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composite of women from the book Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Female Athletes

A few years ago, I decided to compete in a bodybuilding show. I trained for the physical aspects, yes — seeing how I could transform my body with consistent effort fascinated me. But I took it up for the mental challenge, too. I’m happiest when I’m seeing how far I can push the boundaries of my mind.

I learned a lot through the experience, about discipline, consistency, and what one ounce of almonds looks like. I also learned that even today, people have certain ideas about how women should look, and when you step outside those bounds — particularly on purpose — it invites commentary.

It surprised me, although maybe it shouldn’t have. I’d started lifting weights about two years before, and I distinctly remember walking into my gym the first day and seeing a woman with broad shoulders. She was very strong and very nice, and I was very sure I never wanted to look like her. It wasn’t until I realized how powerful I felt slinging around a barbell that I began to let go of my preconceived ideas about my body’s appearance.

I started to wonder where my aversion to visible muscularity had come from. Even though I’d played plenty of sports, when I walked into a weight room, I initially underestimated what I was capable of. Why was that? And why did people warn me about how I was bound to hurt myself instead of encouraging me to test my limits?

I started to wonder where my aversion to visible muscularity had come from. Even though I’d played plenty of sports, when I walked into a weight room, I initially underestimated what I was capable of. Why was that?

I turned to one of my favorite places, the library, to answer these questions. But when I tried to read more about women and strength training throughout history, I came up mostly empty. Women were mentioned here and there, but the pages were dominated by men. I knew that couldn’t be the whole story.

And so I set out to write about the women I knew had been kicking butt since the beginning of time, grappling with the issues surrounding strength long before I ever learned to front squat. What I didn’t know was just how profound their contributions had been in ways that go beyond sports record books: Physically strong women have been on the forefront of issues from suffrage to body autonomy to equality in the workplace.

I discovered that as a woman’s belief in her physical prowess grows, it does more than improve how much she can achieve athletically — it also elevates her overall well-being, including her emotional, social, and economic health. No longer is her body an object to be judged; it’s a vessel to be cultivated, and celebrated.

Maggi Thorne

American Ninja Warrior Competitor

Born 1981   |   Hometown San Diego

Maggi Thorne

What She’s Known For:
Thorne was a collegiate track star before competing in seven seasons of American Ninja Warrior. She also appeared on Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge.

On Strength:
“I always knew I had the fire to try things and to not sell myself short. I had to be willing to climb mountains when I had no idea what was ahead. There’s that physical strength that everybody can see, but when you can find your inner strength and own it and celebrate it, that is when you’re going to come alive.”

Robin Arzón

 1981   |   Hometown Philadelphia

What She’s Known For: Arzón is an ultramarathon runner and the best-selling author of Shut Up and Run. She is also the vice president of fitness programming for Peloton. While in law school, she picked up a pair of running shoes and ran her first mile at the age of 23 — a way, she believes, of processing the pain that lingered from a traumatic event in college when she was held hostage (and used as a human shield) by a gunman.

On Strength: “It was through running where I really discovered my ability to transform and tell my own story. The inner confidence that comes from enduring a tough run is the most valuable thing that I’ve discovered…. For me, strength is that inner knowing that I can always choose to get up again.”

Robin Arzon

Alicia Archer

Flexibility Enthusiast
 1985   |   Hometown The Bronx

Alicia Archer

What She’s Known For: Archer is a graduate of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a practitioner of circus arts. She is now a fitness instructor in New York City specializing in strength training and flexibility.

On Strength: “There’s so much misinformation and misconception in the fitness industry right now about having to punish your body in order to get great results. I want to help people understand that function is far more important than aesthetics… . The body is incredible when you give it a chance to learn something new.”

Jaimie Monahan

Endurance and Ice Swimmer
1979   |   Hometown Ossining, N.Y.

What She’s Known For:
Monahan is a seven-time U.S. national champion in winter swimming. In 2018, she swam six marathons on six continents in 16 days, a Guinness World Record. And she is the first person to complete the Ice Sevens Challenge — one mile on each continent in sub-41-degree water. She particularly enjoys swims that last more than 24 hours.

On Strength:
“Facing these physical challenges is great because I can say, ‘Hey, I’ve already swum in ice water this week.’ Anything that work comes to me with or situations I have to solve, I feel pretty confident I can take whatever’s coming to me.”

Jaimie Monahan

Jen Widerstrom

Fitness Trainer
Born 1982   |   Hometown Downers Grove, Ill.

Jen Widerstrom

What She’s Known For: Widerstrom’s big break was on American Gladiators. After the show was canceled, she felt adrift and started to work as a trainer to pay her bills, which eventually led to a career as a celebrity trainer.

On Strength: “What was fascinating to me was so much more than people’s results. I could see movement affecting the way they felt about themselves: making better eye contact, walking a little taller, choosing a brighter shirt to train in. That’s where I started to really fall in love with using this vehicle of fitness, of movement, to have deeper conversations, facilitate deeper transformations, and foster a deeper connection with people to help them find themselves again, or perhaps for the first time. There’s nothing stronger than standing in who you are and doing it on purpose. The whole world will change around you.”

Copyright © 2020 by Haley Shapley. Photographs © Sophy Holland. From the book Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Female Athletes by Haley Shapley published by Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster LLC. Printed by permission.

Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is a Seattle-based journalist and exercise enthusiast.

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