Women take on Strongman challenges at Stoughton Viking Games

May 20, 2018

The sport of weightlifting has long been dominated by men, but the women competing in the Viking Games at the Syttende Mai festival in Stoughton on Saturday showed their strength while lifting rocks that weigh more than the average adult man.

The Viking Games, a regional competition sanctioned by the international sporting organization Strongman, challenged competitors to lift weights, move stones and even pull a truck to beat their own personal records and earn the chance to compete at Strongman nationals. The weightlifting competition drew dozens of competitors, many of them women.

It’s still an activity dominated by men, Strongman Pro and competition judge Rebecca Roberts said, but there has been an increase in women strength training.

Roberts said she has never fit in with the popular conception of weightlifters — beefy and aggressive — and no one has to, if they don’t want to.

Weightlifters can be whoever they want to be and look however they want while still being able to lift rocks that weigh more than the average adult man.

When Roberts heads out to competitions, she still puts on her makeup and clips a flower in her hair.

Other female competitors also scoff at the idea that a woman competing in a weight-lifting competition has to look a certain way.

“This morning I curled my hair, I put my makeup on, and I’m ready to pick up some dusty stones and lift heavy things,” said Ashley Taylor, 23, a former body-builder.

Those dusty stones are one of the signature aspects of Strongman competitions. The event is called Atlas stones, named after the Greek mythological figure forced to hold up the Earth. In it, competitors have to lift concrete balls of varying weights onto a stack of tires.

Other challenges include flipping over giant tires, carrying weighted jugs, dead-lifting weights and pulling a truck.

The rules for these challenges are clear-cut, Taylor said. You just have to lift the most or complete a challenge in the shortest time.

There are no blurry lines on who the winner is.

In bodybuilding competitions, Taylor said, people would keep to themselves, but that isn’t the atmosphere at Strongman competitions. Although this was her first, she said it felt more like a community.

“I think that the women empower the women, which we need more of, but I feel like the men also respect the women,” Taylor said.

That’s because the women are taking on the same challenges as the men, Roberts said. They all started off as beginners at one point, struggling with the same weights and tasks.

Jimmy Brooks, one of the event’s organizers and owner of Primal Strength and Fitness in Stoughton, was heard shouting through the speaker system as he announced the competitors, riled up the crowd and cheered on the men and women stepping up to the grueling challenges.

To Brooks, anyone can be a Strongman. It doesn’t matter who a person is or where they start from — Brooks wants to encourage anyone who comes to a competition or into his gym and wants to start lifting weights.

At his gym, he said, female and male newcomers are treated just the same.

“I set up a culture that’s not intimidating to women,” Brooks said.

Becca Abrahams said strength training has helped her combat an eating disorder.

Ten years ago, Abrahams said, she was trying to lose weight but fell into unhealthy patterns. She did intense cardio workouts for four hours a day while eating very little.

When she realized the danger she was putting her body in, she stopped and started lifting instead.

“This is the only thing in my entire life that has helped me,” Abrahams said, adding that lifting has changed her perception about her body.

Exercise for women has always seemed to be about becoming smaller, Abrahams said. Magazines and television shows focus on dropping a few pounds or toning up abs.

When she joined the weightlifting community, it wasn’t about that. She said Strongman allows and encourages women to take up space.

It doesn’t matter what your body looks like, she said. It matters that you’re using it to your full potential.

“My daughter is definitely at the center of my coaching, saying ‘Be more, not less,’ ” Abrahams said.

Abrahams’ daughter Kaila, 17, also competed in the contest. She’s always been athletic — she swam and is on the Edgerton High School track and field team — but she wasn’t very confident in herself.

Wherever she went, she said, she was the “really, super shy kid.”

Strongman competitions gave her an outlet to meet other people with similar goals, Kaila said. But that isn’t why she started training in the first place.

She just saw it as a way to get more quality time with her mom, who’s a single mother of five.

“I kind of wanted to spend more time with my mom,” Kaila said.

“This morning I curled my hair, I put my makeup on, and I’m ready to pick up some dusty stones and lift heavy things.” Ashley Taylor, 23, Fitchburg