My First Arnold Sports Festival

Donny Shankle at the Arnold

For those of you who have never heard of it, the Arnold Sports Festival is like Lollapalooza for athletics.  Held in Columbus, Ohio, 50 some odd sports have exhibitions/contests and there is a giant arena of  vendors with all things gym related.   While the aesthetic sports predominate (because Arnold), it’s a Pan Am qualifier in weight lifting so it draws pretty big talent.  I enjoyed it, but with some qualifications.  Forthwith, my impressions.

1. You can, in fact, live on pre-workout and protein bar samples.  There are literally dozens of booths each promoting their proprietary blend of pre-workout energy supplements, recovery drinks and protein protein protein. So my lifting girlfriends and I went from booth to booth sampling the wares.  There are restaurants somewhere in the bowels of the convention center.  But we lasted two days on eleventy million milligrams of caffeine and protein bar samples.  We may never actually poop again, but we were wired for sound.  Fueled two awesome workouts with my besties. Best of kind was a cheesecake bar.  Worst of kind was some “no cow” (I guess no whey?) bar that tasted like grass.  Without the gr.  This made my friend exclaim loudly, “I need something else in my mouth right now!” which made several men turn immediately in her direction.  Hilarity ensued.

2. Not all strength sports are the same.  when not trying to see if I could actually hear color from caffeine overload, I was watching the events.  A tiny bit of the aesthetic stuff and a lot of weightlifting and some strongman.  Strongman is ridiculously cool.  The middleweight women did yoke carries with 450lbs.  Alanna Casey, who won the middleweight division, practically ran 120 feet with her yoke.  It was jaw droppingly impressive.  She is roughly two inches shorter than I am so in my opinion she’s a goddess. We’ll talk about the weightlifting in a minute.  But the aesthetic stuff was interesting to me.  Male bodybuilders are so big in person that they barely look like we should be counted in the same species.  But male or female, all the aesthetic people were leeeeeeeaaaaaannnnnn.  I hardly look in the mirror and think, “gigantor”.  But these guys were missing any semblance of subcutaneous fat.  And they were all dark orange.

Clearly all of them put in gym time-lots of gym time- to get where they are.  But it’s odd for me to think of fat loss as a significant portion of a sport.  It was like a contest for who could diet the best, certainly not who was the strongest.  And it was off putting for that reason.  Judging is somewhat subjective, not the objective “you locked this out or you didn’t’ of powerlifting or weightlifting.  Women are judged every millisecond of every day for how they look.  Why would I subject myself to more scrutiny and more negativity on this front?  Why not reach for what you can do rather than what you look like?  Which leads to….

3. My heroes don’t take selfies in bathrooms.  Every time I went to a bathroom during the festival, someone orange was taking a selfie in the mirror.  In the hotel lobby waiting for the shuttle from the parking garage, there was a woman taking a selfie.  In the bathroom at the airport leaving  the last day, there was a lady taking a selfie in the mirror of the airport bathroom.  Every bathroom in the convention center had somebody taking selfies in the mirror.  If you search the hashtag #ASF2015 on Instagram, you will see hundreds of bathroom selfies.  I follow a lot of weightlifters on Instagram.  Know what they posted pics of?  Them hoisting mighty weights.  It goes back to what you find important.  Is it the ultimate narcissism of posting pics of yourself on IG to see how many likes you can accrue?  Or is it what feat of mastery of sport you can achieve after years of training.

4. Weightlifters are amazing humans. And the sport is growing.  While on my quest to become the single most caffeinated person alive, I came upon a booth where a man looked familiar.  Then I thought, “that’s Anthony Pomponio.  Oh shit, THAT’S ANTHONY POMPONIO!!!!” who is a current olympic training center resident and utter badass.  And who could not have been sweeter to this fangirl.  He introduced me to the medical director of the company and was just very humble in the face of my calling him a god (because yeah, that came out of my mouth).

Words cannot even describe Tatiana Kashirina.   During the introduction to the athletes in the class, she just stood smiling like the adorable 21yo girl that she is, with her long braid behind her.  But then she got on the platform and performed 6 technically perfect lifts with 10kg jumps between attempts.  10kg jumps.  That’s the stuff legends are made of.  And she was no where near her world record lifts.  You know the meme that says, “somewhere some girl is warming up with your max”?  This girl- who is not yet old enough to rent a car- is that girl.

The crowd watching weightlifting at the Arnold

During the men’s Pan Am qualifier session, there was standing room only.  And the spillover crowd into the adjacent hall was 25 people thick.  I took a picture of the crowd to show just how underestimated the crowd turnout was.  I wanted to send an email to ESPN to take note and maybe consider broadcasting highlights of nationals.  My friend looked around to see what I was photographing and turned to me and said, “is that Donny?”  And there, in the middle of the crowd, just standing unmolested by fans, was one of the icons of American weightlifting.  Not standing in a booth with a long line to have him sign something, not hanging out with an entourage, not orange.  Just a single guy, enjoying some really good examples of the top of his sport.  After much goading from friends, I went up to him and thanked him for all the great content on his blog and for being such an inspiration.  And he was very cordial in return.

Seriously? Best.  Sport.  Ever.


One Response to “My First Arnold Sports Festival”

  1. Abi Ruscombe-KingMarch 13, 2015 at 1:18 PM #

    Gosh, it sounds amazing. I am with you on the bodybuilding thing. Whilst I totally respect he dedication and discipline i t takes, the focus on aesthetics rather than performance just turns me off. Like you say, women are judged enough. I don’t need to encourage that. What I love about weightlifting, is its such an empowering activity, about skill and strength, not about what you look alike.

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