by Jeff Laughlin

The empty line to the snack bar would normally mean an event went unattended. But High Point Theatre bustled with participants and fans. These people were not there to snack — in fact you’d have to be a helluva salesman to push candy on this crowd.

Contestants of the North Carolina State Bodybuilding and Fitness Championships lingered around tables pitching workout equipment and supplements. They wore workout-themed team shirts from all over the state while cheering on people from their hometowns.

Mostly, though, they stood around and looked great, as if they were practicing stage presence before they went on.

For competition, participants had just a couple minutes to show how hard they pursued perfection. The announcer gently commanded them: “Side chest pose,” “front double bicep,” “abdominal and thigh,” and after each of the commands, he would say, “Relax.”

No one relaxed.

Each bodybuilder went through her motions, holding balanced flexes while maximizing muscle definition. Then each would saunter off to the side while the next one posed. But even then, they smiled and flexed, hoping the judges’ eyes would wander at a moment of weakness.

The meat-market shuffling of bronzed and shaved human bodies, lean as strips of jerky, moved quickly, adding a level of incomprehension for first-time participants. The Teenage Bodybuilding division lacked savvy. Compared to the adult competitors, the teens lacked overly defined muscle groups. Their backs looked like backs, not roadmaps, and some still sported lean layers of skin that looked untouched by their workouts.

Chris Solano did not expect the competition to move so quickly. When his group went on stage, he was caught unaware.

“We didn’t even get a pump-up beforehand — no warning, nothing,” Solano said. He had come from Greenville to compete and wanted to put up his best performance. Blayne Lamphere agreed.

“It’s not like this is a state competition,” he laughed with sarcasm in his voice. “We didn’t work out for thousands of hours for this. We didn’t diet for a month and a half or anything,” Lamphere said.

Lamphere, also from Greenville, had the same story as most of the contestants: A friend told him he should compete.

“My friend competed and told me to. I talked to a trainer and got into physique. This was my first bodybuilding competition, but not my first time doing this,” he said.

Physique competitions showcase fitness, while bodybuilding displays muscle; Lamphere had taken on a totally different sport within his sport.

Derek Leagen had also made the switch to bodybuilding as a novice heavyweight.

“The conditioning and the workouts are different. The diet is way different,” Leagan said. This was also his first bodybuilding competition.

The crowd cheered a bit for each group, but when the women took the stage, the room came alive. All the backwards hats leaned forward and the wolf whistles began.

“Yeah, look at that bicep! It’s like Christmas,” a patron yelled. Coaches and teammates interspersed screams of “Hold it!” “You got this!” and “Get that!”

The participants, though they came from different areas in the state, comprised a tight-knit group. In most places, the kind of shouting and discussion would be considered sexual harassment, but at a celebration of bodies the leers and cat-calls made sense. Each person’s dedication to fitness deserved a “Yowza!”

Outside, after the competition, people milled about the theater looking tired. Spray tan clotted on their faces, bodybuilders slumped their shoulders and reluctantly answered questions or took congratulations.

“Everyone brought their A-game. That was a tough competition,” Lamphere said. As he spoke, Solano, who had been inching away from the interview since it started, made his exit.

“Now that this thing is over, I can finally eat,” he said.

The snack bar sat empty 10 steps away, but Solano never even looked over his shoulder. No way was he gonna eat that crap.

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