Strength can come in many forms: huge muscles, mental fortitude, you name it. As a society, we closely associate strength with power, and we have historically associated both strength and power with masculinity. So what happens when someone comes along and disrupts that notion with a bold demonstration of her own great ability?
From an early age, this young girl from Ukraine created a normalcy around exceeding expectations. She was born with natural strength and talent, but her incredible journey is what endowed her with the willpower she needed to become known as “the strongest girl in the world.”
Varya Akulova was born in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, in January of 1992. She came into the world as the first child of two circus performers, Yuriy Akulov and Larysa Akulova. And even from the very beginning, Varya was defying everyone’s predictions.
Yuriy was confident his first child was going to be a boy. He was so certain of this that he had begun plans to rejoin the circus with a father-son act. So when baby Varya arrived, her parents were delighted, but her father’s dreams had also been dashed. Or at least that’s what he thought.
Varya’s family had a history of almost superhuman physical strength that was rumored to be a divine gift. When Varya was born her parents wondered if she, too, might have inherited this superior aptitude. After only a few months, the answer to their pondering became very apparent.
Around the time most infants are beginning to develop their motor skills, baby Varya was able to lift herself into a standing position. By the time she turned one year old, she was exhibiting great displays of strength in her hands and arms. Twelve months fresh, and little Varya was already a prodigy.
Yuriy’s crushed dream of a father-son circus act was soon resurrected as he saw the incredible gift his daughter possessed. Though it was not as Yuriy had initially pictured, his new idea of creating an act with Varya had him more inspired than he could have imagined. A family and father-daughter act would be their fortune. Sadly, that would be their only fortune.
In 1995, at only the age of 3, Varya joined the circus with her family. Initially, her performance was exclusive to gymnastics and acrobatics. Before long though, Varya would find herself with her father under the big top, raising the very heavy proverbial bar to join the ranks of the strong.
At 5 years old Varya would steal the show as she began performing weightlifting stunts alongside her parents. Through her training, Varya’s parents gave her advice and made sure she was practicing safe lifting— especially her father, who was her primary trainer. But there were some things her parents struggled to provide.
Ukraine in the ’90s was in economic shambles, and a family of circus performers really felt the worst of that crisis. When they weren’t traveling around the country, the Akulovas lived in a tiny one-room apartment above a bar. Varya’s family went without essentials such as a refrigerator and a stove, and the only bathroom they had was one they shared with the bar downstairs.
Living in this poverty was extremely difficult, but it didn’t deter Varya from her rigorous training. As the Akulovas were reduced to a diet of bread and noodles, Varya still managed to gain impressive strength, which was not only limited to her corporeal abilities.
Varya had quite the head on her rock hard shoulders. She excelled in her studies even in the midst of her demanding extracurricular activities and the hardships she experienced at home. That is a lot of weight for anyone to carry on their shoulders, but all that was only the beginning of what Varya proved she could handle.
One night when Varya went to use their shared bathroom at the bar, two drunk men started harassing her. Varya grabbed the two yapping men by their legs and threw them to the ground. They never bothered her again, but the incident did signal to her parents that a change needed to happen.
The family moved out of the small apartment and into the stairwell of a gym. The three of them slept together on a mattress at night and trained at the gym during the day. None of these obstacles could bring Varya down, though. She harnessed her gift and, by the age of 8, she accomplished something incredible!
At 8 years old and 88 pounds, little Varya set a Guinness World Record for lifting over double her own body weight when she pumped up 220 pounds of iron — that’s the weight of an average adult panda bear! Spectacular as her accomplishment was, Varya had even more uplifting things coming her way.
A year after Varya set her world record, the Akulovas finally saved up enough to move into their own apartment. Not only did their new home give Varya a room of her own at last, but it also had enough space for them to set up a gym so she could train from home. With the dedication she had to her lifting, it was clear there was much more in store for Varya.
By age 10, she was making international appearances and wowing audiences with her ability to easily support the weight of both her parents while lying flat between two chairs. Two years later, her father commented that Varya was now stronger than him. But just how much stronger, was beyond even his belief.
In 2006, at age 14 Varya blew the world away once again when she managed to lift over 660 pounds. That’s more than 4x her own body weight! This super power move earned Varya her second Guinness World Record! Wow. Can you say, GIRL POWER!
Even with a family history of Herculean strength, young Varya defied the odds and became, not only the strongest girl but the strongest of them all! Strength as it is can intimidate and threaten the weak, and Varya’s strength was no exception.
As she continued to perform in the circus as a young woman, she would often be shouted out by men in the crowd with comments like, “No man would ever marry a strong woman.” Please don’t even pause for pity, because this strong woman just held her head high and kept on being the powerhouse that she was born to be.
Where is she now, you ask? After she was rejected from the 2012 London Olympics for the sheer reason the committee found it problematic that the 17-year-old’s father was her coach, she went to university. Aged 26 as of 2018, Varya continued her education while also juggling a job as a physical trainer.
Though some have commented that Varya’s upbringing was uncouth, looking back, Varya was grateful for her experiences and believed her childhood made her the strong girl she was and the strong woman she became. As she said in an interview, “I [only] wish I could be bigger, really big… like my dad.”