Inspiring athlete Leigh Holland-Keen knows that being a Strongwoman means smashing more than just records – it’s about breaking the mould.
At just 29, Leigh became the second woman to ever lift the legendary Dinnie Stones, named after Donald Dinnie who carried their 332kg weight over the Potarch Bridge in Aberdeenshire. It had not been done by a woman in over 50 years. In the blink of an eye, Leigh became an icon for female athletes everywhere. Despite being bombarded with sponsorship offers and interview requests from publications around the world, she was kind enough to give us 20 minutes of her time to answer our questions.
You were born in Scotland and later moved to Australia, but where do you feel is your ‘home’ – where do you represent?
“Absolutely Scotland. As soon as I get off the plane, I just have this feeling that I’m home. My heart definitely lies in Scotland. “
What has been your proudest career moment so far?
“I think that so far, the Dinnie Stones seems to be the pinnacle of it. I guess because it was such a big goal to set for myself. With most of my other Strongwoman goals it’s more like if you put in enough work you’ll get there – but with the Dinnies, you don’t get to train with the stones themselves. It was such a big goal to achieve.”
Do you remember the moment that you realised that you were able to compete in strongwoman seriously?
“I first started competing in 2010 and then just a year later was invited to World’s Strongest Woman, which is the pinnacle of the (Strongwoman) sport. I went from being a novice to a worldwide competition with quite a quick turnaround. Being surrounded by all the powerful women gave me the fuel to say that this is what I love doing and I haven’t really looked back since.”
Who are your biggest role models and inspirations?
“Growing up in Scotland it was always about World’s Strongest Man at Christmas, but the females I saw at the start of the sport are my inspiration- they broke the mould – set the bar for us. Pioneers like Jill Mills and Jackie Young just did wonders for the sport- it wouldn’t be what it is without them. They were not only physically but mentally strong which was not the norm. They really broke that barrier and helped females to get out there. “
This is not to say that the barrier is knocked flat just yet. Leigh herself has spoken out on Instagram against online trolls in the wake of her Dinnie Stone success:
“Since the Dinnie Stone lift, I have been tagged in multiple posts that are full of derogatory comments about my gender, my looks and my physical strength. In the 8 years I’ve been competing in the strength world I have had to deal with this, I have built up the mental resilience to completely ignore the negative content as that just distracts me from what I am trying to achieve. It is wasted energy on small people in a very large world.”
Her confidence is admirable and it’s certainly no surprise that a woman who pulls trucks and lifts logs is this mentally resilient. But what does she make of the social attitudes towards women in the media?
“I don’t know if I would call myself a feminist– I won’t go burning my bras but it’s important to make sure we’re equal. As much as things are improving I think we’re still behind. I do enjoy helping females and letting them know that it’s ok to be strong – especially young girls. It’s perfectly ok to do this – just because you’re female that doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your goals.”
Her Strongwoman goals are clear – but what of her goals as an advocate for strong women? How does she plan to make her voice heard?
“Because of the social media things increasing for me – I’m not one to get excited for getting new followers- but there has been such an intense increase in followers. I hope that I can use this to get it out there for females. People have messaged me saying this is fantastic, it’s so good you’re doing this.
I think getting to children at a young age is very important, for little girls to be aware that you can do things, it’s not ok for someone to put you down, it’s important to get to the younger generation and start from there. “
It’s somewhat saddening that ‘feminist’ has become such a tricky word to use in such situations, but it speaks volumes about the prejudices of society. Leigh’s advocacy has already made a positive impact on her local Australian communities but there is still a long way to go. Luckily, Leigh is supported by those around her and will certainly continue to make waves:
“I have such a positive influence from my mum and stepdad from early teenage years. They’re mentally strong and goal-orientated. If I set myself a goal, I can’t kind of veer left or right, it’s just a straight line.
While my social life has definitely been affected, there’s been plenty of support. As a nurse, you’re working awful shifts and any time you do have spare I put into my training and meal planning and you don’t have a great deal of time to relax. While I’ve become distant with some friends, the people who are close to me understand. Things happen in life and I deal with them, so they can’t distract from my goals.”
But are her goals so one-eyed? One of the biggest misperceptions of feminism is the outright rejection of femininity rather than its use as a tool of empowerment. Leigh, despite being hesitant to call herself a feminist, calls on her inner strength and discipline as a means of celebrating her own sense of femininity.
“I also have other goals too – one day I would like to have a child. This is one of the reasons that I’ve never used performance-enhancing supplements or drugs.
I think that a lot of people want to get to the top as quick as they can- people are ego driven and competitive. I have had the temptation over the years to take performance-enhancing drugs – I’m at a competitive level and sometimes it feels unfair.
But if I were to interfere with my fertility to get on the podium, I would regret that so much. Those are my reasons but it’s everyone’s choice. You can get to a high level without using steroids – I’ve represented for Australia over the years without steroids or performance-enhancing drugs.”
She is not female and strong – she is strong because she is a female.
Next time you see Leigh Holland, it will probably be on TV. She plans to continue competing in World’s Strongest Woman and other Strongwoman titles for years to come.