Vegan Strong team prepares for Mr America
It's fantastic when a plan comes together, and that's exactly what's happening for Giacomo Marchese. His Vegan Strong Plantbuilt team is bulging with talent and looking forward to bursting into the various stages of the Mr America Fitness Festival like never before.
It’s a bigger team, with 35 elite athletes dwarfing the impressive 20 from last year. The anticipation that they could surpass the 17 medals of last year (eight were Gold) is one Giacomo is confident over; he wisely declines to set a target in this regard.
Its perhaps strange to see anyone looking forward to a competition so much when they are not personally competing. Giacomo’s expectancy is infectious. He also knows what it is to compete and has close to 30 trophies for bodybuilding and a couple for powerlifting – in which he has posted an impressive 555 kg total in the 82.5 kg category.
Now managing the team for the event on October 7-8th, his own training and competing is on a temporary back seat.
Like the elite status of the athletes he is so proud of, the Vegan Strong PlantBuilt team was built as part of a longer journey.
In his early 20s a conventional future seemed almost pre-decided for him as he was following an interested in bodybuilding.
“I wanted to be healthier, I wanted to live longer. And I wanted to help other people have a better quality of life and live longer.”
“After a bodybuilding competition I did some reading and found being vegan was a better way to live.”
The lady Giacomo was dating connected him with what was on his plate. “I also connected with community through potlucks and meeting people.”
“It became my lifestyle and I left everything in New York City and flew West to change my life.”
On his 24th birthday he promised not to betray himself and live vegan.
He moved to Oregon soon before Robert Cheeke left. Robert was well known for the way in which he had raised the profile of veganism in bodybuilding. He had the idea of building a team to perform as vegans on stage and break stereotypes, but the time was not yet right.
“He left me with this fancy red car that I kept getting tickets with. I sold the car and said I would try to make the dream come true. I reached out to a couple of bodybuilders.”
Since then it’s grown.
Aside for setting an example to onlookers, the team are raising eyebrows among competitors. The team interact and are always on good terms with other competitors, and for some it’s an introduction to veganism.
“Something they just care about the fact that they can be healthier.”
Building strength and momentum
Plantbuilt started to target events in 2013 and things have grown since then. Then it was a bodybuilding team and within a couple of years they were adding powerlifters. Now they have Kettlebell and Crossfit teams.
The team includes France’s strongest woman, Angeline Berva. “I can’t wait meet her” he says. There’s more. “Veronique Cormier is going to do a hell of a job. Bradie Crandall is unstoppable. The Strongman team is incredible.”
In kettlebell the team is joined by the world class Hege Jenssen after several attempts to link up. “Mike Mahler and Steve Cotter are behind the scenes running the team, they’re both vegan, and not competing.”
Turning to bodybuilding, he talks of Pro card holder Daiane Osorio. “I wouldn’t surprised if she wins the title in wellness and possible more”.
Erin Fergus is competing too. “Her body was complaining, probably because she’s been competing too much. This year everything’s cooperating. She’s already having a great season and is going to come here and look her best.”
Among the men there’s a competitor who has progressed at a fantastic rate.
“Jamal Collins – oh my gosh! I remember meeting him at the first vegan bodybuilding contest and look at him now. He’s cleaning house this year, he’s taking home all the medals. He could win a title.”
Last year Nadege Corcoran won her amateur title but won’t be defending it as she’s now in the Pro Class.
Shelli Beecher-Seitzler is also joining them. “I saw her on stage and I was blown away. She’s already miles ahead, planning everything, and now she’s here and joining us.”
There’s also a few athletes who have missed out because their sport is not contested at the festival. One is Melody Schoenfeld, a diminuitive strength athlete known as ‘5 foot of fury’ who loves rolling frying pans, tearing directories and breaking chains. She’s previously broken a national powerlifting record and competed in strongman, although her preferred armlifting event is not available at Mr America.
“One of the most intelligent, accomplished athletes I’ve seen in a while” says Giacomo. “She won’t admit it but she’s won all the awards in coaching and training, she speaks everywhere.”
Others have pulled out all the stops to make the event. Powerlifting team captain Ryan Stills forgoes a return to Mongolia where he has won multiple times before in favour of Mr America. The five-times Masters World Champion brings experience and guidance as well as some massive lifts. “He’s just incredible” says Giacomo. “Instead of Mongolia he’s coming here and he’s dedicating to the team, that’s something I’m grateful for.”
All athletes are dietary vegan for at least a year, and its important they are committed for competing without drug assistance.
This means that if they don’t use steroids now but plan to, they’re not suitable for the team. It’s not cost many members, and is clearly a key policy for the team.
Giacomo is eager to talk about all the athletes and we get the sense he could discuss each one at length.
Katya Gorbacheva‘s consistent improvement has not gone unnoticed, this against the backdrop of her family’s plight in war torn Ukraine.
While theory paves the way for an acceptance of veganism in sport, the effect of the Vegan Strong Plantbuilt team is invaluable. The effect inevitably rubs off on other competitors.
“Some of them are thinking about if they can do this in a more healthy way and they start talking to us.”
There’s no doubt that the Vegan Strong PlantBuilt team has been a key player in the change in perception of veganism over the years, and in turn a key part of veganism’s growth. Events like these can’t fail to have an impact on the competitive and non competitive populations when role models like these grace the stages and platforms of competition.
If a fraction of the anticipated success is achieved at Mr America, the impact at Mr America will be impressive, and the translation into a greater acceptance of veganism is inevitable. “All anyone cares about is who wins, if we win there’s nothing else to say” Giacomo reflects.
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