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-by Madelyn Greco

It my second plane ride this year with my other half, a case full of bodypaint and a substantial dose of nervous excitement. We’re about to touch down in the pristine, lovely mountain region surrounding the town of Seeboden, Austria, on the banks of sparkling Lake Millsttter See. It’s a fitting backdrop for the bright colors poised to invade it for the 2010 World Bodypainting Festival.

In February, our first competition, the North American Bodypainting Championships, ranked us the highest-placing US artists in our category. That knowledge, along with the prize money, enabled us to attend our second competitive effort at the premiere festival on the planet for this art form. Although Scott and I have been painting together for six years, we are arrive here relatively unknown but determined to make a splash.

Of course, artists from 48 countries seek to do the same, plenty who’ve shown up before. We’re don’t know what we’re up against but we’ve logged many practice sessions, keeping to the six-hour allotted time frame. We feel prepared.

The first night brings “Body Circus,” a wild, raucous costume blowout held in a breathtaking castle. You haven’t seen costumes until you’ve attended a shindig populated by the world’s best body artists! Even the shuttle driver turns doughnuts in the street at 4 a.m. to the delight of drunken passengers bound for home. The next day we swim in the crystalline lake as wild swans glide within inches. The preliminary day dawns clear and sunny and we take our assigned place among the festival tents.

Scott and I spring into action when the clock starts. Our model, Lauren Andress, is a blessing in record-high temperatures. As ambulance sirens pass by, we learn that three models have fainted and been taken to the hospital! The stab of sympathy I feel for their artists is sharp but I can’t dwell on it. As we tick down the time, my own pounding heart makes me wonder if I might leave here the same way.

Working frantically down to the wire, we add finishing touches, affixing wig, eyelashes and headpiece to Lauren while rushing to the judging line. Scott and I rehearse a tag-team explanation of our painting. The theme is “Subcultures.” We’ve depicted the Red Shirts: pro-democracy freedom fighters in Thailand. It’s vital that we briefly explain our imagery to the jury, showing our passion for the subject.

Ordinarily unflappable Scott is as nervous as I’ve ever witnessed, his words tumbling forth rapid-fire. My heart bangs in my ribcage but my calm, serene voice is aided no doubt by stage experience. Sweating, we make it through and head to the photo area, where photographers crowd around the backdrops in tight semi-circles as models glide, prance and leap. The variety of work is astounding and I marvel at the choices of artists within this global community. I coach Lauren’s poses while photographers utter instructions, often in other languages, above the clicking of shutters.

Stage presentation comes next. A boom camera follows each model smoothly down the catwalk from the air while other cameramen dash about on foot. Lauren comes through with flying colors, sailing across the stage in her shining moment punctuated with the twinkling of flashbulbs.

The finalist announcement whips by in a blur of names until finally we hear, “Scott Fray.” Then we’re told the list was in ascending order, meaning we’ve tied for first place!

Jubilation abounds, quickly tempered by a comment from one of the US judges, himself a former World Champion. He tells us he’s seen first place slip to 12 th and that finals are often won and lost by a single point difference. He further critiques our presentation as “preachy.” Time to redouble our efforts!

At breakfast the next morning, our host exclaims he’s seen us in the paper and makes us a present of his copy. I can’t read German but the picture is nice. I show Scott as we strategize our design. My fianc’s passion for plants led us to browse a florist near our guesthouse earlier. The Austrian owners once lived in the US and it was clear they enjoyed meeting Americans. Scott has a sudden inspiration to use fresh flowers on tomorrow’s headpiece.

We hasten to the shop, where the wife chooses blooms and lends me every tool I could possibly need. When we try to pay, she shoos us on, telling us this is her contribution to our art. How amazing! Gratefully laden with exotic blossoms, I work until the wee hours.

Finals day zips terrifyingly by while we paint in full panic mode. The temperature drops and our model grows noticeably chilly. Vain attempts to warm her fail, though the sprint to the jury tent helps. “Sources of Power” is today’s theme. We make “Living Water for a Living Earth” and Lauren looks resplendent in the live headpiece. The judges seem charmed this time, with us and with the small flower arrangements I hand each one of them to underscore the “living” point.

Lauren wows the crowd again, and then we wait. It felt good but was it good enough? When they announce significant changes have rocked the final placements, there’s a knock in my stomach. The new third-place team has climbed from 10 th ! My eyes widen as second is called but relief mixes with triumph; it’s us! We scream and hug, claiming the crystal trophy and a victory turn on the catwalk with Lauren between us. Flashbulbs pop, marking photos that will fly around the world!

Every year, I have pored over pictures of this exact scene featuring the winners, dreaming of what it must feel like. It’s better than I could have imagined! We stand onstage while all the winners are announced and we return to the catwalk to celebrate with our peers. They announce to the thousands in attendance, “Meet your Bodypainting Family for year 2010”! A floodgate of emotions breaks inside of me at that phrase. As I take Scott’s hand, all the prior uncertainty melts, giving way to something that indeed feels like family and also very much like coming home.

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