By Laura Anderson, @Scrawny_Beast
It’s been described as Christmas for Strength Athletes. It’s been deemed the Super Bowl of Strength Sports. Whatever you call it (as long as you don’t call it The Arnolds – that will get you a swift kick in the shin), athletes worldwide count down the months, weeks and days to the Arnold Sports Festival USA every year. Some are competitors, around 200,000 are spectators, but everybody agrees that it’s “kind of a big deal” and eagerly anticipates that first weekend in March when we all descend upon poor Columbus, Ohio, setting off elevator weight-limit alarms and clearing store shelves of chicken breasts, egg whites and gummy bears. And though there are over 80 sports represented, there’s little doubt that Strongman is one of the top attractions.
While the Pro Strongmen have long been a draw on the big stage, this is only the fourth year for the Pro Strongwomen at the Arnold, and they are raising the bar by leaps and bounds every year. Easily carrying 300lb Husafells, and repping out 220 axle presses and 500+lb deadlifts, these ladies are putting up numbers that many men in the sport would envy. Does your gym have one of those egotistical male athletes that brags incessantly about his sub-par numbers? Try cheerfully reminding him that some of the “lightweight women did more than that at the Arnold last year. I’m sure you’ll get there.” Maybe pat him on the head as you smile sadly and walk away.
This year’s event lineup includes a 140lb clean and press for reps on the 10” Rogue Monster Bell, a tackyless last-woman-standing 240lb stone over bar, a 525lb truck tire deadlift, a 500lb flip on a yet-to-be revealed implement, and a 525lb yoke/230lb farmers walk medley. Although the Arnold Pro Strongwoman event itself is not weight-classed, the competitors are qualified throughout the year from all three divisions, so some of the ladies lifting these weights competed and qualified below 140lbs. Sure, they’ve got a few months to beef up if they want, but it’s doubtful that anybody is pulling a Captain America and loading on 50lbs of lean muscle mass overnight. If you notice that some of them look awfully small up there, IT’S BECAUSE THEY ARE. In a lineup that includes some of the strongest heavyweight women in the world, there are two lightweights that were invited and agreed to compete. For the love of all that’s holy, if you see Christina or Jess this year, you treat them like the brave rockstars that they are and bow down to their awesomeness.
The primary qualifier for the Arnold Pro Strongwoman is the annual Strongest Woman in the World competition, where the top two finishers from each of the three weight divisions earn invitations. Additionally, the defending Arnold Pro Strongwoman champion is invited, along with one predetermined spot from each of the Arnold Sports Festivals in Australia, South Africa, and Spain. This year, the spot was the MW winner from Australia, the LW winner from South Africa, and the HW winner from Spain. Finally, the MW and HW winners of the Arnold Amateur in the prior year are qualified, so that they can spend their first year as pros in terrifying anticipation and preparation. That’s 15 total qualifying spots given out, with the assumption that some will decline and the goal of having 10 women onstage. If the competitor list drops below 10, then alternates will be invited based on placing at Strongest Woman in the World. Here are the ten ladies who make up the lineup for 2020:
Olga Liashchuk – Ukraine
Olga and I communicate mostly in emojis, so bear with me while I try to tell you just how great she is. Not only is she super fun and friendly, but she’s also the defending Arnold Pro Strongwoman champion. This will be Olga’s third trip to the Pro Strongwoman Stage – in 2017, she was on the big stage as an amateur finalist, and has been on the pro stage every year since.
She was the 2017 Strongest Woman in the World, and holds two Guinness World Records. No joke – she’s the fastest triple-watermelon-thigh crusher in the world. She also held a record for doing 50 reps of sumo deadlift at 70kg. Since strongmen don’t really acknowledge that sumo deadlifts, or anything over 15 reps, actually exist, this one hasn’t gotten the same attention, but let’s take a moment to appreciate that Olga sets a high bar and is well-accustomed to being in the spotlight. If you follow any of her social media accounts, you’ll see that she’s constantly making appearances in Eastern European game shows and talk shows. Their media celebrates strength athletes, while we’re just over here watching our serial killer documentaries.
She’s a professional athlete, she travels and competes constantly, and she isn’t fazed by flying across the world for a show. She’s proud of her title, and she’s here to defend it.
Danielle Vaji – USA
Instagram: – @muscledanibuffpants
It was her 17 reps on the 175lb axle press at Nationals in 2018 that first made us think “Huh. This lady might be okay at pressing some things.” Just in case we missed the memo, she went on to win the log press and the overhead medley at the Arnold Amateur, along with the deadlift (lest we deem her “Just a presser”) for the overall MW Amateur World Champion title, and qualifying her for the 2020 Arnold Pro Strongwoman. As if qualifying at an amateur show wasn’t quite proof enough that she belongs on the pro stage, Dani dropped in and casually snagged the MW Strongest Woman in the World title in August, so now she’s double-qualified. You know, just in case one falls through. She also set a fish-tossing record at that show, in a supreme display of salmon-slinging that impressed the entire Alaska State Fair. Salmon-slinging alone doesn’t pay the bills, though, so Dani also works as a Dallas police officer.
She’s a middleweight woman with a 285lb log press (no, that isn’t a typo), she’s definitely not a one-trick pony, and she’s perfectly capable of shaking things up in her first trip to the Arnold Pro Strongwoman stage. She’s got an impressive support system – she trains at MetroFlex Fort Worth, a well-known name in the strongman world, is sponsored by Cerberus Strength USA and is coached by the reigning 105k America’s Strongest Man, Terry Rady. She’s coming in hot, so bring your popcorn and get ready for a show.
Anna Harjapää – Sweden
Anna has competed in the Arnold Amateur four times, but this is her first trip to the pro stage. She earned her pro card, and her qualifying spot, by winning the Heavyweight Women division in the 2019 Arnold Amateur. Living the strongman dream, she trains and competes around the world with her husband, Magnus. She also works in a grocery store, which is the second half of the strongman dream. She has three teenaged sons, and I can only imagine that they are perfectly behaved, for fear of bringing down the wrath of Sweden’s Strongest Woman.
In addition to her four Arnold trips, she’s competed in World’s Strongest Woman four times, and won Sweden’s Strongest Woman in 2016. She’s no stranger to travel and big shows and will feel right at home in the Arnold Pro lineup.
Anna holds a world record for a 335kg/738lb silver dollar deadlift, which should translate well to this year’s 525lb truck tire deadlift. She told me that her Instagram handle, tigertofflan, translates to “tiger slippers,” but specified that it meant the big tiger slippers, with claws. I think that’s awesome and sincerely hope that she does at least one event in big fluffy clawed tiger slippers. I appreciate the imagery of a strongwoman outlifting the men each day before she even changes out of her pajamas.
Jessica Fithen – USA
Let me just go ahead and say that I can’t accurately summarize Jessica in a strictly PG (or even PG-13 or R) article, as she is a decidedly NC-17 personality. You’re going to have to follow her to truly understand the fascinating combination of adult-hilarity, heavy training and disdain for stupidity that make her Filthy Fithen. I mean, she got famous for a Facebook post of some seriously suspicious sausages, and then just rode that wave of fame right into a 2018 heavyweight Arnold Amateur win and the 2019 Strongest Woman in the World title. Okay, so the sausages were actually after the Amateur win, but they made such a fuss and stayed in our news feeds for so long that it’s tough to remember.
She’s got the base strength and stature that strongman coaches dream about, and Kalle Beck is the lucky duck that’s gotten to coach her to stardom.
Notably, Jessica recently founded You Look Like a Man, an online presence and lifestyle brand that promotes strength in women and combats negativity by, well, embracing it. The internet is an ugly place, and while lots of us struggle daily with embracing Thumper’s Golden Rule, there is a small but particularly distasteful crowd that seeks out female athletes just to belittle and criticize their strengths. In Jess’s own words, “Yes, I’ve thought about not caring, and have decided against it.” I can guarantee that you’re going to see a lot of “I Love Random Man Advice,” “Less Makeup More Chalk,” and “I Just Want to Tone” shirts around the Arnold this year. Personally, I’m waiting on the release of the “Women are Supposed to be Fluffy” muscle tank.
Christina Bangma – USA
She’s hands-down the most decorated lightweight American strongwoman. 2016 LW Champion at Pro Women’s Worlds. 2017 LW National Champion for both Strongman Corporation and USS. 2017 LW World’s Strongest Woman. 2018 LW Arnold Amateur World Champion. Seriously, she has more titles than some people have teeth. Athlete to the core, Christina owns a gym, IN-Strong, and is sponsored by SBD.
In her first trip to the Arnold Pro Strongwoman stage, she’s one of the two lightweight qualifiers thrown in with the big kids to lift heavyweight weights, against women from all three divisions, in front of a crowd. Let that sink in. How many people would willingly go up two weight classes, against the strongest competitors in the world, on a stage in front of a crowd of thousands who have no idea about qualifications or weight classes, and just expect you to lift like the heavyweights? Talk about volunteering as tribute. I’m going to take the liberty of speaking for all the lightweights out there and say that if anybody can make us look good, Christina can, and we’re glad to have her up there representing us.
Brooke Sousa – USA
Currently holding the title for America’s Strongest Woman, Brooke returns for her third trip to the Arnold Pro Strongwoman stage. Born, raised, and still living in Columbus, she has a serious home field advantage. She’s a full-time coach and personal trainer who gave up running marathons to commit herself to strength sports, and it seems to have worked out. In her five years of lifting, she’s spent four of them competing at the Arnold (one as an amateur), so that I’m gonna say that’s a pretty impressive ratio.
She says that her strongest event is yoke, which bodes well for the yoke/farmers medley on the pro stage this year. She’s no slouch at the other events, either, and she loves a crowd, so she’ll be in her element at the Arnold.
Brooke also founded The M Foundation, an organization that provides strength training and coaching for young people with autism. Between that, coaching full-time, raising her two daughters, and keeping up with her own training, she’s a busy lady. Still, she makes a point to compete and support the Pro Women’s class – she’s been a perennial competitor in every Strongest Woman in the World and America’s Strongest Woman since the class was founded in 2016.
Britteny Cornelius – USA
She’s back from injury, and she’s ready for prime-time again. Britteny was the 2016 Strongest Woman in the World, the 2017 America’s Strongest Woman, and then rather dramatically tore her Achilles during the yoke run at America’s Strongest Woman in 2018. She made her comeback for the 2019 Strongest Woman in the World to qualify for the 2020 Arnold Pro.
In Kokomo, Indiana (apparently not the one that the Beach Boys sang about), she is also the World’s Strongest FedEx Handler. If you’ve met Britteny, she probably didn’t say much. If you follow her online, you know that she loves art and metal music. My rating is “a delightful blend of muscle and tattoos that sits, smiling sweetly in the corner, until it’s time to step on stage and crush souls. 10/10 would party with but please not compete against Britteny.”
Bailey Deschene – Canada
She was the youngest Canadian to earn her pro card, at 21 years old. She was the middleweight champion of Ireland’s Strongest Woman in 2016 and qualified for the Arnold Pro Strongwoman with a 2nd place finish at the 2019 Strongest Woman in the World.
She’s competed in six different countries, so a little jaunt down to Ohio is hardly daunting for her. She works as a massage therapist in her gym, so she knows a couple of things about muscles and doesn’t have much of a commute to get from work to training every day. Yoke is her favorite event, which seems to be a theme among this year’s competitors – I’m expecting some blazing performances. We’ll have to wait and see how her 700-lb frame deadlift translates to the truck tire deadlift onstage – it sounds like a good sign.
She says she’s “pretty okay at lifting,” but at these weights, she’s mostly here to set some PRs and have fun. We can’t argue with that, but we’re excited to see what she can do.
Jess Theaker – Canada
Jess was so mortified at the idea of being noticed or talked about that the only picture she would let me share was one of us together, and she told me to talk about puppies and kittens instead of her strength accomplishments. To be fair, puppies and kittens are pretty awesome, but so is Jess.
Competing at the pro level takes, well, a lot of competing. You generally have to qualify to get to a show where you can have a chance to win a pro card, and then there are specific pro qualifiers for certain shows, and you can’t just skip in from out of nowhere to snag a big win. It’s one of the things I appreciate about our pro system – it takes a lot of commitment and there isn’t much room for one hit wonders. Jess has been at all four Strongest Woman in the World shows – I personally saw her flaming hair bebopping around Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Norway, and Alaska. Not only that, but she is the ONLY competitor to have been on the Arnold Pro Strongwoman stage for ALL FOUR YEARS of its existence. We joke about being the lightweights fighting it out for the 8th, 9th and 10th place spots in the Arnold Pro, but Jess actually started working up through the middleweights last year for a 7th place finish.
She’s the reigning lightweight Strongest Woman in the World. Her conventional deadlift is dangerously close to 500lbs, and we all saw her split jerk the 220lb axle onstage last year at the Arnold. Twice. Every time somebody congratulates me on a lift, my first thought is “I dono, Jess does more…” They barely make competitor shirts small enough for us, and we look like kids in oversized pajamas onstage, but the snickers stop when Jess starts lifting. We’re not even two peas in a pod – we look like two string beans in a pod, and I’m super excited to have her up there showing the world what scrawny strength can do.
Andrea Thompson – England
She’s won Britain’s Strongest Woman four times. She’s the 2018 World’s Strongest Woman. She’s also a wife, a mother of two, and a college assessor – so, you know, don’t screw with Andrea. She gets stuff done.
Check out this fun interview for some of Andrea’s story in her own words. It’s really neat to hear her talk about her journey, from CrossFit to Strongman, to entering Suffolk’s Strongest Man because she wanted the challenge of competing against men, to dealing with the overconfidence that can come with winning a big title. And of course, teleporting.
It’s her second trip to the Arnold Pro Strongwoman stage, and she made it to the podium in her debut. With yoke and deadlift among her best events, 2020 could be her year to top the podium. She’s definitely a contender for the title, and she’s not flying across the pond just for funsies. Although she is funsies. My favorite quote from this unapologetically muscular and strong woman? “I’m proud of my bum! If I could put a crown on it, I would.” As a horizontally challenged athlete who will never have a bum, no matter how hard I work, I’m super jealous.
Schedule Of Events
So, are you feeling ready to watch these ladies compete? Here’s when and where you can find them at the Arnold this year (but check the final schedule once you get there!):
Friday, March 6, 9:30-11AM on the Rogue Strength Stage
500 Pound Tire Flip
Friday, March 6, Noon-1PM in the Strongman Arena
Rogue Yoke Walk & Farmers Carry Medley
Friday, March 6, 9PM in the Battelle Grand Ballroom
Rogue Monster Dumbbell Press
Saturday, March 7, 12:30-2:30 p.m. on the Rogue Strength Stage
Last Woman Standing Atlas Stone Over Bar
About the Author:
Laura Anderson is a lightweight Pro Strongwoman. She won America’s Strongest Woman <140 in 2016, and has just kind of hovered around the podium (but rarely on top of it) ever since. She’s a firm believer in supporting the pro class, and has competed in every America’s Strongest Woman and Strongest Woman in the World since winning her pro card, as well as the last two Arnold Pro Strongwoman events. Relieved not to be qualified (or tapped as an alternate) this year, she will eat Cheetos and serve as the Master of Ceremonies while the other Pro Strongwomen do all the work. If you feel so inclined, you can follow her exploits and occasional deadlifts at Spider Strength Gym on Instagram @Scrawny_Beast