Standing onstage at the Zellerbach theater, flexing under the spotlights, Anthony Balduzzi C’11 and Cydney Gillon C’14 (aka Mr. and Ms. Penn 2010) don’t look like most Penn students. Every square inch of skin is pulled tight against muscle. Gillon’s perfectly ridged abs catch the light like facets of a diamond. Balduzzi has the shoulders of Spartacus, and his impossible-looking biceps are webbed by protruding veins. And though it might not be immediately obvious where a bodybuilding competition fits into the Ivy League landscape, Balduzzi has a message for those who have a hard time getting past the body oil and the mandatory fake tan: smart people win these shows. In a sport that is part sculpture and part science, “you can apply your intellect to your body,” he says.
On a Monday night in November, in front of the sold-out crowd, Balduzzi and Gillon shared the Zellerbach stage with about 30 other students competing for this year’s title. The scene was an array of gleaming muscles against the aural backdrop of a thumping club beat, and rowdy audience members who waved handwritten signs and screamed things like, “You do it, girl!”
Though few people know Penn hosts an eponymous bodybuilding competition, the show is in its 18th year, the brainchild of Tony Tenisci, an assistant coach with the women’s track and field program. He brought the idea with him from Washington State University when he came to Penn in 1986. After settling into his new job, he saw the quality of the athletes working out around him in the gym. “I thought, maybe I can do this here too—not just at a state school,” he says. When he proposed the idea at a meeting, people were “curious,” he adds. “They weren’t sure what I was thinking about.” Every year since, he’s hosted a sellout crowd.
In the fall, as the semester gets under way, Tenisci guides participants through two months of preparation. He provides a diet and training plan, coaches them through the mandatory poses, and helps choreograph individual routines. For him, the spirit of the show captures something essential about the University.
“It’s just Penn,” he says. “Everybody’s natural, everybody’s healthy, everybody’s good.”
Tenisci’s innovation is his judging format, which tweaks the scoring rules of professional bodybuilding in a way that would make the individualist in Ben Franklin proud. In a professional show all the judging is done during the lineup, where the athletes are compared while standing side by side; the solo routine afterward is just for the crowd.
“I wanted to bring the elements of creativity and personal performance,” Tenisci says, so at his show the lineup is only worth 10 points, while the solo presentation is worth 20. “Even though you may have the best body in comparison,” he says, “if you don’t present well, you may not win.”
The wide-open, inclusive format also allows for an improbable mix of undergrads, grad students, med students, and even the odd Penn Recreation employee. This year’s winner in the women’s short class, Jesse Carlin C’08 Gr’17, is a pharmacology grad student. The men’s short-class winner, Kingsley Deslorieux WGr’15, is getting his PhD at Wharton. Some students participate just for fun, or to improve their own fitness on a modest scale. But as this year’s overall winners demonstrate, there’s also outstanding talent at the top of the field.
For Gillon, the sport runs in the family—both her parents were bodybuilders, and she’s been attending shows since the age of eight. Over her parents’ protestations, she turned pro herself at 15. “I just signed myself up,” she says, “and they were like, ‘OK, we’ll support you.’” Her career is off to a fast start; she’s got two pro titles already under her belt. Her mom is now her training partner.
She’d never heard of Ms. Penn before she arrived. But after she joined the women’s track team as a sprinter, Tenisci sniffed out her bodybuilding background during a casual conversation about her hobbies. He told her, “You know we have a bodybuilding contest, right?”
Gillon had two and a half months to prepare, and she didn’t cut any corners. “I took my preparation just as seriously as I would for my regular shows,” she says. As a freshman, though, she did have to adjust her training to the new realities of college life. “I had to eat the dining hall food,” she says, “so I ate the baked chicken for a month and a half.” On show week, a typical meal was tilapia, grapefruit, and water—with some vitamins and supplements for dessert.
As someone who’s been around the pro circuit, Gillon enjoys the more laidback Penn atmosphere. “Backstage, the people are more friendly here,” she says, because they’re also teammates and friends. That energy carries over to the front of the house, where it seems like every person onstage has brought along a dedicated cheering section. “My whole hall came, and they were yelling and screaming,” she says.
Though this is Balduzzi’s second Mr. Penn title, he didn’t come to Penn as a bodybuilder. He arrived as a former high school wrestler with a general interest in health, and after Tenisci walked him through his first show freshman year he started reading everything he could find about the sport. Armed with that knowledge, he won a competition over the summer in Hawaii, then came back to win his first Mr. Penn title as a sophomore.
That same year, he spent some time working in an endocrinology lab with a Penn MD/Phd student, and that experience convinced him to go pre-med. (It also resulted in co-authorship of a paper on muscle metabolism that was published last year in the journal PLoS ONE.) Since then he’s written fitness columns for bodybuilding magazines, and has done some nutritional consulting for a few other athletes at Penn.
For him, there’s no conflict between brains and brawn, and he notes that the practices that have won him bodybuilding titles—hard work, in-depth research, careful planning—have a bit of an Ivy League ring to them.
“Smart people will be more consistent with their diet and their training,” he says, “and they’ll base the things they’re doing off principles that are scientifically tested.”
He started his own preparation for the Mr. Penn competition 18 weeks in advance. He’d returned from a summer trip to Italy tipping the scale at 240 pounds, and knew he had to lose about 30 of them. He talked his roommate into training with him, and together they started a regimen of daily early-morning cardio to burn calories and keep their metabolism revved up. Balduzzi also switched his diet to what he calls “the six foods that work” for bodybuilders: chicken breast, tilapia, broccoli, yams, brown rice, and egg whites. “If you can imagine,” he says, “that has been my existence, and my diet for the past 18 weeks.” By the week of the show, he was measuring his carb intake down to the gram.
Having someone to train with is one way to make it through the monastic discipline of preparation, he says. “Without support it can be a very lonely journey. There’s a lot of cardio sessions on Saturday nights, when your friends may be out at bars, and you’re in the gym.”
With Balduzzi set to graduate and Gillon focusing on track next year rather than returning to defend her title, the Mr. and Ms. Penn titles will be up for grabs again in 2011. Soon, Tenisci will start looking for the candidates who will carry the competition into its 19th year—who will brave the spotlights, the body oil, and even some of the stereotypes. He hears it every year, he says: “Even though they’re a little nervous and they’ve never done this before, they always come off the stage and say, ‘Wow, that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. And certainly one of the best things I ever did at Penn.’”
1Sean Whiteman LPS’11