Women Working: Strength in the industry

4 mins read

WILTON – Stand Strong Performance is a brand new woman-owned fitness center located in the Wilson Stream Business Park. Owner Shelby Downing got started much the same way other businesses have—with a loan and a drive to make her ideas a reality.

Having a long professional history in the athletic field and breaking strength records as a teen, she grew tired of powerlifting, but after retiring from teaching and seeing the pandemic shut down athletic programs for students, Downing got back into coaching in a gym with her own son.

“People saw me coaching and some women started asking me if I’d work with them, and on a whim I put out a flyer for a women’s powerlifting team thinking I’d get two or three people and build from there, but I got ten people right off the bat,” Downing said. “It’s been so much fun to see women have that environment to grow and get strong in, and getting strong, it’s not just about lifting weights.”

Stand Strong opened in October.

From there she decided to open her own gym and offer programs and memberships that would allow her to teach and coach without getting tired of powerlifting, but also have space for those not interested in programs.

Part of what makes Downing’s establishment so unique is her refusal to use weight machines, opting instead for free weights.

“Philosophically, I didn’t want a gym that had weight-stack machines in it. They have a place in the industry, but it’s just not my lane; I like to teach people how to move, and those machines, you sit on them and figure out how to operate them with little to no instruction,” Downing said.

There is no industry completely free of gender-influenced biases, including the athletic industry, and at almost every point in her career, Downing had played a particular role to navigate these biases and continue to push forward.

“I was one of the first female high-level strength coaches in the 90s. I was the first woman to ever coach on a men’s world powerlifting team, and it was hard…at the local level, I had to play dumb, be patient, be quiet, wait my turn over and over,” Downing said. “It’s really interesting to now be in a situation where I don’t have to do that…this is my gym; I can do whatever I want.”

Though she’s proud of her journey, Downing feels that this industry hasn’t seen the same changes as other career fields.

Downing finds joy in seeing the people she coaches meet their strength and conditioning goals, as well as the camaraderie that accompanies teamwork.

Downing would encourage anyone interested in getting into this industry to find good mentors.

“What I discovered is, if I could find someone whose general philosophy was aligned with mine, and they were an excellent presenter—an educator—if I was then willing to study their work, then I could gain a lot of their life’s work very quickly,” Downing said. “So find someone that you trust, and while you’re creating your philosophy, just follow a couple people and don’t stray from that until you know where you fit and who you are in the field because the field is so driven by money and marketing.”

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