Dundee Gladiators star Sheli McCoy tells her critics: ‘I am unapologetically athletic and always will be’

Dundee Gladiators star Sheli McCoy is “unapologetically athletic”.

And is rightly proud to be so – given how extremely hard she has worked to achieve her incredible physique.

So when there are people who dare to make comments that the 35-year-old gym owner is ‘getting too big or bulky’, she has her response ready.

“I receive a lot of ‘body opinions’ from men and from women,” she says.

“For some people, traditionally, women might be quite slim and men might be quite muscular.

“While to other people, with a more modern mindset, an athlete is an athlete gender immaterial.

“So I highly expect that by putting myself out there in the public eye, I am probably going to come across both of those sets of people.

“People are going to have an opinion.

“But my mum always tells me people’s opinions of me are none of my business and that’s fine.

“If I ever do clap back at some of those, it is just to remind people that it’s my body and I will do as I want.

“I am happy with the person I am. I am unapologetically athletic and I am always going to be.”

Dundee Gladiators star Sheli McCoy.
Dundee Gladiators star Sheli McCoy. Image: BBC

Sheli has caught the nation’s attention after starring as Sabre in the relaunched BBC series of the hit TV show, Gladiators.

Unfortunately she won’t be seen in the second semi-final on March 23 or the series final on March 30, as she was forced to pull out of the show’s first semi-final after sustaining an injury.

She suffered a torn hamstring during a challenge called The Edge.

Sheli was competing against Sheffield firefighter, Bronte Jones, in the event and the pair were in a tussle when she sustained the injury.

Speaking to me via Zoom from the Sweatbox gym she owns on Camperdown Road, Sheli explained what happened.

“It was because the contender was holding on to the bottom of the structure so when I was pulling her bodyweight, I wasn’t really pulling her bodyweight,” she says.

Sheli was injured during a challenge called The Edge.
Sheli was injured on The Edge challenge. Image: BBC iplayer

“I was pulling the entire weight of the structure and on tired legs, my hamstring just tore.

“It was agony, worst pain of my life.”

She continued: “It is such a physical gameshow and we know there are risks involved.

“I am giving it everything I have got so we are really pushing the limits.”

She revealed how her recovery has been going.

“I have been rehabbing for five or six months now,” she said.

“There is just one or two things which are still a stretch too far.

“I can’t sprint or long distance run and can’t sled push really heavy yet, but they will come in time.”

Sheli McCoy’s background

Originally from Windsor, Sheli graduated with a master’s degree from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, before settling in Menzieshill.

A keen sportswoman, she has competed in five British Weightlifting Championships events and CrossFit championships all over the globe, becoming Scottish champion in both sports.

Sheli competed in the 35-39 category at last year’s CrossFit Games, ranking 104th out of more than 23,000 participants.

And she set three new Scottish records in Olympic weightlifting at the Scottish Championships in 2023.

Sheli also runs her own business – the SweatBox Dundee gym with former Dundee Stars ice hockey player Sam McCluskey.

And as well as having more than 10 years’ experience as a personal and CrossFit trainer, Sheli is also a weightlifting coach and sports rehabilitation therapist.

How did Sheli secure a role in Gladiators?

Both Gladiators and competitors were asked to apply to join the gameshow by the show’s bosses.

However, during a recent Q&A on Instagram, Sheli revealed she was ‘found, headhunted and went through a challenging testing routine.’

But what is involved in becoming a Gladiator?

Well, people also might not realise that it takes a few hours just to create the look for filming the TV show.

In Sheli’s case, it takes around two hours to create the specific look of Sabre.

This involves her getting into costume as well as having her hair and make-up done.

As well as looking the part, a lot of training is involved as well as learning new skills – particularly for the challenges in the show.

Sheli trains 16-19 hours a week to help her maintain her powerful physique.

Sheli is a Scottish champion in weightlifting and CrossFit
Sheli is a Scottish champion in weightlifting and CrossFit. Image: cfsheli/Instagram

But she also had to do extra training to prepare for her role as Sabre.

“I had to do a couple of specific things.

“For example I had never tackled before.

“So when you see me tackling contestants that is new. I learned that through our coach.

“But Apollo, Steel and Fury (fellow Gladiators) also taught me a bit so I learned on the job for that.

“I also started swinging around on the rings a bit, learning how to turn, and that was good as well.”

Sheli also makes sure that she eats well and doesn’t restrict herself.

“I’m not on a diet,” she explains.

“There is nothing I can’t have. I eat carbs and make sure they feature in breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“I also eat a lot of protein.

“All the Gladiators are the same.

“We have lots of snacks and glucose to keep us moving and we hydrate really well.

“I have abs but not because I diet or restrict, it is because I train hard and I eat the right foods.”

Sheli’s love of donuts

However, Sheli also enjoys treats.

Gladiators star Sheli McCoy. Image: BBC

“Donuts are my favourite snack ever!”, she said excitedly.

“I literally love donuts. When Tim Horton’s opened in Dundee, I was over the moon.”

But I was surprised to discover that while she loves donuts, she isn’t a big fan of chocolate.

“Chocolate is nice, like Lindt chocolate.

“But I wouldn’t chose chocolate like at night-time when you want something sweet.

“I would rather have a biscuit – I would rather have a Hobnob than chocolate.”

Training hard for a decade

While Sheli is a powerful athlete now, she told me it took her 10 years to achieve the incredible figure she has.

Recently she surprised fans during an Instagram Q&A session when she shared a photograph of herself when she used to be four dress sizes bigger in her 20s due to overeating and being unhappy.

Sheli revealed she started putting on weight while she was at university.

“At university is when health declines because you pick up convenience food all the time.

“At university I definitely put on a lot of weight.

“And then there were a few life events that happened as I left university that really gave me the motivation to become a stronger version of myself.”

Sheli revealed before and after pictures during the Q&A.
Sheli revealed before and after pictures during the Q&A. Image: Sheli McCoy/Instagram

One of those life events was experiencing domestic abuse from an ex-partner at the time which Sheli spoke about recently on the Restless Natives podcast.

She said: “The destructive nature of that eight-year relationship took its toll on me.

“At the end of it I was a size 16, four dress sizes larger than I had ever been.

“I was very unhappy and I was definitely not the person I knew I could be.”

I wondered if her success in Gladiators is more poignant now because of the abuse she suffered.

But Sheli is keen to stress this isn’t the case.

“To be totally honest, that previous relationship does not define me in any way.

“And I don’t think about it ever.

“I don’t feel my success is because of that and I don’t want people to focus on that.

“The true definition of success is the sum of all efforts and that is who I am.”

‘What it’s like to become a Gladiator’

Reflecting on her time in Gladiators, Sheli revealed it has been so much more than she ever thought it would be.

“I don’t think anyone could ever imagine what it is like to become a Gladiator,” she said.

“Even in your wildest imagination, it’s more than that.

“It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s scary and it’s exhilarating.

“I have never done anything as mind blowing.”

Dundee Gladiators star Sheli McCoy as Sabre
Dundee Gladiators star Sheli McCoy as Sabre. Image: BBC/James Stack/Hungry Bear Media Ltd

Sheli revealed she has received messages from fans of the show wanting to give Crossfit a try after seeing her in action on Gladiators.

“People have messaged me to say thanks to you I am going to try Crossfit because it looks great.

“I am proud of that because that is why I wanted to be a Gladiator.

“I am an athlete and I was before Gladiators showed up.

“Taking that athlete and turning me into an entertainer has given me the ability to influence other people to become healthier, stronger versions of themselves.

“So if my light goes out tomorrow and this is all I have ever given to the world, it feels enough.”

While she may have made her last appearance on this season’s Gladiators, Sheli reveals she would love to return.

“If there is a second series, I should hope that I get asked.

“I have had really positive feedback from being on the show.

“So many people love it because it’s so nostalgic.

“And everyone seems to love Sabre!”

But what has the reaction to her appearance on Gladiators been like at home in Dundee?

“It has been quieter in Dundee but most people are super, super positive,” she added.

“I think everyone is really proud that Scotland has a Gladiator.”

Lifestyle – The Courier