The Edmonds Community College dean of corrections education stands only 5-feet-2-inches, weighs just 140 pounds and is the mother of a 15-week-old baby. But the 29-year-old has won the title three times.
And Whisman plans to compete again this year in the national America's Strongest Woman contest.
The dean's outside interest — and the fact that she sports 14 tattoos and numerous piercings — gives her a certain "street cred" with the prisoners she teaches at the Monroe Correctional Complex.
"I think the fact that I'm in good shape helps me make a connection with prisoners who like to work out. It's a nonthreatening way to interact with them," Whisman said. "And with the tattoos and the piercings, well, perhaps I don't seem like such a square or the nerd that I am."
Whisman started lifting weights in high school. She swam freestyle and breaststroke on the Whitman College swim team. While in college in Walla Walla, she first saw an America's Strongest Woman competition on TV.
"I knew then that I wanted to become part of the strongman community," Whisman said. She qualified for this year's national competition at Washington's Strongest Apple contest in Des Moines, just 10 weeks after her son, Emmett, was born. The dean plans to travel to the North American Strongman and American Strongest Woman nationals with her husband, John, also a fitness enthusiast, and their son in tow. The competition is set for Oct. 18 in the parking lot of Smitty's Bar and Grill in Denison, Texas.
Whisman's current training regimen includes cardio and conditioning in her home gym, two evening weight-lifting workouts a week at a Stanwood gym, followed by a day in a gym in Kent, where she practices Strongman events.
Each national competition is different, Whisman said, and might include events such as lifting and carrying a 200-pound "Atlas stone" concrete ball, moving a giant wheelbarrow load, dead-lifting a car and dragging a heavily laden sled.
"Being a new mom, I still have work to do on my core before nationals," Whisman said during a regular workout last week. She alternated squat lifting and dead lifts in the 300-pound range, with leg lifts and planks to strengthen her abdominal muscles. In a log book, she recorded each of the exercises.
"If you don't write it down, it didn't happen."
As the weights got heavier, Whisman donned a support belt.
"I try to wait as long as I can before belting up," she said. "Part of the workout, too, is putting the weights on and taking them off the barbell." With each lift she exhales with a loud grunt, sets the barbell down and shakes out her muscles. Then she psychs herself up for the next lift.
Andrea Summers and Matt Anderson, both 23 and from Stanwood, are regulars at the gym and know about Whisman's competitive goal. They looked on from the other side of the gym.
"We watched her working out when she was pregnant," Summers said. "It was crazy."
Whisman won the national Strongest Woman contest in 2007 in New Jersey, 2008 in Missouri and 2011 in Mississippi. She's in the lightweight class now but has competed in the middleweight and heavyweight divisions. Contestants generally range in age from early 20s to mid-50s, she said. Many more will qualify for nationals than typically compete. About 15 women will make it to the contest, she said.
After her first win, Whisman got a tattoo on an upper arm of the image of a female Atlas — which she calls "Atlisa" — lifting the world. The second win came with the tattooed image of a koi fish, representing good luck, on the other arm.
Whisman's tattoos involve images related to strength, family and her passion for teaching.
She was 19 when she volunteered to tutor in GED classes for inmates at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla. After graduating from Whitman, she enrolled at Northern Arizona University to pursue a master's degree in criminal justice.
"Most people in my life thought I should become an educator, but I wanted to work in federal law enforcement. But you can't be in the FBI if you don't like shooting guns," she said. "And I missed working at the prison so much."
Eventually, Whisman got a job with EdCC helping inmates get high school diplomas or GEDs at the prison in Monroe. In 2012, she was named dean of the corrections education program.
On her wrist is blue lotus-blossom tattoo.
"That's my teacher tattoo," Whisman said. "The lotus grows in the mud and the muck, but, as with the prisoners, there's beauty in there somewhere. There is that chance for people to turn their lives around."
Other tattoos include "Hard" on one arm and "Work" on the other. In the middle of a Maltese Cross are the words "Overcome all obstacles," which she had tattooed after her anterior cruciate ligament was repaired in 2009. An American Indian design represents the saying, "Pain is weakness leaving the body." Wings across her back are there because her dad's goodnight saying was always, "Angel wings on your pillow." A yellow ribbon denotes her husband's Navy deployments to the Persian Gulf and the initials of her late mother among daylilies represent motherhood.
Motherhood, however, isn't going to keep Whisman from her passions.
"I don't plan on having more babies. One dog, one husband and one kid. I want to do my job and compete in Strongest Woman for as long as I can," she said. "For me, the need to be physically strong is related to the need to be mentally strong."
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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