Article written by Alanna Casey
Background: The Arnold Sports festival is one of the biggest sports festivals in the United Sates. It draws hundreds of thousands of people to Columbus, Ohio to experience the madness. Some come as competitors, some come as viewers, and some come just for the experience of being surrounded by other “strong” people.
2014 was my second year at the Arnold. I had competed in 2013 and won the title as the Arnold Amateur Strongwoman Fitness Champion. 2013 was the first year that strongwomen premiered at the Arnold as a competitive show. It was named “Fitness Strongwoman” as there was only one weight class (under 150.4 lbs).
This year there were two strongwomen weight categories. One class was a combination of middleweights and lightweights (150.4 lbs) and second was a heavyweight (unlimited) weight class. This year, I won the overall title for the middle/lightweights and Kristin Rhodes won the heavyweight division. I believe that there were 14 total light/middleweight women and 10 total heavy weight women. But, only the top four women made it do the second day of competition. There were five events on Friday: monster dumbbell clean and press, super yoke, Husafel carry, farmers carry, and a deadlift medley. Strongman is scored by points. An athlete gets more points when she does better in an event and typically the maximum points available for each event corresponds to the total amount of competitors. For example, if there are 10 women competing, the first place finisher of an event would be awarded ten points for that event. Second place would be awarded nine points, and so on. After day one events, all points were recalculated/weighed to reflect the change to from 10 competitors to the top four competitors who would compete day two. This year, the recalculation meant that the two point gap between first and second place was converted to less than a point gap going into day two events. This recalculation does not happen in an all multi-day strongman competitions, but it is typical for the Amateur Arnold competition.
Weigh ins: Feb 27, Thursday: 8:00-10:00am and/or 4:00-6:00 pm
Rules Meeting: Feb 27, Thursday: 7:00 pm
Day One Events: Feb 28, Friday: 8:00 am, Competition start (five events)
Day Two Events: March 2, Sunday: 1:30 pm, Top Four, completion start (two events)
My experience: I will now begin the tale of my experience this weekend…
Three weeks before the Arnold, I competed in a prestigious powerlifting competition, The Raw Unity Meet. I weighed exactly 158.0 lbs at the meet. I knew I would have to cut eight lbs after that meet in order to weigh in at a maximum weight of 150.4 lbs at the Arnold, three weeks later.
My decision to compete in Raw Unity was not an easy one. It meant that I would have to peak in static strength while simultaneously trying to peak for strongman three weeks later. It meant I would have to travel across the country twice within a three week span. Ultimately, it meant I was sacrificing my performance in both competitions in order to train for the two different sports. I made the decision that I would do it anyway. Powerlifting is at the core of my strongman programing so I figured I could get away with it. But, the reality was that I gave up 3 weeks of event training, and I paid the price for it by feeling under prepared for the Arnold. I was very strategic with my training and did the best that I possible could to prepare myself for both events. I knew that I would have to time my programming perfectly, and I knew that I inevitably I was sacrificing my Arnold performance. That was a fact I accepted. At the same time, I really wanted to win the Arnold. It was more important to me than RUM. But, I felt I needed to legitimatize myself as a raw powerlifter; especially since Titan Support Systems is one of my sponsors. So, I did Raw Unity, hit 3 new powerlifting personal records (386 squat/237 bench/451 deadlift) then, I turned around 3 weeks later and competed in the Arnold Strongwoman Fitness.
I started my weight cut about ten days out from the Arnold. My plan was to cut about 3-4 lbs with my diet and 3-5lbs through water manipulation. I slowly started cutting my carbs and lost 2 lbs after about 5 days. About 4 days prior to weigh-ins I started water/sodium loading. I weighed 154.6 lbs two days prior to weigh ins. One day before weigh-ins I was 153.4 lbs. I knew that I was perfectly on track but that I couldn’t drink more than about 2 cups of water that day and that I couldn’t eat past breakfast. This made my four hour plane ride to Columbus extremely uncomfortable. I even started spitting in a cup to try and get out a bit more water weight. Wednesday night I weighed myself and was 150.0 lbs. Since I know that I typically lose about a lb when I sleep, I allowed myself about 1 cup of water before I went to bed.
On Thursday Morning, I weighed in as early as possible. At about 8:30 am I stepped on the official competition scale and weighed in at 149.6 lbs. I immediately started rehydrating with Pedialyte and Emergen-C and refueling with simple carbs (a white bread bagel). I then had a huge breakfast with protein, a ton of carbs, and a ton of water. My job for the rest of the day was to eat, drink, and rest. Rather than try and stuff myself, I tried to keep a steady stream of food and water all day long.
By the rules meeting (7:00 pm), I felt okay but, not my best. I felt heavy and slow to be honest. But, I didn’t want to appear that way. At the elite level, strongman is just as much a mental battle, and it is a physical battle. I made sure to ask a question that I thought might place stress on my fellow competitors. I asked, “Suppose I’m in first place going into day two, will I get to see second-fourth place log attempts before I put in my attempt?” I wanted to communicate the fact that I planned on winning. I wanted my competition to start worrying about me before the first event even started. I wanted to get inside their heads; I wanted them to know that, in my mind, I’d already won.
Note: I was not so mentally brutal when I first started strongman. There was no reason to be like that when I was a beginner. But, I now enter every completion with one goal: to win. I do not enter to participate or to compete. I enter to win. In ANY sport, if you are competing to win, your mental game is important. Your interaction with your competition matters. How you present yourself matters, if you come across as stressed/worried/nervous, your competition will sense that. If your competition goal to win, they will feed off your nervousness; your nerves will enable them to succeed. For that reason, I always make a conscious effort to present myself as calm, cool, and collected when I’m in a competitive setting.
I got to bed at a reasonable hour on Thursday night and woke up early to get to the convention center by 7:15 am on Friday. Honestly, I did not wake up feeling strong. I woke up feeling tired. But, I did everything I could to not let that show. After all the athletes gathered and a group picture was taken, we were told the show would begin.
I was in heat three of four during the monster dumbbell clean and press. The dumbbell is one of my stronger events, and I confidently approached my dumbbell before the start of my heat. After the starting whistle went off, I did a few reps and remember thinking to myself, “Why are you going so slow Alanna? Speed the f*** up!” I quickened my pace a bit and ended with 12 reps. I knew that Maya Winters was going to be my biggest competition and watched her closely in the heat after me. Her form had drastically improved from last year, but she ended with 11 reps, and I felt good about my first event win.
Yoke was next. I got my chalk and was getting myself set up when I heard the MC said “Athletes ready!?” I responded with “NO!” but a second after came the “start” whistle and I figured that I better get up and go anyway! My time was decent, and I won my flight but I wasn’t particularly happy with it. I should have either been ready at the start whistle or been more adamant that I wasn’t ready. Maya went next, and I was confident she had beaten my time. Originally she had been given a 2 second time penalty for dropping/sliding the yoke before the finish line. But, I was told that she had video, and was disputing the call. However, I couldn’t be concerned with that. It was not anything I could control and so I didn’t pay any attention to it.
When the updated score sheet came out I did look at it to see the current point spread. The score sheet reflected that I had come in third in the yoke event. I knew that wasn’t right and that the judges had recorded the incorrect time for one of the competitors in my flight (an athlete from Finland). I knew that because I was shown the stopwatch from my time and Finland’s time directly after the event. I brought this up to Dionne Wessels (event director), and she corrected it.
The Husafel carry was next. The top three competitors were together in the last heat. That heat included myself, Maya, and the competitor from Finland. Before the start, I told my judge, “Tell me when they (Maya and Finland) drop it.” My strategy was to hold onto the Husafel until I knew everyone else had dropped. Then, I would know what distance I had to reach in order to beat the others. I picked up the stone, and it didn’t feel light. I started on a decent pace, but I wasn’t at all quick. Even though I had a good pick on the stone, it was starting to feel heavy to me. I was getting tired. I heard a “thunk!” next to me, and I knew Finland was done. My judge was telling me, “Keep going!” It was getting very painful, but I kept going. I heard another “thunk!” and I knew it was Maya. I said, “How much further do I have to go?” My judge replied, “Ten feet, just go ten feet!” I gathered myself and “sprinted” about 15 feet further. I stopped and asked my judge, “Did I win!? Am I good!?” He said, “Yes, you’re good!” I threw my shield down in front of me and dropped my knees and crawled off the field. I felt good; I did what I needed to do, my strategy worked… and then I saw the score sheet. I was scored second in that event. I went over to the scores keeper and before I even said anything she blurted, “I know, we miscounted. Maya was ahead of you by a lap when she dropped it. You really needed to go further.” I responded with, “okay, thank you.” I wasn’t upset with my judge. He did what I asked him to do. It was unrealistic for me to ask him to keep track of my competition and me. I knew Maya started off on a faster pace than me, and I was the one who made the decision to drop the Husafel. It was no one’s fault but my own.
Going into farmers, I felt that I NEEDED to win the event. I thought to myself, “It’s only 75 feet, and its only 175lbs a hand. I will do whatever it takes to win this event.” Finland and Maya were in my heat. I was ready this time. I knew exactly what I needed to do. As soon as the whistle sounded I was off. I was in the lead, and I knew it. I just needed to get across that line. About ten feet before the line I felt unbalanced. I was leaning forward a bit too far, and I knew I was going to fall. I thought, “Just get across that line! Just hold on to them across the finish line!” So as I was falling forward I was still trying to push those damn farmers across the finish line. I hit the concrete pretty hard. I immediately jumped up, asked my judge if I’d been given a time penalty and stormed off towards my lifting bag. I ripped off my lifting belt, screamed “FUCK!” and slammed my hard belt, and then my soft belt into my bag. I walked outside of the contest area, leaned up against unused strongman wheel barrows and put my head down. My fellow competitor Sue Metcalf came up to me, patted me on the back and said, “Let it go mate,” and walked away.
After Sue walked away, I took a minute to appraise the injuries I had sustained during my fall. I had a bloody left hand, and long scratch down my right arm, and a couple red marks on my right thigh; they were all superficial, and I wasn’t concerned about them. What I was worried about was my left calf. It was hurting badly. I must have smacked it into the farmers on my way down. I thought to myself, “It’ll just bruise. It can’t be anything too bad. There’s just muscle belly there.” But, I found myself beginning to limp. As soon as my limping was brought to my attention I stopped it. I couldn’t be seen limping. That would just be fuel for the competition. I needed to act uninjured. Besides, more than anything, my pride was hurt. How could “Alanna Casey” fall on farmers? It was practically impossible, but here it most certainly happened. I had video to prove it.
I stood there, with my head down for a few minutes and then walked back toward the athlete area. I sat on a chair, crossed my arms, and looked straight ahead. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t smile. I just sat there in rage. About 5-10 minutes later, heavyweight competitor Zim Kimmerman approached me. She told me to calm down and regain my focus. She commented that if I just would have slowed down, just a tad, on my farmers, that I wouldn’t have taken a tumble. I remained closed off while she spoke but, slowly felt myself softening as Kim went on. She was adamant that I was letting my anger get to me; that I would be perfectly okay if I calmed down, refocused, and let my frustration go. I knew she was right.
Zim was right; I wasn’t out of this contest. My fate was still in my control. Deadlift medley was next. I wasn’t looking forward to it at all, but I just needed to get through it. I was hoping the deadlift medley would just be 3-4 different one time pulls but it wasn’t. The medley involved carrying a light sandbag and then 45lb plate into a deadlift “pan,” and deadlifting that pan as many times as possible in the time remaining. I was the quickest on the carries, but the deadlift was painful. Each rep felt heavier than the next. By the 5th or 6th rep I was grinding them out. I didn’t know how many reps I had; I just tried my best to keep pulling. I ended that event with 18 reps, which was good for second.
After day one, I felt awful. I returned to the house I had rented with my fellow strongwomen Nia Llenas and Amenah Razeghi, and strongman Kalle Beck. I felt feverish and weak. Nia and Amenah said they thought I was dehydrated, and I agreed with them. However, I didn’t feel like eating and I didn’t feel like drinking. I forced some Gatorade and down then felt nauseous. I made the decision then that I would not go to the convention center the next day. I would use the day in between events to only rest, eat, drink, and repeat. I figured I could go to the convention center and make my sponsors happy by taking pictures and meeting people, or I could win. To me, it was more important to win, so I decided to stay in and rest.
Kristin Rhodes asked me how I was doing, and I told her I was sick. She recommended that I take a contrast shower and that doing so would help to “reset” my central nervous system. So, that’s what I did. I took one contrast shower in the morning and one before I went to bed. The contrast shower included 1.5 minutes of warm water immediately followed by 1 minute of very cold water, for three rounds. Nia says that contrast showers are, “the bee’s knees” but I say, “they suck.” It was very challenging for me to force my whole body and head under the cold water, but I trust Kristin, and I listened to her advice. I’m glad I did. I definitely think those contrast showers helped me.
By the time I went to sleep I was feeling better but, not 100%. I never posted my “sick” status on Facebook or took any pictures. In fact, I only told Kristin and fellow competitor Sue Metcalf about my condition. And I asked both of them not to tell anyone else about the state that I was in. I didn’t want my competition to know that I was barely hanging on. I wanted them to assume I was in great condition and that I was ready for battle.
I remember walking up the stairs and having a brief vision of Maya with the first place medal. I immediately shook my head and replaced that vision with one of myself on stage with the first place medal. Every time I had a negative thought I replaced it with thoughts of my success, the announcing of “Alana Casey” as the 2014 Arnold Strongwoman Fitness Champion. I had to KNOW that I would win. I had to let my mistakes go. I had to ignore that fact that Maya had beaten me in more events on day one. I had to completely shut out the memories from day one. I had to pretend it never happened. I had to envision day two as a blank slate. I had to regain my focus and put my frustration aside. I need to put every emotion aside, and that’s what I did.
Day two I was grateful I didn’t need to be at the venue until noon. I slept in as late as possible and had a solid breakfast. Sue Metcalf had volunteered to help me during day two since she was done competing (she placed fifth). When I got to the venue, I was not yet allowed behind the stage. I used my bag as a pillow and laid down until the athletes were allowed to set up behind the stage. Sue met me there and asked if I needed anything. She had brought Gatorade and energy gel packets for me which I was very grateful for. She asked me if I needed any cues on the log, and I asked if she would yell “stay TIGHT” after I had cleaned the log and had it on my shoulders. I asked her to yell “keep going” on the atlas stone if I ever took a break.
Day two also meant that we got to compete on the main stage, which is quite a feeling. There was a good amount of people watching us and bright lights were shining down to illuminate the athletes. There was also someone filming us so we could be shown on multiple big screens for the viewers further back from the stage. I perform best under pressure, so this set up was the best possible situation for me. Before starting the events, all competitors’ names were announced as we were called up on the main stage. “In second place, ALANNA CAAASSEEYYYY!!” Michael Johnston was the master of ceremonies which immediately comforted me. Michael had been the VP of North American Strongman, so I was used to hearing his voice over the speakers. I ran up on stage and smiled in excitement. There were so many people, and they were cheering and shouting! I loved the energy and felt my own energy levels drastically increase. This was it. This was MY stage, no one else’s; only mine.
After all competitors were announced I returned behind stage and continued getting my log gear readied. I put on my Titan wrist wraps, elbow sleeves, soft belt, Titan hard belt, my “SUPER HERO” Sox Box socks, SBD knee sleeves, and Olympic lifting shoes. There was a women’s log for the competitors to warm up with. I did one press with it empty and one press with an additional 50lbs. It felt light. It was a perfectly balanced Slater log, and I knew I was going to be good. I decided that 170lbs would be my opener and then 190 my second and 210lbs my third (you had to move by 20 increments which actually made my attempts easy to pick).
Log clean and press is one of my best events. So, I had to wait a bit for my first attempt as the other middleweight women opened with a weight lower than 170lbs. When my name was called, I jogged up and quickly cleaned and locked out the 170lbs. 190lb went up even better than 170 as my form was tighter. I had already won the event with 190lbs, but I wanted 210lbs. A couple women tried 190lbs and 210lb before me, but I refused to watch. I didn’t want to see anyone struggle with those weights. I didn’t want my brain to see someone else struggling and think that those were “heavy” weights. I needed to maintain my mindset that 210lb was a perfectly manageable weight. When my name was called, I chalked up, gave myself a little shout then went to work. I cleaned 210 decently, and took a couple seconds making sure I was properly set before I initiated my press. I dipped my hips back then drove up and started pressing. I thought, “Keep pressing, keep pressing.” Once I locked it out I gave a war cry as my judge, Pro Strongman Mike Mastell, signaled the “down” call. I guided the log down to the mat and jumped up in elation. I had done it; I had won this event and I knew that was big.
After getting off stage forced some food and Gatorade down and assumed my “sleep” position. One more event, I thought. I can do this. I changed my shoes, shorts, and t-shirt and geared up for the stone. About ten-fifteen minutes prior to when I thought I would go on stage, I put on my stone sleeves and tacky. There were two stones on stage so fourth and third place went before myself and Maya. After the log event, I was ahead of Maya so technically, I only needed to get second place in stones to win. As I walked on stage, I heard the MC announce that nine reps was the number to beat. I got myself ready and prepared for 75 seconds of hell. When I got to tenth rep, I knew that I had won it. Pride (of course) kept me going anyway. I went as fast as I could and just kept on going. I focused on keeping my form and keeping a decent pace. After the whistle blew, signaling our 75 seconds was over I turned around in exhaustion. Maya walked toward me and asked. “What you get?” I responded with “13.” Maya said, “me too.”
The contest was over, and we both knew I had won. I could now see her as another human being, and not just a competitor; someone who was only trying to block me from getting what I wanted. I could now speak to her and her to me. We both cleaned up our tacky behind stage and then spoke to each other. She told me, “I’m sorry if I didn’t seem friendly during the competition. It was just… competition.” I said, “Oh no, I get it. I was the same way. I felt like we had to be that way. We took each other seriously, and that’s just how it is.”
We spoke a bit more and then prepared ourselves to go back on stage to accept our awards. I felt relieved more than anything else. I had worked very hard, and this was my reward; the feeling of no regret. I had put my free time, money, my relationships, and my body’s wellbeing secondary to my desire to win. I had lost sleep, I had calculated my food and protein intake, I had revolved the last few months of my life around this competition. My sponsors had sent me products in hopes I would wear them for this competition and represent their companies well. I didn’t want to let them down and most importantly I didn’t want to let myself down, and I hadn’t. Relief was the overwhelming emotion that I felt. I had also done this of my own accord. I had previously worked with Jill Mills. She had done my programming for the past two and a half years. However, previous to this competition we both decided that I needed to spread my wings and fly (or fall) on my own. I had no “coach.” I was my own coach; I was doing my own diet, I was my own everything. I had a great powerlifting team I could lean on for powerlifting advice but no one to direct my strongman training. I had to figure it out on my own. Callie Marunde Best and Nick Best were very generous in allowing me to train out of their garage a few times and I am very grateful for that. But, I had to figure out what to do when I got there.
The Arnold was the ultimate test for me. Could I take what I have learned from my mentors Jill Mills, Kristin Rhodes, Steve Pulcinella, Dimitar Savatinov, and Nick Best and put it all together on my own? I drew tremendously from my instruction and programming with Jill. On game day, I drew from Kristin’s competition confidence and unwavering winning attitude. I applied technique tips I had been taught by Nick and Dimitar. I demonstrated my ability to be an asshole like Steve Pulcinella. I drew from all my role models, and I think I was able to do it in the right way. I was proud of myself.
Winning the title of 2014 Arnold Strongwoman Fitness Champion was not easy. It was hard. Everything about it was hard. Afterwards, my body was a wreck, and I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. But, it was worth it. Being the best was worth it.
Watch the full competition video HERE