By Rebecca Drew
THIS BRITISH woman was consumed by depression when she left the Army after serving for NINE YEARS, until a quest to become the UK’S STRONGEST WOMAN saved her life.
Openreach engineer, Gemma Ferguson (34) from Burgess Hill, West Sussex, UK, served in The Royal Corps of Signals as a communications system specialist for nine years and was posted to Germany, Northern Ireland and went on operational tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In October 2012 Gemma decided to leave the military on impulse as she was struggling to cope but didn’t know until two years later that she was actually suffering with anxiety and depression at the time.
Gemma found the initial transition to civilian life bearable and managed to secure a job as a security specialist and a flat close to her work in High Wycombe. Without any friends in her new area, Gemma felt alone and started to struggle with life outside of the Army as she found she didn’t have much common ground with people.
Desperate to make friends and to feel like she belonged, Gemma started working at a pub at the weekends to socialise and started to force herself to fit in by drinking heavily and taking drugs with the people she hung out with. Gemma was diagnosed with depression in early 2015 which lead to her losing her job as she didn’t tell her employer what she was going through.
Shortly after she had to give up her flat and move back home with her parents in autumn 2015. Drinking heavily meant that she had gained weight and weighed 17st 2lb and seeing how unhappy she was Gemma’s mum, Jacquie encouraged her to get back to training at the gym and helped her to get help from a charity called PTSD Resolution which specialises in mental health for veterans and their families.
Gemma started training again in 2016 and was spotted by a personal trainer who suggested she should try the sport strongman and encouraged her to enter a local competition four weeks later. Having never heard of the sport before, Gemma decided to give it a go and placed second in the competition.
From that moment Gemma was hooked and she has since competed in World’s Strongest Woman in America in December 2018, won England’s Strongest Under 82kg Woman in May 2019 and placed third in Britain’s Strongest Woman in September 2019.
Gemma now weighs roughly 12st 8lb when she’s competing and is training with her coach Simon Yates for The IFBB Arnold Sports Festival which takes place in Ohio, USA, in March next year. She wants to show everyone, not just ex-military, that you can turn your life around.
“I left the military in October 2012 and initially the transition was ok, I had secured a job and a flat but after some months I began to struggle I hadn’t moved back home instead I had moved to where I had secured work in High Wycombe,” said Gemma.
“I had no friends and I struggled and was very alone. I had left the army as I was really struggling at the time with depression and anxiety but I wasn’t really aware that I was. So leaving the army was very much an impulse decision I do regret but I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not.
“Like most I struggled with the transition and as a result fell into a downward spiral of depression and anxiety drinking heavily and gained a great amount of weight.
“I got an additional job at the weekend working in a pub and I thought this would help with socialising so I didn’t struggle finding common ground with people because people didn’t understand me so I made myself fit in drinking and taking drugs.
“It got out of control, I was in self-destruct mode and I had to come off work sick with depression and I lost my job because I didn’t tell my employers at the time what was happening, I was in massive debt so had to give up my flat. I moved back in with my parents in 2015.
“My mum forced me to get help I had help from an organisation in Brighton called PTSD Resolution, a small charity who gave me counselling. I was drastically overweight due to the drinking and binge eating so mum said I should get back to training, so I did. She also encouraged me to find work and helped me along with the Royal British Legion secure a new house which I’m still in.
“I was spotted at the gym by a trainer there, he said I was very strong for a woman and how about entering a local strongwoman competition which was running the following year. So I did, it was Worthing’s Strongest Woman 2016.
“I had no access to equipment so trained as hard as I could, I went, and I came second and fell in love with the sport. The ladies on the day were so supportive and encouraging it gave me a sense of achievement I hadn’t felt for a while I loved the buzz of competing and I loved how I felt. So I went away and decided to find somewhere I could train for it.
“Winning England’s Strongest Woman was the proudest moment of my life to date apart from joining the military. The journey I had been on to get there, I lost five stone, I found myself again after being lost for a long time. I had a purpose and I like myself again something I hadn’t had for many years even while serving in the army. I have my coach Simon Yates to thank, he saw potential, he believed in me and supported me the whole way. I cried the day I won.”
Gemma trains five days a week and makes sure she eats a good amount of protein and carbs to fuel her body.
Whilst training, Gemma receives funny looks from people about her strong legs, but she loves how she looks and is proud of the fact she can lift cars and pull double decker buses.
She can lift logs at 82.5kg, atlas stones at 110kg, deadlift 195kg and squat 175kg.
She trains at Phoenix Gym in Burgess Hill and is sponsored by Rebel Strength and Tuffwraps.co.uk.
Gemma shares her journey on Instagram and hopes to be able to inspire others with it.
“I get some funny looks, it’s unusual to see a strength athlete in a gym, yes there are bodybuilders and powerlifters but when I’m doing strongman training I do get looks. I get a lot of comments about my legs. I love how I look, it’s not for everyone but I like it and I’m so proud of what my body can do,” continued Gemma.
“Not many people can say their body lifts up cars or pulls double decker buses.
“The training is very taxing on your body and injuries aren’t uncommon. I have had a few injuries to my back and biceps. You just really have to listen to your body and stay focused when it gets hard. Most of all you must believe in yourself.
“Find a gym which has strongman equipment get a good coach who knows what he or she is doing. Enter a novice competition, make that your goal to work towards. Never say I’m not strong enough, go and compete and see what it’s about, you’ll surprise yourself and believe in yourself. You can’t win them all but you never lose, you only learn and that makes you a better athlete.
“When I left the military I never thought I’d be where I am today and that makes me incredibly proud that I have done all of this and that I have turned it all around.
“I honestly believe if I hadn’t moved back to Sussex with my family that day that I wouldn’t be here to say this to you.
“I want to show others not just ex-military, anyone that it can be done, you can turn your life around, but you have to want to. It takes time, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Consistency and hard work is the key to everything.”
For more information see www.instagram.com/gemma_strongwoman_fergie