When most people think about the University of Pennsylvania, the terms Ivy League, West Philadelphia and Quaker probably come to mind.
Bodybuilding? Probably not, but it should. Penn has a surprisingly rich student tradition in the sport. And the pinnacle of the year for campus bodybuilders took place Monday night as the 23rd annual Mr. and Ms. Penn competition unfolded inside the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
The amateur event is organized as a fundraiser for the school’s track and field program and routinely showcases more than 30 competitors – men and women.
On a recent Friday night, a few dozen student athletes pumped their way through a demanding workout inside a squeaky clean, state-of-the-art gym.
They’re all preparing for the spring track season. A few, though, were also lifting for a chance to be crowned Mr. or Ms. Penn.
Senior Sam Mattis has competed since he was a freshman.
“At first, I wasn’t totally in love with the idea of just being in a Speedo in front of a few hundred people, but I got over that pretty quickly,” said Mattis.
For most of the year, Mattis is one of the Ivy League’s top discus throwers. But for one night, the muscled finance major sets that aside, steps onto a stage half-naked, and flexes to music Arnold Schwarzenegger-style.
“I try to make a complete ass of myself,” he said. “Last year, I did ‘The Wop,’ which was a dance that was popular back then. The year before that, I did ‘What Does the Fox Say?’ and kind of did a dance to that with poses to each animal.”
Not everyone is so confident, though. Junior architecture student Cora Butler is normally pretty reserved. She doesn’t even talk in class.
But that shyness disappears when she’s competing to be Ms. Penn.
“It’s just a great thing to be a part of. It’s always so body positive. You really just feel good about yourself no matter what. It’s a fun, goofy type of thing,” said Butler.
Goofy, but not just games.
On Monday, there was plenty of body oil to go around, but competitors had clearly practiced the list of required poses, including one called “most muscular” — an all out body flex.
The students also seemed to be having a lot of fun in front of that starry background, especially during their individual routines.
One incorporated a fencing sword.
Another competitor became a human marionette, mimicking an old NSYNC music video.
Up to 10 points were awarded for physique. The remaining 20 points went to creativity.
“Everybody thinks it’s just the muscle-head, but it’s going to be a person who has good presentation, who wows the crowd with it and who’s going to enjoy it on the stage,” said head judge Vincent Faust.
In the end, the Mr. and Ms. Penn titles went to a sophomore studying political science and a full-time social worker at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.
Caitlin Chin found weightlifting after a knee injury ended her marathon running days. She said the competition shows that Penn isn’t just about books.
“We do have some brains behind us, but we are involved in other things, so it’s good to see the show bring that together for us,” said Chin.