In the 1990s circuses of an impoverished Ukraine, a young girl performs an astonishing act. Clad in a glitzy costume, she appears with her strongman father, her tiny frame dwarfed by his bulk. And yet, unbelievably, the seven-year-old lifts the fully-grown man onto her back using nothing but her own strength. Ladies and gentlemen: Varya Akulova, the strongest girl in the world.
According to father Uri, there is a legend among the Akulovas, passed down through the generations. That legend states that the family’s almost superhuman strength is all down to a higher power – specifically, that it’s a God-given gift.
And with this divine legacy in mind, when Uri and his wife, Larisa, found out they were expecting a child, the dad-to-be soon began making plans. Uri had previously worked as a strongman and acrobat in his native Ukraine and so hoped to reignite his circus career with a father-and-son act.
However, on January 10, 1992, Larisa scuppered these plans, giving birth to a baby girl, Varya, in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih. Thinking that his ambition to return to the circus with a family act was now destined to fail, Uri looked for employment elsewhere. But as the newborn grew, he began to reconsider.
In fact, by the time she was just three months old, Varya was already showing signs that she had inherited the Akulovas’ phenomenal strength. At that point, the infant was already able to stand up, her body able to support itself much earlier than is usual. And as a one-year-old, she was already displaying incredible power in her hands and arms.
Eventually, Uri realized that his dream was within reach after all. And in 1995, when she was still only three years old, Varya joined her parents in a new circus act. Mostly, it consisted of the girl performing gymnastics and acrobatics while Uri and Larisa wowed the audience with feats of strength.
However, Varya would soon become the star of the show. By the time she was five years old, moreover, she was performing her own weightlifting stunts. And two years later, she was able to carry Uri on her back. But even though Varya’s strength won the Akulovas’ circus show many fans, their lives out of the spotlight were far from easy.
Before 1991, Ukraine had been among the most deprived republics in the Soviet Union. But when the country won its independence just a year before Varya was born, it faced a whole new onslaught of economic troubles. Inflation in the country, for example, soared to worrying levels. Furthermore, work – even for a talented family like the Akulovas – was difficult to find.
And although the Akulovas found some success touring with circuses, they spent part of the year living together in one small room over a mineworkers’ bar. For all her talents, Varya was earning just $10 a day. On top of that, the family was forced to share a bathroom with the patrons of the bar below.
Luckily, Varya was not intimidated by the drunkards she often encountered on her way to the bathroom. In fact, upon one occasion where she encountered two men who tried to frighten her, she lifted them up by the legs and threw them onto the floor. But although their daughter remained unafraid, Uri and Larisa decided that it was time to move on.
With nowhere else to go, the three Akulovas made home in an institutional stairwell, sleeping together on one mattress. But even though the family could only afford the most basic food, Varya’s strength continued to grow. Finally, when she was nine years old, the circus act had earned the Akulovas enough money for an apartment.
Now, it seemed as if there was no stopping Varya. As a ten-year-old, she began making appearances on Russian television, stunning audiences with her strength. Most impressively of all, in 2002 she set a Guinness World Record by lifting an incredible 220 pounds – more than twice her body weight.
By the time she was 12, in fact, Varya’s skills had eclipsed those of her strongman father. Amazingly, she was able to lift a heavy weight from the floor while carrying both Uri and Larisa on her back. Her parents by themselves came in at 352 pounds. And with this new act, the family began performing in the streets of cities throughout Ukraine.
However, not everyone approved of Varya and her extraordinary strength. According to the Akulovas’ website, one audience member once shouted out, “No man will ever marry a strong woman.” On another occasion, Uri and Larisa were advised that they should remove Varya from the show and teach her the domestic skills needed to attract a prospective husband instead.
But despite such opposition, Varya’s fame continued to grow. And soon, gym coaches and trainers from across Ukraine were turning up to observe this phenomenon. They watched Uri coach his daughter, hoping to learn his training secret. But Uri maintained that there were no tricks up his sleeves. Varya’s abilities, he asserted, were simply the result of exercise and the Akulova family’s God-given natural strength.
Surprisingly, Varya’s doctors seemed to agree. And according to the family’s website, medical tests have proven that her training regime is nothing out of the ordinary. However, the results did reveal something interesting about her leg muscles. Apparently, they are aligned in a different manner to those usually found in young women, possibly allowing them to contain more muscle fibers as a result. Could this anomaly account for Varya’s astonishing strength despite her small frame?
Medical anomaly or not, Uri has taken no chances with Varya’s health. Indeed, ever since she was a young girl, he has ensured that his daughter receives regular medical checks. Additionally, he claims to minimize the risk of injury by only letting Varya showcase about three-quarters of her actual strength while weightlifting.
But despite Uri’s apparent concern, there are rumors of a dark side to Varya’s career. And one disturbing allegation came from The World’s Strongest Child, a documentary which aired on British television in February 2009. The show revealed that Varya’s parents tried to encourage her strength by attaching weights to her limbs when she was just a few days old.
Interestingly, the program went on to claim that Uri also thwarted his daughter’s dreams of Olympic glory. Although Varya, then 17, hoped to represent Ukraine at the London 2012 event, she was barred from competing when officials were opposed to her father’s coaching role.
Today, though, Varya is a 25-year-old college student standing at just 5’ and weighing only 112 pounds. And yet unlike many former child prodigies, she doesn’t seem to resent her former career – nor her parents’ roles in her childhood endeavors. In fact, she dreams of pushing things even further. “I wish I could be big, really big,” she said in a 2012 interview with The Daily Mail. “Like my dad.”