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Women & Girls: Kari Thibeault might be made of pure iron

When Kari Thibeault of Markstay-Warren was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than 20 years ago, she thought her life was over. Then, with the support of her partner and trainer, she found strong women competitions and hasn’t looked back since

Kari Thibeault might just be made of pure iron. She can deadlift more than 400 pounds. She can heft a 100-pound sandbag onto her shoulder as if it were a feather pillow.

And at this very moment, she is the strongest adaptive woman in the entire world. (And as you’re reading this, she’s probably at her outdoor gym, built for her by her trainer and partner, Emmanuel, lifting.) That’s because at the World Strength Games’ World Strongman Competition, held in Orlando, Florida, on Sept. 15-17, she hefted her way to the winner’s circle, claiming the title of World’s Strongest Adaptive Woman.

Below you can see Thibeault receiving all her hardware in Florida. The man presenting to her is Icelandic strongman and four-time World’s Strongest Man Magnus ver Magnusson. Incidentally, Thibeault has the plaque she won in Florida featuring Magnus’ name tattooed on her arm.

Thibeault seems to smile a lot these days, but it wasn’t always that way. For more than 15 years, smiles were hard to come by for this Markstay-Warren resident.

In September, 2001, while stripping her floors, Thibeault, then 29, suddenly lost vision in her right eye. An MRI in March 2002 confirmed the news: she had relapse-remitting MS. That initial diagnosis eventually developed into secondary progressive MS, but the names don’t really matter for our purposes.

What matters is Thibeault thought her life was over. MS comes with a host of symptoms, but one of the most obvious for her is the virtual loss of her ability to walk. She can only take a few steps before exhaustion sets in, so she uses a wheelchair to get around.

“I had four kids and at the time I tried to do the best that I could,” she said, while hefting weights outside on a warm fall day. “I got very depressed.”

She wasn’t suicidal exactly, Thibeault said, but “I didn’t care If I died. I was stuck in bed for more than two years.”

And for more than a decade, she languished, existing more than living. 

“To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be alive (until now), the way my mindset was. I didn’t think I could go on. I was just laying in bed,” Thibeault said.

“It was a pretty dark 10 years,” Emmanuel said.

Physiotherapy at St. Joseph’s Continuing Care Centre “was awful” because it was so painful and difficult, and because the psychological toll of MS can be as debilitating as the physical symptoms. She became more depressed. 

She took part in a clinical trial for a leukemia drug, Cladribine, that showed promise in helping patients with MS. That medication was eventually approved for use with multiple sclerosis under the name Mavenclad.

“It helped a lot,” Thibeault said, but came with crippling depression as a side effect.

Then, in 2020, Emmanuel introduced her to a local strong woman competitor, Ann-Steph Roussel. That changed pretty much everything.

“I started lifting weights,” Thibeault said.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, getting the right training equipment was difficult, if not impossible. Luckily, Thibeault had an Emmanuel on her side. A concrete pad left from an old garage on their property became the couple’s outdoor strongman gym. Emmanuel, whose large arms are corded with heavy muscle, learned how to weld and built all the equipment himself out at Healing Heart Acres, as they affectionately call their homestead. 

With its lattice of logs, several large concrete balls, hanging chains, enormous ropes and logs chopped and cut into lifting devices, the gym could be mistaken for some medieval torture chamber — for Thibeault and Emmanuel, it is a lifeline.

A couple of months after she started lifting, Thibeault noticed her depression easing off. The regular exercise and its effect on her metabolism certainly improved her mood, but so did the sense of community she felt from the “strong people community” as she calls it.

“Then, I started noticing I could do things I didn’t think I could do, like going for rides into town and keeping commitments,” she said. 

Previously, whenever someone would ask her to do something, her standard answer was, “I’m too sick.” That began to change, too, and so did her sense of self.

“I was Kari, I was starting to become myself again,” she said.

Seeing that light come on in her eyes again and now seeing her thrive and persevere was particularly meaningful for Emmanuel.

“You have no idea,” he said.

Below watch Thibeault heft a specially made 50-pound circus dumbbell emblazoned with the phrase “F*&#K MS”.

The training and exercising was going well, but then something unexpected kicked things into a whole new gear. In 2022, Roussel signed Thibeault up for a Static Monster competition. In these types of competitions, members of individual gyms compete in various lifting competitions at their gym and the results are compared against lifters at other gyms across the globe.

Thibeault was in for a surprise. Because she is in a wheelchair, she does all her lifts from a seated position, hence the term “adaptive” strong woman. Her seated deadlift saw her heft 308 pounds and in her seated log press she lifted 78 pounds — both of which are world records for adaptive women lifters.

“She ended up No. 1 in the world” for adaptive women lifters, Emmanuel said. “The whole room was screaming.”

That kickstarted the couple’s interest in competing. The challenge, Emmanuel said, is trying to find strongman competitions in Canada with adaptive divisions. He started asking friends in the industry to start including adaptive divisions in their competitions as, except for Thibeault, there were no other female adaptive strongman competitors in Canada.

This year, she’s taken part in seven competitions and in five of those she was the only adaptive competitor. 

Then, they saw a post about the World Strongman Competition in Florida and Emmanuel signed her up. Friends and loved ones raised the money to send the couple to Orlano.

“The next thing I knew, I was on a plane,” Thibeault said. “I’ve never been anywhere.”

Just being on a plane and leaving the country for the first time was incredible enough, Thibeault said, but to be headed to a strongman competition when just a few years earlier she thought her life was over is a feeling that is not easily put into words.

What’s even harder to put into words is winning the competition itself. There aren’t many women in the adaptive strongman world and most of those are in the United Kingdom, Thibeault said. 

This iron-willed strongwoman from Canada kind of came out of nowhere.

Her performance was impressive to say the least. She lifted a 100-pound sandbag to her shoulder for seven reps; pulled 352 pounds on rope in arm-over-arm; held 286 pounds in a farmer’s hold; did 10 clean reps on an 80-pound axel lift, and; hefted a 48-pound circus dumbbell over her head. Unfortunately, the competition didn’t have the equipment for Thibeault to take part in her favourite event, the deadlift.

Below is a video from ZeroDarkThirty Media showing Thibeault and Emmanuel at the competition in Florida. 

The next thing she knew, Thibeault was being crowned the world’s strongest adaptive woman.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet — it’s kind of surreal,” Thibeault said. “I was so proud to be Canadian there.”

Now in possession of a professional adaptive strongman card, Thibeault is no longer an amateur and can compete in all major events, including televised events. And she certainly plans on continuing to compete.

“I want to defend my record,” she said.

Her goal is to deadlift 420 pounds hopefully this year and then deadlift 500 pounds next year in honour of her 50th birthday.

Defending her record means getting to England for the 2024 competition, which will entail fundraising. Keep your eye on as we hope to let you know when that fundraising effort begins so readers who are interested can help her out.

Her next event is Nov. 25 for the World’s Gym Strength Competition. 

Now considered a professional, sponsors have expressed interest in supporting Thibeault in her work, but she needs to grow her social media presence in order for that to happen. 

That’s where readers of can help by following her on Instagram, where she and Emmanuel regularly post videos of Thibeault’s workouts and competitions. You can find her @Kari2CuteWheelz on Instagram. Let’s get Thibeault sponsored.

If you are interested in strongman competitions or workouts, Thibeault recommends checking out the local strongman group on Facebook.

Below check out Thibeault performing a 405-pound deadlift.


Mark Gentili is the editor of Women & Girls is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.