Shanice Hairston hoisted the massive circus dumbbell above her head with ease, and with an infectious grin.
The piece of metal rested in Hairston’s fully extended arm for 20 seconds before she gently lowered it to the floor inside her go-to gym, Tri-Star Roanoke, on Friday afternoon.
These days, Hairston has plenty of reasons to smile. For one, she’s part of a select group of women known as the strongest in the world.
Hairston proved her might this month at the annual Arnold Amateur Strongwoman World Championships, vanquishing personal records and almost all of the competition.
Arnold Strongman and Strongwoman competitions were created by Arnold Schwarzenegger, a bodybuilder turned actor and former governor of California. The contests test strength athletes in weightlifting, agility and endurance events.
The sport has recently gained more attention as the Icelandic actor who plays Gregor Clegane, a.k.a. the “Mountain,” on “Game of Thrones,” Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, won the men’s title two years in a row.
At this year’s competition, Hairston dominated in the Strongwoman amateur heavyweight division. She carried large stones and lifted metal log bars on her way to a second overall finish.
Now, a professional career is more attainable than ever.
“That’s the goal,” said Hairston, as she easily cleaned and pressed a log bar well above her shoulders. No matter what happens, the 26-year-old who lives in Salem will give it her best shot, with humility.
Hairston grew up in Henry County and graduated from Magna Vista High School. A high school athlete, Hairston competed in Division I athletics as a shotput and discus thrower for Virginia Tech.
After college, Hairston landed in Roanoke for a job in social work.
But she missed the adrenaline rush.
Hairston tried different workout programs, including CrossFit, but it never felt right. Her body wasn’t quite built for it, she said. Powerlifting was more her style.
Tyler Perdue, the owner of Tri-Star Roanoke, had a different idea. With Hairston’s combination of athleticism and strength, she could dominate skill-based competitions in the sport of Strongman.
That conversation happened two years ago. Hairston trained and lifted more frequently than she ever had, and ascended in the sport. She quickly captured regional, national and worldwide honors. In the 2018 Arnold Amateur Strongwoman competition, Hairston finished fourth in the heavyweight division.
This year, the competition was held in Columbus, Ohio, and Hairston’s talent was unmatched in several events, leading her to the third and final day of the competition. Of the four finalists, Hairston finished first in the circus dumbbell press, lifting an approximately 130-pound weight above her head three times in 35 seconds.
But in the deadlift event, Anna Harrjapaa of Sweden, completed four more reps and won with a total score 1.8 points higher than Hairston’s.
Finishing first among American competitors was a major accomplishment for Hairston, and she hopes it will help her earn her pro card. Typically, only one card is awarded at the competition each year. “I’m still holding out hope,” she said.
Hairston has a solid support network. Her training partner, Monica Johnson, lives in Charlottesville and finished fourth overall in the competition this year. A former professional Strongwoman, Heather “Cookie” Hunter, is a member of Hairston’s gym.
Hairston also credits Perdue and others in the community who lift one another’s spirits in addition to enormous weights.
When she’s not training, Hairston is working. She’s employed by the U.S. Postal Service, and serves as an assistant coach for the Hidden Valley Middle School track and field team.
She’s also raising a 7-year-old, Talayah, with her partner, Kiana Moaney. On Friday, she had to leave an interview with The Roanoke Times in a hurry to make it to a dance recital.
Hairston urged anyone interested in the sport of Strongman to act.
“My advice would be, find a great gym with great people. Find a great coach,” Hairston said. “It’s hard work. The thing about lifting and this sport, there’s always something to work on.”