The Best Strength Sports Moments in 2021

These are the lifts that lit up the year.

When it comes to memorable moments, titanic feats of strength, and highlight-reel-worthy events, 2021 was a bountiful harvest. Across strongman, bodybuilding, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and CrossFit, 2021 will be the forever home of countless references in the future.

From Annie Thorisdottir’s heroic venture to the 2021 CrossFit Games podium to the epic returns of strongman titans Martins Licis and Mateusz Kieliszkowski, we have narrowed down some of the best moments in strength sports in 2021. Although we can’t cover them all in a single article, check out some of the standout moments for each strength sport below: 

Strength Sports

Strongman

There is little doubt that the sport of strongman continued to explode in popularity in 2021. The final major contest of the 2021 season was the first-ever strongman contest at the Rogue Invitational, which featured 2019 World’s Strongest Man (WSM) champion Martins Licis capturing the biggest single-event prize purse in the history of the sport.

That, however, wasn’t the only memorable moment of 2021. The year was littered with moments that will fill the highlight reel for decades to come. Let’s dive into five of the best:

Tom Stoltman Loses an Atlas Stone Event

This may seem like a strange “big moment” of the year, but it speaks to how remarkable 2021 WSM Tom Stoltman is in the Atlas Stone event. Prior to 2021, Stoltman had placed first at every Atlas Stone event for nearly two straight years. Not to mention that he holds the current Atlas Stone world record of 286 kilograms (630.5 pounds).

Stoltman’s losses in the Atlas Stone event were not without drama, nor were they without cause. At the 2021 Giants Live World Tour Finals, he battled in the Atlas Stones against Evan Singleton with the first-place trophy on the line. Both men blitzed through their heat so quickly that Stoltman’s fourth stone slipped as he attempted to load it. The same thing happened to Singleton seconds later. Both men recovered, and Stoltman won the heat, but he did not have the winning time in the event and his brother, Luke Stoltman, took the overall crown.

While not technically the Atlas Stones, Licis beat Tom Stoltman on the Inver Stones — the final event at the 2021 Rogue Invitational. Tom Stoltman converted on six stones in half a minute, but Licis bested it by six seconds, as performing last in the event gave him a time benchmark to beat. 

Rogue Invitational Offers Highest Prize Purse to Strongmen Event

The return of “The Dragon” Martins Licis at the 2021 Rogue Invitational at the Dell Diamond Stadium in Round Rock, TX, was expertly timed. Licis, who was recovering from various injuries sustained since his 2019 WSM win, missed the 2020 and 2021 WSM contests. Licis’ steepest competition at the 2021 Rogue Invitational — Tom Stoltman and 2020 WSM champion Oleksii Novikov — were prominent figures on the Giants Live circuit throughout 2021. Stoltman had even won the Britain’s Strongest Man contest a week prior.

The adrenaline in his first contest back and Stoltman’s fatigue from his competition in the final premier strongman contest of the year was the perfect combination for Licis. His impeccably consistent performance earned him a check for $133,685. Licis set a Thor’s Hammer world record lift of 300 pounds that same weekend.

U105KG and Lighter Men Get Their Own Big-Time Shows

The Clash on the Coast Series made a big splash in 2021 and is likely to get even more prominent in 2022. Nicolas Cambi grabbed most of the headlines, winning the 2021 Clash on the Coast contest, the 2021 America’s Strongest Man contest in the U105-kilogram division, and setting world records in the log lift and block press. However, that’s not all 2021 had to offer strongman athletes competing in weight-based competitions.

The 2021 Static Monsters Worldwide contest featured strongman and strongwomen athletes in weight division competition, establishing their max log lifts and axle deadlifts. The Strengthlete Feat of Strength: U105KG World Record contest in December 2021 pushed more weight division strongman athletes into the limelight as the Clash of the 90s and Clash of the 80s strongman contests are already set for August 2022. 

Donna Moore Wins UK’s Strongest Woman

When three-time World’s Strongest Woman (WSM) Donna Moore takes the floor at a competition, it is best to assume she’ll finish at the top of the leaderboard. That was the case at the 2021 UK’s Strongest Woman contest, where Moore claimed the gold by just one point over fellow countrywoman Rebecca Roberts.

Of the five events at that contest, Moore won the tire flip and sack carry, scored second in the log lift, and third in the truck pull and stones of strength. It was a consistent performance by one of the all-time greats.

No Arnold Strongman for the First Time Since 2002

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the cancellation of the 2021 Arnold Strongman Classic was the first time since 2002 — the year of Mark Henry’s historic victory — that the contest did not take place. At the time of this article’s publication, the reigning Arnold Strongman Classic champion remains 2018 WSM champion Hafthor Björnsson, who won the contest three straight times and has since retired from strongman to pursue a career as a professional boxer.

The 2022 Arnold Strongman Classic is scheduled for March 3-6, 2022, in Columbus, OH. The official roster was released on Dec. 9, 2021, with the following 10 athletes:

Kieliszkowski was the runner-up in 2020 and the bronze medalist in 2019. Licis was the silver-medalist in 2019 and bronze medalist in 2020. Both men are healthy and back in elite competition shape. They will undoubtedly aim to claim the trophy at this contest that has thus far eluded them.

~ Phil Blechman

Bodybuilding

After a year of cancellations, rescheduling, and modifications due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sport of bodybuilding returned to a more typical format of competitions in 2021.

While some adjustments still had to be made, the 2021 season was entertaining and saw new stars rise and champions crowned. Unfortunately, tragedy plagued the sport throughout the year. Here’s a brief look back at the most defining moments of 2021.

The Arnold Classic and Olympia Take Place Within Weeks of Each Other

The sport’s two major contests, the Olympia and Arnold Classic, took place in 2021. However, they weren’t without changes.

The two contests are typically scheduled six months apart. But in 2021, they were held less than one month apart. A modified version of the Arnold Classic was held in its home of Columbus, OH, on Sept. 25, 2021. Nick Walker won the Men’s Open, which cemented his position as one of the top stars in the sport. Other champions included Terrence Ruffin (Classic Physique), Jennifer Dorie (Bikini), and Missy Truscott (Figure).

On the weekend of Oct. 7-10, 2021, the Olympia returned to Orlando, FL. Eleven divisions squared off during the biggest weekend in bodybuilding. In the main event, Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay repeated as Mr. Olympia by narrowly defeating 2019 champion Brandon Curry.

Other champions that retained their titles include Chris Bumstead (Classic Physique), Brandon Hendrickson (Men’s Physique), Harold Kelley (Wheelchair), Cydney Gillon (Figure), Sarah Villegas (Women’s Physique), and Andrea Shaw (Ms. Olympia). New winners earned world titles as well: Derek Lunsford (212), Whitney Jones (Fitness), Jennifer Dorie (Bikini), and Francielle Mattos (Wellness).

Numerous Stars and Legends Pass Away

The bodybuilding sphere endured numerous deaths in 2021; among the deceased are trailblazers, trendsetters, and champions of the sport. 

The names of some (but not all) who passed include John Meadows, George Peterson III, Andy Haman, two-time Figure Olympia winner Jenny Lynn-Powell, as well as 2018 Mr. Olympia Shawn Rhoden, Dave Draper, and 1982 Mr. Olympia winner Chris Dickerson.

Wellness Makes its Olympia Debut

The Wellness division was already a part of the IFBB Pro League, but the addition of this group to the 2021 Olympia made it a massive hit for fans. The division centers around more visible muscularity in the lower body and slightly relaxed conditioning demands. It was easily the most-discussed women’s division of the year, and it may have even been on par with the Men’s Open.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The ultimate stage for these competitors was the 2021 Olympia in Orlando, FL. Francielle Mattos was crowned the first champion on that stage, but several other stars made their marks, such as Angela Borges, Isabelle Nunes, and Yarishna Ayala.

Wellness will be a part of the main Olympia stage when the 2022 edition is held at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, NV, on Dec. 15-17, 2022.

Shaun Clarida Wins His First Men’s Open Show

In 2020, then-212 Olympia champion Shaun Clarida declared that he’d free himself of weight restrictions and compete in Men’s Open. Moving from 212 to Men’s Open was a feat formerly reserved for seven-time 212 O winner James “Flex” Lewis, who has been teasing a switch in divisions since 2019. However, health issues and then an addition to the Lewis clan have delayed his debut.

After losing his 212 title to Derek Lunsford in 2021, Clarida debuted in Men’s Open at the 2021 Legion Sports Fest in Reno, NV. He stepped on stage around 100 pounds less than the standard Men’s Open physique but relied on his granite-like conditioning and strong posing to win the day. The New Jersey resident shocked the world by winning the contest over favorites such as Regan Grimes (second) and Sergio Oliva Jr. (third).

Thanks to that and being a past champion of the 212 division, he has now qualified for the 2022 Olympia in two categories, and his effort that weekend is still remembered as one of the biggest highlights of 2021.

~ Roger Lockridge

CrossFit

With Mat Fraser’s exit leaving the men’s CrossFit Games throne open and a return to in-person competition, CrossFit fans had a lot to look forward to in 2021. The competition season delivered fresh faces, gravity-defying lifts, and touching moments to satisfy both the hunger for physical conquests and the love of community that keeps both the elite and average coming back to the “sport of fitness.”

Check out some of the most significant moments for CrossFit in 2021: 

Atlas Games Women’s Leaderboard Shakeup After Grettel

Online semifinal competitions proved to be unpredictable in the 2021 CrossFit Games season, and none was more nail-biting than the women’s leaderboard at the 2021 Atlas Games. CrossFit HQ introduced Grettel, a new “girl” workout, to many 2021 CrossFit Semifinal competitors for the day’s last event. This proved to be what separated the qualifiers from the rest of the field.

10 rounds for time

  • 3 clean & jerks 3 bar-facing burpees (95/135 pounds)

As a result, the shakeup was intense:

  • CrossFit Games veteran Carolyne Prevost — who was recovering from a rough second day of competition after two back-to-back first-place finishes on the first day — won in a blazing 2:32.
  • During day two, Baylee Rayl wasn’t even in a last-chance qualifier spot, took second place in the event at 2:36, and jumped from ninth overall to a second-place tie, just one point behind Prevost. 
  • Canadian Anikha Greer, sitting in the final fifth-place qualifying spot on day two, finished 10th in Grettel and dropped to sixth place overall in a last-chance qualifier spot.
  • Chyna Cho, another recognizable name, was sitting just six points out of a qualifying spot on day two. With a 3:07 finish in Grettel, she was in 11th place overall. 

Mat Fraser Retires From Competitive CrossFit

An abrupt Instagram post on Feb. 2, 2021, sent shockwaves through the CrossFit community. Five-time CrossFit Games champion Mat Fraser surrendered the top podium spot and took a most-deserved break to spend time with his family and explore new ventures. 

Since stepping down, Fraser has written a book (with journalist Spenser Mestel), started a supplement company, got into online programming, pulled a lifetime deadlift PR of 540 pounds, appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience, and built one of the coolest home gyms around. So life has been good to Fraser.

Fraser’s retirement also proved to be a healthy evolution for the Men’s division at the CrossFit Games. With no end to Fraser’s domination in view — he won 10 of 12 events at the 2020 Games — his absence from the 2021 Games allowed a new athlete to taste victory and shine in the spotlight. The Men’s division at the 2021 Games was competitive and nail-biting for the first time in a decent while. Justin Medeiros won, and Patrick Vellner was back on the podium. 

Annie Thorisdottir’s Postpartum Games Return

Iceland’s Annie Thorisdottir brought new meaning to the phrase “mom strength” at the 2021 CrossFit Games.

The veteran athlete missed the 2020 Games after giving birth to her daughter, Freyja. Qualifying for the 2021 Games was a noteworthy feat on its own after building back her fitness postpartum. Still, Thorisdottir gave a strong performance, ending in a crescendo with the one-rep max snatch event.

After out-lifting all other competitors, Thorisdottir was left trading lifts on the final platform with competition leader Tia-Clair Toomey-Orr. Thorisdottir missed her first snatch attempt at 200 pounds. After regrouping, she approached the bar for another attempt, vaulted it up overhead, and stood, a mixed look of shock and pride on her face as the arena erupted in cheers for the 11-time CrossFit Games contender. The lift was only two pounds off of her reported all-time snatch PR. Thorisdottir placed second in the event behind Toomey-Orr and powered through to a third-place finish overall. 

Guilherme Malheiros Puts on a Snatch Clinic at the 2021 Games

While there were several events at the 2021 CrossFit Games where Brazilian phenom Guilherme Malheiros shined, his brightest was the primetime one-rep max snatch event.

Malheiros won the event, out-lifting Royce Dunn on the final bar at 305 pounds after both athletes hit 300. But it was the precision and ease with which 22-year-old Malheiros handled the barbell that truly elevated the event for those watching. As veterans like Noah Ohlsen, Scott Panchik, Pat Vellner, and Björgvin Karl Guðmundsson faltered and missed, Malheiros nailed every attempt, the weights smoothly floating as he stood.

While he only had to hit 305 to win the event, many fans were likely left wondering what was left in the tank for Maleheiros, who walked away from the 2021 Games with a target on his back.

Kristin Holte Says Goodbye in Dubai

It has always been easy to cheer for Kristin Holte, the six-time fittest woman in Norway, no matter where you’re from. Fans did so for the last time at the 2021 Dubai CrossFit Championship as she closed out her individual competition career.

After the final event, competition volunteers and athletes applauded Holte as she walked among them, showing emotion not often seen from her on the competition floor. Holte announced in August that the 2021 CrossFit Games, where she finished fourth, were to be her last. She has since hinted at mentoring or coaching in the future. Holte made eight appearances at the CrossFit Games over her career, with her best finish coming in 2019, where she placed second.

~ Audrey Carson

Powerlifting

The sport of powerlifting saw many pages of its history books turned over in 2021. A plethora of world records in nearly every weight class in the Men’s and Women’s divisions was shattered, and several all-time world records fell. In addition to the feats of strength on the lifting platform, there was a titanic shift in some of the sport’s governance. The five moments below had a significant impact on the sport in 2021 — and for the years to come. 

The IPF and USAPL Split

The division of the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) and USA Powerlifting (USAPL) is arguably the most significant moment in the sport for its implications in 2022 and beyond.

After the two organizations could not agree on testing athletes for drugs properly, the IPF expelled the USAPL.

The USAPL took their newfound independence and started their own Pro Series with the 2021 Virginia Pro in Ashburn, VA. It will feature its Finals competition at the 2023 Arnold Sports Festival.

Dan Bell Becomes the First Man to Total Over 2,600 Pounds (Raw w/Wraps)

The toppling of an all-time world record is a rare occasion, but when history-making news starts making the rounds, Dan Bell is one of the first names to come to mind. Bell scored the all-time world record squat (in the Raw w/ Wraps division) of 505 kilograms (1,113 pounds) at the 2021 Kern US Open in San Diego, CA.

Before his squat, Bell became the first human to total over 2,600 pounds in the raw-with-wraps category in the super heavyweight class at the Hybrid Showdown III meet. He totaled 1,182.5 kilograms (2,607 pounds), to be exact, in Miami, FL, on Feb. 21, 2021.

Bell’s record itself was a remarkable feat of strength, and it was highlighted even further by the fact that Petr Petras had previously set the all-time world record at 1,160 kilograms (2,557 pounds) only three months prior.

Women’s All-Time Raw Deadlift Enters New Territory

The super heavyweight class in the Women’s division made titanic strides in 2022. The most significant shift came at the 2021 World Raw Powerlifting Federation (WRPF) The Showdown in Kansas City, MO, when Tamara Walcott hit a new raw world record deadlift of 288.5 Kilograms (636 Pounds) at age 37.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Walcott’s new raw deadlift world record exceeded the previous record held by Sara Schiff by 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) — Schiff lifted with wraps. And just two weeks before Schiff lifted 287, Jessica Springer set the bar with a 285.8-kilogram pull at the American Powerlifting Federation (APF) Cincinnati Women’s Pro/Am. That’s three all-time world records within six months of each other. 

Hunter Henderson Sets World Records and Goes Pro in Bodybuilding

Powerlifter turned bodybuilder Hunter Henderson had quite a decorated 2021. The multi-sport athlete first claimed a pair of powerlifting world records at the 2021 Kern US Open. In the 75-kilogram weight class, Henderson scored a new squat world record of 295 kilograms (650.4 pounds) and an all-time world record total of 702.5 kilograms (1,548.8 pounds).

After ascending to the peak of powerlifting, Henderson ventured into bodybuilding and competed as an amateur on July 10, 2021, at the 2021 Wings of Strength Omaha Pro show. Two weeks later, on July 31, 2021, Henderson won the National Physique Committee’s (NPC) USA Women’s Bodybuilding Championship in the heavyweight division by unanimous decision. Additionally, she won the overall championship and became an IFBB Pro League competitor.

Also of note: Powerlifter Amanda Kohatsu won both the Women’s Physique and Figure contests in her bodybuilding debut at the NPC Iron Games contest on Nov. 13. She earned her pro card by winning her class in the same two divisions at NPC Nationals.

~ Phil Blechman

Weightlifting

Weightlifting in 2021 was marred by controversy but flush with moments of glory. From a steady flow of political turbulence and drug-related infractions to records set and broken in mere minutes, the highs were high, and the lows were low. Here are a few of the moments that defined the sport last year. 

Laurel Hubbard Competes as First Openly-Transgender Olympian

Despite what may seem like a deluge of bad news for the sport, weightlifting drew international attention early in the summer for taking a progressive step towards gender parity in sports. When New Zealand athlete Laurel Hubbard was selected to compete on behalf of her home country, she became the first openly transgender athlete to perform at the Olympic Games in an individual event.

Before her appearance in the Women’s +87-kilogram session, Hubbard was ranked seventh internationally by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF). She failed to register a total in Tokyo after missing all three of her snatch attempts.

However, taking the stage at the Games carried more weight for the 43-year-old lifter than she could’ve ever lifted overhead. Despite more than a little backlash from fans and fellow competitors alike, Hubbard gave her best effort on the day and gracefully pushed professional sports a bit more towards true inclusivity.

Hubbard announced her probable retirement from weightlifting shortly after her performance in Tokyo. 

ITA Publishes Report Detailing Corruption and Scandal Within the IWF 

Weightlifting’s reputation on the world stage seems inextricably linked to the behavior of its bureaucracy. On June 24, the International Testing Agency compiled and published a report that substantiated claims made several years prior — that high-level officials in the IWF had actively subverted the doping control processes put in place to maintain the integrity of the sport.

The report in question told of well over one hundred drug-related instances that ranged, in the ITA’s words, from “administrative incompetence to cover-ups.” The ITA also made specific allegations of criminality and embezzlement — to the tune of tens of millions of dollars — against former IWF president Tamás Aján.

Aján was first implicated in a 2020 report by professor Richard H. McLaren, who was appointed to follow up on claims made by a German documentary regarding impropriety in the IWF.

In the wake of the McLaren report, the ITA’s investigation on behalf of the IWF confirmed that weightlifting is in need of comprehensive reform. Although efforts have been made to exorcise the corruption, weightlifting is still locked under the lens of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

As of December 2021, weightlifting was not on the IOC’s list of inclusion for the 2028 Olympic Games, though the sport does have a path back to the docket

Hidilyn Diaz Wins First Olympic Gold Medal for the Philippines

When Hidilyn Diaz took to the Olympic podium to adorn herself with a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games in the Women’s 55-kilogram category, she concluded a lifelong pursuit. Before her achievement in Japan, no Filipino had ever claimed the highest accolade in international sport.

After Diaz made her third clean & jerk — 127 kilograms (280 pounds) — to beat the expected favorite Liao Quiyun of China, Diaz also earned a new Olympic Record. That said, bagging such a prestigious record paled in comparison to her personal Olympic journey.

In the months leading up to her fourth Olympic Games, Diaz was stranded in Malaysia due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. While most high-level athletes train in well-outfitted gyms, Diaz worked with handmade equipment and lifted outdoors. When the time came, she had the strength and willpower to execute her task and bring home her nation’s first-ever gold medal.

Lasha Talakhadze Sets Triple World Records at 2021 World Championships

Many of the greatest weightlifters in history earned their reputations by outworking one another on the platform. In strength sports, it is a rare privilege to witness an athlete truly only compete against themselves.

At the 2021 World Weightlifting Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Georgian super-heavyweight Lasha Talakhadze took to the stage several months after establishing three new world records at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. When he descended the stage in Tashkent after his final lift, he had once again set new records across the board and made weightlifting history in the process.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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By clean & jerking 267 kilograms (588.6 pounds), Talakhadze climbed his final mountain. Although the bodyweight categories in Olympic lifting have gone through several reorganizations, until Tashkent 2021, no man living had exceeded Leonid Taraneko’s 266-kilogram clean & jerk. Talakhadze also snatched 225 kilograms for a total of 492 kilos.

A mix of competitive ferocity and truly-superhuman strength levels have supported Talakhadze as he devoured every record available to him. He now owns the all-time records in the snatch, jerk, and total at both the World and Olympic level, a position that appears to be utterly unassailable by anyone other than the Georgian giant himself.

~ Jake Dickson

Turning the Page

No matter your preferred strength sport, there’s no denying that 2021 was packed to the brim with jaw-dropping, hair-raising moments of athletic achievement. Each year represents a new opportunity for athletes to etch their names into the annals of history, and each year some of them rise to the challenge — and then some. 

2022 is all but guaranteed to be crawling with comparable moments and new records. BarBend will be covering all of it for you as the landscape unfolds. 

Featured Image (left to right): @franiellemattos, @iwfnet, @plussize_fitqueen4.0 on Instagram