Growing up at a time when the number of television channels in most UK households could be counted on one hand often resulted in limited viewing experiences. Once a year, towering men with giant chests, bulging arms and legs like logs would burst on to the screen and start lifting very heavy things. They would run with big weights known as atlas stones, or pull lorries until they looked like they might explode, all in the hope of being declared “the world’s strongest man”. You’d hear names such as Magnús Ver Magnússon in pubs and playgrounds. In a pre-streaming age, The World’s Strongest Man was a TV phenomenon – by 2005, it was being broadcast to an estimated worldwide audience of 220 million.

For years, the focus was on the men. However, fast-forward to November 2022 in Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena, and you would find Donna Moore, Andrea Thompson and Rebecca Roberts high-fiving their male teammates as they scurried back and forth on a relay race, carrying 100kg logs under their arms with alarming ease. That’s when the mixed-gender UK team took on the US in The World’s Strongest Nation, a new event that placed the two countries head to head.

It was the first time these women had competed on the same stage as men. Years earlier, they had battled it out in car parks and dilapidated gyms, but now the British athletes found themselves standing on a podium, with gold medals dangling around their necks, as fireworks exploded behind them. “It was a monumental event for women’s sport,” Roberts says.

The team’s victory was hardly surprising; for years Britain had been producing the strongest women in the world. Between 2016 and 2021, three women dominated the title: Moore, a single mum and NHS worker based in North Yorkshire, who became three-times world champion; Thompson, a mother of two from Suffolk; and Roberts, a quality assurance analyst from north Wales living in St Helens, Merseyside. It was only Ukrainian Olga Liashchuk’s narrow 2022 victory over Thompson that put an end to their run (though Roberts clinched the title, for the second time, in May this year).

Between them, the British trio have won countless competitions and set numerous lifting records. What’s their secret? “Determination and experience,” Moore says. “Maybe we’re more well rounded and skilled. But Rebecca is pretty new to it all, so who knows?”

Here they talk about their journeys to becoming the strongest women in the world and the huge impact they have made on the sport.

‘I got a tub of out-of-date protein powder for winning my first competition’

Rebecca Roberts, World’s Strongest Woman 2021, 2023

Rebecca Roberts, photographed at home in Merseyside.
Rebecca Roberts, photographed at home in Merseyside. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith

It was my partner Paul who got me into the sport. In May 2016, we met via the dating site Plenty of Fish. I was massively overweight and he was just helping me train at first, but things blossomed into a relationship. He thought I was really strong, and soon entered me into the UK’s Strongest Woman competition. I won it that September.

The event was held in a car park in Kent. There were more competitors than there were spectators, and for winning I got a tub of out-of-date protein powder. Months later, in 2017, when Eddie Hall won the title of Britain’s Strongest Man he got a brand new motorbike plus substantial prize money. The disparity was unreal.

When I first started, I was extremely self-conscious. I hated my body and who I was. I’d stay in the corner of the gym, wear all black and not want to be seen. But through the sport I’ve blossomed, and I’m a lot more confident. I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of my body and I feel so much stronger mentally.

There’s a lot of stigma around plus-sized people, and I get a lot of plus-size women who say that seeing me in the gym in a sports bra and leggings has given them the confidence to go into the gym and be who they are meant to be. One woman said seeing my confidence out there in a competition made her walk into work the next day with her head held high for the first time. That made me cry. Stuff like that means the world to me.

The sport takes over your life. I’m up at 5.30am and out for a walk. I start work as a quality assurance analyst at 7.30am and finish around 4pm. I train for two to four hours five times a week. Sometimes, I drive for an hour to a gym with specialist equipment. Some days, I don’t get home until 10pm. Thankfully, there’s a lot more money coming into the sport now. The 2023 Arnold Strongwoman competition had $80,000 (£63,000) prize money. That was unheard of two or three years ago.

Paul was diagnosed with heart failure in March 2022. I trained for UK’s Strongest Woman while he was in hospital. I ended up winning it in late April – I wanted to make him proud of me. Throughout the year, he was getting better, and his heart had improved. Then on 4 December at around 8am, he had a heart attack. I rang 999 and had to drag him out of bed and perform CPR. They were working on him in our bedroom for about 40 minutes before they pronounced him dead.

It was a massive loss. He wasn’t only my partner, he was my coach. We did everything together. He completely changed my life. When we met in 2016, I was suicidal. To come from that to be the world’s strongest woman, and to be in the strongest shape that I’ve ever been in physically and mentally – that was all down to him. My main focus now is doing him proud and keeping the legacy going that we built. I want to be regarded as the strongest woman who ever lived.

‘It’s cool. We are carrying cars and doing stuff you think you wouldn’t be able to’

Donna Moore, World’s Strongest Woman 2016, 2017 and 2019

Donna Moore, photographed at home in North Yorkshire.
Donna Moore, photographed at home in North Yorkshire. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith

I never thought this would be something I would be able to do, have access to, or be interested in. I just fell into it.

I was young when I got married and had children. I was very unhappy and overweight. I wanted to lose weight so went to the leisure centre for classes. Working out on your own in the gym is a daunting prospect, so it took me a while to do that. I was then guided by a few people into deadlifting. One guy was like: “You’re kind of strong, why don’t you move to another gym and focus on being stronger?” So that’s what I did. I entered my first competition in 2012 and it just went from there.

Not long after that competition I moved back to Yorkshire from Inverness, where I had been living. I was deeply unhappy in the relationship I was in and had no confidence. I’m an only child and usually very strong-willed and independent, but at the time it felt like that side of me had been taken away. Lifting, and having more confidence in myself, helped me realise that I didn’t like my relationship and needed to leave it.

Going to the gym, exercising and lifting brought me happiness. It helped me be a better parent and a better human. I’d be doing shifts as an NHS worker and my mum would help me with the kids if I was going to the gym, or I would just take them with me. You have to organise your life around it. The kids can see that if you work hard, and you’re dedicated to something, you can achieve your goals. I am their biggest champion and advocate. I’m always their cheerleader and they’ve always been mine.

I entered World’s Strongest Woman in 2013. It was in Finland and I call it “My hell in Helsinki”. It was awful. I just wasn’t good enough. But I was like: “I want to do this and I need to do better if I want to compete with these women.” That was my lightbulb moment. After that, I met a different coach, and when the World’s Strongest Woman competition came to Doncaster in 2016, I entered again and won. I had been tough on myself until then, but for the first time I was like: “Yeah, you did good.”

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It’s amazing that there’s more coverage for women now. Society is breaking down stereotypes and norms about what women should and shouldn’t be. Also, women could not care less about what men think. Is their opinion really the most important thing? Absolutely not. It’s better for you to be happy with you.

I’m very lucky to have achieved all the things that I’ve wanted to achieve, like winning the world title more than once. I have quite a big platform and I like to use it. I want people to see that if they’re interested in competing, then there’s a place for them. Plus, it’s cool. We are carrying cars and pulling trucks – stuff you think you wouldn’t be able to do, but you don’t know until you try.

‘It got to the point where the guys would refuse to compete against me’

Andrea Thompson, World’s Strongest Woman 2018

Andrea Thompson, photographed at home in Suffolk.
Andrea Thompson, photographed at home in Suffolk. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith

In 2013, my sister was getting married and I wanted to lose some weight for the wedding. I started doing CrossFit and loved it. I became strong quickly and was deadlifting 160kg, which was more than the guys were lifting.

One of the trainers said: “Andrea, you’re crazy strong. You should try doing some sort of event.” I never even knew that the strong woman competition was a thing; I never watched the strongest man events on TV. Until that moment, I’d had no interest in lifting weights. I won my first competition after two or three weeks of training.

I did a few local competitions, but they were all for men, because women just didn’t really do it around here. It got to the point where the guys would refuse to compete against me. One promoter said he’d had so many guys pull out, and asked if I’d mind refereeing instead. I was winning a lot. It was exciting. I was trying new things like pulling trucks, flipping tyres, lifting atlas stones – all these things that aren’t available at your normal leisure centre gym.

When I did my first World’s Strongest Woman in 2016, I came eighth and was like: “Oh God, maybe I’m not so good. Maybe I should rethink what I’m doing.” But I did some more training and by 2018 I had won it. When I started doing well, I got trolled quite badly. I was thinking: “Why am I doing this if people hate me?” But it goes away and then you get a really weird fan base, where there’s a little bit of muscle-and-big-women fetishes going on. There are still a few professional “strong men” who say negative things about what we do and call us a sideshow. But we work just as hard as they do.

I’m 40 now and have been thinking of retiring. I’m tired; my body’s aching all the time. This lifestyle doesn’t leave room for much else in your life. I’m a single mum with a house to run and bills to pay. I had to fund my own trip to World’s Strongest Woman in 2022. Flights and accommodation were about £1,200 and my prize money for taking second place was £1,200 – it basically paid for me to go to Florida for the weekend. I’m not out of pocket, but I haven’t made any money from competing. When I prep for a tournament, I have to say to my children, who are 11 and 14: “It’s going to be hard, I’ll be home late, dinner will be late.”

The things I’m putting my body through, and the mental challenges, are huge. When I’m training, I hate everything. I hate the world. And then I’ll get to a competition and be like: “This is easy. This is good. This is what I’m here for.” But inspiring others is the best – having strangers coming up to me and saying: “You’re the reason why I got into the gym.” I often come up in the quizzes they have at my kids’ school, and one of my eldest daughter’s friends has got me on his screensaver on his phone. It’s nice to be a good influence on my children’s friends.

To go from doing CrossFit to get a bit healthy, to then competing in car parks or asbestos-filled gyms, to finally making it to arenas with lights and fireworks with your name – thinking about it gets me emotional.

Want to get strong? Here are Rebecca Roberts’ top tips

The first thing to do is to find a local strongman gym. The community there is so helpful and they will be more than happy to give advice and teach you how to use the equipment. There’s also a Facebook group called Starting Strongman where people are always asking questions. A lot of the professionals post on there as well and help answer questions.

The most common mistake people make is to lift too heavy too soon and then injure themselves. I do a lot of mobility work. I spend about half an hour before I start training, every session, just stretching. It’s not about lifting every single day. I only train four days a week. I always recommend not lifting the heaviest weights, and getting as much as you can out of the lighter weights instead, because that’s where strength is built.

There are a lot of novice competitions across the country. The Strength Register website lists all the competitions in your area. You can check those out and set yourself a goal to work towards. My main advice is that consistency is the key to success. It’s like the story of the tortoise and the hare: don’t go out and lift heavy all of the time. Be patient, and you’ll gain strength and consistency.

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