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Rebecca Roberts: Strongwoman’s inspiring journey to overcome harrowing past

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Rebecca Roberts: Strongwoman’s inspiring journey to overcome harrowing past

‘I want to be the strongest woman that’s ever lived’ – Rebecca Roberts

For Rebecca Roberts, regaining her title of World‘s Strongest Woman is just one of her targets for this year.

Tucked away in the corner of an industrial site on a blistering day in St Helens is her gym, the home of her personal best deadlift of 285kg. For context, that is around the same weight as three baby elephants.

Roberts arrives for her training session armed with an array of trophies, poking out the top of a plastic shopping bag.

The 28-year-old’s multiple titles, world records and world champion status are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her life story, an exceptional tale of heartbreak and resilience.

Originally from Bangor in north Wales, Roberts was confronted with grief at a young age as her mother died when she was 12. Shortly after, her father became mentally ill and was admitted to a psychiatric ward, diagnosed with dementia when she was just 13.

With no parent able to care for them, Roberts and her four siblings were separated and put into care.

“The one thing that I remember from that was I wasn’t expected to achieve,” Roberts says.

“I wasn’t pushed to do anything, I was put into a box.”

After finishing her A-levels, Roberts was one of the first care leavers in her county to make it to university, where she studied forensic psychology and criminal justice.

At university Roberts began her career in sport, playing rugby for the university team and captaining in her second year. However, her experience soon took a dark and tragic turn.

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“Whilst I was in university, I did go through some hard times,” Roberts says.

“At the end of my second year I was raped in Liverpool at knife point and that left me suicidal.”

As a victim of sexual assault, Roberts has chosen to waive her anonymity.

“I attempted suicide three times, it was a very dark time in my life,” she adds.

“I blew up to a size 26-28, I gained about 10 stone. I was depressed, I didn’t want to live and I had no meaning.

“I didn’t see any purpose for living at that point until I met my partner Paul in 2016.”

Rebecca Roberts won the World‘s Strongest Woman title in 2021

Paul Savage, a former strongman competitor, initially started coaching Roberts with the aim of helping her to lose weight and rehabilitate an injury she had sustained playing rugby.

Just six weeks after meeting, the pair had fallen in love, moved in together and were training full time together. Prior to this, Roberts had no experience in strongwoman competitions, with only junior shotput and rugby as a sporting background.

“I was out of the gym for over a year before meeting Paul,” Roberts says.

“He told me in five years he’d make me the world‘s strongest woman, right from the get-go he saw potential in me.

“We met in May 2016 and then in September 2016, I was the UK’s Strongest Woman (winning the title at the first attempt).

“That feeling of pride and self-achievement came back and I felt like I had something to live for again.

“Strongwoman gave me something to live for, it gave me a drive and purpose in life.”

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Rebecca Roberts and Paul Savage, her former partner and coach

That came as a welcome change for Roberts, who was bullied as a child.

“When I was younger I had no confidence, I hated the way I looked, I felt different, I felt like I was judged for being bigger,” she says.

“I was bullied constantly for being bigger than other people, so I had no confidence whatsoever.

“I’m here and I’m taking up the space I know that I deserve.

“This sport has made me feel home, it’s given me a place where I belong and that’s what I really love about it.”

From 2016 onwards, Roberts continued to dominate strongwoman and grip competitions, winning the 2017 World Grip Championship, Wales’ Strongest Woman in 2021 and 2022, Europe’s Strongest Woman in 2019 and World‘s Strongest Woman in 2021, just to name a few.

Roberts had her passion, love and desire for sport back again.

But in March 2022, Paul was diagnosed with heart failure.

Given a life expectancy of 20 years, his sudden death nine months later came as a devastating shock.

“On the fourth of December, he had a heart attack in my bedroom, I had to give him CPR and he sadly passed away,” Roberts says.

“It was the hardest day of my life.

“I’d not only lost my soulmate, I’d lost the person who gave me a meaning for life, I’d lost my best friend, I’d lost my coach.

“I’ve never felt so fiercely loved in my life.”

Once again, Roberts channelled her suffering into success.

In May 2023, just six months after Paul’s death, she won UK’s Strongest Woman for the third time in a row.

“The one thing I do now is I compete in his honour and I compete in his memory,” Roberts says.

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“There was a lot of things he told me I could do and to keep his memory alive. I’m going to go out and achieve them.

“He told me I could be the strongest woman to have ever lived and that is something I am going to do, not just for myself but for Paul as well.”

Roberts has not missed a training session since losing Paul and has her sights set on a clean sweep of titles this year- a triumph that has yet to be achieved in the women’s competitions.

When asked how she can carry on with such superhuman determination, Roberts says: “There was a saying that Paul used to tell me: ‘If you shoot for the moon the worst thing that could happen is you fall on the stars’. So I always shoot for the moon in anything I do.

“I always tell myself that better things are coming, and I’ve had to teach myself that from a young age.

“I’ve won Wales’s Strongest Woman, I’ve won UK’s Strongest Woman, my next competition is Europe’s Strongest Woman and then there is going to be World‘s Strongest Woman this year.”

Roberts now aims to regain her world title as she bids to become known as the strongest woman to have ever lived.

It is some target but, given everything Roberts has overcome to get to this point, it would be foolish to doubt her.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, you can find details of organisations that can help via the BBC Action Line.

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