In the Sport-light: Strongwoman Santina “Bam” Philips on how the sport empowers her
When you think of the word “strong” what images come to mind?
And what do you think of when we use “strong” to describe a woman? Would you think of bulk, muscles and manly?
Up until a few years ago when the prevalent thinking was “skinny is beautiful”, descriptions such as “a strong woman” would have conveyed unpleasant images of aggression, body building, and of being too rough and tough. But with a movement towards “strong is the new beautiful,” being strong – physically, emotionally and mentally – has become a new motto for women to strive for. Strength is cool and strength is in.
“It is empowering to be able to lift something, twice, three times and sometimes even more, my weight.”
In Hong Kong, one woman who is forging her path to being one of the strongest woman in the city (and in Asia) is Santina “Bam” Philips. Not only is Bam strong in the physical and competitive sense having won the Arnold Asia’s Strong Woman in both the Under 63kg and Under 65kg category and competed at The World’s Strongest Woman this past year in the US, but she’s also “strong” in the entrepreneurial sense having co-founded Ursus Fitness four years ago. In a short span of time, Ursus has grown from a small base on Lamma Island to a location in Cyberport and now to its current base near University of Hong Kong. With an ever-growing community, Ursus remains Hong Kong’s only strongman-focused gym.
What is strongman? Think flipping tires, carrying atlas stones (i.e., round balls made of concrete), farmers walk (walking with heavy weights) and such. Or you might have seen people attempting to pull trucks. It’s not crossfit or only powerlifting or weightlifting, but a display of strength that involves stamina and endurance with a wide variety of functional movements and elements such as repetitions, weight and time. Strongman may seem scary; in reality anyone can pursue it with a little training and persistence.
Why does Bam compete in Strongman? Simply, she finds it fun. It plays to her strength (she’s always been relatively strong), she’s always been interested in sports that are considered male-dominated, and activities such as long distance running and yoga are not entertaining enough. She loves how Strongman has given her a physique that makes her feel and look good in clothes. Most importantly – she is completely passionate about Strongman. To her, it’s empowering to be able to lift something extremely heavy, especially as someone who is neither huge nor bulky. She thrives on challenges – even if it scares her, and even if she faces self-doubt.
What is tenacious about Bam is how she doesn’t let fear or self-doubt hold her back. In fact when opportunities knock on her door she jumps at them – such as when the opportunity to start Ursus with business partner Gary Manwaring came about. Despite feeling too young (she was after all, only 24 years old at the time), Bam pursued. She doubted whether or not she had the entrepreneurial skills and the technical skills to coach students, but still, she did it. She didn’t want to be the only woman doing Strongman, but she also wanted to set an example that women could compete in this sport.
“Women predominantly train woman but rarely do women train men. But of course men train women all the time. There’s so much more stigma to women being personal trainers and teaching weightlifting. Women really have to prove themselves, to earn that respect.”
Along the way, Bam has become more assertive. She’s had to. She’s had to learn to talk over people and not let others bring her down. She’s had to prove to people around her that she can be an athlete, an entrepreneur and a coach. She’s learned to be humble as well, recognising that she doesn’t know everything. It is no surprise that Bam has found success: sports, competition and an entrepreneurial mindset often go hand-in-hand, and Bam herself has observed from Ursus that those who often work the hardest at the gym have great corporate jobs. There truly is something about sports that fosters ambition, drive and hunger for achievement.
And of course, she’s seen more women come through to Ursus to attend their various classes. Despite their initial fear and feelings of being intimidated – it is only natural, and men also feel it – Bam has seen that women are curious and partaking in Strongman and various strength challenges. It’s a positive sign, a move in the right direction that women are less concerned about being thin and moving towards wanting muscles and shape. After all, strong is beautiful and strength is empowering.