Athletes: Ivan

I originally photographed Ivan around 2007 in my garage.  Our relationship was, at that point, as acquaintances, and while the images were great, there wasn’t much followup after that.  We kept in touch through Facebook where I saw his personal training business grow and his own physical fitness improve drastically as he trained for competition.  That was also his last competition, until in 2012 he decided to come back to the sport and compete in the GNC Muscle Contest in Culver City, California.

We had scheduled a second shoot in Malibu the following Sunday and I realized that I didn’t really understand the world of competitive fitness (the phrase I would initially use to describe it).  Being as though I had also recently taken delivery of a Nikon D800 I asked Ivan if I could come along and document his experience.  I had no idea what I had agreed to.

Camera: Nikon D800
Lenses: Nikon 24mm 1.4G, Nikon 85mm 1.4G
Location: Culver City Veterans Memorial Auditorium (map)

This was my first GNC Muscle Contest experience.  Outside of a gym I really had little experience with bodybuilders, so the scene that unfolded before me, as the athletes arrived and during the competition, was utterly alien.  I was not prepared for the wafting smells, the bodies brought to their absolute physical capabilities, or the breadth of personalities that would be brought to bear in the name of taking home a trophy.

At 7:00AM I arrived at the Culver City Veterans Memorial Auditorium.  I quickly discovered I was two hours early, so I took a walk around the area and watched the athletes as they began to trickle in.  My primary experience with bodybuilders, or those who I thought were true bodybuilders, was negative.  Whenever I’m at the gym there is, without fail, one guy taking up a massive amount of space as he rips out 140lb dumbbell lifts.  I was, in truth, dreading the next few hours; I was out of my element surrounded by meat heads.

My preconceived notions of what was going on were about to be smashed into tiny pieces (in truth I kept running the SNL Hans and Franz skit through my head).  I met Ivan at his car, just as he was hanging up the phone, “I’ve never felt so out of shape” was my instinctual opener.  “Don’t even worry about that… this isn’t healthy.  Nobody does this to be healthy.”


Ivan was, for the most part, calm, but I could sense a bit of uneasiness in him as the minutes ran by.  One of the most critical components of proper bodybuilding, especially in the days leading up to a competition, is eating and hydrating.  It seemed as though every third time I looked back Ivan was eating unseasoned chicken breast and rice.

A week before competition he drinks 2+ gallons of water each day, then tapers off to almost no water the day before, making himself as vascular as possible.  Salt intake, if there is any at all, is extremely regulated, as even a tiny amount will retain enough water to make the difference between a waste of time and a trophy.  I have done “extreme” diets in the past, but nothing comes close to the dedication and mental strength it takes for competition diets.

One of the more surprising things about Ivan I’ve learned over the years is his temperament.  It flies in the face of the “they’re all bastards” ideal I have in my head about meatheads.  Perhaps Ivan is unique, but his reverence for his mother was shattering.  One forgets about this quality in a family relationship and it slams you back to reality when it is practiced with such authenticity.  He is one of the kindest, most considerate persons I have ever met.

After receiving his mothers blessing, and his wife’s embrace, we walked towards the competition hall.

As I would soon find out, most of the competition day is spent waiting.  Not only were were at the auditorium early, with approximately 40 different classes of athletes on display, from 60+ bodybuilders to teenage bikini models, our 9AM call time translated to a 5 hour wait.  When competition day comes the physically strenuous training is over and the mental fortitude becomes either an athletes greatest strength or his Achilles heel.

As the athletes filed in and took their seats it became clear that these competitors come from an eclectic set of situations.  There were bodybuilders with clear purpose, men and women whose main goal was to look great on the beach, women bodybuilders who were (quite frankly) both impressive and terrifying, and a litany of other onlookers, supporters, and general public.

Ivan’s mother and wife were ever-present, clearly his emotional anchors through this competition and, one can only assume, outside of his competitive life.

Soon after the athlete meeting Ivan met up with his friend Dallas Malloy (Ms. California) who kept a smile on his face, a welcome distraction.

Most communities of athletes are relatively tight knit, but there seems to be a clear divide in competitive bodybuilding.  There are the true professionals that travel to competitions that lead up to the purse-winning events, and the amateurs who travel long distances for their five minutes of stage time.  One gets the impression that, at certain levels, the world of bodybuilding becomes a small community, but at general events like these the entrants are simply too varied, forcing a lack of cohesion.  But my opinion may be completely off-base.

Around the vendor areas there was a palpable feeling that the “Big for Bigs Sake” motif was being promoted heavily.  Rather than promoting fitness as a sport or a lifestyle, there was a huge degree of bigger-is-better in the merchandise.  It was unfortunate to be so reminded of the aggressive, stereotypical, shortsighted I’m-bigger-than-you-so-I-win ideal so quickly after discovering the dedicated, incredibly disciplined side of the sport.

After four hours of waiting and watching the previous competitors on the stage and listening to the judges it becomes paramount to find a quiet, zen-like frame of mind to focus on the short time the competitors have on stage.

As the competition began, Ivan moved to the quieter section of the auditorium to gather his thoughts and quiet his nerves.

A bevy of ‘official’ photographers were on hand to capture each competitor.  One of the chief elements of this enterprise that caught me offguard is exactly how big of a business it really is.  Tickets to the pre-judging portion (which I covered) were $35, while tickets to the show itself (an entirely separate purchase) were in upwards of $45.  Conservative estimates would peg attendance at four hundred people, with videos, pictures, food, and other accessories being peddled on site to boot.  The competition could have easily been confused for a trade show with the sheer number of business entities on site.

This guy ^ (read the last paragraph for context)

This particular group of guys were fun to watch.  If nothing else their practiced smiles, the poses, the walks, everything they did was produced.  It was rare to get even a glimpse into what the competitors were really thinking since they were all painfully on point.  Each one was playing a version of themselves they think the world wants to see–for better or worse.

I am projecting here, but it was entertaining to see those who in high school would mock me for being in Drama club put on such a show.

Finally it was Ivan’s group.  He was in line with around a dozen other guys, each one of them bronzed to being nearly unrecognizable.  It was the culminating moment that Ivan had spent months training rigorously for.

Ivan placed fifth, out of a dozen.  Six years between competitions and his work ethic puts him in a position to make a raucous comeback.  When coming into this shoot I had so many preconceived notions that, for the most part, ended up refuted.  Bodybuilding is very much an athletic endeavor, a sport that is taken to the extreme (as so many are).  Ivan is, perhaps, one of the most grounded bodybuilders I have spoken to, and even he says there are only a handful more years he can put his body through the stress and strain it takes to be in natural competition shape.

Are there steroids?  Sure.  I can’t imagine the fellow 11 shots above this line is all natural.  Do steroids win competitions?  I doubt it.  There are drug tests performed at the major events and use is discouraged at those levels (which have an entirely different mind set anyway than those of us fiddling about in the kiddie pool of the body building world).  What I took away from this experience, more than anything, was the feeling that while your average “King of the Gym” may be building muscle for vanities’ sake, a true athlete like Ivan does it because he/she loves it and can’t imagine doing anything else.

But the life of a bodybuilder does not last forever, just like any extreme sport, sooner than later your body catches up to you.

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