You won’t find many people in the strength sports world as well-rounded as these three women: CrossFit Games athlete, Alex Parker; powerlifter, Amy Smith; and strongwoman, Tracey Halladay. As such, they offer interesting and impressionable views on the perception of women, in and outside of their sports.
Alex Parker is a dedicated law student in Edmonton, Alberta, and recently qualified for this year’s CrossFit Games – the competition that names the “fittest woman (and man) on earth”; she is also one of the most cordial and comical people you could ever be around. This athlete exudes happiness that can only flow from a life lived with intention and purpose in all of its arenas.
Amy Smith recently completed her doctorate in pharmacy and got engaged to the love of her life – who also happens to be her powerlifting coach; they are truly a remarkable “power couple.” Amy has been competing at the national level in her sport for a number of years, and one thing is for sure – this fierce redhead is driven to make extraordinary things happen, and she does just that, creating her own luck wherever she goes.
Tracey Halladay tells is like it is – if you follow her Facebook or Instagram account, you might never guess she teaches elementary school, but if you speak to her in person or read her words in this interview and see the other side of her (the side that has a genuine compassion and care for others) you would not be the least bit surprised. Tracey has won the title of “Western Canada’s Strongest Woman” two years in a row and her perspective on body image and women in strength sports is as unique and fresh as the sport she competes in.
Each of these women is astonishing in her own right. What follows is their answers to questions like, “What is your opinion on the statement, ‘strong is the new skinny’?” and “what advice would you give to a woman (young or old) who is struggling with body image?”
Q: How and when did you become involved in strength sports?
Alex: I started strength training when I was quite young because I competed in alpine ski racing. I took up CrossFit almost 3 years ago when I graduated from University and retired from ski racing. I tried it because I needed to learn how to climb a rope for a Spartan race. After the first class, I was hooked!
Amy: I started lifting weights in the spring of 2012. I was training for a half marathon and I thought some strength training would improve my race time. It did! Finished with a time of 1:53:37. My boyfriend (now fiancé), Marc Morris, has coached me from the beginning and is largely responsible for my success in the sport. After I finished the Saskatoon half marathon that spring, I quit running and took powerlifting more seriously. A year later, at CPU (Canadian Powerlifting Union) Nationals 2013, I won the 57 kg women’s open weight class.
Tracey: My husband, Steve Halladay, started powerlifting in 2005. I was never really interested until one day in 2006 he told me he’d buy me a new jacket if I put on a bench shirt. I’ve been hooked ever since. I think I did my first CPU meet in December of that year. I competed in powerlifting for quite a few years after that – it became a way of life. After I had my daughter I did a few more CPU meets, then my hubby and his buddies convinced me to try training strongman events in 2012. I instantly fell in love and got myself a new strength sport to compete in. I found it so much more exciting to train. It was no longer a chore to go to the gym; it was the best part of the day! I also find strongwoman much more exciting to compete in. I never really found myself in powerlifting when it came to competition. I often dreaded it and couldn’t wait for it to be over. With strongwoman, I am able to really get into it, focus and keep my eye on the prize.
What would you say are your greatest accomplishments in your sport?
Alex: No question about it: qualifying for the Crossfit Games this year.
Amy: Making my third deadlift in 2013 to win Nationals, or squatting 143 kg for the national record in St. John’s this past year.
Tracey: Winning Western Canada’s Strongest Woman, 2 years in a row.
Who are your role models and why?
Alex: I look up to all of the top CrossFit women in world, but I really like Annie Thorisdotter, Kara Webb, and Miranda Oldroyd. All of these women are strong and proud of it. They have all taken a beating on social media for being “too masculine” or have been accused of taking steroids. They have all responded incredibly well. They are proud of the work that got them where they are today.
Amy: My powerlifting role model is Jennifer Thompson (USA powerlifter). I find that SO many high level powerlifters are also personal trainers or work in the fitness industry. As someone who doesn’t work within the industry, I find it inspirational that Jennifer, a high school teacher, can still compete on a level where she breaks world records.
Tracey: I look up to all of the guys and gals I train with; we are a team.
What changes have you seen in the involvement of women in your sport and how do you feel about this?
Alex: As CrossFit is growing and becoming more mainstream, women are starting to appreciate what their bodies can do, rather than what they look like. They are starting to accept that their legs may grow and they may not be able to fit into their old skinny jeans. They are proud when they can put 200 pounds on their back and have no problem squatting it!
Amy: Since 2012, the sport has expanded tremendously! It’s wonderful. With more women in the sport, the competition improves which makes us all better lifters.
Tracey: My first year of competitive strongwoman was in 2014. There was not a lot of interest in our area (girls seemed scared to try it; it was a man’s sport!). Before Adrenaline started putting women’s divisions in their strongman shows in 2013 there was virtually nowhere for women to compete in the sport outside of traveling to the States. This year (2015) we had 12 QUALITY strongwomen compete at our Westerns in May and there have been amateur and rookie shows that involve women already this year in Saskatchewan. Strongman also has a new governing body (CAASA), which has a women’s division as well. It makes me happy to see women being included in all of the strongman change in our country this year.
I am beyond happy that there are more women willing to come out and throw down at heavy shows in order to better themselves in our sport. It’s a very different sport than other strength sports. In order to better yourself you need to make it your life. It comes only second to my husband and my daughter in my life. You need to have a crazy switch to turn on in your brain during training and shows. Not everyone can do this right away, which is part of what makes the sport so amazing. When you find that switch, you find your strength. You need to be a little bit crazy in order to do well in strong(wo)man.
How has your involvement in your sport affected your perception of yourself and others’ perceptions of you?
Alex: I have always had a relatively healthy perception of myself, probably because I have been involved in sports and surrounded by athletes my whole life. However, since I started law school two years ago I have been exposed to a lot more people who are not like me – and by that I mean they are not athletes, or not active in any regard. Since being in school my arms and legs have gotten bigger and more defined, I am not going to lie; I have become a little more self-conscious. I may not be as willing to throw on a tank top for school as I would be for a workout at my CrossFit gym but, I think that is mostly due to the fact that I don’t like the attention and not because I am not proud of what my body looks like, or more importantly, proud of what my body can do!
Amy: The sport has definitely positively impacted me by allowing me to feel strong and not just in a physical sense. I think a lot of women share positive aspects of how the sport has improved their perception of themselves or body image, which is fantastic because the world definitely needs more of that.
However, powerliting has had some negative effects on my perception of myself. Competing in a weight class sport means you are tied to a scale and therefore a number. There are times when I feel healthy and comfortable but the scale is heavy therefore something needs to change if I want to be competitive. It’s a necessary evil of competing in the sport but definitely something that psychologically weighs heavy on me at times.
Tracey: My involvement in strength sports, especially strongwoman, has made me 100% confident with who I am. Other people think I’m crazy – I don’t care what other people think. I don’t care what people think of me in all aspects of my life. If you don’t like what I’m doing or what I say don’t listen or simply go away! With strongwoman, for me, came a huge life change. I’m at a point in my life where I do not have the time to deal with pettiness or whining. If you can’t handle me being myself then I don’t feel that I need you in my life.
This sport is about much more than simply training for a show and having fun. It is about training your mind to deal with training and competing, and training your body physically as well as learning to eat to perform at a show. It’s not just what you do in the gym; your mental game is just as important. For women, the eating part always seems to be a struggle. Girls are so concerned about body weight. I was no different coming into strongwoman from powerlifting where I was constantly trying to fit into my weight class. During my first year in strongwoman I struggled with this. A good friend of mine (Brad Provick) said to me last year, “Eyes on the prize – pick up the fork!” This sentence changed my life. It changed my game. It made me better at my sport.
Do you coach female athletes? If so, what are one or two of your favourite examples of how you have seen them evolve (besides in sport performance) as they improve at the sport?
Alex: Yes, I coach female athletes. I have seen massive gains in confidence and self-appreciation, especially with beginner CrossFitters. Women come into the gym terrified and intimidated, worried that they will ‘suck’ or embarrass themselves. They ALWAYS end up surprising themselves, whether it’s on their first day or after a month. They realize how capable they are.
Amy: I think the most rewarding aspect of coaching (or teaching) is witnessing that moment when what you are saying really “clicks” with an athlete. It is so rewarding to see your verbal cues and tips being put into action to result in positive change.
Tracey: I don’t “coach” anyone. I do, however, offer advice and tips to anyone who comes through the door (I train at Adrenaline in Regina – My hubby owns the place and sometimes I pretend I do too, haha) that has potential and the right attitude.
What other ways has your involvement with the sport(s) impacted your life?
Alex: There are too many ways to list. My involvement in sports has defined who I am. It impacts my school life, my social life, my family, and my health. Sometimes I look at a workout and think, “How am I going to do this?” but then I do – I just needed to push myself a little. I believe those little successes give me confidence to take on other challenges in life not related to sport.
Amy: It’s incredible the number of people I meet through powerlifting. Over the past couple of years, I completed my doctorate in Toronto. After moving to Toronto, I emailed a couple (Mark and Trisha Boyle) that competed in the CPU and trained out of their garage. I have been part of their powerlifting family ever since. Powerlifters love to share their love of the sport with others.
Tracey: In every way. It is a huge part of my life. Everything I do outside of the gym affects my performance in training and at a show. I never stop thinking about it. I also spend a lot more time doing things such as seeing my chiro, acupuncture, massage therapist, etc. These people are a huge part of me doing well in my sport. Without them I would crumble.
What is your opinion on the statement, “strong is the new skinny”?
Alex: If “strong” means capable and healthy and “skinny” refers to the unhealthy, aesthetically pleasing, ideal body then I like it. However, I don’t think that we need to be defining our body types. Women (and men) need to be proud of their bodies regardless of what they look like and appreciate that they are healthy and able to be active.
Amy: I think how you want your body to look is so personal that I completely respect girls that desire all sorts of body types (e.g. skinny, lean, muscular, etc). Being muscular or strong is not for everyone and that’s understandable. As long as you’re healthy, active, and striving towards your goal – I support it.
Tracey: I guess I agree. “Strong” is healthy, “skinny” is not. I really don’t care what other people look like as long as they don’t complain about it. Some skinny people are really strong. Some people who look strong really aren’t at all. Strong to me may be a lot different that strong is to you. It all depends on how you look at it or what you are used to seeing.
What advice would you give to a woman (young or old) struggling with body image?
Alex: I would advise them to step into a CrossFit gym with the hopes that they will start to change their perspective of themselves. I believe that most sports, especially CrossFit, promote positive body image.
Amy: I am not sure I am the person to be giving body image advice because I struggle just like everyone else. But maybe that is the key point – we all have issues, to varying degrees, with our bodies. I think trying to focus in on what you like or the positive aspects of your body is key because life is way too short to live it being self conscious or uncomfortable in your own skin.
Tracey: Do something about it. Join something. Better yourself. This probably sounds harsh but it is not meant to. I realize it’s not always this simple but for most people it should be.
What advice would you give to a woman (young or old) interested in your sport(s)?
Alex: Sign up. Whether it’s CrossFit, a recreational league of some sort, a half marathon or a 5 km – just something.
Amy: I tell women not to be intimidated from competing in powerlifting. Superficially, it does appear intimidating but powerlifters can be incredibly welcoming. During my first competition, others were helping me behind the scenes and cheering me on – even though I barely knew them. Powerlifting provides a sense of community.
Tracey: Come train with me for a few weeks. I doubt you’ll hate it. I almost guarantee you’ll love it.
What do you want the future of your sport(s) to look like?
Alex: The same, but bigger and better!
Amy: Powerlifting is such a great sport to compete in that I definitely want to see the sport grow even more. More specifically, I want to see more Masters and Junior athletes get involved. Even if someone is not interested in competing, training as a powerlifter can improve performance in so many other sports (e.g. running, CrossFit, football, etc).
I love to welcome new lifters into the sport so contact me if you want to get involved.
Tracey: I would love the future of strongwoman to look like strongman does today but obviously more awesome! Haha.
I would also love it if the girls who compete in strongwoman could act a lot more like the guys who compete in strongman. Girls always seem to have an excuse or a reason for everything. If you beat me at a show it’s because you are stronger than me and if I beat you at a show it’s because I’m stronger than you, end of story! I don’t care if you think you had a bad day or that you weren’t feeling 100%. Guess what? In this sport, if you come into a show feeling 100% all it means is that you weren’t training hard enough in my opinion. I know this pettiness and whining happens in strongman as well but it is so much more prevalent with the women. Women seem to have bigger egos that they have a lot of difficulty putting aside to admit defeat. I want us to encourage each other and respect each other’s accomplishments.
Tracey describes herself as “a little big harsh; I can be sassy sometimes” but her feelings towards her sport and women are obviously more than sentimental. Follow her on Instagram @bieraday
Amy’s physical strength might only be surpassed by her intellectual power. Track her progress and learn from her story on Instagram @amydee306.
If you have not watched Alex’s ring handstand push-up fails, or singing and vacuuming the gym, or dancing with her mother on Instagram you have not experienced her authenticity and bright spirit. She can be found @aaparker1.
Whether your “thing” is strongwoman, powerlifting, CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting, or something totally different, one message resounds from the words of the nine women who were kind enough to tell their tales: find your element. Once you have found yourself immersed in the thing you love and the culture that goes with it, there is no way you won’t feel more confident than ever, and as Amy mentioned: life is way too short to live it uncomfortable in your own skin.
Thanks so much to all of the interview participants. Be sure to follow @idealisticisabel on Instagram and “like” Idealistic Isabel on Facebook for future posts like this, and broad-spectrum inspiration and dynamism, and check back to idealisticisabel.com or subscribe for the latest blog posts.
Pictured from left to right: Alex Parker (photo credit: the CrossFit Games), Amy Smith (photo credit: Harnek Singh Rai, and Tracey Halladay (photo credit: Kristoffer Sunneson).