No strong woman has gotten where she is today without tenacity and obstinacy. However, those traits often come with a social cost. Strong, confident women are not always accepted, and people love to make excuses for what they consider unladylike behavior, such as assertiveness — she’s a bitch, she’s on a power trip, she’s on her period.
Women are also still expected to fit into a particular physical mold, an unattainable stereotype that changes monthly and is exacerbated by heavily edited, filtered and photoshopped social media posts. Real women then make efforts to conform to that “ideal” and often experience body dysmorphia, self-doubt, fear and, worse — suicidal tendencies.
These seven athletes have faced down these unrealistic stereotypes and other social plagues such as bullying and physical abuse. The odds were against them, but they knew who they wanted to be and what they needed to do to get there — then they made it happen. Through their struggles, they discovered their very essence and learned what it means to be strong.
Today more than ever, women need to hold one another up. We need to be supportive, not dismissive. We need to be empowering, not demeaning. In these stories, you may recognize yourself, but don’t shy away. Take hold of that truth and from it pull the inspiration to move ahead, smoothing the road behind you for the women who come after.
We all have a story, and who you are in the story — the hero, the villain or the victim — is your choice. I used to be the victim in my story. I came up against many obstacles — restraining orders, abusive relationships, women’s shelters, eating disorders, business failures and crippling self-doubt. I saw life as happening to me, not for me. In this, I was powerless. I wasn’t strong then, and this caused me to keep awful people in my life. I could have stayed there and forever played the victim, but I wanted more for myself. So I picked up a notebook and literally rewrote my story. I acknowledged my failures and owned them, I reimagined my struggles and pain as lessons, and I made the choice to adjust my actions to fit my new role in life.
The unknown is scary. Get help if you need to from friends or family who are supportive or from a professional. Eliminate the negative and toxic forces in your life and know that this may mean time spent alone; be OK with that. Because being strong is a choice. It’s often a difficult choice, but like anything, when practiced over time, it becomes a habit. Listen to that inner voice and choose to stand up for yourself. Choose to do what’s right for you. Each time you do this, you get a little stronger. When you’re up against an obstacle, lean in. Push it with all your might. In digging in, you become unstoppable.
“PJ day when I stay in my pajamas, do mud masks and watch movies, read or listen to music.”
I spent half my adult life battling anorexia and body dysmorphia. It hasn’t been easy, and I still have to practice self-love every day, but the freedom is worth it. Knowing I have the impressionable eyes of my daughters watching me makes me cognizant of how I talk about my body. You have to release the impossible pursuit of perfection and instead pursue being present. Speak about your body the way you would someone you love. Stand in front of a mirror and do not turn away until you can identify at least one physical feature you would not change. Wear the bikini, wear the strapless dress, wear the miniskirt. Recognize what you have accomplished that has nothing to do with how you look. Do this every single day and it will become your truth.
It’s challenging to fight for who you want to be rather than becoming who everyone thinks you should be — the fitness model who only eats clean food, the anorexic who never struggles with her restrictive urges, the mom who is never overwhelmed, the wife who is always confident in her skin, the influencer who only shares her highlight reel rather than the mess that is my truth. I don’t always get it right, but being strong is about making mistakes and still moving forward. It means showing up and being seen — just as I am.
“There are very few things I enjoy more than sitting in a hot bath with a glass of red wine. The only downside is that I have to come out of the bathroom eventually and face the loudness of my family!”
I grew up in a very patriarchal and chauvinistic region of Brazil, and for women, it was impossible to be heard. Regardless, I would express how I felt without reservation, much to the horror of my mother, and she would constantly be telling me to be quiet. But I would not listen. Instead, I would shout, I can’t help it that I am honest! I was 8 years old.
My mother also did not approve of me exercising, so at 14, I saved my allowance to pay for a gym membership and took the bus because she refused to drive me. But I was not discouraged. Instead, I was inspired to go against the grain and be my own person. And with that confidence, I moved to the United States at 19 years old with $300 in my pocket. Everyone laughed at me, but 15 years later, I am still here. I am not strong because I never fail, I am strong because I never give up.
Own who you are. You are never going to please everybody, and that’s fine. More importantly, listen to your gut when it comes to right or wrong and be mindful of your choices. Don’t post lewd or inappropriate pictures in order to grow a following or to become “famous” on social media. Five years down the line, you might have a family or want to apply for a job and those images will come back to haunt you. Don’t feel pressured to do something that makes you uncomfortable just because everybody else is doing it. You’re not everybody else. You are you, and that’s all that matters.
“When I am in the car without my kids, I love to crank up the music and sing at the top of my lungs. I am a terrible singer, by the way!”
I have experienced bullying, negative body image ideals and a lot of unsolicited opinions in my career, first as a gymnast and now as a judo athlete. Then I incurred a serious knee surgery and all of a sudden everyone seemed to be urging me to quit my sport. I felt like the world was against me, and when I was younger, I might have conceded. However, I am a very stubborn person and have a tendency to choose the absolute hardest thing I can find and try to accomplish it. This likely stems from my innate desire to prove people wrong and show them that I can do anything. So instead of folding, I took this negativity as a challenge and redoubled my efforts to heal and recover from my injury. Now I am shooting for the Olympics, and I won’t stop there.
Once you can ignore the haters, you can let go of the need to make everyone happy and just focus on your goals and making yourself happy. At the end of the day, the only opinion that truly matters is your own. I know now with certainty that I can do anything I want to in life — and so I do.
“Video games. My favorites are League of Legends, Hearthstone, RimWorld and, the timeless game, Minecraft!”
I had to overcome a lot in my past — a failed marriage, a failed business, failed attempts to reach big goals. Each time I failed, my doubt redoubled and eventually it killed my confidence and self-worth. Looking back, I realize I was focusing on the failure and not the lesson. Loving your imperfections isn’t easy, especially in a world of status, social media likes and followers. I had to look long and hard in the mirror before I could find love for the things I could not change, but once I was there, I could get to work on improving the things I could. It’s the differences between us that make us beautiful and strong, and you have to be proud of your bravery — for facing your fears and even for failing. Taking the time to discover who you are and what your purpose is in this life is the most important and necessary thing you can do.
Gratefulness is also empowering, and working in a hospital and helping others overcome injuries and health issues helped me learn this lesson. No one gets a free pass in life and everyone has struggles, but in the same breath, we all have something to be grateful for. The gratitude of a new day and a new opportunity puts things into perspective and gives me purpose.
Being strong is an everyday mission, but you owe it to yourself. Don’t take no for an answer. Turn your weaknesses into strengths. Dream big without fear. Because that confidence is the most attractive outfit you will ever wear.
Guilty pleasure: “Reese’s Big Cups — I cannot resist! And traffic jamming to Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits.”
Being strong transcends appearance. I mean, looking at me now, you’d never know I grew up a farmer. My only exposure to anything fitness related was physical farm labor — baling hay, feeding the horses, watering the trough, collecting the eggs and picking the vegetables. I was home-schooled, so I didn’t play team sports. I was clumsy. I had asthma. And I had problems with bullying. I wanted to get in better shape and be able to run fast and defend myself, but I didn’t know where to start.
But every goal or wish begins with one small act, and for me, that act was saving my baby-sitting money to buy fitness magazines. I began to exercise and eat right and gained confidence. That confidence compounded when I got into martial arts and self-defense, which in turn gave me the confidence to try fitness competitions. Now I have a career as a personal trainer and nutrition coach. So while I might not wear a power suit and heels, I am just as strong and powerful in an oversize T-shirt and sweats. Maybe even more so.
Being strong is not just about the physical; it also means being able to handle the uncontrollable with grace and serenity. My sister has breast cancer, which she discovered two weeks after my mother passed from cancer. She has had two surgeries so far and is scheduled for a mastectomy, but she is still the most positive and driven female I know. She says things like, I’m lucky I exercised my whole life so I will have a fast recovery and Out with the 50-year-old boobs and in with the new ones! That she can go through so much and still be able to keep her head up is inspiring, and whenever I doubt myself, I remember that if she can do it, so can I.
“Last-minute, spontaneous vacations.”
Being strong means trying to be better than I was yesterday. Sometimes that does not go as planned, but I always refuse to give up. Because it isn’t failure that ruins effort — it’s quitting. Every person who has ever been great at anything started as a beginner and was even a failure at the get-go. Give yourself the opportunity to be bad at something and to grow from it. As long as you keep trying, you will improve. It’s inevitable.
Knowing that my daughters and granddaughter are watching and being influenced by me and my failures and successes makes me work harder. I want to leave a legacy that teaches them that women are strong, that we can achieve anything and that nothing can stop a woman from succeeding except herself. I also want to teach them to accept yourself today, right now, just as you are. I clearly recall being in my 20s and looking at a photo cringing at how “fat” and “ugly” I looked. Then when I was in my 30s, I came across the same photo and wished I looked like that again. Now in my 40s, I make a concerted effort to appreciate myself as I am.
Comparison is the thief of joy, even when we’re comparing ourselves to our former selves. I wouldn’t go back to being 20 or 30 for anything. Every stage of life is intended as a learning experience. It took me a while to get here and I’m still working on it, but self-acceptance has to be one of the most important lessons in our journey.
“Hamburgers! I don’t even need the fries.”
Erin Stern: Top 3 Leg Exercises for Summer
Perform four sets of the below workout using a straight-set format. Rest 60 seconds between sets.
Sumo Barbell Deadlift 8
Pause-Rep Barbell Back Squat 10
Weighted Step-Up 10 (each leg)
Always warm up before lifting, make sure your weight is evenly distributed between both legs, and take each rep nice and slow.
Brooke Erickson's 3 Favorite Glute Exercises
Perform three to five sets of the below workout either as straight sets or as a circuit, depending on your goals. (If you want to build, use heavier weight and do straight sets. If you’re trying to burn, use a moderate weight and do it as a circuit.) Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets and up to three minutes between circuits.
Exercise Reps Abductor Machine 15
Weighted Walking Lunge 15
Dumbbell Goblet Squat 15
Most injuries occur because of poor form, and most poor form comes from trying to lift a load that is too heavy, so watch your weight, especially with the walking lunges.
Nathalia Melo's 3 Favorite Shoulder Exercises
Perform the below workout as a tri-set, completing all reps of each move back-to-back, then rest one to two minutes. Do three rounds.
Bent-Over Reverse Fly 15
Barbell Push Press 15
Dumbbell Lateral Raise 15
Don’t rely on momentum to plow through your reps. Make sure you’re targeting the appropriate muscles by keeping your upper body stationary and only moving your arms.
Nicole Stout's 3 Favorite Cardio Exercises
Complete the cardio work first, then move into the band circuit.
Row 2,000 meters.
Jump rope 10 to 15 minutes.*
*Do single-unders for 10 minutes, then double-unders until failure.
When rowing, keep your back straight, and don’t allow your knees to buckle inward.
Perform five sets each of the below exercises. Rest as needed.
Banded Face-Pull 20
Banded Pulldown 20
Banded Uchikomi or Turn-Away 20
Lexi Berriman's Favorite Upper-Body Circuit
Every three minutes, perform the below workout. Once you can’t do any more pull-ups, rest any remaining time within that three minutes. Repeat at the top of the next three-minute interval. Complete five total rounds.
Exercise Reps Barbell Bench Press 5
Barbell Bent-Over Row 5
Pull-Up max reps
Don’t skimp on preworkout mobilization. Make sure you foam-roll your pecs, shoulders and lats.
Taylor Gallagher's 3 Favorite Core Exercises
Perform three rounds of the below workout as a circuit. Rest 30 to 60 seconds between rounds.
Plank Hold 25-45 seconds
V-Up 15 reps
Mountain Climber 30 seconds
For the mountain climbers, prioritize form over speed, don’t let your hips sway and keep your abs tight to protect your lower back.
Charlotte Oldbury's Favorite Arm Exercises
Perform three sets of the below workout in straight-set format.
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press 15
Rope Triceps Pressdown 15
Standing Dumbbell Curl 21’s
For the 21’s, use a lighter weight than you would for a regular dumbbell curl and keep your elbows glued to your sides throughout.
Get to know our 2019 Women Strong athletes. Check out video interviews, workouts, recipes and more. Learn from their experience. Gather motivation from their words. Empower yourself with their workouts. We are women strong!