Expect chills, thrills, and plenty of suspense at the 2018 Olympia weekend when the four women's divisions—bikini, figure, physique, and fitness—hit the stage.
The pinnacle event in bodybuilding's 2018 competition schedule occurs live at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Orleans Arena on September 14 and 15.
For the women's events, only two divisions feature returning champions, which means this year's showdown could be anyone's chance to win. From where I sit, there are few safe bets, if any.
Bikini Crapshoot: Teixeira and Kaltwasser Roll the Dice
Defending champ Angelica Teixeira is on a roll, with her 2017 Olympia victory and a pair of wins at the prestigious Bikini International at the Arnold Classic.
She has an appealing look and all the right moves, and she would be an easy pick to repeat here—were it not for the return of Ashley Kaltwasser, the only woman to win the title more than once.
Kaltwasser earned the Bikini Olympia crown three years in a row, faltering to fourth place in 2016. After taking time off to deal with health issues, she is back in full force and rolling 7s, earning three straight comeback wins as a tune-up for the Olympia.
If I were Teixeira and the other top bikini competitors, I'd be very nervous with Kaltwasser on stage.
Kaltwasser's lean look and sassy confidence—at her best—are the definition of what the judges are looking for in bikini. She "pops" onstage as no other competitor in recent memory has. If she shows up with just the right amount of conditioning, the title is hers.
Still, the stars of the bikini world come and go faster than most in the fitness world, and comebacks are almost unheard of. The chances that Kaltwasser will bring her best, convince the judges and leave the runner-up spot to Teixeira are about 60 percent.
Returning High-Rollers Seek the Win
The top nine athletes from last year made it to the Olympia lineup this time, which means every one of these ladies will be gunning for the first callout.
Jennifer Ronzitti's pleasing look makes her a good bet to make the cut, with Romina Basualdo, Casey Samsel, and veteran Narmin Assria also likely to get an early look.
That's the established pecking order. But any number of the 35 who are qualified to stroll onstage in Vegas have the physique and attitude to finish high, starting with two veteran fan favorites making their return to the Olympia stage.
Janet Layug is a perennial hot body whose record has been erratic in recent years. Getting second at the 2018 Bikini International put the one-time Miss Hooters International back into contention.
India Paulino won the International twice and has finished third at the Olympia. Back after giving birth to a son in December 2017, she's a work in progress. Don't count her out.
New Shooters Raise the Stakes
With some 50 bikini contests on the schedule in 2018, it's a full-time job to keep track of the trending pros.
Canadian Lauralie Chapados earned herself a mention as a newcomer in this prestigious event. With three big wins—Chicago, Toronto, and Tampa Pro events—and a sparkling presence, Chapados could be good enough to go right to the winner's circle in her Olympia debut.
Figure Roulette: Gillon, Watts, and Lewis-Carter Go Round and Round
Full confession: I am 0-4 in predicting this division in recent years. Ever since Latorya Watts and her extreme hourglass shape earned the judges' devotion in 2015—and the equally X-framed Candice Lewis-Carter and Cydney Gillon got their admiration as well—it's anybody's guess as to who will win.
The judges like all three of these impressive ladies, and each has beaten the others at least once at the Olympia or the International. Who do I think will nail her conditioning and body-part flow on contest day? Let's spin the wheel.
Gillon is the reigning Olympia champ, and I love her physique. Yet she came in second to Lewis-Carter at the International—for the second time.
Watts has two Olympia crowns, but she was disappointed with her runner-up finish last year, making her even more determined to win this one. She skipped the International and should be well rested by contest day. I'm picking Latorya Watts for the revenge win. I put her chances at 70 percent.
The Rest of the Field
If any of the above three falters in her preparation, Heather Dees will be waiting to move up. She has a balanced physique with plenty of muscle, and she consistently comes in shape. The judges scored her right behind the top three at the past few shows, a trend that should continue.
I also expect Nicole Wilkins to fight for a top spot once again. Wilkins is a four-time Figure Olympia champ, but she lost the title to Watts and has worked hard to rebuild her physique. Like Dees, she's got balance and muscle and an appealing athleticism. If she's in this show, she'll be in the hunt for a top prize.
The last of my picks for a top-six finish is Bojana Vasiljevic, who was on my radar last year and didn't disappoint. Tenth at the Olympia and fifth at the 2018 Figure International, the petite Serbian athlete won't go unnoticed by the judges.
Canadian Melissa Bumstead earned good scores all season, but not good enough win. At the final show, in Tampa, she put it all together, moving ahead of athletes who had beaten her previously and earning her ticket to the Olympia stage.
Bumstead doesn't have as much muscle as the others mentioned, but with her pleasing lines and enough conditioning, she could be dangerous to the top tier. She is definitely worth keeping an eye on this go-around.
Physique Black Jack: Does Shanique Grant Have the Winning Hand?
Shanique Grant has a queen showing and an ace in the hole. When three-time Women's Physique Olympia champ Julianna Malacarne announced in July that she was retiring, it left the path open for Physique International winner Grant to fulfill the destiny so many have predicted for her.
Grant has size, shape, symmetry, and proportion, and a look reminiscent of Lenda Murray. She's the best female bodybuilder to come along since, well, Malacarne. The Olympia is hers to lose.
Internet gossip that Malacarne was "afraid to take second to Grant" is just that—gossip. The champ indicated to Bodybuilding.com after last year's Big O that she was ready for the next phase of her life.
The debate will forever rage on as to who would have won that matchup, which was twice delayed when Grant had to pull out in 2016 and 2017. I'll leave the speculation to the armchair experts on social media.
I put Grant's chances of winning this year's Women's Physique Olympia at 95 percent.
Deal Them In
Several sharp contestants are solid bets to land in this year's winner's circle alongside Grant.
Jennifer Taylor flexed her way to second at the 2017 Woman's Physique Olympia, moving all the way up from tenth the previous year. Taylor has a solid physique with beautiful lines. I can see her repeating last year's achievement.
A year ago, Natalia Coelho finished out of the running at the Figure Olympia. She's an athlete with an excellent physique but a little too much size for figure.
Five and a half months later, she competed in physique and took second to Grant at the International. Aged 22, Coelho will only improve. For now, she's looking at a third-place finish.
Also Holding Cards
A trio of veterans—Autumn Swansen, Heather Grace, and Kira Neuman—should likely make the first callout. I like them in that order, fourth through sixth.
Swansen has the best balance of size, symmetry, and proportion of this group—when she's on her game. Neuman has shape and size, but Grace out-conditions them both every time.
New at The Table
With 27 women qualified for the Women's Physique lineup, possible wild cards are everywhere.
Former International champ Daniely Castilho looked swell winning the Toronto Pro in June and could be a factor.
Canadian Eleonora Dobrinina, who was ninth at the Olympia last year, is the woman most likely to move up several places—if she plays her cards right.
Fitness Slots: Bells, Whistles, and Excitement Show It's Anyone's Game
This could be the most exciting Fitness Olympia lineup since the days of Susie Curry, Jen Hendershott, and Jenny Worth in the early 2000s.
For the first time in almost that long, the title is up for grabs, with no clear front-runner. Odds are good that someone new could hit a winning combination.
On paper, veterans Whitney Jones and Myriam Capes are the favorites to inherit Oksana Grishina's crown.
Jones has a solid physique and a strong routine, and she claimed the title at the Fitness International six months ago. Capes has a killer routine and was second to Grishina last year.
These two haven't competed against each other for some time, making it harder to predict. Even so, the odds tip in Capes' favor, giving her a 65 percent chance of hitting the jackpot in what will be her tenth Olympia appearance.
Also Trying Their Luck
Seventeen athletes will pull the handle in the physique and routine rounds, and with some quality newcomers among the vets, the competition is even stronger than last year.
The latest British sensation, Kate Errington, finished second in her pro debut at the Fitness International with her pleasing physique and promising routine. She's a dancer and performer outside of the gym, and she could land in third—or even higher—in her Olympia debut.
I also expect Ryall Graber and Bethany Wagner, fourth and fifth last year, to claim their spots at the top, along with Ariel Khadr, who should move up from last year's seventh.
Wild Card Payout
Only one athlete in the lineup can change the game, and that's Jenny Worth. The same Jenny Worth who was number two in the world in that bygone era when Fitness reigned supreme.
Worth came back to Fitness competition in 2017 after a 16-year hiatus, despite back problems and other injuries. She has always had a good body, and this year at the Tampa Pro, she knocked their socks off in the routines reminiscent of her glory days. I'm not saying she'll win, but if she can do that again, look out.
Did I miss someone? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Note that all the athletes mentioned were scheduled to compete as of this writing.