When I was in elementary school, figuring out who was the strongest kid was very simple'whoever could do the most pullups earned bragging rights, and if there was any further doubt, you could take things to the mat and wrestle it out. It was obvious who took top honors in my grade school because we had a kid who not only ruled on the pullup bar but was also a formidable wrestler. The tough part was that the kid in my school wasn't even a hockey player. The kid was a girl! In retrospect I realize how lucky we were. As strong as Meredith was, we should have been glad that we didn't have Shannon bruising our egos as well as kicking our rear ends.
Shannon Hartnett got an early start as an athlete: 'Even when I was a little kid, I'd leave in the morning and come home at nine o'clock at night. I was always climbing trees and riding my bike.' Shannon'who's such a well-known personality that no last name is required'competed as a heptathlete in college, did a stint as a bodybuilder, has dominated women's Highland Games and has been an avid diver for years. Along the way she took a shot at Mount Everest, appeared in the 'World's Strongest Woman Competition' on TV, played professional football and came close to making the '02 U.S. Olympic bobsled team. When we call her Wonder Woman, it's not just in wonder of what she's done but also because we wonder what she'll do next.
Standing 5'8', Shannon weighs 148 pounds and impresses as something like the perfect mesomorph: muscular and trim. Shannon says she's weighed the same since she was 14, and because she loves chicken, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, she's never had to struggle to stay lean. If anything, she says, she has to work to keep her weight from dropping.
'I've been in sports my whole life,' she explains, noting that she played Little League baseball and Pop Warner football. 'I was better than any of the boys, always the first kid picked for things like kickball.' Considering that Shannon is 38, you can see how far ahead of her time she was in terms of bringing sexual balance to the sports world.
Jan DeSoto got Shannon started throwing the wire hammer, which led him to bring her to a Scottish Games. Things have never been the same. The 12-time USA Highland Games champion and nine-time world champion has dominated the women's side of the sport. Take the weight for height, a classic power event: Shannon's broken the world record more times than she can easily count, and while just a couple of years ago her best mark was 17-something, at the time of this writing she'd just reset the world record at 19 feet.
Don't think all this success means that Shannon's life is just a cruise down Easy Street. Because of her broad interests, instead of having to deal with the politics of just one sport, she gets multiple doses of the same-old same-old. Then there's the issue of her gender.
Women do have it tougher than men, Shannon declares, because whenever a woman succeeds, people tend to say, 'Oh, she does drugs,' or, 'Oh, she just sleeps with everyone.' When I spoke with her, I pointed out that men get hit with the same drug accusations but not the one about casual sex. 'He'd be a hero,' Shannon replied, if someone thought he was sleeping around a lot. 'Women take a lot of bashing, and they're programmed to do the same thing [to each other].'
The latter point took a literal twist recently when Shannon played professional football in a women's league. She was a running back, and every play revolved around her. That made her the target of a lot of not just hitting but dirty hitting. In one game alone there were seven penalties against other players for hitting her after the whistle. Shannon left the game with a concussion, along with a broken thumb, and was throwing up for the next 24 hours. 'I think women are much more brutal and cutthroat,' she says.
Regarding any cheap-shot specialists who might target her, Shannon explains that their goal is to try to get her to quit. If she'd listened to them, she'd 'be lying on a couch eating bonbons.' Her response is 'to put a wall' around herself and do what she loves to do. Shannon loves throwing and strongwoman competitions, with 'all the different implements, the constant change.' So that's what she's going to keep doing.
Appearance sometimes conflicts with performance in strongwoman competitions, but Shannon's view is that the 'World's Strongest Woman Competition' isn't really a test of who the strongest woman is and that if everyone understood that, the conflicts would disappear. As she puts it, citing the 2002 program: 'It's a game show. That's the bottom line. It was fun.' And she wants to go back.
When asked about her training, the first thing she mentions is squats, and the second is deadlifts. Squatting much more like a weightlifter than a powerlifter, she might do something like 385 pounds for five reps and hit something similar in the deadlift. The deads are a fairly new thing for her, but they're helping her in both Highland Games and strongwoman competitions, and she's recently started doing them both on the same day, Tuesday, so her lower back has more time to recover before her next workout. Wednesday is power cleans and push presses, and Shannon says that she can power-clean 185 pounds pretty easily. Pressing it is much tougher for her. She's also likely to do power snatches on Wednesday, performing high reps with 135 pounds, for example, partly as cardio training. Thursday is sprints or some hill work, Friday is a rest day, and the weekend is for event training or competition.
Beyond her involvement in sports, Shannon runs a women's gym, Body Central, in Santa Rosa, California, which she opened because she noticed all through college that women tend to feel out of place in co-ed gyms. 'They felt they had to be dressed to a tee to come in and train,' Shannon recalls, 'and here they can come in with their bedheads and old workout clothes. They don't have to primp for an hour to come in.' Shannon emphasizes that Body Central is more than just a gym. It's a place for women to network and a wellness center that offers serious things like mammograms and 'fun stuff like belly dancing.' ALL Watch Wonder Woman on the field, and you're likely to see a number of fans in her wake, including girls and young women who can't wait to do as she does. Shannon loves speaking to these audiences. 'I use sports as the catalyst,' she explains, 'to talk about goal setting, building confidence and developing competitive qualities.' Sounds as if everyone comes out of this deal on the winning side.
Editor's note: This article is an excerpt from the December '03 issue of MILO, Randall Strossen's quarterly strength magazine. Strossen is also the author of IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies; Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks and Paul Anderson: The Mightiest Minister. For more information call IronMind Enterprises Inc. at (530) 265-6725 or Home Gym Warehouse at 1-800-447-0008, ext. 1. Visit the IronMind Web site at www.ironmind.com. IM
Wonder Woman Training Philosophy
Keeping her eye on the ball, Shannon says she goes to the gym to train, not to socialize: 'My philosophy is to get in the gym and do as much as I can in as short a period of time as I can,' focusing on 'movements that engage a lot of muscle groups, are explosive and that mimic my sport. Unless I'm injured, I don't use machines.'
Squats, snatches, cleans, deadlifts'big movements that build core stability'are center stage for Shannon: 'I don't do isolation exercises,' she says. 'If they don't get enough work with the other stuff, I figure I don't need it. I'm not a big rep person, unless I'm going into a competition with a lot of reps. I like to go heavy, but I try to maintain my speed and keep my form.' To reduce the risk of injury, though, Shannon says that she doesn't max out on squats and deadlifts, and she prefers heavy triples to heavy singles, partly so that when she goes to a contest, she doesn't have a certain number locked into her head as her P.R.
Commenting on her running (hill repeats and intervals on the track), Shannon says, 'It helps in things like the strongwoman medleys and harness pulls,' where stamina and cardiovascular fitness are big factors. Noting that the one drawback to her running is that it holds her bodyweight down ('I've been the same weight since I was 14'), Shannon explains that since she comes from a running background, it's a natural thing for her to include in her training. 'I love running hills until I feel like I'm going to puke. I love the feeling. You can't drive home because your legs are shaking so much. I just love that.'