Kitsap native Haley Shapley features strong women in “Strong Like Her”

Says it’s OK to have muscles if you’re female

Haley Shapley has never been one to back away from a challenge.

Run a marathon? Done. Cycle from Seattle to Portland? No problem. And when she’s told she cannot do something, you’d better believe she’s going to do whatever it takes to prove that person wrong. That’s how she once found herself summiting Mount Rainier.

That drive to succeed palso led Shapley, an alum of Tracyton Elementary and Olympic High School, into a brand new discipline — body building.

At the time, Shapley was assisting with a fitness competition in Seattle. She had gone to Spokane to attend a competition to see how it was structured and on that day in the same building there was a body building competition.

As she watched, she thought body building might be an interesting new goal to pursue. Then came a doubting voice from a friend that confirmed it.

“You could never look like that, she said to me,” Shapley said. “I was like, OK, game on.”

Shapley was no stranger to the gym, of course, given her accomplishments. But even growing up as a multi-sport athlete — she swam, played basketball and tennis, and also tried ballet and gymnastics — she was never encouraged to lift heavy weights and get stronger as opposed to football players, who dedicate plenty of time to pumping iron.

“It just wasn’t something a lot of girls focused on,” Shapley said.

“Strong Like Her”

Shapley found a fitness coach in Seattle, worked and trained for nine months and then competed in Tacoma, and throughout her journey, she noticed there were strange attitudes toward the idea of women lifting heavy weights and putting on muscle mass in the still male-dominated worlds of body building and powerlifting.

A lifelong reader and writer — she started her career as an assistant editor at American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, and is now a Seattle-based freelance writer — Shapley saw an opportunity for another challenge. She wanted to tell the stories of women known for their strength, stamina and power in the hope of providing a resource of role models for young women and getting people to think about strength in a different way.

The result of a three-year-long process is “Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Athletes.” The book was published by Simon & Schuster in April.

The idea for the book mushroomed after receiving unusual advice during her time preparing for her body building competition. She would be told to “not get too strong” or “don’t become too bulky” because “men don’t like that.” She found that even the concept of women and strength still revolved around traditional norms of being a wife and mother, or more generally, the object of a man’s affection.

Although images of muscular women have certainly become more mainstream, especially thanks to the rise of TV shows such as “American Ninja Warrior” and the advent of fitness programs such as CrossFit, Shapley still found there were plenty of misconceptions surrounding women who strength train and wanted to explore the idea of finding beauty in strength and power.

“All of those lessons we learn in sports carry over into so many parts of our lives,” Shapley said.

“Strong Like Her” tells the story of 23 modern-day women — some of them famous, some lesser-known — against the backdrop of women’s exclusion from sport. There was once a time when women could not compete in the Olympics, and the 800-meter run was considered too taxing and outside the limits of feminine strength.

Perhaps the most famous story is Kathrine Switzer’s, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registerd competitor. Switzer registered with her Amateur Athletic Union number under the name K.V. Switzer, leading to the famous photograph of race manager Jock Semple trying to rip off her race number — though she noted that she had felt very welcome by the participants of the race.

Switzer was terrified after being accosted, but forged ahead and completed the 1967 race. The AAU barred women from competing against men thereafter, but the Boston Athletic Association established a women’s marathon in 1972 at the request of Switzer and other female runners.

Others stories featured in “Strong Like Her” may not be quite as well-known today. Shapley said the story she feels best encapsulates the book is that of Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton. A telephone operator during the Great Depression, Stockton disliked her sedentary job and wanted to pursue fitness, but there were few resources available for women at the time. She and her future husband, Les, put together a workout routine with dumbbells and, in time, she was performing amazing feats at Muscle Beach, such as lifting Les above her head.

Stockton later began writing a column in the highly-influential Strength & Health Magazine, and helped organize the first sanctioned weightlifting competition for women.

The women whose portraits are featured in the books were cold called. Shapley explained her idea and asked if they were willing to participate. She immediately received positive feedback.

“Everyone I reached out to understood the vision from the beginning and were eager to see a book like this come to fruition,” Shapley said.

And her conversations with the athletes only served as greater fuel to see the project through. The book features women such as Jaimie Monahan, an endurance swimmer who has completed six marathons on six continents; Jennifer Widerstrom, who appeared as a gladiator on the modern version of “American Gladiators” and was later a trainer on “The Biggest Loser”; Maggi Thorne, who appeared on “American Ninja Warrior” five times; and Jazmyn Jackson, a member of the U.S. National Softball team.

“I came away from each one really fired up,” she said.

Shapley’s book also features a local athlete — Sydney Olson, who competes in free running and parkour, is a 2011 graduate of South Kitsap High School. A quick Internet search of Olson’s name turns up a number of videos of Olson flipping and bounding over park benches, concrete pillars and any object that can create real-world natural courses.

Like Shapley, Olson entered a heavily male world and did not have many female role models. Olson’s story also dives into body image issues; growing up, Olson had been very self-conscious about her muscular legs until she discovered that was what gave her the power to compete.

“Many of us have these insecurities that we realize later on are actually our strengths,” Shapley said.

New Challenges Ahead

Putting together a book was unlike anything Shapley had ever done before. After writing the intro, she sat on the idea for about nine months and completed it just before the 2018 Winter Olympics. She then sent out a query letter to potential agents, signed with one, and completed a sample chapter before it was taken to publishers.

As a freelancer writer, Shapley was accustomed to spending a week or two researching and writing on a specific topic. Her book’s three-year journey to publication included revisions, fact-checking, organizing the narrative and choosing which photos go in the book. She even signed off on smaller details, such as the text font. Since the publication, Shapley has largely spent time promoting the book.

Although time spent on the book has taken away some of her training time, Shapley still has her eye on her next physical challenge. She suggested it might be an open water swim, like the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula.

“I’ve been trying to figure it out, I’m not 100 percent sure right now,” Shapley said.

“Strong Like Her” features a local athlete, South Kitsap graduate and free runner Syndey Olson. (Photo by Sophy Holland)

“Strong Like Her” features a local athlete, South Kitsap graduate and free runner Syndey Olson. (Photo by Sophy Holland)