Inside the World of Australian Strong Women - Women's Health

Inside the World of Australian Strong Women

These daughters, mothers and wives share what it's like trying to be the country's strongest.

by | Aug 17, 2021

Strong Women/ABC iview

In the 19th century, the term strongman was given to circus exhibitors who performed feats of strength – those who could hold up large balls of steel for entertainment alone. Fast forward to the late 20th century and the term strongman evolved – it became less about entertainment and more about athletic ability: describing men who competed in strength athletics – modern eclectic strength competitions in which competitors displayed their raw functional strength through exercises such as lifting rocks, toting refrigerators, pulling trains, towing an eighteen-wheel truck behind them. Names like Eugen Sandow, a German strongman said to have paved the way for much of modern bodybuilding, became synonymous with the macho sport which to this day is dominated by men. 

Yet that’s not to say women didn’t take part in the sport from the beginning. Josephine Schauer Blatt – known by her stage name Minerva – was one of the first prominent American strongwomen who was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having lifted the greatest weight ever by a woman—3,564-lb in a hip-and-harness lift— “at the Bijou Theatre, Hoboken, N.J., on April 15, 1895.” Fast forward to today and names like Donna Moore and Andrea Thompson come to mind, both competitors in the annual World’s Strongest Woman (WSW) competition: an annual strongwoman contest, considered the pinnacle for female competitors and recognised as the world championships.

Yet with more and more women stepping to the limelight, why do we know so much less about them than their male counterparts? And what is it really like to compete in a sport still called Strongman, as a woman?

That’s exactly what the creators of new series, Strong Women, set to find out with the three-part documentary that follows some of Australia’s top women vying to be crowned Australia’s Strongest Woman – in the sport of Strongman.

“These daughters, mothers and wives; share their intimate motivations in the sport and how it is helping them rebuild themselves inside and out, after challenging experiences with domestic violence, bullying, addictions and eating disorders,” the synopsis reads. “Through their personal stories, we see the women gain strength, sacrifice relationships, struggle with injuries and celebrate their achievements. There is something about the sport of Strongman that is resonating with women. The positive social environment, the tangible measure of growth and the empowerment of the challenge.”

Here, we spoke the athletes featured to find out more.

Leigh Holland-Keen

What interested you in the world of strength training?

I followed in my parents footsteps, both my stepdad and mum competed in the sport of Strongman. Watching them compete made me gain interest as I have always been an active sporty person. Strongman is such an unusual sport so it really interested me! 

Tell us about your journey.

The journey has been an absolute rollercoaster, full of the highest highs and the lowest lows. I have learnt so much about myself and have gained some essential skills that carry over into everyday life such as resilience, discipline and understanding the importance of routine. 

Did you face any adversity?

Absolutely, right from the minute I stepped into the sport I was faced with negativity surrounding my gender. I’ve had to build thick skin to cope and understand the psychology behind why people degrade another person’s achievement. I love the fact that more female athletes are taking a stand and calling out this behaviour. It’s important for people to understand the effects it can have on others. 

Who do you look up to?

It sounds a little cliche, but I genuinely “looked up” to my mum, she really fought hard for the sport of Strongwoman in Australia and put in the hard yards to argue for equal playing grounds. She used the sport to help her through her own battles and ensured everyone felt welcomed into the sport. She was known for encouraging females to find their strength and that is a legacy I want to carry on for her. 

What does your training and diet look like today?

COVID has restricted a lot of event specific training for me at the moment, but I train 3 times per week with implements around the house and garden to ensure I am keeping active. 

I try to have a balanced diet even when not competing, I find eating nutritious food provides more energy and aids a lot with recovery. I ensure I meet my protein target to help maintain my muscle mass. I do however LOVEEEE chocolate, so I don’t say no to a block most nights haha. 

What advice do you have for young women who want to get into the a sport?

Just jump in and try it, you will be surrounded by like minded females who will provide an empowering environment, plus how cool is it to say you can pull trucks and deadlift cars?? 

Kerryn Taylor

What interested you in the world of strength training?

I really loved learning the technique behind lifting. As an overthinker this was really mentally stimulating and gave me something I could put my thoughts into. I loved the challenge of every training session and always felt better afterwards. It made me feel so good to see the weights going up and knowing that I was in fact getting stronger. I also kind of liked telling people I lifted weights! Haha!

Tell us about your journey.

I began training with a Personal Trainer in 2013 because I wanted a bikini body. I think for some reason I thought that’s what I needed and that would make me happy. That would make me feel normal. And accepted by the world. I have always been a bit different and I felt like no one really saw me. I thought if I changed the way I looked then my life would have more purpose. When I first started out it took me the better part of three years to actually lose and maintain any kind of weight loss because I realised it was the way I viewed myself, not purely the fact I wasn’t exercising that I wasn’t changing. I thought working out was going to fix all my problems and it wasn’t until I accepted that there were other things in my life that I needed to change that I started to really enjoy training. That’s when I started to really love the process and started to love my body and appreciate it.

Did you face any adversity?

Oh yeah! All the time! From males and females. The men I have met within the gyms I’ve trained at have always been really supportive but I faced a lot of challenges from friends and family who didn’t understand the changes I was making in my life.

Who do you look up to?

I have always looked up to my Grandmother. That woman is made of steel! She was the most consistent female in my life and any goodness I have in me, came from her. She was married to my Grandfather for sixty years and was very dedicated in everything she set her mind to. She is stern but soft and I always loved that about her. 

What does your training and diet look like today?

Most days I eat eggs of toast for breakfast, tuna/chicken with veggies and pasta for lunch and either a stir fry or beef salad for dinner. I’m not as strict with my diet these days but that’s a general day! Being South African I love char grilled meat and veggies! Yumm!

I train four days a week at the moment. I used to train five but I work as a Personal Trainer now and work is very busy so I had to drop back.

What advice do you have for young women who want to get into the a sport?

Just start. Give it a go. What have you got to lose? Find a coach in your area and just give it a crack! Stepping out of the car when you get to the gym is the next step 😉

Mariko Whyte

What interested you in the world of strength training?

I didn’t know many women who lifted heavy weights and found it intriguing. I also didn’t know much about strength sports, so I delved into a journey to learn as much as I could, as I had started studying to become a personal trainer.  

Tell us about your journey.

I started out as a cardio bunny growing up in Warburton, then further pursued strength training as I signed up for a bodybuilding competition in my mid 20s, in hopes to learn as much as I could to become a personal trainer. In the process I developed severe body dysmorphia and bulimia nervosa tendencies which lead me to a very depressed and low self-esteem state of mind. I then discovered the world of strength sports and pursued powerlifting which led me to strongman sport. Since then I’ve never looked back! 

Did you face any adversity?

The main adversity I faced as a woman was receiving comments on my body’s appearance, feeling sexualized from gaining muscle. 

Who do you look up to?

I look up to the strongwomen and men in my life whom forever inspire me, from my friends and family. My parents are a big inspiration to me, which inspires me each day. Cathy Freeman was also a big inspiration growing up as a woman striving to hit gold.  

What does your training and diet look like today?

I train 4 times a week with 3 rest days where I focus on fully resting. 

I fuel my body with a variety of foods to help with recovery, enjoyment and performance. 

Breakfasts change from eggs, avo on toast to protein oats using Dymatize ISO100. I love adding in a slice of peanut butter, honey toast with slices of banana as a morning snack or pre workout. 

Lunch time is always different, it varies from dinners the night before which mostly consist of a balanced meal of proteins, carbs and fats. 

Dinners again are different. I love having a bigger meal like thai green curry with chicken or tofu, beef str-fry. I always love to add in color foods to feed my gut health. I eat large portion sizes to fuel my body and movement and I listen to my body when I’m hungry or need that extra energy to recover. Don’t be afraid of food. 

What advice do you have for young women who want to get into the a sport?

Remember everyone had to start somewhere, you just need to take the first step. I recommend looking up a strongman coach in your local area to book in a consult and chat about your goals. Work with them to plan a training routine that fits your needs. 

Fitness isn’t about looking a certain way, it’s about enjoying movement, respecting your body and having fun! There is always a place for you, in any community or sport, you just have to find your people. 

Step out of the box that is expected of you as a young woman. 

Alira Verity

What interested you in the world of strength training?

The constant challenge of becoming stronger and refining my technique, there is always something new to learn or a new goal to hit.

Tell us about your journey.

I looked at myself in the mirror one day and was sick and tired of hating myself for how I looked so I decided to do something about it. I joined a Bootcamp then a year after that I joined CrossFit and then into strongman and I haven’t looked back.

Did you face any adversity?

A few people doubted me and tried for me to doubt myself because I was making positive changes in myself which intern made them feel insecure. It’s just a projection of how they feel about themselves and over the years I’ve learnt to just understand it’s not about me it’s more them and the journey they are one and I wish them well on the journey and hope they can find the confidence to want to better themselves. 

Who did you look up to? 

My grandmother as I saw her as a really strong, independent person who made me feel so loved. 

What does your training and diet look like today? 

I train 4 – 5 days a week atm, I eat 3-4 main meals a day that consists of a carb protein and fats! I like to have well rounded meals 

What advice do you have for young women who want to get into the a sport?

Just jump in and give it a go, find something that lights your heart on fire and chance that no matter what anyone says, grow into being nothing but who you are, that’s your gift to the world.

You can watch Strong Women now on ABC iView.

By Nikolina Ilic

Nikolina is the new web-obsessed Digital Editor at Men's and Women's Health, responsible for all things social media and .com. A lover of boxing, she has a mean punch inside and out of the ring. She was previously a Digital Editor at GQ and Vogue magazine.

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