Recently, I viewed an Adidas Instagram commercial focused on girls in sports. I regrettably entered the comment section, to which I read some terrifyingly sexist statements such as, “I’m all for women’s sports as long as their kitchens are big enough for a soccer field,” and “the only thing holding back females from being competitive are their brains.”
I knew that I shouldn’t have been bothered by such pathetic words, but it saddened me that the majority of the comments were like that. Weeks passed and I quickly forgot about the common issue until I got the idea to see what actual extremely physically (and mentally strong) female athletes had to say about the topic. I chose to research women that had a diversified background regarding sports and their strength abilities. Then I messaged them on Instagram a series of survey questions about the overall topic of strong women.
Women from NBC’s new show “The Titan Games,” hosted by Dwayne Johnson and women in the sports of CrossFit and pole fitness, talked about their personal fitness journeys as well. Despite each of them reaching prominent success, most of them mentioned the barriers that they had to face, and the highs and lows of staying in top shape.
Emily Hu was on “The Titan Games,” a show that features the strongest women and men. Only 64 men and women were chosen out of the 10,000 plus submissions. Before this experience she was a failed child gymnast who had to quit the sport due to her lack of upper body strength. Hu went on to try martial arts, which also led to little triumph. It wasn’t until she reached her upper 20s when things started to change.
“When I was 28, I finally wanted to learn how to be strong, so I hired a personal trainer to teach me how to lift and eventually learned how to deadlift from him,” Hu said. “At the age of 30, I decided I wanted to try powerlifting and have been competing in the sport since.” Although Hu did not make it all the way to be crowned a “Titan,” she still holds the all-time world record for the 114 and 123 weight class bench press.
Nika Sedghi also experienced being a part of the “Titan Games.” She said the toughest part of her fitness career was getting diagnosed with the heart condition Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT). This means she has a faster than normal heart rate that occurs above the heart’s two lower chambers.
“There was about forty days where I was not able to work out and I gained all of my weight and I emotionally ate “ Sedghi said. “It was the worst thing being in a hospital bed being told that I couldn’t work out, so getting over that was the most challenging thing easily.” This did not stop Sedghi from succeeding on “The Titan Games” and in other aspects of maintaining extreme strength. Today, she continues to motivate people to live a healthier lifestyle. Sedghi said that if anyone had any questions for her that they could message her at @neeks93. She will be sure to get back to all (just mention where you heard of her).
Julie Dudley is a top CrossFit athlete and was on “The Titan Games.” Dudley proves that age is nothing but a number (she’s 51), and that gender does not have to define how strong you are. She said that she has always been active, but it was when she got into CrossFit about seven years ago where she found the most well-rounded workout for her. Due to her occupation of being a firefighter, she works hard to be as “strong as possible” because at the end of the day “it is the same job whether you are a man or a woman.”
Steph Mireles, like Hu, also grew up in the sport of gymnastics. Due to injuries, she decided to just compete on a club team in college. Still, after years of intense workouts, she wondered how she would stay in shape after college. She didn’t like the traditional group fitness classes, nor did she like the environment surrounding gyms. She became hooked on CrossFit the summer before senior year when her mom finally convinced her to try the sport. She began to practice many times a week, but still didn’t care for the weightlifting aspect. Later, she moved to Doha, Qatar for a teaching job. She became even more passionate for crossfit and began practicing with her coach who became her husband Rob. He had been instructing her so that she could compete locally. After much perseverance, she became a full-time CrossFit coach and athlete. “Since then I’ve qualified for three Regional competitions and made my rookie appearance at the CrossFit Games in 2018,” Mireles said.
Aneta Tucker found her calling in CrossFit eight years ago as well. After just six months in the sport, she started coaching and even entered in a few competitions. “It took me three years of setbacks and graft before I made it to CrossFit Games Regionals (in 2016) and then was fortunate enough to make it back three years in a row.” She and her husband also have recently opened a gym called CrossFit Nidus.
I discovered Fla Guelfi on an Instagram page titled, fitstronggirls, which has over 101,000 followers. She is also passionate for CrossFit and trains six times a week. She says that “diet really helps” to maintain top strength, but that it is ok to eat junk food once in a while.
Maud Rietbroek is one of the world’s top athletes in pole fitness. She makes it clear that pole fitness and pole dance are two different things. “It annoys me that the sensual vibe is still associated with polesporting women. I think there should be a clear border between polesport and pole dance, because it is completely different. It is a pity that men, as well as women often view the women that perform the sport as an object of desire instead of a hard working athlete.”
Rietbroek is certainly ambitious. Nine years ago she began competing in national and international partner acrobatics. She studied pre-education in dance as well as the circus at Codarts Rotterdam, which is a university for the arts. Three-and-a-half years ago she started pole fitness, and right off the back she realized that she wanted to participate in the national championships of Pole Fitness Extreme. This is exactly what she did. She won the national championships for Pole Fitness Extreme in 2016, 2017 and 2018. In 2017 she also became third in the duo category.
“Last year I participated in the national ipsf pole championships. I won the category artistic pole senior women elite and reached the finals in the category pole sports senior women elite,” Rietbroek said. “With this first place in artistic pole, I qualified for the ipsf world championships in Spain, which I won with a new world record! My dreams finally came true! Now I am training for nationals in 2019 and will try to qualify for worlds again.”
Two years ago she also became a pole instructor, which is a very diverse job. She teaches anyone from young kids to older adults (although she loves teaching kids the most). Her goals for the years to come is to continue to challenge herself and her students in a positive way.
Common Stereotypes That These Athletes Want to Disprove
Although generally these women are immersed in a culture that sees males and females as equal, it is impossible to escape sexism. Aneta Tucker said, “I have had a few comments in the past saying that I just need a penis and I will be a complete man due to my masculine physique, which makes me laugh and tells me more about the ego and insecurity of the person that made the comment than anything else.”
Women have also asked Tucker how to avoid getting “bulky,” to which she says, “I always assure them that to get to this stage requires a lot of work and discipline and doesn’t just happen by lifting a few weights.”
All of them shared a mutual annoyance for the generalization that women can’t be strong. Sedghi talked about how she loves being strong, but that she also doesn’t mind having a man help her with things. She is satisfied with knowing that she doesn’t need help with tasks such as lifting, and she hopes that all women can take pride in being independent. Hu echoed on the importance of being independent. She can’t stand it when people tell women that their worth only comes from finding a spouse and having children.
Rietbroek agreed that the average man is stronger than the average female, but that it annoys her when “women accept this, while they actually don’t want to, and act very dependently. I think girls should always try as hard as they can, with sports as well as in daily life.” She is hopeful that sexism will die down one day and that the world will come to see women as strong physically and mentally. She wishes that everyone would say what they stand for, no matter their sex, and that equality would find its way to every crevice on Earth.
Mireles talked about how she hates all stereotypes and said, “Each person has individual strengths, preferences, and passions and, therefore, should be free to pursue whatever inspires him or her, regardless of gender.”
Are Strong Women Feminine Enough?
So many men and women attack girls for being too strong and not ladylike. Is strength not a feminine quality? Is it bad not to have feminine qualities, or is it just another stereotype?
Every single one of these girls said that yes, strong women are feminine enough. Mireles even said, “Firstly, strength IS feminine - women are designed to withstand and endure pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing, all of which are incredibly physically demanding! Training is simply a way of maximizing and expressing that innate female strength.” She went onto to talk about the importance of mental strength and that those who think that this is an undesirable trait for women are really just “scared of how powerful a strong-minded woman can be.”
Tucker addressed this question by saying, “What is feminine anyway?...We have muscles for purpose and masculine physique is testament of hard work, discipline and dedication. Something to be very proud of. And extremely useful in real life situations! Also being strong doesn’t stop me from painting my nails, wearing makeup and pretty clothes.... if that’s what people consider feminine.”
Sedghi rebutted haters when she said, “When guys call me manly, I tell them that they would start looking pretty manly too if they would start to lift some weights.” She tells girls and boys to not care about anyone else’s opinion and that if they want to look and feel a certain way, then that is absolutely fine. Sedghi was not the only one to addressed backlash. Fla Guelfi confidently said, “They (people who think that women can’t be strong) are afraid of our freedom to be what we want to be. If I can and want to be strong, I will!”
How to Start Your Fitness Journey
Hu encourages women to start their journey at any point. “It’s never too late to get stronger or in better shape! I couldn’t do a pull-up until my late 20s and it wasn’t for lack of not trying. Strength can be taught - you just have to work hard and keep at it,” said Hu. The theme of perceiving was a common one for these athletes. They will admit that nothing comes quick so it is a waste of time to Google search “How to get in better shape in a day.” These women have been through weight gain, loss of muscle, and strength. Through hard work though, these low points have been made possible to overcome, and they want to inspire others to do the same.
Sedghi pushes herself and others to improve every day by 1%. Although that may not seem like a lot, in a year you will have improved by 365%, proving that patience is a virtue, but victory is not impossible. Anita Tucker emphasized that becoming physically fit is a long term goal. “I always say to people that my aim is to make them fit enough to be able to do this when they’re 70, 80, 90 (years old). To do this you must never skip the basics.”
Dudley encourages people to never give up. “If you want something bad enough, you can get it.” She also mentioned to do something that is enjoyable and not a tortuous, dreaded experience. Exercise can be many things, so she advises people to be creative with how they workout and eat healthier. “We all have to start somewhere,” she said, “but always challenge yourself and set realistic goals.”
The beginning is almost always the most daunting part of a fitness journey. Mireles comforts those by giving them some advice on how to stay motivated. Like Dudley, she addresses that it is essential to find something that strikes your passion and that with finding your passion, it is much easier to create healthy habits. “Once you make a habit of going to the gym, you’ll start to wonder how you ever got along without that daily hit of endorphins.”
Not only will you have yourself to battle when deciding to live a healthier lifestyle, but you will have others who taunt you for trying too. Buelfi said, “Learning; learning is the key. If you know your body, what you eat, and what is good for you, you don’t let others or the industry fool you.” Buelfi struggled with discovering what sport and meal plan was best for her, but eventually her love for CrossFit came to be.
Sedghi touched on the importance of a healthy diet as well. She inspires people to eat healthy through her website neeks93.com and with her book, which explains how she hopes people will start eating, “ which is less processed foods and more Whole Foods.” She says that cleaning up your diet is the most important thing in striving or maintaining a strong and healthy lifestyle.
If there’s one takeaway from my journey in writing this article it is that among the negativity and hateful comments, there is hope. Women for centuries have been banned from sports, but athletes have fought hard to change that seemingly unchangeable fate. The evolution of women’s sports spans from the controversial croquet league for females in 1864 to women vying for equal rights in all athletics. The fight is far from over, but if women have conquered the barriers of the past, I do believe that a few pathetic comments will not stop the movement.
Photos submitted by athletes