COLUMBIA — The veins in Libby Cowgill's body bulged.
The muscles in her arms and legs rippled, the strain painfully obvious on her face. Sweat glistened on her brow. The hair of her thick, curly black ponytail quivered. Her eyes focused on one thing: the blue finish line 50 feet away. For the first time in her life, she was attempting to walk a 360-pound yoke in a strongman competition.
Heather Leidy and Ted Collins train for strongman competitions in their garage, which they have turned into a gym. Their 6-year-old daughter, Rain, exercises too, and they have opened their gym — and their home — to fellow competitors. (This story is available to readers with a Missourian digital membership.)
Strongman competitions combine multiple events that showcase male and female athletes' brute strength. Some events, like the yoke walk, are timed and require the competitor to carry extreme weights a specific distance in a certain amount of time. In other events, such as the dead lift, athletes must "max out" on weight, meaning they increase the amount of weight until they can no longer perform the exercise. In all events, it's not uncommon to see athletes lift at least twice their body weight.
The yoke is a four-legged metal structure that has two vertical rods connected by a lateral bar. It weighs 180 pounds by itself. A weight mount sits on each leg, on which Cowgill had placed 45-pound disc weights. At 5 feet 3 inches, Cowgill weighs just 135 pounds. She was supporting almost three times her own body weight.
As she began to move toward the finish line, her legs faltered, the yoke slamming down on the gym floor. She gathered herself and lifted the yoke off the ground, and — the spectators responded with raucous revelry. Her whole body quaked with each jerky step she took, but her pace quickened. As she neared the finish line, her calves looked on the verge of exploding, complementing the explosion of noise from the crowd.
She crossed the blue tape and immediately dropped the yoke. An ear-to-ear smile spread across her face. How she managed to smile is baffling considering the approximately 20-second ordeal she had just put her body through.
As she walked away from the yoke, a spectator said, "You totally crushed it!"
"That was 360 pounds!" she responded.
Cowgill's feat of strength was but one of many at Saturday's Show-Me Strength Strongman and CrossFit Challenge held at CrossFit Fringe, off East Broadway Blvd., about a mile east of Highway 63.
But it was extraordinary because she entered the competition "on a whim," having never before competed in such an event. One look at Cowgill confirms her physical fitness, but she'll be the first to tell you that healthy living has not always been a priority. Two years ago, she kicked smoking and took up knitting, a decision that ultimately led to her rendezvous with the yoke.
The CrossFit Fringe gym smelled like rust, sweat and charcoal, the latter coming from a small grill just outside the open back door of the facility. Inside the gym, 42 athletes competed in various strongman and crossfit events.
The Show-Me Strength competition was sponsored by the Health Sciences Graduate Student Organization at Missouri. Anthony Belenchia, president of the organization, said the group was able to raise $1,500 that would fund graduate students' travel to academic research conferences.
"I was terrified all frickin' morning," she said. "My goal was not to get hurt or to make an ass out of myself."
Nate Bacott, co-owner of CrossFit Fringe, where Cowgill works out, said she had talked with him and the other trainers about her strongman interest. He said he encouraged her because he'd seen how strong she was. Even though "90 percent of the events (were) new" for Cowgill, she had done the necessary strength training to prepare, Bacott said.
A breath of fresh air
Cowgill, 34, has lifted weights since she was 22, but she was also a pack-and-a-half-a-day smoker. She said she took up smoking when she was 16. Two years ago, when she quit, she looked for something constructive that would replace her tobacco habit: She traded her Marlboro Lights for yarn and needle and started knitting.
Cowgill is part of a weekly knitting gathering called Knitting Night, held at Tressa Maddux's house. Cowgill and Maddux, along with Kim Congdon and Lauren Butaric, form a core group of knitters who get together to eat, drink wine and gossip. Cowgill said she likes knitting hats, especially berets.
Knitting has been a healthy substitute for her, and it has also helped her breathe again. Her newfound lung capacity helped her get into crossfit training.
Butaric said that Cowgill often comes to Knitting Night directly from the gym and shares her new "personal bests" — individual workout records; she set a new one Saturday when she dead-lifted 350 pounds — with the group.
The Knitting Night crew, as well as Cowgill's fiance, Joseph Orkin, was there to support her on Saturday. When asked what she thought of Cowgill's yoke walk, Maddux said, "Girl power!"
She accentuated "Girl power!" with a growl.