From novice to third in the country in 18 months: Strongwoman Nicole McMillan shares her story

From novice to third in the country in 18 months: Strongwoman Nicole McMillan shares her story
Grace Fisher
Grace Fisher

Two years ago, Nicole McMillan was training with CrossFit, but had never competed in a strongwoman competition. One year ago, after breaking a finger and tearing ligaments in her hand days before the event, she missed her chance to compete for the title Ireland's Strongest Woman, and a year later she was still concerned her grip strength would hold her back. But on March 12th she competed for the title again in Derry, and in only her third-ever competition the newcomer placed third, as well as setting personal bests in every event.

Her Sport had a chance to talk to Nicole in the weeks before the competition about her goals, expectations, and own long journey to strength sports.

Like so many girls, Nicole grew up playing sports—in her case mostly Gaelic football—but stopped when she went to university. But other things complicated her relationship to sport.

"I always wanted to get into strength sports, but growing up back then it wasn't really a thing for women to get into, to be muscular and strong, most of the time you were told you had to be as small and skinny as possible!"


"Between the ages of about 16 and 18 I had an eating disorder, I was anorexic, so getting over the mental aspect of that—I've worked through it quite a bit."

After a few years Nicole got into Judo through her husband (then-boyfriend), who has a black belt. She progressed to an orange belt before stopping.

"I was going in and out of it...with nursing, the long hours, you don't really get to train."

The turning point for Nicole (as for so many of us picking up new pursuits) was in lockdown. She hired a personal trainer and started training intensely, originally in CrossFit. But she wanted a goal.


"We always had watched Strongman on TV around Christmas, and my husband said to me, 'You know, there's a competition coming up, it's in four weeks' time. It's a Strongwoman novice competition, do you want something to focus on?' I was like 'Yeah, I may as well focus on that!'"

"So with about four weeks' preparation, and a lot of tears and laughing and whatnot, I entered the competition, and I won it! And after that I was kind of hooked."

That was around a year and a half ago, and Nicole says she's here to stay.

She explains that she's found a supportive community in the male-dominated sport.

"As in any sport, there are some people who have openly said it's not for women, but that's a very, very small minority. Generally the sport is quite supportive, the men help out at the events. The Ireland's Strongest Woman [event] is run by a man, Matthew there is the support out there."

Nicole also says that attitudes are changing outside the sport. "I think it's because we're putting ourselves out there more, we're showing how good we are, how strong we are, we're showing that nobody's going to hold us back."

"Looking back even over just the years of me doing sports... my mum didn't get why I played football, why I wasn't sitting around playing with barbies or going out and getting dressed up, I was always someone who wore leggings and shorts, I was always in a pair of football boots."

"To be honest, my mum doesn't get it now, when I'm lifting weights, she doesn't understand why I do it, I do it partly because of my mental health, but I also do it just so I am more comfortable with myself, because I had an eating disorder growing up, and I went the complete opposite way then, I put on quite a lot of weight and worried about my appearance, but this is the first time in a long time I'm comfortable with how I look, and just quite confident, really."

"I just love going into the gym now, for me. Just to let off some steam!"

Nicole knew she'd face plenty of competition in the upcoming event, particularly from the likes of Ayshea Ullah, who had held the title for the past five years, and Gemma Moore, who had come second to her in the last two editions; but she cheerily lists off the grueling events, all of which take place in the span of a few hours, with nothing but enthusiasm: the deadlift ladder, clean and press, axle bar squats, famer's yoke and sandbag carry, and the sandbag to shoulder.

"I love absolutely everything overhead, so the clean and press, I am looking forward to that. I'm looking forward to the deadlift ladder [where weight is increased each rep] as well, because I haven't tested my max in probably a year because of the hand [injury], so it'll be good to see what I can do on the day, because I'm already repping my max last year, which was 160 kilos, which I'm repping now for 5, 8 reps. So it'll be fun to see!"

No training compares to the emotions of the event itself. On the day Gemma Moore was visibly elated in her long-awaited triumph, as Ayshea passed on the crown to her (herself claiming second), but Nicole reached third, a remarkable achievement for the relative newcomer. Perhaps the biggest personal surprise was in the 150kg squat for reps—she noted in an Instagram post after the event that she had completed reps in training, but managed 7 on the day. She mentioned her disappointment with the clean and press after only managing two reps, "but we draw a line and move on...Still PB'd on every event and came away with 3rd place on my 3rd competition is not bad. Looking forward to the rest of the year if my first competition went this well."

Thanks to her performance, Nicole should be qualified for the Britain's Strongest Woman; she is now waiting for confirmation. She explains that she tries to focus on the nearest event and not think too far in the future—but one thing's for sure, given her rapid success and obvious determination to succeed: we can expect great things to come.

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