Decathlete hams it up

About two weeks before the Mr. Penn Body-Building contest, Matt Newcomb (C'01) thought his body had reached a point where he wouldn't embarrass himself. That's when he bought the Speedo. "I think I'm going to look pretty good," he remembered thinking.

Like a lot of the participants in Mr. Penn, Newcomb isn't a bodybuilder. He's an athlete - that's him readying for the shotput in the picture. He was working out because the decathlon requires strength for the weight events, speed for the running. "You have to be strong and skinny. It's like a race car engine in a Volkswagen body," he said, quoting a coach. "Strong muscles, light frame."

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Newcomb had seen the Mr. Penn Body-Building Contest his freshman year, and knew the emphasis here was less on technical body building, more on "showing what you have to the crowd." Having done his share of performing in high school, he decided it was time to start performing at Penn.

So with his Speedo he donned a necktie, only to remove it in a mock striptease, backed by appropriate music. The crowd went wild, he said, and Matt Newcomb, an all-around kind of guy who came by his muscles as an afterthought, came in second in the heavyweight division.

For Newcomb, performing is an end in itself. He sang with the Penn Choral Society in their December show. "It fulfills the singing need I have in my life," said the bass-baritone.

He also said he had a dancing need - which also ended up fulfilling his performing need in a random sort of way. He took swing dancing classes from the Ballroom Dancing Society. And he learned the salsa and merengue from some Latino friends an hour before an evening at a nightclub, and discovered he was a natural.

So three days before his parents drove seven hours from Windham, N.H., to videotape Newcomb in the Mr. Penn contest, they flew down to watch him perform a lambada and a merengue with Onda Latina, the Latin-dance club. His friends from the pre-nightclub lesson talked him into it. "It was two Caucasian males in a merengue, which is very Latin," he said. The club called it the Gringo Merengue - backstage only. "I can go on a dance floor anywhere and not look like a fool," said Newcomb, who added that his mother was "really excited" about dancing with him at his wedding, someday.

After lying low freshman year, focusing on studies and track, the small-town boy has found his way around the big school in the big city.

He's mad for public transportation and the ability to go to the theater or a sports event at the drop of a hat, without hours of travel.

He also found himself a job close to his intended field of study - communications - and close to his athletic pursuits in track. His work for Penn Relays involves Athletic Communications. "Someone mentioned the job to me. It was a total coincidence."

What drew him to Penn? "I was committed to education and it was a top-ranked school. A potpourri of activities are available at Penn, and I wanted to get involved in them, because I think that's what college is all about - finding what you want to do for the rest of your life."

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Originally published on January 14, 1999