Participating in Strongman competitions has helped some women overcome difficult backgrounds
NORRISTOWN, Pa. — On a cool summer evening, Kelly Plush plucked an empty beer keg off the ground and whipped it over her head. And then she threw another. And then another. Each time, she set her feet about three feet apart, squatting behind the 25-pound keg, grabbing it and swinging her arms upward. She heaved the empty barrel into the air and let out a guttural grunt that traveled much farther than the keg.
Above: Kelly Plush tosses thirty pound kegs over a ten foot high bar during the Strongman Mania competition at NEPA Crossfit in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
“That was a solid nine feet,” said Nate Ruhl, her boyfriend and training partner, estimating the height of the airborne metal drum.
“Need 10,” Plush said.
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She had less than a month to get ready. A Strongman competition awaited, which meant she had to spend as much time as possible tossing kegs, lifting heavy stones, toting bags of sand and hoisting massive weights above her head. On other days she might flip giant tires or pull a full-size car. Through it all, she would sweat, cry, bleed — and be grateful for the pain.
“It’s saved my life,” the 30-year-old pre-kindergarten teacher said.
Strongman is a niche sport, populated for years by hulking men built like SUVs attempting daunting feats of strength, both the practical and the peculiar. In recent years, the number of female competitors has exploded, and while each turns to the sport for her own reasons, many women such as Plush have found a renewed sense of self lifting dreadfully heavy objects. They’ve overcome depression, recovered from bad relationships, improved their body image and somehow translated that sense of accomplishment to other facets of their lives.
“Strongman’s really redefining the narrative of what it means to be strong and what it means to be a woman,” said Candace Grand Pre, a 34-year-old heavyweight competitor. “I’ve noticed a lot of changes in how I carry myself, how I own my size and really own what my body can do. Sure, smaller women can do certain things with their bodies, but you know what, I can do things with mine that they can’t do.”
Like Plush, Grand Pre had spent weeks training for a competition scheduled for late July, called Strongman Mania. She’s a geologist by day near her home in Lancaster, Pa. — the only woman at her company with a PhD; also the only Strongman competitor — and toiled away her evenings and weekends at the gym preparing. For Grand Pre and many others, winning the competition would be nice, but most admit that’s not really the goal. They get something else out of the sport, something many have spent a lifetime searching for and still can’t quite put into words.
“Men expect themselves to be strong, so they go out there, compete and they’re just proving themselves right,” said Kim Zimmerman, a world record-holder in lifting Atlas stones — giant cement balls that weigh up to 300 pounds.
“It’s different with women. We’re proving ourselves wrong, doing stuff we never ever thought we could do — doing things that no one ever thought we could do.”
These women can literally throw you in the air
Strength and numbers
Plush’s recent workout continued with Atlas stones, which she yanked into her midsection and then slowly, through clenched teeth, rolled up to her shoulder. It’s a timed event, and she must lift and drop as many as possible. Standing near the parking lot behind a gym, she released a 115-pounder to the ground and noticed a smear of blood on the stone and quickly found a corresponding gash on her collar bone where skin used to live. “Battle wounds,” she calls them.
After making weight for the competition, Kelly Plush treats herself to a beer and a burger while dining out with friends. Plush struggled with eating disorders before finding solace in Strongman competitions. 'I didn’t know who I was,' she said. 'I defined myself by the number on the scale.'
Plush has been involved in the sport for nearly two years, competing as a lightweight. She has battled depression, struggled with eating disorders and spent years obsessing over the way she looks.
“I didn’t like myself, didn’t like who I saw in the mirror,” she said. “A million people could say you’re pretty, you’re this, you’re that. But I saw nothing. It was like looking in the mirror and seeing just a blank outline of a person. And I didn’t even like the outline.”
Plush remembers first having dark thoughts when she was about eight years old, asking herself what would happen if she just didn’t wake up the next morning. Her depression became more pronounced during her teenaged years and she sought treatment throughout high school and college. She felt weighed down by a swirling storm of issues: poor self-esteem, myriad insecurities, obsession with appearance, fear of rejection.
The science is pretty clear on this: Young women, and particularly young female athletes, face many unique challenges and barriers, sometimes aided by sport and other times exacerbated by it. In May, the Women’s Sports Foundation, founded 41 years ago by Billie Jean King, released a third edition of its report Her Life Depends On It. Researchers combed through more than 1,500 scientific studies and found:
• Physical activity helps to significantly decrease anxiety in women, a finding not found in men.
• While boys and girls have similar rates of depression in early childhood, by middle adolescence girls are twice as likely as boys to experience major depression, a gender gap that exists until menopause. For women of all ages, exercise consistently has been shown to relieve depressive symptoms.
• Women are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide as men, but multiple studies have found that women who participate in sports are less likely to consider, plan or attempt suicide.
•Negative body image is associated with eating disorders, depression and poor self-esteem, and this body dissatisfaction in U.S. girls emerges at the age of 6. Sports participation tends to have a positive impact on body image over time.
None of this is surprising to the women who compete in Strongman. Keeley Moffitt is a heavyweight from Connecticut currently training for nationals. She stands a hair under 6-feet and weighs 230 pounds, and sports has provided a haven of sorts. She played rugby and competed in track and field in school.
Still, in college, she said she never felt comfortable with who she was or how she looked. She was scared to be alone and found herself in a relationship that she now says was unhealthy. When she finally parted ways with the boyfriend, she emotionally collapsed.
“I remember shopping with my mom at Kohl’s, sitting in a fitting room crying,” she said, “just thinking, ‘I’m the ugliest person. No one wants to date me. This is my whole life.’ ”
Melissa Sweigart carries a 125-pound sand bag during the women's novice division of the Strongman Mania competition in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Now 25, she has been participating in Strongman for the past two years and has scored three first-place finishes. The effects aren’t just physical; for Moffitt, the gym has prompted a mental and emotional transformation.
“Now I never weigh myself,” she said. “I don’t care anymore. It’s not what I worry about. The only numbers I worry about is what I can lift.”
While a basketball court or softball field might value athletic bodies for many young women, studies find that girls who participate in sports considered “feminine” or “aesthetic” — cheerleading, dance, gymnastics — are more likely to report being ashamed of their bodies than girls who don’t participate in sports.
Nicole DeMicco, 27, competed in her first bodybuilding competition last June. She trimmed her weight to 112 pounds and practiced her poses in a mirror, knowing she would be judged on the way her muscles looked, not what they could do.
“I was starving,” she says. “I didn’t drink any water the day before and had to break up pieces of a rice cake to keep from shaking.”
Almost immediately following the competition, she transitioned to Strongman. Twelve months later, she’s 18 pounds heavier, stronger, happier and said she’s not as self-conscious.
“I don’t have to do squats to worry about how my butt looks,” she said. “I’m squatting because it makes me stronger.”
Kelly Plush, left, and her boyfriend and trainer Nate Ruhl, right, react after Plush sets a personal record of 140 pounds on the axel lift while working out at The Gym and Tan-Line Studio in Eagleville, Pa.
‘My daddy doesn’t do that’
Dione Wessels is the CEO of Strongman Corporation, the sport’s largest governing body in the United States, and estimates there are about 5,000 active strongman competitors in the country and more than a third are women. Wessels got started in the sport as a personal trainer and was always struck by clients who were recently divorced or felt stuck in bad relationships.
“My goal with women in the sport a long time ago was to teach women to be more independent, less dependent on men,” she said. “‘Push yourself to do things you don’t think you can do.’”
Most of the female strongman competitors gravitated toward weightlifting at a relatively older age. In other words, they didn’t grow up trying to tow cars with body harnesses; power and strength weren’t valued when they were younger, at least not for girls.
Plush is a pre-K teacher and not long ago she oversaw a classroom argument. A young boy was telling a girl classmate she could never be Batman or Superman because only boys are strong enough. Plush tried to bite her tongue — “I wanted them to resolve it themselves, but the girl was upset,” she said — and eventually whipped out her iPhone, scrolling through her videos. She showed the kids one from a Strongman competition in which Plush wore a harness and pulled a U-Haul truck filled with furniture 50 feet — 10,000 pounds in all.
“The little boy was like, ‘My daddy doesn’t do that,’ ” she recalls with a laugh.
For Plush, body image long been a perilous subject. Around the age of 10, she recalls a friend commenting on her muscular legs. “Not in a mean way, but if I remember it at 30, it clearly stuck,” she says.
She gained weight her first year in college and was determined to lose it. Food became a luxury and exercise her salve.
“I didn’t know who I was,” she said. “I defined myself by the number on the scale. That number meant everything.”
Strong women toss kegs for sport
She struggled at times with anorexia and exercise bulimia, an eating disorder in which a person might eat or even binge but then feels compelled to exercise at an unhealthy level to burn those added calories. Plush would run five or more miles each morning and another five-plus miles at night. Her dinner might consist of a Slimfast bar and nothing else. She compulsively kept food journals, documenting everything she put in her body. She stood 5-feet-5 and weighed 115 pounds, and her naturally athletic build meant that ribs protruded during summers at the beach and her joints and limbs were all sharp angles.
She graduated from St. Mary’s College in Indiana and enrolled in law school but left after a year. She floated through a couple of years, not certain of her purpose.
A sampling of Strongman events:
Competitors swing empty beer kegs, typically weighing 40 pounds, overhead, trying to clear a bar that's usually set about 10 feet off the ground.
This is a standing overhead press in which the competitor must hoist a heavy "log" (typically made of steel) over his or her head as many times as possible in a set amount of time.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Another timed event in which competitors must lift a trap bar, which a hollow-out portion in the middle for where the lifter stands, off the ground to his or her hips as many times as possible.
Competitors must clutch a bulky sandbag -- usually weighing 150-200 pounds -- and carry it for as far as possible in a given time.
Atlas Stone to Shoulder
Competitors must lift a heavy stone from the ground and position it on their shoulder, dropping it and completing as many reps as possible in a set time.
“I didn’t have anything to look forward to, depend on, no stability in my life,” she said.
And while other parts of her life felt adrift, her weight was one thing Plush always felt control over.
“I kind of hit rock bottom about three or four years ago,” she says. “My boyfriend tried to leave me — why would he do that? I was so delightful — and I flipped out, kicked his car, did all that. I was just sitting there crying hysterically, telling my dad, ‘Just fix me. Please, just fix me. I don’t want to be like this.’ ”
She checked into the Horsham Clinic, a Pennsylvania treatment center that specializes in mental health services. There she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and doctors encouraged her to incorporate more exercise into her treatment.
She became a gym regular, mostly working on cardio. The gym owner invited her to a Sunday workout group, consisting solely of men doing Strongman events. Plush showed up and though she felt out of place, she also got a huge rush from lifting, flipping and pulling large objects. She was hooked. Plush began working with weights and realized that she needed to eat more to increase her workload. “I started defining myself by my accomplishments,” she said.
“Strongman has been the best therapy,” she said. “No medicine, doctors, or support group has ever truly impacted me in the same way that this sport has.”
Plush still has to monitor her weight, but rather than trying to stay as light as possible, she’s now trying to hover around 140 pounds, the limit to compete as a lightweight in Strongman.
She did her first competition last July and now has five under her belt, including a first-place finish at an event called the PA Dutch Strong. The prizes are usually modest, maybe a medal and a giftbag. Plush won a bag of coffee at one competition. “I don’t even drink coffee,” she said.
“The biggest thing is the sense of accomplishment: knowing you just did something that most people aren’t able to do,” she said. “I don’t know, it’s empowering. It makes all the blood, the sweat, the tears, it makes it all worth it.”
While event volunteer Ian McCrae, left, times her, Candace Grand Pre begins the keg toss event during the Strongman Mania competition.
‘What else is possible?’
Four days before the Strongman Mania competition was due to get underway in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Grand Pre, the heavyweight geologist, ended a 12-year relationship. She moved all of her belongings into a third-floor walkup and contemplated bailing on the weekend competition.
“I don’t even know how to be single,” she lamented.
All week she wavered on competing, but finally on a Friday morning, she made the three-hour drive, checked into an area hotel and spent the night visualizing each movement of each discipline of the competition. Suddenly, she felt she needed to be there.
“Something about lifting really heavy weights and doing things you never thought you could translates to other parts of your life,” she said. “If I can pick up this 250-pound stone, what else is possible?”
Plush drove in to Wilkes-Barre, attended the official weigh-in at a CrossFit gym and then went straight to a local restaurant where she ate a huge burger and crab-stuffed pretzel, guilt-free. The next morning she did her makeup and put on an outfit specifically purchased for the day’s competition: neon-yellow shorts, undershirt, headband, even socks.
“I don’t toss that girly part of me to the side just because I’m about to get dirty and sweaty while lifting this crazy stuff,” she said. “For some reason getting myself dolled up makes me feel ready to kick some ass.”
Grand Pre, her short red hair splashed with shades of pink and purple, got off to a terrible start. She let out an angry yelp before tackling the 145-pound log press but failed to hoist the log over her head a single time. The next couple of events weren’t much better. As the emotions from a trying week had caught up to her, Grand Pre snuck off to a corner to shed a few tears and re-compose herself. A last-place finish guaranteed, finishing strong in the day’s final event was the only way to salvage the day.
She went outdoors for the keg toss — heaving 25-pound kegs over a high bar. She seemed to get stronger with each throw, and the kegs, all five of them, cleared the bar without a problem. It was the kind of finish that will fuel Grand Pre through the next several weeks, in and outside the gym.
“I’m ready to get stronger and faster,” she said. “I know I still have a lot of physical and mental growth in me.”
With only one other woman in her weight class, Plush fared better. She carried a 150-pound sandbag a distance 270 feet and lifted a 115-pound stone to her shoulder six times. She won her division and qualified for nationals and then spent the entire ride home dissecting each event, brainstorming ways to keep getting better.
When Plush was younger, she fantasized about the perfect version of herself: a brunette Barbie with a good job and good husband.
“Now I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what perfect would be, but I feel like I have the life that I want.”
Kelly Plush says of her training and competitions, 'Strongman has been the best therapy. No medicine, doctors, or support group has ever truly impacted me in the same way that this sport has.'