Stories Of Strength

We speak to author and athlete Haley Shapley: “Often, women see their bodies as form more than function. Strength training helped to shift my perspective.”

By Renee Brincks

Seattle-based journalist Haley Shapley registered for her first bodybuilding competition in 2016, ready to tackle the rigorous physical and mental training central to success. She didn’t anticipate, however, the reactions generated by her participation. “Some people were really excited, and they wanted to know about my routine, my eating plan and what the experience entailed,” Haley said. “On the other hand, a lot of people said things like, ‘Don’t get too big, because men don’t like that,’ or, ‘Don’t hurt yourself,’ or, ‘Don’t change your body in a way that’s not appealing.’”

Haley wondered how others navigated the pushback faced by women in strength-training sports. While exploring the topic, she found that most books focused on men. That coverage gap sparked the idea for her 2020 nonfiction release, ‘Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers and Unstoppable Athletes.’ The book chronicles women in sport, explores cultural factors that work against female athletes and documents the challenges that adventurous women have faced while breaking barriers.

Haley at the charity climb of Mount Rainier, 2018.

Girls receive implicit and direct messages about qualities like strength, speed, power and competitiveness starting at a young age. Haley, for example, grew up playing basketball, doing ballet, gymnastics, and dabbling in soccer, swimming, track and tennis. At the time, she recalled, society encouraged women to be thin—but not necessarily strong. “I remember wanting to be faster and more agile, and I wanted to build endurance. I never really wanted to be stronger. It wasn’t something that occurred to me to pursue in order to improve as an athlete,” Haley said.

In adulthood, she found herself missing the routine and camaraderie of sport. She decided to train for a marathon and that experience inspired her to aim higher. After successfully summiting Mount Rainier, a 4,392m (14,410ft) peak located south of Seattle, Haley completed the annual Seattle to Portland cycling event. The ride covers more than 321,870m (200 miles) of rugged terrain in America’s Pacific Northwest. “Once I’d pursued those goals, I wanted to do something that scared me more. That turned out to be bodybuilding,” Haley said. “I was not excited about walking on stage in five-inch heels and posing in a tiny, sparkly bikini. Bodybuilding takes an incredible amount of dedication. You can’t just show up on the day and grit your way through, the way you can with other athletic pursuits.”

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