UKNS, the newest natty pathway: Q&A with Steven Wylie

UKNS, the newest natty pathway: Q&A with Steven Wylie

Before we get started, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who read the last blog post! I was really overwhelmed by all of the kind feedback from my last post, I was touched by how many people found it helpful, so here we go again, this time for the natty pathway. I didn’t get around to saying much about tested pathways in the last post, but I hinted that it could be a future topic. Steven Wylie, one of the founding promoters for UK Natural Strongman (UKNS), reached out to me and said he would be glad to do a Q&A about UKNS. Before we get to that, I’ve tried to give some background to the natty scene in the UK and offer my thoughts. Steven and I discussed the beginnings of the pathway, the growing u57 class, the importance of high-level athletes participating, and plans for the future.

Until 2022, competitions for natural athletes in the UK were almost exclusively hosted by the British Natural Strongman Federation (BNSF). Podium spots at Brit’s qualified athletes for competitions run by The World Heavy Events Association (WHEA), such as the World Strongman Championships. WHEA has been working with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) since 2015, the first to introduce an anti-doping program in strongman. Athletes can be drug tested at random, pre or post-competition. It’s fair to say that the buy-in from natural athletes hasn't been consistent and attendance at BNSF competitions has been lower compared to other national-level competitions. Natural athletes have chosen to compete in the untested side of the sport, despite the fact they would have an ‘easier ride’ to a podium spot through tested competitions. If you’re an ambitious athlete, there’s no glory in being the biggest fish in a small pond. You might as well opt to be potentially average in the pond that matters, with the space to grow into it.

The BNSF pathway still exists and is very much active, but for the purposes of this blog post I won’t be discussing BNSF or WHEA. We’re talking about the new federation on the block, and boy have the standards been high and the weights heavy! Competitions for natural athletes have typically been lighter, with the assumption that natural athletes can’t quite lift what enhanced athletes can. UKNS regional qualifiers were heavier than the untested regionals this year, and athletes have leapt at the chance to be pushed. It’s been exciting to see the development of a natty pathway that challenges athletes and showcases their incredible abilities.

While I’m a natural athlete myself, I’m not a purist about it. Personally, I find it irksome if natural athletes make comments about the ‘unfairness’ of competing with enhanced athletes; if you choose to compete in an untested competition, you know what you’re in for. There’s no point complaining when you make a decision knowing fully what it meant. Especially as comments about enhanced female athletes almost always question their femininity at some point. It’s a poor way to behave and say far more about those that say it than it does about enhanced athletes. Plus, misogynistic remarks like these are the same shit we all have to deal with, why add fuel to the fire? If you compete in strength sports and have any visible muscle mass, people on the internet are still going to call you a man whether you use PEDs or not. Don’t be a part of the problem.

However, the establishment of a well-respected natural pathway is extremely important for the growth of the women’s side of the sport. Female athletes should be offered a viable and attractive choice, especially if they’re just starting out. Give athletes a decent natural pathway with the opportunity to compete with other pro-level athletes. The choice between enhanced and natural is not as binary as ‘do I want it enough’. You can still be an excellent athlete and be natural. It will probably take you a lot longer, sure, but PEDs are one factor in a long list of variables. Taking loads of PEDs doesn’t make you a good athlete. Hard work does. With the right weight selections and good infrastructure, athletes will hopefully continue to prioritise tested competitions in their season.

Q&A with Steven Wylie

Can you give us a brief overview of what UKNS is, and how it all started?

We started UKNS as we wanted to give natural athletes a pathway that they deserved, but also a pathway they could be proud of. When the UKNS was born we wanted to do what the IPF did for powerlifting, make it accessible and help it gain the popularity and growth this amazing sport deserves. The strides we've taken in the past 21 months have been beyond our wildest dreams, and we are really just getting started. 

What was your motivation for starting the pathway? 

My clients are mostly natural, and a lot of them are good strongmen/ women, who work as hard as anyone. Two of my clients won BNSF Brits and one went on to win WHEA World's. After World's she came in and when people were saying well done she was almost embarrassed. I decided that they deserved a platform that they could be really tested on but also have a level playing field.

Why do you think natty competitions haven’t been as popular historically? Is that something you’re hoping to change?

I believe the reason it hasn't been popular in the past is two-fold. The first reason is that historically it's been a male dominated sport; men are more inclined to taking PEDs so there hasn't been as much of a need for a proper natural pathway until recently. The second reason is poor organisation, weights that were too light, etc. It was almost an insult to do competitions with weights so light for people who regarded themselves as strongmen/ women.

With the World Championships happening next weekend, it’s been an exciting first year! What have been some personal highlights, and any lessons to learn for next year?

So this is our 2nd year having UKs and 1st having Worlds, it's been amazing and the growth has been beyond what any of us imagined. Having more than 10k views on the livestream for the UK Finals was pretty cool, but genuinely the highlight is just so many people enjoying it and having the platform to push themselves and do amazing things is always the highlight.

Between in-person qualifiers, UK Finals, international online qualifier, the last chance qualifier for World's, and World's… we've had over 400 people compete in our pathway this year, and the reviews and feedback have been awesome! We will continue to push this forward with relentless energy until the sport is as big as possible, and the athletes are getting the recognition they deserve.

Do you feel it’s important to highlight tested pathways that exist, especially for novice/intermediate athletes?

Absolutely, I think newcomers should be made aware of all of their options. However, I'd also like to point out that this isn't a novice pathway. The UKNS regional qualifiers on the woman's side were heavier for the most part than the untested England's regional qualifiers, participation levels in Scotland and Ireland on the woman's side were more than double in this pathway than any other, and stats would suggest that it was easier to podium at Ultimate's England's or untested Scotland's Strongest Woman than it was to podium at the UKNS Finals. I genuinely (maybe I'm biased) believe that outside the obvious one or two outliers in each class, the UKNS is already more densely packed in terms of quality than the untested side.

While a slight generalisation, women tend to be a little more cautious about using PEDs than male athletes. Lots of natural women are competing in untested shows and they’re still very competitive. Has it been important in the pathway’s infancy to have buy-in from ‘household names’ such as Chloe Brennan?

Absolutely, having Chloe involved was really amazing, she's almost become an ambassador for UKNS and I couldn't think of anyone better for young women to have a role model in the sport, she is as amazing a human being as she is an athlete. I believe Chloe's involvement has been key in other big names getting involved like Annabelle Chapman, Becca Worgan, Gemma Moore, Kristin Ellis, etc. While natural women have been competitive in untested shows, the question has to be asked: why would you go and compete untested as a really good natural athlete if you could be tested properly, both with the weight/event selections and with the competitors, in a natural show? Why fight for 4th place while everyone on the podium has an unfair advantage over you, when you're working just as hard. At OSG Europe's, Charlotte Hayden finished 4th in the u64's, Anet Brzakova finished 3rd in u82's. But the reality is, none of them will ever beat Rhianon Lovelace or Sandra Bradley respectively. Don’t these girls deserve the chance to fight to call themselves a UK's, European, or even World Champion?

UKNS included an u57kg female class this year, to my knowledge there are few promoters offering this weight class. How popular has it been, can you see the class filling out in the future?

Yes! So while we never knew if it would take off, we had around 10-12 do the regional qualifiers and then 6 made it to the UK's finals. While the field was smaller than some of the others, the girls smashed it! Whether it grows or not remains to be seen, but I know the Arnold's just ran a qualifier and included an u57's category recently and are running that category in Ohio next year (copy cats 😜). Given the growth the u73s had after a ropey first year, I'm optimistic as ever.

Anything you’re most excited about for next weekend? If fans want to follow along, will there be any streams or live spreadsheets?

I'm excited to see all of our hard work come to fruition, and for all these amazing athletes to get the chance to showcase their skillset to over 300 spectators and hopefully another +10k viewers on the livestream.

If athletes want to take part in UKNS shows next year, where should they look for updates, and what time of year will the regional qualifiers begin?

We are active on both Instagram as @naturalstrongman and @the_ukns, as well as Facebook as UK Natural Strongman. We'll also be putting events on the website at Next year we are skipping regional qualifiers; we will have a Natural England’s/ Scotland's/ Ireland's/ Wales' Strongest Man/Woman at the end of January/beginning of February. This will then be followed by UK finals in June, and World's in September.

Thanks so much to Steven for his contributions, let us know if you have any comments/questions. Who’s hoping to take part next year?

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As a U57 UKNS athlete my experience has been nothing short of incredible. The promotors leave no stone unturned and go to every length possible (at their own financial expense), to make these events not only well organiser in the interest of competitors but exciting for spectators in the interest of the sports growth.

I believe that the enjoyment of spectators is key for the weight class side to take off, and what better a way to ensure it is exciting to watch, than levelling the playing field so gold, silver and bronze are all fair game!

Sleeping on this natural pathway would be a mistake; big things are coming and we loveeee it.

Willow Brady

My first year competing at UKNS was awesome. Such well run competitions and standards and competition was high. Looking forward to next year

Rosie Sallis

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