“In Iceland, girls aren’t afraid of being strong. We’re looked up to. People see that we’re just pretty girls in good shape,” comments 22-year-old Katrín Tanja Davíðsdóttir, winner of the 2015 CrossFit Games and the World’s Fittest Woman.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting Katrín and another inspiring and powerful young woman, 22-year-old powerlifting champion Fanney Hauksdóttir, interviewing them for the upcoming issue of Iceland Review.
When arranging for the interview, I mentioned to Katrín Iceland’s image of strong men and beautiful women, and that it might be changing to Iceland being a nation of strong women and pretty boys. She laughed and said: “Why, can’t we be both, strong and beautiful?”
In the 1980s, Iceland became known as ‘the country of strong men and beautiful women’ when Jón Páll Sigmarsson won the title World’s Strongest Man four times, in 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990, and Hólmfríður Karlsdóttir and Linda Pétursdóttir were named Miss World in 1985 and 1988, respectively.
The following decade, Magnús Ver Magnússon upheld Jón Páll’s legacy and defended Iceland’s title, also winning the World’s Strongest Man competition four times, in 1991, 1994, 1995 and 1996, while in 2005, Unnur Birna Vilhjálmsdóttir became Iceland’s third Miss World.
In the world of strongmen, we may be en route to claiming a new world champion: Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (who was cast as Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane for the fourth season of Game of Thrones) has come second and third in all World’s Strongest Man competitions since 2012 and earned the title Europe’s Strongest Man in 2014 and 2015.
Creating a different kind of legacy is mixed martial artist Gunnar Nelson, the first and to date only Icelander to fight at the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where he has boasted five victories and suffered only one loss since 2012.
Meanwhile, Icelandic women haven’t just been sitting around looking pretty. In 2011 and 2012 Annie Mist Þórisdóttir became the World’s Fittest Woman after winning the World CrossFit Games—and she is the only woman to have earned the title twice.
This year, Katrín followed in Annie Mist’s footsteps by winning the CrossFit Games, whereas Icelandic contestants Ragnheiður Sara Sigmundsdóttir and Björgvin Karl Guðmundsson placed third among the women and men, respectively.
This year also, Iceland earned a new powerlifting champion, when Fanney, who holds the world record in bench press among junior women in the -63kg category, became European Champion in bench press by lifting 147.5kg.
How is it that a petite and seemingly ‘normal’ 22-year-old can lift almost three times her own weight in bench press?
And that Katrín, her peer, who certainly looks athletic while not overly muscular, can be good—nay, best in the world—in Olympic weightlifting, plyometrics, gymnastics, kettle bells, calisthenics, swimming and running, among other sports, all at the same time?
It does seem more than coincidental that a nation of only 330,000 people has produced so many powerful athletes over three decades.
“I’m always being asked: what’s in your water?” Katrín reveals when I wonder what our secret might be. Is it the cod liver oil, the Icelandic mentality, or our genes? Maybe a combination of everything.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)icelandreview.com