What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I was a scrawny, lanky kid, all knees and elbows and scrunchies -- the sort of girl who climbed trees in her princess dresses and beat the boys in footraces.
We moved a lot when I was growing up, so even though I loved to run I never really had the chance to get established with the track team at any of my schools. Besides, my chicken legs and crooked knees didn’t look like they’d be of much use on the track or field.
I was a bookish introvert who didn’t (and still doesn’t) like to be told what to do. While I participated in plenty of organized sports besides running -- such as soccer, diving, tennis and swimming -- nothing really stuck long-term.
I kept running on into my 20s though, and while I wasn’t the fastest, I was pretty light on my feet and posted decent times at races. My fitness regimen as an adult involved running three to five miles a few days a week with regular yoga, Pilates and other group fitness classes.
In 2010, after practicing yoga for five years, I became an instructor and taught classes in the evenings and on weekends. The following year, while training for a half-marathon, I made the mistake of ramping up my mileage too quickly and ended up with painful stress fractures in both of my lower legs.
My Pilates instructor and a running coach both recommended I look into weight training as a way to strengthen my bones, prevent future injury and aid in recovery.
I was skeptical, but with running out of the picture for the foreseeable future, I relented. I ordered “The New Rules of Lifting for Women” and started strength training in my home with a few adjustable dumbbells and a handful of mismatched weight plates I picked up on Craigslist. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was determined to figure it out.
I started getting stronger right away and soon noticed a bit of muscle definition I’d never seen before. Pretty quickly I’d maxed out what I could do at home with the equipment I’d gathered. I decided I should probably consult with people who knew what they were doing when it came to strength training.
I’d heard a lot about crossfit and as there was a crossfit-affiliated gym in my town, I ventured out to one of their classes one evening to see what all the fuss was about. In spite of face-planting in the grass during my first crossfit class, I loved the intensity and the way everyone seemed to push each other to go a little bit faster, try a little bit harder and give it everything you had. Soon enough, I was a bona fide member of the crossfit gym and started teaching yoga classes to their membership each week.
Within a few months, I’d gained several pounds of much-needed muscle. I could do pull-ups, squat more than I weighed, and I could run without pain again. Although I’d reached my goal of healing my legs, I was hooked on getting stronger. When the gym owners announced that a powerlifting competition was to be held at an “iron gym” in a nearby city, I immediately signed up… and then I had to look up powerlifting as I wasn’t entirely sure what it was or how one competed in it.
As far as sports go, powerlifting is not all that complicated. You compete in three exercises -- back squat, bench press and deadlift -- and you get three tries to lift as much as weight as you can, according to the rules, in each of those three exercises.
The competitors are divided into weight classes, which I liked as I knew I could probably never lift as much weight as more naturally muscular women, and everyone has to wear a singlet. No one, I mean, NO ONE, looks sexy in a singlet. But, hey, if we all have to wear one, then we’re all in the same boat of ugly.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, but I was determined to give a good showing and put my all into preparing for the meet.
I’d never been to the gym where the competition was held, or any gym like it. Imagine pulling up to a farm on a cold winter morning and you're dressed in what looks like a thin 1910s bathing suit, knee socks and a sweat suit.
You step into a barn crowded with gigantic, heavily-muscled men and women of all shapes and sizes. It's like a scene out of "Pumping Iron," but with less Arnold. Despite the decidedly different environment, the gym owners and my fellow competitors immediately made me feel welcome and helped me get settled.
I’d never worn a weight belt or lifted on command before, but I went with the flow and astounded myself by lifting far more weight than I ever had before. I still consider it to be my best competition of all time, even though I was certainly the least experienced lifter at the meet, and I’ve added hundreds of pounds to my lifts since then.
The owners of the iron gym and their female members took me under their incredibly strong, sculpted wings and invited me to compete at a strongman/strongwoman competition a month later.
When it comes to competing in strongman/strongwoman events, you have to be prepared for anything as the competition is not limited to the “big three” lifts and you are often driven to the very limits of your capabilities and endurance.
Once again I pushed myself to perform and surprised myself with the results: deadlifting 165 pounds for 20 repetitions, overhead pressing a 45-pound dumbbell with one hand as many times as possible in one minute, and posting one of the fastest completion times for one of the competitions.
The timed competition consisted of pushing a sled loaded up with 100 pounds of weights, repeatedly flipping a tire twice as heavy as I was, and dragging a weighted sled uphill as quickly as possible. By that point, I was officially hooked on competing in strength sports, a passion which I continue to pursue to this day -- though with a little less frequency and a whole lot more planning.
That’s not to say all of my experiences training for and competing in strength sports have been rosy and bright. I’ve had meets that left me in tears, training sessions when I could barely move what should have been easy weight, embarrassments aplenty, ripped callouses, awkward bruises, and arguments with men who would rather women keep to the kitchen and out of the gym. But through it all I’ve learned that the only thing to do is to keep going, to persevere and forge ahead. I’ve learned to break goals down into manageable steps, which, in turn, has helped me further my career in finance and assist my husband in opening his restaurant.
I’ve also met some truly incredible people with whom I’ve bonded over shared aches and pains, frustrations and triumphs, plateaus and personal records. The women I’ve met through lifting and strength sports are absolutely unparalleled.
Every woman I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know cheers for her fellow female lifter. Every. Woman. Even though we’re often competing against each other and might not be friends outside of the gym, we always encourage each other to do our best, to lift more, to fight through a particularly challenging lift or event, to dig deep and let out a war cry and give it everything thing we have.
I’m convinced that there’s nothing more powerful than a group of strong, supportive women focused on achieving a goal together.
It’s easy to get lost in the numbers, the weight on the bar, the pursuit of trophies and championships, but lifting (for me and for many others) is so much more than that. It’s not just a physical pursuit, but a mental one as well. If you don’t believe you can make the lift, if you question your capabilities, chances are good that you won’t get it done. Just as in life, you must push yourself beyond your preconceived limits to do more than you ever thought you could, and to be more than you ever thought you could be.
Sometimes you know it’s in you, sometimes you have to fake it, but either way you just have to take a chance and do it. When you fail -- and you will, believe me, I’ve fallen flat on my face in competition more than once -- you have to keep right on going until the deed is done.
Getting strong did more than put muscle on my scrawny frame -- it’s shown me what I can do. It's shown me that I’m far more capable than I ever could have guessed, and now I’m curious to see just how far I can go, not just in the gym, but in this one shot I have at life.