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When the Ms. Olympia was discontinued after the 2014 Olympia, it was the end of an era for women’s bodybuilding, and a painful reminder that women were seen as second-rate in the sport. For many female competitors, their options were slim— change their training to become a women’s physique competitor or accept that they no longer had a home at the biggest bodybuilding event in the world.
It hit especially hard for eight-time Ms. Olympia winner Lenda Murray. “I really felt for the women who were currently competing,” she says. “I wondered, ‘How would I feel if I were the current champion or up-and-coming and now there’s suddenly no space for women’s bodybuilding?’ That would be really challenging.”
But one person believed that women still deserved a place on the main stage, and he was determined to bring the women’s open category back to the Olympia. Wings of Strength co-founder Jake Wood discovered his love for bodybuilding after a chance encounter with Stacey Bentley at the gym when he was 16. “It was a paradigm shift for me,” he says. “I didn’t realize that women could do that, and I thought it was beautiful.”
As an adult, Wood linked up with renowned bodybuilding promoter and judge Tim Gardner to create several pro shows, but he saw that female bodybuilders weren’t getting the same level of support as their male counterparts. “It was a travesty that women’s bodybuilding was falling apart,” Wood says. In an effort to right this wrong, he created Wings of Strength, a bodybuilding promotion geared toward women that hosts the biggest female bodybuilding event, the Rising Phoenix World Championships.
Murray immediately signed on as Wings of Strength spokeswoman and champion for fellow female bodybuilders everywhere. “It was time for female bodybuilders to stand firm in knowing who they are—to fight the fight and have a voice,” Murray says. “This was going to show how strong we are and how committed we really are to our passion.”
This year, Wood and Murray fully realized their ultimate goal—bringing the women’s open category back to the Olympia. “To make women’s bodybuilding viable again, we have to promote it to the general public,” Wood explains. “How can you do that if you don’t have women’s bodybuilding at the Olympia?” Now, thanks to Wood, Murray, and the entire Wings of Strength family, the Ms. Olympia will be returning to the 2020 Olympia. “There has never been a lack of interest; there has only been a lack of promotion,” Wood says about the return.
Women in bodybuilding have always had to deal with a unique set of challenges, especially around body image. It’s a challenge Murray understands very well. “It was difficult to make that shift from being a cheerleader and focusing on this image of what society said was beautiful to transition into having big biceps and shoulders,” she says. But that definition of beauty and femininity is evolving. “My mission is to communicate with women bodybuilders today: Your challenge is unique, and I’m really proud of the women who sustained through this extended hiatus. We wouldn’t be where we are if they didn’t continue to show up.”
Wood echoes Murray’s sentiment. “Wings of Strength’s goal is to change the world a little bit—to make it accept that women can look the way they want to look. If they want to be muscular and physically big and powerful, that’s OK,” he says. But their biggest goal is to make sure bodybuilding—for both women and men—always has a home. “People don’t realize that if women’s bodybuilding can go away, so can men’s, and I don’t want to see either one of them go away,” Wood says. Thanks to him and Wings of Strength, it looks like bodybuilding’s legacy is safe.