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Women in Strength, Strength in Women Part 2: “Don’t Judge Your Chapter 1 Against Someone Else’s Chapter 20”

Taunia Stevens has competed in powerlifting for eight years and strongwoman for one – she also bakes a mean apple pie and is a Red Seal cook and kitchen manager at a private sports-oriented high school. Rhaea Stinn is the best female powerlifter in Canadian history, but if you met her away from a barbell you would encounter a woman who comes across as one of the kindest and gentlest human beings on the planet. She has been making a name for herself in the sport since 2003. Taylor Findlay may look like a cute-little-package, competing at less than 130 lbs, but she can pick up almost twice that and toss it over her head. She is one of Canada’s top 58 kg Olympic weightlifters and a driven university student from Ontario. Taunia and Rhaea both call Saskatchewan home.

Strength sports have shaped the lives of each of these women, and their bodies. Taunia gained over 40 lbs to make the jump from powerlifting to strongwoman; Rhaea holds records in in the 72, 84, and 84+ kg categories; and Taylor has been lifting weights since she was 14 and loves the way her body looks as a result.

Keep reading for insights into their sports and advice on how to handle struggles with body image as these three powerful women respond to the following questions:

What would you say are your greatest accomplishments in your sport?

Rhaea: There are so many things I’m proud of with my lifting history, it’s hard to narrow it down! At the top of my list would be coming back to the sport after breaking my femur in a car accident in 2006; placing 2nd in the 75kg class at Open Worlds 2008 as a junior, which qualified me to compete at the 2009 World Games; winning the 84+ class at the 2011 Junior World Championships at home in Moose Jaw; and cutting to 72kg for Open Worlds 2012 where I was able to qualify to compete at the 2013 World Games.

Taylor: I’d say a huge goal I had was to make it to an international competition, which I did in December for World University Weightlifting Championships.

Taunia: My best lifts are a 210 kg squat, a 160 kg bench press, and a185 kg deadlift. My biggest accomplishments in powerlifting are: becoming the #3 ranked equipped female in Canada (CPU), the 4th female to a Wilks over 500 (the wilks score is a score based on the total you have lifted compared to your body weight), having the biggest female equipped bench, and winning best female bencher of the year for 2014. For Strongwoman: placing 3rd at Westerns last year, in my first show.

Also, just overcoming the adversities I’ve had with knee surgeries, and coming out stronger!

What changes have you seen in the involvement of women in your sport(s) and how do you feel about this?

Rhaea: The number of women competing in strength sports has increased a lot since I started competing. This is a great change, as it means that more women are strength training, which we all know is so beneficial for the female body and mind.

Taylor: The changes in weightlifting with respect to the involvement of women have been huge! I remember when I first started competing in 2008: there were only one or two females per weight class. You knew everyone at every competition; it was a tiny community… You could show up the day of a meet and hand in your entry form… Now after the first week of registration competitions are full. It seems every one I go to there are new faces in all the divisions. Instead of competing against myself regularly, I now have others to help push me to get the top spot. I think this change is amazing. Girls need to see that they can lift weights, have something to work hard towards, and push their limits everyday. 

Taunia: There has been a huge surge in females competing in strength sports. This is amazing to see! I love the fact that women are not intimidated or allowing these sports to remain defined as male-dominated; that they are willing to challenge themselves and see how far they can go/how strong they can get.

How has your involvement in your sport(s) affected your perception of yourself and others’ perceptions of you?

Rhaea: I’ve been competing so long that it is hard for me to think about my perception of myself prior to being involved in powerlifting. I think it has helped me to be more confident, and taught me I can do anything I set my mind to.

Taylor: Weightlifting has affected my perception of myself in many ways. I feel confident and empowered to do anything I set my mind to. At first when I started, I always thought lifting weights would make me “look like a man” – muscular and huge. Now I love looking toned, and love knowing I can lift a lot more than some men who compare themselves to me.

When some people start talking to me and find out that I lift weights and the amount I lift, they are usually in disbelief and say they would have never thought I lift. They are always impressed and often wish me luck with the sport.

Taunia: Being involved in strength sports has given me more of a sense of self. When I lift and compete, I feel the most authentic me. That this is who I am, not what I look like, or what my weight is. And all I want to be is stronger than I was before.

Others don’t share the same desire, or the commitment it takes to be on a higher level. I really have no life outside of work and the gym – the gym has become my life. I’d gladly give up a night out to train. I want to be the best I can. People think that what I do is crazy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I really don’t care what they think of me – I’m doing this for me – to be a better me constantly.

What other ways has your involvement with the sport(s) impacted your life?

Rhaea: Powerlifting is truly interwoven into my life.   It’s hard to separate my “normal” life from my powerlifting life because they’re really one in the same. My husband, brother, sister, and most of my brother and sister in-laws are active in the sport, so our family get togethers usually involve some sort of powerlifting-related discussion. On the work side, I own/operate Inner Strength Products, which is an online store that started out selling Canadian Powerlifting Union clothing, and expanded into other strength related equipment.

Taylor: In weightlifting everything in your life plays a role in how your training will go. If you go out and party Friday night, it will show at training Saturday morning. If you don’t eat well all day, it will make training that much harder in the evening. If you skip a few days of training here and there, it is only going to delay the process of accomplishing your goals. This sport has made me think about a lot of decisions before I make them. It keeps me very responsible and structured, which I believe I need.

Taunia: Like Taylor, I already mentioned the lifestyle changes, but I have also met the most amazing people through both powerlifting and strongwoman. The comradery and community within strength sports is like nothing I have every experienced. I have friends all over the world now because of it. They truly become family, and you want to see each and every one of them get better and better.

It also has increased my appetite… A lot… Hahaha. J

What is your opinion on the statement, “strong is the new skinny”?

Rhaea: I struggle with the statement because I started going to the gym to get stronger, not skinnier. I lost weight when I started as a result of lifting weights, but that wasn’t the goal. Still, I do think that it’s fabulous that there is a movement encouraging women to get stronger rather than being as light as possible.

One of the things I love about powerlifting is that you can compete no matter your size or shape. When someone starts competing, I typically encourage him or her to compete in the weight class where his or her bodyweight naturally falls. Too many times new lifters think they need to fit into a lighter weight class and their performance suffers because of it.

Taylor: I think this statement is becoming more and more true. A lot of females are becoming comfortable with being toned and in shape. Women shouldn’t have to be perceived a certain way to be considered “beautiful” so this saying will only encourage that.

Taunia: I’ve never been societies definition of “skinny,” and really, I couldn’t care less. I’m not a conformer. I like to be different and go against the grain. Being strong and healthy is far more important to me than looking how the world thinks you should look.

The fact that more and more women are openly choosing to think that way as well is amazing to see! There’s more emphasis on what the body can do, instead of what it looks like.

What advice would you give to a woman (young or old) struggling with body image?

Rhaea: I think when you aren’t happy with your body image, you need to do something to change it, but you also need to work on being more accepting of yourself.

Taylor: I’d say that there are so many ways a person can look and everyone has their own idea of what beauty looks like – you just have to find your own definition of beauty and accept who you are and work towards maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Forget what others think.

Taunia: My advice would be to focus on what our body is capable of, instead of what it looks like – that gives such empowerment! When I lift weights that I see some guys have a hard time with it makes me feel awesome! I struggle hard sometimes, too: I gained 40 lbs in a short timeframe for strongwoman, and that was a hard adjustment, but I’m stronger than I ever have been. And I do this for me, so what others think about it? I couldn’t care less. The right people – the ones who care – will support your goals.

So yeah, focus on what your body is capable, instead of what it looks like – this is way more rewarding.

What advice would you give to a woman (young or old) interested in your sport(s)?

Rhaea: The best advice I can give women interested in powerlifting is to just do it! Sign up for a meet, plan your training accordingly, and see where it takes you. The biggest concerns I hear often from new lifters are that they are worried about their body weight being known, being seen in a singlet, and not being strong enough. My response to that is that no one really cares about your body weight, everyone around you will be in a singlet, and being strong enough for what? So much of this sport is about competing against and improving yourself, and there is always more weight that can be added to the bar, so how are you ever going to be strong enough? Give yourself a starting point and work your way up from there.

Taylor: I’d say give it a good shot! Don’t let one bad training day, or one bad competition, determine if you want to stay. This sport is a rollercoaster that has its highs and lows. You have to set goals for yourself and be driven to meet them. Just always remember the rush you get when something exciting happens and work hard to get that feeling again.

Taunia: Try it, try it, try it!! I love the challenge of it. You would be surprised at what you can accomplish. Everybody starts somewhere – you can’t judge your chapter 1 by someone’s chapter 20. And, have fun! Strongwoman’s about heart, and giving it your all; I love people who jump right in. If you wait till you’re “strong” enough, you will never compete, as nobody thinks they are, but you’ll never be able to tell where you’re really at if you don’t.

What do you want the future of your sport(s) to look like?

Rhaea: I would love to see powerlifting continue to grow at all levels. It would be great if it was a more common sport in Canada, with lifters in every gym training for and competing in the sport.

Taylor: I’d want it to look full of women with lots of competition to work against. This sport always gives me new goals to work towards, and the reward it gives you when you reach them is something everyone should experience. The competition venues should be packed with people, and there should be just as many women as there are men competing!

Taunia: I love the way it’s growing! I want to see more and more women involved, helping each other, and building friendships. Strong is awesome.

Strong is awesome, and so are Rhaea, Taylor, and Taunia. As Taunia mentioned, you cannot judge your chapter 1 by someone else’s chapter 20.  Considering lifting weights in some way?  Find a gym with knowledgeable coaches, and just start.  Your mind, body, and spirit will thank you, and it won’t be long until you are accomplishing things you never could have imagined. Each of these women have had completely different experiences and competed in distinct sports, but one thing resounds from all of their words: strength sports have taught them that they can do anything they set their minds to.

Pictured from Left to Right: Rhaea Stinn setting up for a 212.5kg deadlift from 2015 Equipped IPF World Championship, Taylor Findlay with a 79 kg snatch (photo credit: hookgrip), and Taunia Stevens with a 205 lb atlas stone at Western Canada’s Strongest Woman (photo credit: Sandra Provick)

To follow Taunia and Taylor’s journey, check them out on Instagram @taunia__ and @findlayt

To follow Rhaea, subscribe to her YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoseEhUiN9gNAiW9-A9yubg

Also, be sure to check out this mini-documentary on Rhaea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoQd_2tPv_8

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