Can an ordinary-looking woman pull an H&S Bakery truck 50 feet up the street? Or hoist a beer keg filled with water over her head? Or lug a 200-pound weight between her legs while waddling like a duck?
"Yes, she can," said Emily Socolinsky, 40, of Canton. Want proof? Check out the 2015 Charlotte Bohn Charm City Strongwoman Memorial Contest, where ladies will flex their muscles to benefit colon cancer research. The competition among women ranging in age from their 20s to 50s will be held Sept. 13 on Eden Street, between Aliceanna and Fleet, in Harbor East.
Socolinsky, who owns a strength and conditioning gym at the site, started the contest in 2012 but renamed it this year to honor her sibling, who died in February after a 3 1/2-year battle with colon cancer. Charlotte Bohn was 38, a classically trained singer, a mother of two and her sister's best friend. Socolinksy's right arm bears a tattoo of a strand of lilies of the valley, Bohn's birth flower for May.
Socolinsky hopes to raise $20,000 via registrations, sponsorships and online donations. Last year's contest netted $13,000, more than twice that of 2013. The money benefits the Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation (Susie's Cause), a national nonprofit based in Baltimore that has raised $15 million since its start by the family of a woman who died of the disease in 2004.
Like Bohn, Susan Cohan grew up in Baltimore, attended Towson University and succumbed to colon cancer at 38, leaving two young children behind. The Strongwoman contest is a tribute to both, said David Cohan, Susan's father and president of the foundation that bears his daughter's name.
"This is a dynamic event in which everyone performs with such passion," Cohan said. "Contestants take part out of love for the sport and in recognition of the hard work that Emily does in devotion to her sister, who struggled with horrific colon cancer."
When Bohn first contracted the disease, she joined the staff of Susie's Cause.
"It's tradition, at one's first meeting, to have new board members sing a song," Cohan said. "Most of them sound terrible but when Charlotte sang, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. She inspired us to create a beautiful album of music, 'Where The Light Comes In,' which she recorded last December while on chemotherapy, three months before she died."
Copies of the CD, which costs $20, will be available at the Strongwoman contest. Proceeds go to Susie's Cause. Bohn's vocals will also be played during Sunday's event.
"It will be hard, this being the first contest without my sister," Socolinsky said. "I always feel Charlotte's presence. I hear her saying, 'I love you, Emmy, and please take care of my kids.'
"I know she'd be proud of what we've built."
Like her sister, Socolinsky attended Baltimore School for the Arts but studied modern dance, embracing a career that, physically, took its toll. Diagnosed with degenerative disk disease in 2005, she quit dancing and started lifting weights. Over time, her first bench press (45 pounds) improved to 135 pounds. The pain subsided; her back got better.
In 2011, Socolinsky opened her gym, Fivex3 Training, determined to help women boost both their strength and self-esteem.
The stereotype of female weightlifters is "women jacked on steroids," she said. "Guess what? I have 60-plus members and they all look like me. They are nurses, lawyers and students — one teaches belly dancing — and they lift because it makes them feel good. They walk taller and their sense of self-worth is higher."
Confidence is no issue for Socolinsky, who describes herself as "a bit of a rebel." She has 10 ear piercings and one in her nose.
"I take them out when I do jiujitsu, so I don't get grabbed by the rings," she said. "I'm OK with change. When my mother-in-law calls, she says, 'How is Emily and what color is her hair?' It's been brown, black, blond, red and green."
But Socolinsky readily agrees that weightlifting has helped her through the toughest times.
"My sister got sick in June 2011 and three months later I started this place," she said. "It was my outlet, my catharsis, and I'm thankful for it.
"I know the strength I've gained in the last five years has made me a better person. I wouldn't change my 40-year-old self for my 20-year-old self. I like the way I am immensely."