Back in the 19th century, a burgeoning interest in what was called “physical culture” merged with a fascination with human bodies that lay outside the norm and gave birth to what is now known as the “strongman.” Strongmen made a living performing feats of strength for the benefit of an audience, usually in the context of a circus or a vaudeville show. The old-time strongman is fairly well known today, but his female counterpart, the strongwoman, is a little more obscure. They also specialized in outrageous strength athletics, such as lifting platforms laden with full grown men or lifting 300-pound dumbbells over their heads.
Strongwomen are still flexing their stuff today, albeit in a variety of different ways. You have CrossFitters, powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and, yes, actual strongwomen, who compete in an annual contest that has been known variously as Strongwoman World Championships, World’s Strongest Lady and United Strongmen Women’s World Championships. Each sport is different in its own way – and I think that some would actually take issue with the way I’ve chosen to categorizing such diverse pursuits under the umbrella of “strongwomen” – but they all have something in common, which is that all of them are redefining what it means to have a strong, powerful female body.
Almost all of the elite CrossFitters deserve to be recognized for their impressive physical abilities, but none of them have done what Annie Thorisdottir has done, which is win the CrossFit Games two years in a row. If you’ve ever seen the CrossFit Games, you’ve watched the 22-year-old Icelander totally dominate all of the workouts set before her.
Thorisdottir, whose name appropriately enough translates to “Thor’s daughter,” was trained as a competitive gymnast and pole vaulter, which goes a ways to explain how she has the kind of physical control necessary to master the kind of bodyweight exercises that comprise a lot of the CrossFit workouts, like handstand push-ups. Plus, she’s very strong and buff as hell. She can deadlift 352 pounds, back-squat 231 pounds and clean-and-jerk 176 pounds.
But she’s also a natural endurance athlete, as evidenced by her decision to sign up for a 34-mile off-road ultramarathon the weekend after her first CrossFit Games. She ended up placing 28th out of 75 women with a time of 7:14, despite never having trained specifically as a runner.
Jill Mills should be way more well-known than she currently is. Mills was undefeated during her eight-year career as a powerlifter, and she won the World’s Strongest Woman contest two years in a row. She got started as a strongwoman in 1997, making her one of the first women to compete in such contests. In all she has won over 50 titles in her career as professional strong-as-fuck lady, and that’s not even including her accomplishments as a bodybuilder.
I found an interview she did with Viking Strength where she mentions her best lifts, which are so big my brain can barely even fathom them. She once squatted 651 lbs, deadlifted 391 lbs and benched 562 lbs. I seriously don’t even know how to process that. She’s deadlifted cars, for crying out loud. Look at her!
Mills has two kids, and in an interview she did with fitness pro Cassandra Forsythe, she said she squatted until the day she gave birth. (This interview is excellent reading for someone like me, who wants to have kids but hates the idea of having my physical activity come to a screeching, cramping halt.) She stepped back from the sport for a few years, but at the age of 40, she’s back to powerlifting.
Holley Mangold doesn’t hold any records in Olympic weightlifting. She didn’t earn a medal in the 2012 London Olympics. I’m sure that people with more thorough knowledge of Olympic weightlifting would castigate me for choosing her over, say, China’s Zhou Lulu, who actually holds the world record in oly lifting for her class. Totally fair. But I think Mangold deserves some serious props for a lot of reasons, not least of all that she lifted a combined total of 255 kg (562.2 pounds) and placed tenth at the London Olympics, and, oh yeah, she did it with a torn tendon in her wrist.
Mangold’s physical abilities have been grabbing attention since she was in grade school. She started playing football when she was eight years old, and as she grew up, she had the size and strength to keep playing with them, all the way through high school. In fact, when she was in high school, she played football – as a linebacker. She was the first girl in Ohio history to play football on a boy’s high school team as something other than a kicker.
Alas, girls who play football in high school usually don’t have many options in college, so Mangold changed over to weight lifting. She’d been good at it while on the football team, and she considered doing competitive powerlifting, but when oly lifting became an Olympic sport, she decided to do that instead. Not too shabby for the lady who has been known as “the Big Girl” for most of her life.
Say the words “Highland Games” and those who recognize what that means are likely to think of burly men in kilts heaving huge logs end over end down a grassy field. But it’s due to the efforts of Shannon Hartnett that the sport has opened up to women and become more egalitarian in recent years. There was a time when women were barred from competing in most of the events, and some of the events they could compete in were cheesy chauvinistic goofs, like the rolling pin toss and the frying pan toss.
Hartnett, a former heptathlete turned hammer thrower, wasn’t satisfied with that, so she decided that she’d just qualify for the men’s divisions and compete that way. Well, the following year, they finally started establishing a women’s division. “Not necessarily to be chauvinists, but more so to save the shirts of the guys who weren’t doing as well as I was,” she said in an interview. Since then, she’s won 28 titles in Scottish Highland Games at both the national and world level.
Hartnett doesn’t just throw heavy things really far; she’s a consummate athlete. She has also been a powerlifter, a whitewater rafting guide, a semi-professional football player and an All-American softball player. Oh, and somehow she also found time to earn degrees in marine biology, exercise physiology and sports psychology, to work as an animal rights activist and to operate a gym. You know, in her spare time.
There’s a video on YouTube of powerlifter Becca Swanson as she performs some of the heaviest squats ever by a woman. In it, she squats 843 pounds, which is so heavy that she requires the assistance of six men to steady the weights as she lifts them off the squat rack. And sure enough, she completes the squat. But that isn’t the most insane part of the video. No, the most insane part is that this is not even her record. Her record is 854 pounds for the squat, which makes her the only woman to ever squat over 800 pounds. She’s also the only woman to ever bench over 600 pounds. When people call her the “strongest woman in the world,” they mean it.
Swanson started her athletic career as a bodybuilder, but she says she left the sport after women with big, highly developed physiques fell out of favor on the competitive bodybuilding circuit. After she set her records in powerlifting in the mid 2000s, she took up new challenges in professional wrestling and mixed martial arts. She’s another brainiac, as well, with a degree in mechanical engineering.
- Previously: The Pioneers