Joanna Pluszcz showed up carrying the tools of the trade: transparent heels in one hand, resistance bands in the other.
As spray tanning machines buzzed in the background, she donned her bikini, did her warmups, then started practicing her precise movements, which she monitored closely in the mirror.
This was it: the annual Mr. & Ms. Natural Minnesota competition.
For the past five years, she had been training for this day. She’d changed her diet, followed a grueling workout regimen, invested in coaches and makeup artists and spray tans. And each flex of a muscle, each quarter-turn of a pose, brought her closer to her dream of taking first place.
Pluszcz started bodybuilding because the intense, demanding training kept her occupied while she was in an unhappy marriage. But it didn’t take her long to go pro. Now she’s well-known locally, posing and flexing alongside other bikini-clad bodybuilders.
“It’s not a strip show,” the 41-year-old mother of three said. “It’s not a freak show. It’s a sport.”
Pluszcz, a model who lives in Maple Grove, competes in the newest and maybe the most popular category of women’s bodybuilding, bikini. Eight years ago, the division was added to the lineup to attract more women to the sport, according to industry professionals. Competitors say bikini is a bit more attainable than other divisions, such as figure or physique, which require more definition and muscle striations, according to guidelines from the North American Natural Bodybuilding Association.
The division is luring a growing number of women who strive to develop the sculpted shoulders, small and toned waists, large and muscular glutes, and defined legs that judges are looking for. Social media has helped, lifting the visibility of the sport.
Competitors, including Pluszcz, share photos of their toned, tanned physiques on Instagram with hashtags such as #bikinicompetitor or #naturalbikini.
“Social media changed the sport,” said Tara Thatcher, a coach and former competitor from Golden Valley. “It’s cool that people can share their progress and what they’re going through.”
Nicole Borwege, 28, was a gym regular (often the only woman using free weights) when “someone put a bug in my ear” about bodybuilding. Borwege, of Minneapolis, thought it “would make a good bucket list option,” so she decided to take her gym routine up a notch — or 10.
In the past three years, she’s taken part in six competitions, placing in most of them.
“It’s a satisfying feeling when you’re in the spotlight and you’re proud of what you’ve done,” she said.
Just getting to that spotlight isn’t easy or cheap. Most female bodybuilders train all year, even during what’s called the off season. But as the competitions gets closer, between 12 and 16 weeks out, they start cutting their calories, lifting less weight and adding more cardio to cut fat.
Competing is costly. Hair, makeup and layers of spray tan cost about $300, trainers average $80 a session, and bikinis anywhere from $100 to $1,000. There also are registration fees and a posing coach.
It also can be hard on the psyche. The sport is intense, with months, even years of training coming down to getting just the right look for a few minutes on stage.
That’s why Thatcher and other coaches are always on the lookout for what they call the “post-competition blues.”
“People who focus so much on the competition instead of the journey get depressed afterward,” Thatcher said. “It’s really a hard thing.”
The big day
It’s 6:20 a.m. on the day of the competition and already Pluszcz is up, lifting dumbbells at home. She’ll have breakfast (1 ounce of fish and one lightly salted rice cake with some honey), before the stylists arrive at noon. They’ll paint her eyelids silver and add extensions to her blond hair, turning Pluszcz into a bronze Barbie doll, something Pluszcz acknowledges.
“It’s all an illusion,” she said. “What you see on stage doesn’t exist.”
She downs her last meal of the day (1 ounce of chicken, ¼ teaspoon of salt, another rice cake with honey), then heads to the local high school, where the competition will take place.
Backstage, she’s focused, nervous. She does a few dumbbell lifts. “If I pump it right, I’m going to win it,” she says to herself.
And then, it’s her turn.
Her silver jeweled bikini glistens as she walks across the stage and into the spotlight she shares with her four competitors in the Pro Bikini 40+ group.
Judges guide the women through their paces — the turns, the flexes.
When the judging is done, the contestants line up on stage as the announcer rattles off their standings, starting from the bottom. It’s down to Pluszcz and a competitor from Nebraska, Tammy Shuff.
The women hold their statuesque poses; left hand on their hip, right hand pointing off to the side, muscles flexed, back straight, one foot behind the other.
When the announcer calls Shuff in second place, Pluszcz is motionless for several seconds.
The cheers rise. Pluszcz raises her hands to her face and starts to cry. She abandons her pose and moves to the front of the stage, where a medal is placed around her neck and she is handed a bouquet of yellow roses.
Later, after she’s washed off her makeup, scrubbed off her tan and packed away the bikini, she reflects on her win, and what it took to get there.
“If you think about it, it’s a stupid bikini competition,” she said.
“But to me it’s like winning the Olympics.”