Mind Over Matter With Sara Sigmundsdóttir
What determines strength? We meet Icelandic athlete Sara Sigmundsdóttir to chat about barbells, bodies and balance
By Amy Sedghi
What determines strength? Genetics, physiology and training obviously play a mammoth part when it comes to the physical side, but there’s also a lot of power in a person’s mentality. Take Sara Sigmundsdóttir, the Icelandic weightlifter and CrossFit athlete. On first glance you notice the 30-year-old’s muscles and strong physique, but sit down with her and within minutes of a conversation you realise that her mental strength and attitude are equally striking.
“You think about yourself in a specific way,” she muses, sipping her iced coffee as she recounts how she first got started on her athletic career. By her own confession, she was never a sporty child or teenager and was more interested in shadowing whatever her friends were up to. So, once her best friend got a boyfriend, Sara thought it was time for her to follow suit: “I was like ‘oh gosh, I need to find a boyfriend now, so I need to lose weight’.” Fast forward to a brief dalliance with spinning classes (which she’d sneak out of for frequent breaks) and Sara thought she’d give a six-week bootcamp at her local gym a go.
“At the beginning, I was the only girl who could do push-ups on her toes and the coach was so impressed. It gave me a little bit of self-esteem,” she recalls. “I always knew I was strong for a girl but I was pretty much ashamed of it because, if you’re a girl, you have to be this specific stereotype. He [the coach] saw something in me that nobody else had ever seen and because of him, I started wanting to do more.” And more, she did: first she upped her push-ups to 15, then she focused on running a bit faster and, well, now she’s been named the third fittest woman on the planet. Her achievements and abilities are eye-wateringly impressive: podiums at the CrossFit Games, winning the 2015 and 2016 Meridian Regional and a following of 1.8 million on her Instagram profile @sarasigmunds and her own gym clothing collection with training brand WIT. For a chance to win a selection of clothing from the new WIT x Sara Sigmundsdóttir collection, click here.
Small Actions, Bigger Wins
But, impressive stats aside, Sara’s keen to show how small actions lead to bigger wins in life and how your mindset plays a crucial part. “You think about yourself in a specific way because you believe that people think this about you… you created this opinion about yourself,” she says, contemplating the power of that one encouraging comment from a coach when she was 17 years old. “You have this random person that sees you in a completely different way… they see something unique about you. Since I was given that compliment, my rule has been that if I see something good in somebody, I’ll always praise them because it can change their lives. That one compliment changed my life completely.”
In a past interview Sara suggested to readers to ask a friend to share what they thought was most unique about them. On my way to our chat, I do just this and am impressed by the force this one question and answer can have. When I tell her, she leans forward enthusiastically. “I have so many deep thoughts on this,” she says (Sara’s managed to juggle studying for a BA in psychology in between her daily rounds of training). “Everybody has so many different opinions about weaknesses and what you think is attractive and what isn’t. Maybe you got one comment when you were growing up that always sits with you. It’s so insane how your self-esteem and everything is related to your childhood. You take it with you into adulthood and as soon as you get triggered, you go back down that road again.”
Addressing and reshaping these thoughts is vital in Sara’s mind. Her hardworking attitude, lifting weights and smashing her targets, clearly spills over to the work she does outside of the gym. “I never expected to be an athlete,” she shares, adding: “Before I started training, I said: ‘I’m never going to be one of those girls that has muscles on their shoulders and their neck. It’s so disgusting. Girls should not look like that.’ I just wanted to get skinny and I’d go on the StairMaster and run. I would never lift weights.” But once she started the bootcamp programme that eventually led to her competing in CrossFit, she says her relationship with her body shifted. “What changed [for] me so much, was [that] I started thinking about what my body could do versus what it looked like,” she explains. Still, she remembers it being difficult when she went out and people would make comments on her muscular physique: “If I was in a tank top there would be [comments] like, ‘Oh, this girl can beat me’.”
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report. Iceland leads the way globally for gender parity (and has been doing so for years) – and while no country is perfect, there is generally a greater acceptance (and possibly familiarity) of strong female body types in Scandinavian countries. Sara admits she saw differences in the way women’s bodies – and femininity – were viewed, once she started competing outside of Iceland. “You go there, like this strong, big Viking,” she laughs. Despite there still being some time to go until the day she can casually take her jacket off at airport security and not face a guy telling his mates that she could beat them up, she’s positive about the changing ways in which we view women’s bodies and, in particular, muscular female physiques. “I feel like it’s changing every year,” she says, mentioning professional wrestler Ronda Rousey as someone she admires. “She’s a beast in the cage. She has no make-up on, she’s sweaty, she doesn’t care… her hair is everywhere. Then three hours later, she goes out and she looks stunning. I was like, ‘I want to be like that’.”
“It shouldn’t be weird to see a girl with muscles, it should just be normal,” Sara stresses. Celebrating strong female bodies is exactly what she hopes to achieve with her latest clothing collaboration with WIT. The mindset of the clothing line, she explains, is, ‘Don’t be afraid to show your body, and show you are feminine with muscles’. It has been such a success that already a polar bear beast mode t-shirt and tank are relaunching due to popular demand. “My designs are based on showing your own strength. Don’t hide the way you look – embrace your strengths,” she says eagerly. Instead of covering up your shoulders with jackets like she used to, she wants women to comfortably throw on one of her cropped tanks and high-waisted barbell proof leggings and hit the gym, sweat pouring off them and with a confident grin. “You should be proud of who you are. You’re training,” she points out. “It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks as long as you feel good in your own skin.”
Take Control Of Your Goals
Along with the highs of being a professional athlete, inevitably come the lows: injuries, setbacks and struggles. It comes back to balance and mindset, she explains. Sure, it’s frustrating but Sara is determined to not allow herself to become resentful when things don’t go to plan. “It’s so easy to get lost in breaking yourself down. I could be the bitter person. I could be this negative person but I have one life,” she says emphatically. “You have to go through hard things to achieve good things, you have to go through tough times, you have to be vulnerable, you have to be on the edge of almost giving up, because it’s so hard. That’s the reason why so many people don’t make it, because it is hard. You have to have a different mentality, take control of your own goals and what makes you happy.”
Having other interests and focuses outside the gym, such as training to be a pilot in Sara’s case, have not only helped with her work-life balance but have gained her improvements in her training. “[It’s] because I could switch off,” she says, describing how having something outside of her day-to-day work, also helps her from putting too much pressure on that one area of her life. “Once I put that [pilot] suit on, I’m only focused on that,” she says with a big grin.
We’ve circled back round to the mind, but it’s difficult not to. So much is connected to that complex organ: the brain, and how we use it. Whilst talking to Sara, you come to realise the biggest and best training tips she can give you boils down to this. There’s no point comparing kgs of weights or how many reps she does – simply put, our goals, whether we’re talking about hers, mine or yours – are completely different. But we are all pretty much striving for the same things: happiness, fulfilment and hitting our personal goals, and focusing on our mindset is crucial to getting each of us there.
WIT Fitness have dropped their latest Sara Sigmundsdóttir collection and to celebrate this, we’ve teamed up with them to give you the chance to win a selection from the exclusive range – click here