Beyond Strength A PHOTO STORY BY JOHANY JUTRAS

There takes a certain amount of courage to compete in CrossFit. Now, a group of women have taken it to the next level. As the first stage of qualifying for this summer’s World Games begins, four Quebec athletes have exposed their real selves to the lens of photographer Johany Jutras. Their intentions are clear: to denounce physical prejudice against muscular women – and to encourage all women to be proud of their bodies.

Cindy Ouellet, Julie* (not her real name), Sonia Hurtubise and Michele Letendre have made it their mission to share the challenges they have overcome to inspire a generation of female athletes to compete, and ensure them that any perceived physical obstacle can be overcome. The women also want people to know that behind their muscles, there may sometimes be a hidden – and, perhaps, disturbing – narrative from their past.

Michele Letendre.
“If we open ourselves up to the public this way, we hope we can help create more of an understanding and acceptance,” said Michele Letendre.

BEYOND STENGTH

BY JOHANY JUTRAS

"I am not what happened to me but I am who I choose to be." -Cindy Ouellet
Sitting in her wheelchair, Cindy Ouellet is raised by the force of her arms to the top of a long rope suspended from the ceiling.

Words from Cindy Ouellet: “I’ll never forget the day: March 31, 2001. I was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma. I didn’t know what it was either. Then they told me cancer – a rare bone cancer, in fact. The aftermath became a blur: a few surgeries, 28 chemo treatments, three years of rehab. All the while, I was being bullied in high school for my disability, then it got worse when I came out at the age of 15. I felt my life was over. Hope and desire to live were gone.

Cindy Ouellet.

In my darkest days, though, suddenly came hope. It was late in 2005, more than four years after my diagnosis, that my physiotherapist introduced me to wheelchair basketball. It changed my life. I instantly fell in love with the sport. Two years later, I made the senior women’s national team. The next summer, I wore a Team Canada uniform at the Beijing Paralympic Games. Did again at London 2012 and Rio 2016. I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world with this team, and with this sport. It has allowed me to compete at four world championships, earn a full athletic scholarship at the University of Alabama where we won four national championships (Roll Tide, y’all!), and I graduated with a bachelor and Masters degree.

My CrossFit career began in 2014. Since, I’ve won both the Opens in my adaptive division and the Wodapalooze in back-to-back years. Last summer, right around the Rio Paralympic Games, I won the UG Series Beach WOD and more recently won the Rush Club women wheelchair title. I hope to see a division title at the CrossFit Games this year. I believe we proved that we can have our own division.

"Beating the odds and battling through prejudices fuel my desire to show the world who we can become when we seize the day." -Cindy Ouellet

Julie* (not her real name) has always been sporty. Running, hockey, flag-football – you name it, she played it. But as a teenager, her body shape began to disturb her. “At the end of high school, I weighed 170 pounds. I wanted to lose weight,” she recalls. “But then… Then I got trapped inside my own head and my own body.”

Julie increased her workouts, mainly running, and became unhealthy with food. “I didn’t eat, or then I ate too much and then compensated by training too much,” she said. A few months later, Julie weighed 116 pounds. It wasn’t healthy mentally or physically. And she became obsessed with every aspect of it. “I hid myself to eat and to train,” she said.

"My models were filiform girls from magazines. Mannequins that have only the skin and bones. I do not have the body to be that. "
Sonia Hurtubise
It's important to be well in your body. That some people feel the right to judge the bodies of others is ridiculous." -Sonia Hurtubise

Sonia Hurtubise grew up in a family of athletes in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Quebec. In 2005, her father, a cycling enthusiast, launched a project. "He wanted to bike across Canada with us, from Vancouver to Saint John’s,” remembers Sonia, now 25-years-old. “And we joined him on the journey.” It was a three-year training regimen to physically prepare for the adventure. They finally began their journey in June of 2008. The Hurtubise family was elated. They rode through B.C., then through the Rocky Mountains, and across the prairies. By the time the family was past Saskatchewan, they’d biked more than 2,500 kilometers. And then tragedy struck. While riding in Manitoba, they were hit by a car. Sonia’s father died in the accident; his daughter suffered a fractured tibia and femur.

Sonia returned home to Quebec, devastated with the loss of her father – and a long road to recovery awaited: she had to re-build her knee, and face the reality that she could never bike again. “I was scared,” she says. “I then looked for something else – another sport to practice and compete in. And then I found CrossFit.” Sonia dove head-first into CrossFit in 2010, passionate about her new endeavour. This year, she will be in her fourth year competing in the CrossFit Open. “CrossFit has made me push myself to the limits,” she says. “It brings me satisfaction. I want to prove to myself that nothing can stop me in life.”

Michele Letendre
"It's not okay to tell someone that he is ugly. No more than to tell a woman that her muscles are ugly." -Michele Letendre

Michele Letendre is a six-time CrossFit Games veteran and a powerful force at the Canada East and East Regionals for as long. She has claimed one of Canada East’s two Games-qualifying spots since her first regional appearance in 2011, never falling below third at the combined East Regional. She finished four of her six Games appearances in the top 18, with a career-best finish of fourth in 2014, just one spot outside the podium. A former collegiate swimmer and national-level water-polo player, Letendre retired from competition after the 2016 season.

Michele Letendre.
Michele insists it is time to put an end to physical prejudice, particularly in the case of muscular women.

“Athletic women are criticized on several levels, and mainly in relation to their body,” says Michele. “They are told that they are not supposed to be ‘like that.’ But all these discussions prevent us from talking about what really matters – how they perform in their sport.”

“Our bodies are simply our tools to achieve our goals,” she says. “They are the result of our hard work and effort.”

Inspired by Emily Abbott

Created by Johany Jutras and MC Ferron.

Originally published in French in La Presse+. Translated and adapted from french.

Created By
Johany Jutras
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Photos by Johany Jutras

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