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International Strongwoman athlete and strength and wellness coach Scarlett Harvey in Dubai. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: A once “seriously overweight” primary school teacher, who has now won the Strongest Woman title four times in a row, has shared her journey of transformation in the hope of inspiring others to lose weight and more important, get fit.

Originally from a small village in Buckinghamshire, UK, Harvey most recently won first place in an international competition in Dubai - Static Monsters, by deadlifting a whopping 235 kg - four times her own body weight.

She told Gulf News that she took on the world of the Strongman Games in July 2023, winning first place in Emirates’ Strongest Woman in her Under 64kg category. In September 2023, she won China’s Strongest Woman (U64kg) title. And in October, she travelled to the UK where she beat some of the world’s most famous Strongest Women to win the British Strongest Woman Championships.

What is the Strongwoman competition about?
Strongest Woman competitions are run and organised by various federations as with most sports. Typically, a competition would have five events to test strength including static strength, like that of Olympic weight lifters and/or powerlifters; dynamic strength, such as moving a heavy object from a to b as fast as possible; and pressing an object or multiple object overhead. Most implements used in the sport of Strongman are obtuse, large and difficult to handle. This makes the sport a spectacle to watch. There could be an event to throw an object for distance or height. An endurance event will test not only whether you can lift this heavy implement once but also how many times? Also on test would be agility, speed, cardio vascular, mental strength and resilience. The winner is someone who displays all of the above, static, dynamic, speed, agility, endurance. Most commonly, these events are over one day, however, international competitions can be spread over two-three days, adding an element of testing the athletes' recovery rate and ability to perform for a long duration of time.

Grit and glory

The 63kg, 5.1ft tall Harvey said even as recently as three years ago, she was “seriously overweight” with an unhealthy lifestyle, her battle with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) making things worse. However, in what is a story of sheer grit and glory, she changed her mental and physical relationship with nutrition, transforming her body and lifestyle to become one of the world’s strongest athletes.

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Scarlett Harvey is heavily into weight lifting which she says has many benefits. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Harvey revealed how one can easily end up on the wrong end of the scale if one is not careful. That is true even for active, outdoorsy people. “I was born and raised in a small village surrounded by countryside, so I spent a lot of time playing outdoors in the nearby forest or going on bike rides with friends. I was also a competitive gymnast from an early age, training hard six times a week. My father is passionate about motor sports and my mother is a golfer and a horse rider, so these activities too were part of my childhood experiences,” she said.

But in spite of such a background, things went awry. “When I was 14, I stopped competing in gymnastics and developed my skills as a coach. Other than coaching, I became quite inactive and like most young females, weight and body image were always a present thought, conscious or not.”

Change in lifestyle

It wasn’t really until she moved to Dubai, however, that she saw her weight begin to increase quite rapidly due to a change in her lifestyle. “Working here as a teacher, I used the school vacation time to travel and enjoy new experiences. During this time, the weight crept up on me faster than I became aware of it. Towards mid-2017, I was feeling rather uncomfortable and very self-conscious about my weight and appearance. I continually tried to shift the weight and became extremely disheartened at the lack of results. If only I knew then what I know now,” she said.

Although she was still able to engage in outdoor activities, she said she would conceal her weight gain and disguise it with clothes. “In December 2017, I went on an Arctic exploration trip. I needed to buy ‘ski’ clothes; although I am only 5FT 1inch tall, I could not fit my legs into ANY female trousers. This was a really crushing moment and I had to buy men’s trousers. On a snow hike I had a really profound moment where I realised how unfit I truly was and I could not disguise it anymore. I joined a gym when I got back and was horrified to weigh 10kg more than I had expected which really knocked my mental and emotional wellbeing. I was essentially 20kg heavier than I am now,” she recollected.

30 minutes at the gym

She then promised herself to go to the gym for 30 minutes four times weekly. This part wasn’t too hard as she was extremely motivated to get fit. “I distinctly remember being asked by the trainer, “If you join a gym every January, at what point do you stop attending and why?” This has been a profound question throughout my journey and now, in my own coaching practice because being able to identify the expected barriers to achieving any goal, in any context, is crucial,” she reasoned.

Reducing weight was no easy task. “I went through a period of two steps forwards and one step backwards; I was sticking to my routine, but gaining weight, losing weight and the process became so frustrating because I felt I was trying so hard to be relentless with my routine,”: she shared.

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Scarlett Harvey follows a rigorous exercise regime and stays committed to it. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Little did she know that her hormones were completely out of balance causing this journey to be harder. Once she addressed the situation, she was “unstoppable”. In 2019, she began practising Muay Thai (Martial Arts) and I entered an Amateur Muay Thai competition. Everything was going really well until she hit another wall with nutrition. She hired a nutritionist and her weight dropped to 60kg, then 56kg - the smallest she had ever been in her adult life. She began to weight train six times a week and took her own nutrition qualification in 2020.

Competing in a bikini show

“Later that year, I competed on stage in a bikini show, showcasing my new toned physique. However, this was not exactly a happy time and looking back, I had become really obsessed so I went from one extreme of being overweight and out of control of my nutrition, to the other extreme, of being underweight and overly controlling about my nutrition,” she admitted.

It was in January 2021 that she found the sport of Strongman (and woman) through the Strong Gym HQ in Dubai. She gradually made a shift from bodybuilding and to the functional movements of Strongman.

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Reason to smile: Having come a long way from her overweight days, Scarlett Harvey says she is in a happy place now. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

“I enjoyed being part of the community and learning new skills. It was at this stage that I finally found balance in my nutrition and weight because the Strongman and Woman sport does not focus on how you look, but on what you can do. This was a game changer for me and my mental health,” she said.

Support With Purpose

Based on overcoming her own challenges, Scarlett was inspired to set up her own initiative in Dubai. Called With Purpose, she gives support to women who do not feel comfortable in the traditional gym settings.

She helps women facing diverse personal challenges through hormonal changes, perimenopause, menopause, ageing, physical disabilities, injuries and ill health. She is passionate about spreading awareness of the health benefits of using weights. She also runs a junior training programme – StrongKidsUAE - to combat lack of physical confidence in young people.

She is also happy that her current weight is the most stable it’s been in years. “I still ‘meal prep’ on a Sunday to help stay on track, but I eat out more and more importantly, I am guilt free,” she added.