Challenge Accepted

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Whether they’re riding a bike across the country or taking the stage at a local competition, we’re in awe of Maine women who challenge themselves and who inspire us simply by being who they are, no apologies. Here are three women doing just that.

Kerry Gross
Cycling the country in search of inspiring women

Kerry Gross during her cross-country cycling trek to meet inspiring women from all walks of life. Photo courtesy of Kerry Gross

“Feed your adventure.” That’s the slogan for Clif Bar & Company, and for Kerry Gross, 26, the company’s flagship energy bar did quite literally that.

“One evening before a swim, I happened to read the back of a Clif Bar,” she recalls. “As I was swimming along, I just kept thinking, ‘All I have to do is read some packaging and I find stories of men’s adventures, but what about stories of women’s adventures?”

With that, her project-turned-podcast called “Women Who Dare” was born. Gross was in the midst of her PhD studies in sociology, but decided to set off on a cross-country cycling trek in search of women with inspiring stories. Already an active participant in adventure racing and having completed a modified Ironman training program, Gross took the winter to prepare for her physical journey. She set off on bike from San Francisco at the end of April 2017.

“All told, I rode for five months, covered 5,800 miles by bike, and another 1,700 miles by train,” says Gross, interviewing women from all walks of life along the way.

Over the course of her 21-week trek, she interviewed a CEO, explorer, sail maker, researcher and carpenter, to name a few. She says, “Though the women I interviewed have vastly different professions, they all embodied the sort of passionate presence I endeavor to find in my own life.”

Back in Camden, Gross is working as a freelance researcher and ski instructor while parsing together interviews that she recorded on her cross-country adventure. She anticipates releasing those edited interviews this month in the form of a podcast called “Women Who Dare.” For more information on Gross’s journey and the podcasts, visit www.kerrygross.com.

Hamdia Ahmed at the 2017 Miss Maine USA pageant. Courtesy photo

Hamdia Ahmed
Taking the stage as herself, inspiring others to do the same

Hamdia Ahmed made history in November when she competed in the Miss Maine USA pageant. Among other participants who wore gowns with plunging necklines, without straps, or with a deep-cut back, Ahmed crossed the stage with a beaming smile dressed in a sparkling champagne full-length, long-sleeved gown and a traditional hijab to match.

“I decided to wear a hijab because that is part of my identity,” says Ahmed, 20, of Portland. “I wanted to embrace my modesty. All of the girls who competed were so supportive.”

Ahmed’s mother gave birth to her in 1997 while escaping from the Somali war and walking to a refugee camp in Kenya. Her family relocated to the United States in 2005. Aside from her aspirations to become a model, Ahmed is studying political science in college.

“I am a social justice activist,” says Ahmed, having organized rallies and protests against hatred and division. “After Trump was elected, many Muslims and immigrants like myself started experiencing harassment. I want people to know that we live in America. We should welcome all types of people. We can’t allow hatred to divide us.”

Ahmed’s participation in Miss Maine was something completely new, but she says the support she received has really boosted her confidence.

“I want to inspire other girls who look like me to never change who they are. Representation is so important,” she says, adding, “You can compete in a pageant even if you wear a hijab, burkini or modest gown.”

Carolyn Braun
Heavy-lifting rabbi

Rabbi Carolyn Braun doing a squat during the New England Powerlifting and Bench Press Championships. Photo courtesy of Kirk Rodgers

Rabbi Carolyn Braun is attracted to the unconventional. In 1988, she was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as a member of the first class of female rabbis. Then, in 2000, she picked up something completely different: a barbell.

“A friend of mine was training with Matt Israelson and she invited me to come along,” says Braun. “I loved the challenge of new moves and the goal of lifting more.”

For Braun, who is barely 5 feet tall, it was at first all about learning proper posture, positioning and movement. The more she learned and the stronger she got, the plates on the bars got bigger. She says, “A few years ago, I lost quite a bit of weight and decided if I got to a certain weight class, I might compete.”

When her coach, Israelson at Dyna Maxx in Westbrook, caught wind of her idea, he started to help her train differently; more like a competitor. “I knew I couldn’t get out of competing.”

Since then, Braun, 60, has competed several times. In November, she hit her personal bests during a competition, which included a 235.8-pound squat, 165-pound bench and 255.5 pound-deadlift.

More than muscles, lifting has offered her a new perspective when working with the community at Temple Beth El in Portland.

“Lifting has given me another way to think about overcoming doubts or trying things one never thought they could,” she says. “There is an element of trust one develops—in oneself and others.”

And, the synagogue’s congregants are pretty impressed by their rabbi’s brawn.

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