Considering the fact that prize money has been offered at bodybuilding contests for women since 1979, the question remains as to who - among the hundreds and hundreds of women who have reached the pro level of the IFBB - found themselves atop the award's stand in their pro debut.
In the earliest days of women's bodybuilding competitions, several of the events were designated as ‘pro/am' - meaning women who placed in a position where prize money was available, could retain their amateur
status by simply refusing the prize money. And surprisingly, a number of women elected to remain amateur due to the fewer number of pro events that were being held at the time. Many women simply enjoyed the opportunity to compete without the pressures that existed in a pro event.
But for those who did turn pro, there was a select group of competitors who found themselves in the winner's circle with a trophy and prize money in hand the first time they entered a pro event. The deciding factor to remain at the pro level - after a victory that had come so quickly - made the departure from the amateur ranks a much easier decision.
Texan Patsy Chapman made her pro debut at the 1979 Best in the World contest where she took home a check for $2,500 as the first competitor to earn a victory in her first pro contest. It would also be the last time Chapman would win at the pro level after three future entries at the Ms. Olympia found her placing no higher than seventh.
Californian Shelley Gruwell also won her first pro contest with a
victory at the 1st World Pro Grand Prix in 1981. Her winnings totaled $2,000. Gruwell, who was well- established as a top amateur winning the American Mixed Pairs title with John Brown in 1980, along with runner-up finishes on her own at the 1980 California Championships and 1981 American Championships, found the going much tougher in the pro ranks where she never achieved another individual contest victory. She did, however, win IFBB Pro World Mixed Pairs titles in 1982 and '83 with Tony Pearson. Statuesque at 5-8, with a shock of blonde hair and well-developed abs, Gruwell received considerable media attention followed by diet and training related articles in a number of bodybuilding publications.
As the sport continued to expand on an annual basis and with the rapid and wide-spread popularity of events such as the Ms. Olympia and IFBB Pro World Championships, more and more women were entering the pro ranks for the
first time. With the perceived prestige of becoming a professional female bodybuilder at hand, the decade of the 80's saw Finland's Kike Elomaa win the 1981 Ms. Olympia in her pro debut.
Cory Everson’s pro success got started immediately after winning the 1984 NPC Nationals overall title when she made her pro debut at the Ms. O the same year to begin her string of six consecutive Olympia titles from 1984 to 1989.
Surprisingly, Rachel McLish missed winning in her pro debut. Entering the 1980 Zane Women's Invitational in June, she finished second to Stacey Bentley. Two months later she became the first Ms. Olympia.
|Cory Everson, circa 1984|
In 1986 Australian Erica Geisen made her pro debut at the first Ms. International held in conjunction with the
men's IFBB Pro World Championships (a name that would later be changed to the Arnold Classic). Geisen's victory earned her $5,000 in prize money defeating runner-up Juliette Bergmann, who, just a year earlier, had finished an unheralded 14th at the Ms. Olympia in her pro debut.
With the coming of the 90's several women made successful entrances into the pro ranks in their debuts with the popular Jan Tana Classic providing fertile ground for competitors coming out of the amateur ranks to compete in the pro division for the first time.
But before a quartet of outstanding pro aspirants made their presence felt at the Jan Tana Classic, 1990 saw the coming of Lenda Murray making her scintillating pro debut in winning the Ms. Olympia. Her move up to the pro level came after her victory at the 1989 IFBB North American Championships. Murray's win at the Ms. O would be the first of a record-setting eight she would win in her illustrious career.
Kim Chizevsky, another future multi Ms. Olympia
winner made her pro debut an impressive one by winning the 1993 Ms. International. Her win at the Ms.I came after she won the overall IFBB North American Championships in 1992. By 1996 Chizevsky would become the first competitor to win both the Ms. I and Ms. O titles in the same calendar year.
Following Chizevsky's debut at the Ms. International, a string of four straight Jan Tana Classic rookie pros all made their auspicious pro entrances in colorful fashion. First in line was Denise Rutkowski who had won the overall NPC USA title just three weeks earlier in 1993. She followed up her big amateur win with a pro debut victory at the '93 Jan Tana Classic in impressive and convincing fashion - so impressive, in fact, that she finished second to Lenda Murray at the '93 Ms. O.
In 1993 Sue Price locked up the overall NPC National crown, and followed Rutkowski's path to the Jan Tana Classic and promptly scored a pro debut victory in 1994.
Right on Price's heels was 1994 NPC National overall winner Michele Ralabate. Like Rutkowski and Price before her, she made her debut by entering the pro ranks at the 1995 Jan Tana Classic. The result was a dazzling victory.
|Denise Rutkowski||Sue Price|
Making it four in a row, Canadian Melissa Coates was a dominate force at the 1996 Jan Tana Classic and made her pro debut a victorious one.
Kicking off the new millennium, Th-Resa Bostick added another pro debut victory to the list of new pros entering the Jan Tana Classic when she won the heavyweight class title in 2000 after winning the overall 1999 NPC USA crown.
In 2000, Heather Foster won the overall NPC National title and made her pro debut a successful one winning the 2001 IFBB Pro Women's Extravaganza heavyweight class. Foster's victory at the Extravaganza was far from a ‘gimme'. She outscored runner-up Yaxeni Oriquen, and third-placer Betty Pariso.
In 2001 it was 1998 overall British champion Joanna Thomas who made her pro debut at the Jan Tana Classic winning the lightweight class topping the likes of Jennifer McVicar and Marja Lehtonen.
Once again in 2003 the Jan Tana Classic served as the catalyst to introduce Denmark's dazzling Helle Nielsen as the heavyweight and overall. Nielsen would go on to finish fifth in the HW class at the 2003 Ms. Olympia. Her effort in that event is notable considering Lenda Murray, Iris Kyle, Yaxeni Oriquen and Betty Viana finished in front of her, and Betty Pariso and Vickie Gates finished behind her. Arguably one of the most competitive Ms. O battles in the history of the event.
More recently 2006 Canadian overall champion Nicole Ball splashed on the scene with a dynamic lightweight victory at the 2007 Atlantic City Championships and has competed in three Ms. Olympia contests since that first victory.
Similarly, Stephanie Kessler entered the pro ranks in 2007 after winning the overall NPC Team Universe title
in 2006. Her pro debut was a successful one as she won the heavyweight class at the 2007 Jan Tana Classic ushering her into a qualifying sport and a 14th-place finish at the Ms. Olympia the same year.
Slovenian Brigita Brezovac became a member of a very elite group when she not only tasted victory in her pro debut at the 2010 Tampa Pro Championships, but followed up with another victory at the Battle of the Champions just two weeks later. Her pro career - with two straight victories - is, with little argument, off to a great start. The sum total of women who won two or more pro events at the beginning of their careers can be counted on one hand.
One name who has not been mentioned among those who were winners in their first pro contest is current Ms. Olympia Iris Kyle - and with good reason. Kyle's pro debut was one that she long ago put distantly in her rear view mirror. After winning the heavyweight and overall NPC USA title in 1998, Kyle's first contest as a pro came at the 1999 Ms. International where she placed a forgettable 15th in a field of 19. Since then, she has more than made up for that momentary blip on the radar screen becoming one of the most successful female bodybuilders in the history of the sport.
And finally, if there was a ‘So Close, But Yet So Far' award for one competitor who came within a few points of winning in their pro debut, it would go to Lesa Lewis. Majestically built at 5-10, 180 contest pounds, Lewis won the 1997 NPC USA overall title handily. Then, moving into the pro ranks she entered the 1998 Ms. International only to finish second to the dynamic Yolanda Hughes. Finishing 9th at that same event was Andrulla Blanchette, with Yaxeni Oriquen placing 14th. Both would become future Ms. Olympia winners. The kicker to the story is that later in 1998 Lewis entered the Jan Tana Classic and, you guessed it, she won!