg conditioning, symmetrical, shapely and as always posed like a pro in the comparisons standing statuesque with every shot called and presenting his awesome physique perfectly for the judges. By contrast, Abraham was harder and bigger in the lower body with possibly the hardest glutes ever seen on a drug free heavyweight, sported thicker delts and arms but was notably weaker from the back which disrupted his balance and made him less pleasing to look at overall. To add to this, his posing was almost novice like and awkward looking and he seemed unable to even hold his quarter turns without twitching uncontrollably and relaxing constantly panting for breath. Physique wise, Abraham looked to be a genuine threat to Richards title but the general consensus in the crowd and amongst the various team coaches and foreign affiliates was that Richard would hold onto his title. At the night show, Rich posed with the grace and gusto that we have come to expect from him, much to the delight of the crowd who have come to genuinely appreciate him after showing their shock and surprise at his unseating Daniels 2 years ago. Again in contrast, Tchabe frustratingly danced around the stage and hit 2 or 3 half hearted shots before swaggering off. This further cemented the theory that the Champion would successfully retain his title. The results came soon after, with Robin Johnson, Tishay Johnston and Hashim Evans taking 5th, 4th and 3rd. Then, to a gasp from the audience Gozdecki was announced as runner up with Tchabe crowned the new WNBF Pro World Heavyweight Champion. Richard accepted the result without so much as a change of expression and was the first to congratulate his conqueror. Rich was a class act as always and the first to make it clear to his team mates and fellow athletes that he was comfortable with the result and felt that he’d been beaten fair and square.

With the crowd still murmuring with ruminations of the result that had just been announced, the 4 class winners filed onstage for the overall. As good as all 4 men were, it seemed to me to be a battle between Whitacre and Cunningham for the title, a riddle which took the judges several rounds of compulsories to unpick before turning the guys loose on what was the longest, most spirited and energised overall pose down I think I have ever seen at a bodybuilding contest. All 4 men were relentless in their efforts and our own Mark Oakes was in his element and clearly enjoying every second of standing onstage as one of the Worlds best. A short while later, a jubilant Shevon Cunningham dropped to his knees with emotion after being given a split decision win over a sporting but clearly devastated Whitacre who had truly poured his heart and soul into this attempt at claiming his first overall title. But Shevon was equally as deserving as Champion and swayed the judges with his fuller, bigger and mega hard overall package.

As the majority of the crowd dispersed in to the Massachusetts evening as is customary after the Pros are finished, there was still a huge amount of serious business for us to get down to as the Amateurs prepared to take the stage.

With the classes run in a different order at prejudging and night show, and for the life of me I can’t remember which, I shall write about each of our athletes in the order they would have been in back home.

First up was Chris Roche. After his second UK Teen victory and returning to the Worlds as reigning Teen Champion, Chris was competing this time as a junior, having turned 20 years old a few weeks prior to the contest. Here, he would be in a strong 7 man line up which featured American teen sensation Nate Lawrence, Swiss Eder Oliveira (who was in fact the reigning Swiss Lightweight Champion, with their Junior age limit being different to that at the Worlds) and Americans Roman Montiero, Alan Araujo, Ryan LaVeche and Alex Mann who all had established contest records coming into the Worlds. It became quickly apparent that the first two spots would be fought out between the compact and extremely conditioned Oliviera and the bigger, fuller but slightly softer Lawrence. Rochie was caught up in a battle of his own with Montiero for the third spot which after a confidently delivered free posing display he claimed. A fantastic result for Chris to cap off a long and successfully season for him.

The multi titled Team UK Debutant Rick Waters battled for the over 50 title next. Rick, who has bags of contest experience both at home and at international level was a pleasure to have on the team and from the start of the trip was somewhat of a role model for the younger guys who really looked up to and admired Rick. True to form, Rick gave the others something else to aspire to when he ran roughshod over the over 50 line up to take a comfortable win, leaving Rick Letts in runner up spot with INBF Robert Fulton 3rd. A modest and sportsmanlike Rick stayed respectful and composed on his win, despite clearly being over the moon. The rest of the team did plenty of celebrating for him though!

Heather Oakes looked to make the family double next. She competed in both the Figure (which is more like what we know as “body fitness” in the UK) and Fit Body (more like the “trained figure” type disciplines that we are used to) and was in her best shape yet this year. Heather featured strongly in both classes and was compared close to the middle in both. Perfectly composed and confident without over doing it, with no stone unturned in terms of her condition and presentation, Heather fought hard in both divisions before taking third in the fit body behind Emily Wirling and Darcy Dang and a close runner up spot in the figure behind Kelly Linderman. Again, another great result to top off a long, hard season for Heather.

The ladies Physique/Bodybuilding class featured Team UK’s Nic Joyce. Nic was chomping at the bit for this show following her third place at the UK Championships in September. Her efforts in the gym and with her diet had clearly paid off as she appeared onstage in fantastic shape. Unusually, the class was split into 2 weight divisions with Nic the only Heavyweight, being only a few pounds over the pre set Lightweight limit. We did appeal to the organisers to just amalgamate the classes which the Lightweight ladies all agreed to but the class remained split and Nicola reluctantly took the Heavyweight title unopposed, taking consolation in the fact that she would have the opportunity to contest the overall and effectively compete against the entire Lightweight class anyway. This she did, and “went for” Lightweight champion Ellen Pempsall with everything she had, posing like her life depended on it. It was a pretty tough call with both ladies being well muscled and comparative condition wise but Nic was structurally and aesthetically more pleasing and took the nod from the judges. A beaming Nicola Joyce was crowned World Champion and deservedly so. Well done Nic.

On to the men’s weight classes, and two times UK Champ Plamen “the suspect” Handarov first up in his quest for the Bantamweight title. In his best condition to date showcasing his trademark thick brutal muscle, Plamen breezed through fellow top 5 finishers Phong Dang, Mark McCaffrey and Corey Blank to cement a top placing but came unstuck when he clashed with the amazing Swiss Junior winner Oliviera. Equal in size and condition, but slightly more shapely than Plamen, Oliviera took his second title of the day which left our man with a very credible and runner up spot that he should be proud and honoured to have won. Plamen has that World title in his sights though and will be back.

The Lightweight class followed, and fellow 2 time UK Champ Damian Lees stepped out for his international Debut. In the run up to the contest, we learned that former INBA and Musclemania Pro Joel Ramintas of Australia had rejoined the amateur ranks and won the overall Australian title a few weeks before, declining a WNBF Pro Card in order to compete here as an amateur. Ramintas is genuinely one of the finest drug free physiques in the World and would be hard to beat. This coupled with the dropping of Swiss Patrick Reiser down from the Middleweight to Lightweight class on the morning of the show meant that Damian was really up against it and without a doubt in the hardest weight class of the whole amateur show in the form of this quality rich 7 man line up. Undeterred by this, Damian relished the challenge and entered the fray in shockingly good condition, much improved on his UK showings and really demonstrating that he’d raised his game with a looming Worlds appearance. As beautifully structured as ever with awesome back and leg development, a focused and intense Lees was placed smack bang in the centre for the majority of the comparisons. Reiser, as big and ripped as he was soon became exposed as slightly top heavy and weak from the back compared to Damian, which left only Ramintas to tackle. Joel packed an enormous amount of muscle onto his diminutive frame, with no weak body parts and superb full and rounded muscle bellies. However, he had not done his homework condition wise and appeared a little wide in the waist at prejudging which left the judges with a conundrum to solve which required several rounds of comparisons. Damian remained fired up and professional and just got better and better as the judging wore on and by the end of the session it was clear that it was quite possibly neck and neck between the two men. In the evening, both men were harder and posed magnificently and were clearly not letting up in their quest for the title. As the placings were announced (following a Pumping Iron-esque incident backstage involving a few pots of hidden dream tan courtesy of a fellow lightweight who quite possibly felt that his chances needed a boost….) fifth and fourth were awarded to American Mark Erickson and Carl Nelson and third place to a disappointed Reiser, the tension amongst our supporters mounted and the two men left onstage must have had hearts thumping in their mouths. On a razor thin split decision, Damian Lees bagged a great runner up spot leaving Ramintas the winner and no doubt front runner for the overall. Both men showed great sportsmanship at the result and Damian left the stage proud and honoured to have stood toe to toe with and legitimately challenged a true World class opponent who must now surely return to the Pro ranks where he will be incredibly hard to beat in top condition.

With no representative in the Middleweight class, our focus was set on the Light heavies, and UK Novice champ Enis Peltek making a huge jump in class to the International level in only his first year of competition. Enis relished the task, presenting a rock hard and full overall package which immediately threw him into what was clearly the “upper” section of the class with a rock hard Peter Jach who had won the Masters title earlier, a huge Jules Payette and the man who had been champion in waiting for the last 3 years, the multi-time Swiss Overall Champ and last years runner up Sebastian Stitz. Sebastian proved unstoppable today, finally claiming the title he had been gunning for since 2010 with his best conditioning yet which set off his heavily muscled and perfectly “X shaped” physique to its best. The shootout for 5th place was won by Peter Munoz Bennett, with Jach unable to outmuscle the next two despite his great shape and condition finishing 4th, and a head to head between Payette and Peltek ending with a slightly soft Payette 3rd and the man who went on to be crowned British Natural Bodybuilding’s Best Newcomer of 2013 Enis Peltek claiming the runner up spot. An incredible result for Enis at this stage of his career. That World title and Pro status are Enis’ for the taking in the future without doubt.

Big Gordie Adam, fresh from his second UK title and returning as last years Worlds runner up was our final athlete. In stark contrast to 2012, he perhaps had the most stress free journey of the whole team, greeting us at Logan Airport looking refreshed and almost bemused at the sight of us trudging wearily through after our customs nightmare. Gordie was his best yet, displaying his added size which he revealed at the UK in September coupled with the conditioning of his 2012 showing. His close and debatable loss to American Don Farese the previous year had made Gordie hungrier than ever for the World title and Pro card. In the gym the day prior and during team posing practice Gordie had drawn the gaze of the bewildered American gym goers who had most likely not seen such a big man in so good shape before. At least not drug free! Gordon’s path to the World Title would not be as tough as originally hoped, with Farese not returning to defend his title, Anthony Spencer having won his Pro Card at the Monster Mash the week prior and opting to compete against the Pros today, and one other last minute withdrawal left Gordie cruising to a comfortable win in the Heavyweight class against veteran Robert Fulton. But the World Heavyweight crown was only half the goal.

To conclude the day, the weight class winners lined up for the overall. Instantly, it was pretty clear that Gordie, Sebastian and Joel were just “too much” for the other two class winners (with no disrespect intended as they were both great) and they were moved out to the end. With Stitz in the middle of Gordie and Joel, it soon became apparent that both had a little too much muscle for him today, and on the next round of comparisons Gordie was moved over to Ramintas’ other side so they could be compared directly in indication that the overall title had come down to one or the other of them. It was a real apples and oranges contest with Gordie being overall more physically imposing by virtue of his towering height and width over Joel and heavily muscled with the best condition in the Overall line up. Joel was relatively bigger, with superior muscle thickness and fullness with a more pleasing shape. It was nip and tuck until they turned to the back; where in the double biceps in particular Joel was show stopping-ly good. A short but energetic pose down later, the sensational Australian was presented with the Overall Title and his latest offer of Pro status.

However, shortly after the contest it was decided that as runner up to Joel and class winner, Gordon Adam would also be offered WNBF Pro status which he gladly accepted and now leaves the amateur ranks to battle with the greats of the sport.

The day finished for us with some team portraits in Reggie Bradford’s studio at the venue, a convoy of cabs back to the hotel and a huge pizza feast in the hotel lounge. A couple of hours were spent talking about the days events amongst a multitude of other things. Once again, a group of relative strangers with their passion for their chosen sport in common had become a close knit group of friends over the course of the trip. To me, they were more than that. For that weekend at least, they were extended family. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was lost for words and a little tearful as Amy and I were presented with a touching card from the team showing their appreciation, and humbled that they felt that way as it is I, the UKDFBA and the UK Bodybuilding fraternity who should be grateful to the 12 members of Team UK for representing us so well.

The following morning, after a few more team pics it was back on the bus to go our separate ways once again. Some began the long journey home, others stayed on in the States and it was an absolute pleasure to be able to spend some time together over the next few days as our paths crossed.

And so ended Team UK’s third trip across the Atlantic. Every trip leaves behind some special memories for all involved and I look forward to next year, and the memories it could leave for you.

A final thanks to the unsung heroes of the trip, Amy Kemp, Nicola Doran, Trish Hurst, Shelley Chapman, Jerry Fox, Becci Gozdecki and Craig Lea-Hair who worked his socks off on show day taking care of the team. Without our friends, loved ones and supporters along for the ride it just wouldn’t be as much fun. Thank you all. You are just as much a part of the team as those who took the stage. Thanks also to Leon Moore of Wear2Gym who fully sponsored the team kits that we all proudly wore. Long may the Team UK logo continue to cross the pond.

See you next year.