Since its inception in 1965, the winner of the Mr. Olympia contest has been considered the IFBB Pro League‘s world champion. Now, there are 11 divisions contested under the IFBB banner, and all of them crown their own Olympia champion every year.
For many athletes, even the most successful ones, it can take years to claw to the top of the podium. For evidence of that, look no further than Brandon Curry, who placed eighth at his first Olympia in 2011 and wouldn’t win it all until 2019.
Other competitors, however, find success far faster. Below, we gathered 10 athletes who had the most impressive debuts in Olympia history.
[Related: 7 of the Best Bodybuilding Athletes in 2022]
The 10 Most Impressive Olympia Debuts
- Lee Haney in 1983
- Cory Everson in 1984
- Lenda Murray in 1990
- Dorian Yates in 1991
- Flex Wheeler in 1993
- Phil Heath in 2008
- Flex Lewis in 2008
- Ashley Kaltwasser in 2013
- Erin Banks in 2021
- Derek Lunsford in 2022
South Carolina native Lee Haney caught the attention of bodybuilding fans by winning the first NPC National Championship in 1982. The following year, he made his Mr. Olympia debut, where he faced a stacked roster of past winners and promising newcomers. While Haney wasn’t an odds-on favorite heading into the show, he soon found himself in the callouts with some of the sport’s top talent, like Frank Zane, Samir Bannout, and Mohamed Makkawy.
In the end, Bannout won the contest, but the upstart Haney — who placed third — was considered the future of bodybuilding. He made good on his potential one year later by winning his first of eight Olympia titles in 1984.
Outside of Larry Scott’s victory at the inaugural contest, no man has won the Mr. Olympia in his first appearance — but it’s happened three times at the Ms. Olympia. The first was in 1984 when Cory Everson showed up in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and earned the top spot. And this was no soft lineup; she had to go through inaugural champion Rachel McLish, who finished in second, and defending champion Carla Dunlap, who placed fourth.
Everson liked the feeling of winning so much that she went on to nab five more titles before retiring in 1989 as the only woman to never lose on the Ms. Olympia stage in multiple appearances.
After Everson retired in 1989, contenders such as Bev Francis and Jackie Paisley were among the favorites to win it all. Unfortunately for them, another prodigy entered the sport with ambitions of taking the title for herself.
That competitor was Lenda Murray, and she made her inaugural appearance at the Ms. Olympia in 1990. With a little more mass than Everson, as well as shape and symmetry to match, Murray took advantage of her moment and became the fifth winner of the Ms. Olympia.
Murray didn’t run the table undefeated as Everson did, but she did break her record by winning eight before retiring in 2004. The record for most Ms. Olympia wins now belongs to Iris Kyle, who has 10 to her credit.
By the 1991 Olympia, Lee Haney had racked up seven Sandow trophies and it was just assumed he would easily secure an eighth before retiring. But once the prejudging started, 29-year-old Dorian Yates made it clear that he wouldn’t just hand the win over to the veteran.
Yates was making his Mr. O debut that year and walked on stage with hints of the over-the-top size that would later go on to define the “Mass Monster” era. Haney quickly found himself with some real competition breathing down his neck.
Ultimately, Yates would take second, but by the following year, he began his own Olympia winning streak that included six consecutive titles.
In 1993, a young Flex Wheeler won the 1993 Iron Man Invitational and the 1993 Arnold Classic in his first two pro appearances. His symmetry and shape were a contrast to Dorian Yates’ density and size, and their clashing physiques made the 1993 Olympia a must-see.
At the end of the day, Yates’ overall mass and definition edged out Wheeler, who took the runner-up spot in his very first Mr. O. That’s a feat few have replicated, and it set the tone for a great career that included several other titles, including four Arnold Classics.
After years of chasing Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler established himself as a two-time Mr. Olympia by 2008, and it didn’t look like he planned on relinquishing the throne any time soon. But Cutler’s dynasty was put to the test by a stacked field that included Phil Heath in his first year in the lineup.
Heath had earned the nickname “The Gift” because of his picture-perfect structure and shape, and he hoped to use those features to earn a shocking rookie win. Though he eventually placed third behind runner-up Cutler and surprise winner Dexter Jackson, Heath’s excellent conditioning and freakish size would soon carry him to seven consecutive Sandow trophies.
Another bodybuilding icon, James “Flex” Lewis, made his first appearance on the big stage in 2008 at the brand-new 202 (later 212) Olympia contest. This was the first time since 1979 that a non-heavyweight Olympia title would be awarded, and the young bodybuilder from Wales — who only earned his pro card the year before — hoped to quickly become the face of the new division.
On stage, Lewis held his own against the favorites to win the contest, which included the eventual winner, David Henry, Kevin English, and George Farah. In the end, Farah placed fifth, one spot behind Jason Arntz, while English took second. Lewis, meanwhile, snagged an impressive third place in his debut. Though he didn’t score the win, Lewis’ performance that night foreshadowed his seven-year 212 Olympia win streak that began in 2012.
The Bikini Olympia debuted in 2010 and immediately became one of the most popular contests at the show. And in 2013, everyone assumed the biggest threats in the division were defending champion Natalia Melo and India Paulino, who took third in 2012. But there was another young competitor that should have been on everyone’s radar: Ashley Kaltwasser, who just made her pro debut in 2012.
Even though Kaltwasser was rising through the division after her Toronto Pro victory in May 2013, no one expected her to win the Olympia on her first attempt, especially when facing off against established talent. Well, she proved up to the task by taking home the crown in one of the most impressive debuts in the sport’s history. She won two more Olympia titles in her career and is now the all-time winningest athlete in any division with 37 pro victories as of January 2023.
Going into the 2021 Olympia, Brandon Hendrickson seemed like a lock to win his third Men’s Physique Olympia title without any trouble from the rest of the field. What he didn’t count on was a rookie competitor to be standing next to him in the final callout.
Ultimately, Banks’ first Olympia experience resulted in a second-place finish, but the standings would be flipped at his follow-up Olympia in 2022, where he outmuscled Hendrickson to win his first Olympia title.
As the 2021 Olympia champion in the 212 division, Derek Lunsford already knew what it was like to compete on a big stage. But after making an impact during a guest-posing appearance in 2022, Olympia promoters offered Lunsford a chance to compete on the biggest stage: the Men’s Open division at the 2022 Mr. Olympia.
While many believed Lunsford would represent himself well in his new division, they also assumed a former 212 competitor would have little chance to compete with the biggest bodybuilders in the sport. Undeterred, Lunsford shocked the world by placing second at his first Mr. Olympia, beating two past titleholders in the process.
The 2019 Mr. Olympia, Brandon Curry, placed fourth, and defending champion, Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay, came in fifth. Though Hadi Choopan won the title, Lunsford served notice by moving to a new and outclassing some of the best in the business.
There Are Exceptions…
There’s no doubt that these debuts are impressive. Many of the competitors on this list eventually went on to secure an Olympia dynasty in their respective divisions, while others remained a force at the top of the rankings for years to come. But you don’t have to have an impressive debut to foretell championship glory.
For the opposite effect, look no further than Ronnie Coleman. The future eight-time Mr. Olympia first stepped foot on the show’s stage in 1992, where he came in dead last. He wouldn’t score his first Mr. Olympia win until 1998 — after that, of course, he kept the title until 2006. So remember, there isn’t just one road to Olympia glory.
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