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‘You lose yourself in the euphoria’: Athletes with a disability find their place in strength sports

Written by corres2

It’s the noise that hits you first.

The voices and cheers of the competitors and crowd bounce off the high concrete walls. The crash and clatter of metal on metal as weights are lifted and pushed. The high tempo music that pumps out of speakers perched high above the action.

The combination should be jarring, a racket that grates. But, instead, the sound floats out of the open roller door and onto the quiet street like some kind of urban symphony.

It’s a Saturday morning at Strong Geelong and the Battle in the Bay Strongwoman and Strongman competition is underway.

Inside the industrial building that is home to Strong Geelong, Ainslee Hooper, hands chalked and face set in fierce determination, waits for the call. 

Ainslee first competed in a strongwoman event earlier this year.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

“Athlete ready?” comes the shouted question. Ainslee nods. The clock starts and she clenches her hands around the ‘log’, the cylinder of steel meant to imitate an actual log. The goal is to get as many reps, or lifts, of the log in 60 seconds.

To count as a rep, Ainslee must lift the log above her head. It’s no easy task. But she has a secret weapon — the noisy crowd.

Their words of encouragement and excitement pour out as Ainslee shifts the log from her chest.

Ainslee lifts a metal log above her head.
One of the strongwoman categories is a log lift, where the goal is to get as many reps, or lifts, in 60 seconds as you can.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

They want it nearly as much as Ainslee does. And when she makes the final push and hefts the log above her head, the crowd erupts.

Ainslee, a wheelchair user, is one of dozens of competitors at Strong Geelong and while she’s no stranger to strength training and competition, the Battle in the Bay marks an important development for her as an athlete and for strength sports in Australia more broadly.

Because Battle in the Bay is the first time the sport’s peak body, Australia’s Strongest, has collaborated with All Abilities Strength to include an all abilities category in a strongwoman or strongman event.

Ainslee Hooper grits her teeth as she pulls on a rope.
Strongwoman and strongman events are tests of strength where athletes lift, carry, push or pull weights.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

Finding a place

Strongwoman and strongman events are tests of strength, often more spectacle than sport. Athletes lift, carry, push or pull enormous weights in events like atlas stone (concrete stones that weigh anything from 17kg to 220kg), log press, yoke carry and deadlift.

While today, the log press is not performed with actual logs and atlas stones are specially designed concrete spheres rather than large rocks, there remains something almost medieval about the sport, as if it has time travelled here from the past.

For Ainslee, what the sport offers is the chance to test herself and her training but it also offers opportunities to compete in a broader range of events than a traditional powerlifting competition does.

Ainslee Hooper pulls a rope while in her wheelchair.
The words of encouragement just keep coming as Ainslee competes in the sled pull.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

“With powerlifting, all I can do is bench press,” Ainslee said.

“I’m a wheelchair user so I can’t do the squat or the deadlift.

“But with strongman, there’s so much more that you can actually do.”

Ainslee first competed in strongwoman at an event run by her trainer, Kerryn Taylor, earlier this year.

Ainslee Hooper's arm is stapped in pink tape.
Ainslee was the only person with a disability in the first competition she went to.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

The 43-year-old, who works as a disability inclusion consultant, was encouraged by her partner, who is a powerlifter, and his coach to join them on the weights in 2016 after she experienced a nervous breakdown due to workplace bullying.

“I remember going to the gym, the first time I went in there, my partner trained me, and we worked out. And I just said to him, ‘OK, I’m just going to go sit in the car until you’re finished’.

Ainslee Hooper clasps her hands and looks into the distance worried.
Ainslee was encouraged by her powerlifting partner and his coach to join them at the gym.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

That feeling soon dissipated and was replaced by one of community and friendship and in 2018, after watching several powerlifting competitions, Ainslee went from spectator to competitor.

“That very first comp I bombed out because I was so nervous,” Ainslee said.

“I didn’t want to get in the way of running things slow or anything like that. But they were so nice and accommodating, even the guys who I used to find scary, like the big burly guys with the tattoos, they were coming up to me and going ‘congratulations, well done’.

Ainslee Hooper in amongst other gym members.
Ainslee was initially intimidated when she went to the gym, but now relishes the relationships she’s made there.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

Making the sport inclusive

Nicole Brown is the woman behind the Battle in the Bay All Abilities competition. The owner of All Made New, a business dedicated to bringing people from all walks of life to strength training and sports, Nicole has been training and competing in strongman for several years.

Her friendship with Ainslee was the catalyst for the development of All Abilities Strength, an All Made New program whose mission is not only to encourage people with disabilities to get involved in strength training and sports but also to ensure strongman and strongwoman events are inclusive.

Nicole Brown laughs.
Nicole Brown is behind the Battle in the Bay All Abilities competition.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

“Seeing Ainslee train and training strongman was incredibly inspiring, but also listening to her speak about the difficulties as far as accessibility goes,” Nicole said.

While the Battle in the Bay is not the first time disabled athletes have competed in a strongman or strongwoman competition, Nicole, who is also a nurse, says there hasn’t been a coordinated effort to make the sport inclusive.

Nicole Brown talks to another member at the gym.
Nicole owns All Made New, a business dedicated to bringing people from all walks of life to strength training and sports.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

“There’s been a bit of a gap in those competitions for people with a disability.

Through All Abilities Strength, Nicole is working with the sport’s organising body, Australia’s Strongest, and the manufacturer of the equipment, Stand or Submit, to deliver inclusive competitions.

“Traditionally in strongman, you get given a list of rules [for events] and that’s what you do, no matter what, that’s what you’ve got to do. We recognise at All Abilities Strength that kind of modus operandi doesn’t necessarily work with persons with a disability.

A portrait of Nicole Brown.
Nicole is working with Australia’s Strongest and Stand or Submit to deliver inclusive competitions.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

“Where that’s not possible we may change the events.”

‘You lose yourself in the euphoria of it all’

Back at Strong Geelong, with the log press complete, the focus now shifts to the next event: the sled pull. A metal base with metal uprights forms the base of the sled. Weights are placed on the uprights and a heavy rope is attached to one end. It’s this rope that the athletes will use to pull the weighted sled towards themselves.

For Justine Martin, who began her involvement in strength sports with tug of war, the rope provides a sense of the familiar.

Justine Martin pulls on a rope to compete in the sled pull.
Justine Martin is no stranger to strength sports, but strongwoman for her is fairly new.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

While strongwoman events are new for Justine, she has been in and around strength sports like powerlifting and all-round weight lifting since the mid-2000s.

The 51-year-old boasts an impressive collection of medals and a few world records as both an abled and disabled athlete. But Battle in the Bay is the first time she has competed in six years.

“This is a huge event for me to get back to lifting,” she said.

Justine Martin sits and smiles in a gym.
Justine was diagnosed with multiple conditions that led to muscle mass loss.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

Justine was diagnosed with Remitting Relapsing Multiple Sclerosis in 2011. In 2016, only a year from the last of three heart surgeries, she was diagnosed with livedo reticularis, which led to later diagnoses of melanoma, mixed cryoglobulinemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and small lymphocytic lymphoma. Then, an MS relapse in 2017 put her in hospital and she spent weeks learning to walk again.

“[I] lost so much muscle mass… so, I really pushed to get back into the gym and all I could bench was a three-kilo bar.

Justine Martin smiles and fist bumps a friend.
Despite her setbacks, Justine kept going to the gym and eventually regained a lot of strength she lost.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

As the sled pull is loaded with weights and the athletes test out their set up, Justine, who works as a public speaker, artist and author, glows with the thrill of competition. The high from the log press is evident in the smile on her face.

“When I stopped [the log press] I’m like, ‘oh my god, I just did that’. I shocked myself on how many reps that I actually did.

Justine and Ainslee look at each other and laugh.
The atmosphere in the gym is one of camaraderie and support.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

Encouraging others

Competing alongside Ainslee and Justine is Justin Boencke, who has flown down from the Northern Territory. Justin has a neurological disability called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, which affects his peripheral nerves.

Justin Boencke lifts a concrete boulder.
Justin Boencke wants to encourage others with a disability to give strength sports a go.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

“The body stops sending the signals to them, so eventually, they just shut down and then die off, which then results in muscle wastage, and balance issues, hand grip issues and things like that. So, this sport is probably the opposite of what I should be doing.”

For Justin, the Battle in the Bay All Abilities competition is an opportunity to hopefully encourage other people with a disability to give strength training and sports a go.

“Hopefully I can help other people with my disability go ‘Well, why can’t I do that?’ and try the sport or get into just going to the gym or powerlifting.

Justin Boencke pulls on a rope.
Justin finds the gym benefits him mentally as well as physically.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

“I also find that doing this stuff is a good mental break. It’s good to help clear your head sometimes.”

Using the right equipment

Many strongwoman and strongman events require specialist equipment.

Mason Dannatt runs Stand or Submit, which makes equipment that can be used by people of all abilities.

“Before we were around, the lightest log that you could get was 70 or 80 kilos without any plates on it. So, all these people that were either beginning, or smaller framed, couldn’t log press and all the stones were too big, everything was too heavy,” Mason said.

Ainslee Hooper tries to lift a concrete ball.
Many strongwoman and strongman events require specialist equipment, and it’s now being made so people of all abilities can use it.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

Mason, who also runs Australia’s Strongest, the organising body for strongwoman and strongman events, says he would like to see all abilities events at all of the organisation’s events but the focus right now is on how to grow the sport sustainably.

“It’s always a balancing act with strongman in any of the categories to make sure that we have enough competitors to be able to make it valid to run at a show.

Nicole Brown speaks with Justine Martin outside a gym.
Nicole wants to make strength sports welcoming for everyone.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

Strengthening the mind and body

The final event of the day is the stone to platform. Sitting at a bench with adjustable platforms, the goal is to shift the atlas stone from one platform to the other. One successful shift is one rep. They have 60 seconds to get as many reps as they can.

At the bench, Justine grips the stone, her hot pink nails contrasting with the mottled grey concrete. Her hands are covered in Tacky, a product that helps the athletes hold onto the slippery concrete.

Justine Martin splays her hands over a concrete ball which shows her bright pink nailpolish.
Justine prepares for the stone to platform, clutching onto the heavy, slippery, concrete.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

“Athlete ready?” comes the call. Justine nods. She grips the atlas stone tighter and pulls it up and across the bench to the opposite platform.

“One!” comes the call, acknowledging her first rep.

As Justine builds momentum, shifting the stone back and forth, the encouragement from the crowd intensifies, willing her to shift the heavy concrete stone. Sixty seconds seems at once to take forever and be over too soon and time is called. Justine has managed 24 reps and the delight dances across her face.

Justine Martin lifts a concrete boulder while sitting down.
In the stone to platform, athletes sit at a bench and aim to move the atlas stone from one platform to the other.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

The physical benefits of strength training and sports are obvious, perhaps less obvious is the positive impact on metal wellbeing.

Ainslee points to her improved confidence and resilience and says she believes strength training and sports like the Battle in the Bay Strongwoman event have helped her to manage her mental health.

Ainslee drinks some water
Ainslee says lifting weights helps reduce her anxiety.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

Nicole says there’s a challenge around breaking down the stigma that can surround the sport and the accessibility challenges being faced.

“I truly do believe that strength sports and training does have the capacity to benefit you, not only physically, but psychologically, socially — the benefits are incredible.

“You can imagine how it might feel for someone in a wheelchair or an amputee or someone with a cognitive disability wanting to go and train.

Ainslee Hooper tilts her head back in exhaustion.
Weights are placed onto a metal plate for athletes to pull towards them in the sled pull.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

“We want to make sure that there’s the capacity for them to go, when they want to go to the gym.

“My hope is that eventually, I won’t have to approach competition organisers to say, ‘you should be running an all-abilities category’. I want it to be mainstream and I want it to be universal.

Ainslee Hooper gets pink tape around her arm.
Strength sports are tough, but the benefits can be incredible.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

‘A very proud and historic moment’

Inside Strong Geelong, the post competition high radiates off the athletes. Thoughts of results and personal bests, the dissection of performance — that all comes later. Now, the moment is savoured, and relished.

“It’s a very proud and historic moment to be a part of and to show other disabled athletes that you can still compete and you can still do things and that you are important and you are part of the community here,” Justine said.

“I was shocked with how quick things were and how many reps I got out. So the next comp will be to push it even further and see how I can improve.”

Justine Martin gives the thumbs up.
Justine wants to show other disabled athletes they can be part of the gym community.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

For Ainslee, the day was a mixed bag — on one hand the excitement of the all abilities competition and on the other, her disappointment with her own performance.

“I didn’t perform on the day as well as I would have liked. But on reflection with my coach, there was a lot going on. It was only my second comp,” Ainslee said.

Ainslee looks into the distance.
Ainslee didn’t perform as well as she would have liked, but is confident she’ll bounce back for the next competition.(ABC Sport: Rachel Clayton)

While things may not have gone to plan on the day, Ainslee credits her ability to bounce back from the disappointment to her coach Kerryn, and her focus on training a strong mind alongside a strong body.

Ainslee believes there is plenty for All Abilities Strength to take from the competition.

“It’s definitely a learning process for all of us… it’s just going to mean better comps in the future.”

It’s this future that keeps Ainslee training and preparing for the next competition.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Kirby Fenwick is a writer and audio producer, a co-founder of Siren: A Women in Sport Collective and an honours student at Griffith University.


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