By Joseph Robertia
Genetically gifted, freakishly strong, pint-sized powerhouses. Robin Johnson and Cipriana Castellano have received a lot of monikers over the last year for their powerlifting strength and skill, but there’s one more title that both these teen titans are hoping to be called in the near future — world champion.
“I love this sport and want to show what I’ve put into it by putting up big numbers,” said Johnson, a 16-year-old sophomore at Soldotna High School, referring to her hope of coming home with the win for 14- to 19-year-olds in 158-pound, sub-junior weight division at the 2015 Raw World Championship held in June in Salo, Finland. More than 50 countries will be represented at the event.
Both teens have had a meteoric rise in the standings over the past 12 months, a tremendous feat considering neither had considered themselves powerlifters prior to this time last year. Johnson’s first meet was April 26, 2014.
“Roughly two weeks prior to then I hadn’t ever heard of the sport of powerlifting. I found out through one of my old gym teachers that I had a current back squat max that would beat the American back squat record, so I decided to enter the competition,” Johnson said.
She not only won the event for her age-weight division, but set a new American back squat record.
Rob Schmidt, the state chair for USA Powerlifting, representing about 10,000 members nationwide, said that when he witnessed Johnson’s performance, he knew it was going to be the beginning of a successful career.
“When we saw how strong she was, we were like, ‘Oh my God. This girl is a diamond in the rough,’” he said.
Not only was her raw strength impressive, but the fact that she hadn’t specifically trained for the event, nor had the appropriate gear. She didn’t even have weightlifting shoes, which, with their rigid construction and raised heels, help lifters consolidate more force.
“She showed up in Sketchers, just a regular shoe, and still squatted 280 pounds. That’s astronomical weight for a teen and would have won her the silver medal at Worlds that year,” Schmidt said.
Up until then, Johnson had participated in competitive cheerleading and CrossFit twice a week, but realizing she had talent, she began to take powerlifting training more seriously. A few months later, at the USAPL Raw Nationals in Aurora, Colorado, Johnson saw her meticulous training pay dividends.
“I went to Denver and took the title of the strongest 14- to 19-year-old girl in the nation. I back squatted 286.5, benched 149.5 and deadlifted 308, taking the American back squat record, bench and total records, all while being 15 years old at the time,” she said.
Johnson has continued to train more often and arduously, working with coaches Ross Leppala, Rob Schmidt and Brennen Jackson (owner of the CrossFit Kainos in Soldotna). She also changed her diet from eating whatever to focusing on only consuming complex carbs, lots of lean protein, veggies and small amounts of fruits and nuts.
Her current lifting stats are 330.5 back squat, 187 bench and 347 deadlift.
“Since last April until now I have developed a much stronger mental determination and have gained the knowledge that I am capable of anything and everything. I am confident that anything I seek to do I can do,” she said.
Leppala said that he was equally confident in Johnson’s abilities to take home the gold at the World Championship.
“Her potential is huge, her work ethic is through the roof, and she’s got the mental and physical ability, so she just has to bring it all together when it matters,” he said.
Castellano, a 17-year-old junior at Kenai Central High School, came to powerlifting competition from an equally inexperienced beginning.
“I got my start through high school track and field my freshman year of high school. I threw shot put and discus, and one day Coach had us working in the weight room and just like that I had discovered I wasn’t too bad with lifting. Jeff Baker, the weight-training coach, saw potential in me,” she said.
Baker put Castellano in contact with Natalie Hanson, an Anchorage powerlifter, who subsequently introduced her to Schmidt, who began helping her write training programs and navigating the circuit of competition.
Castellano quickly began breaking records in the 158- and 185-pound weight divisions of the 16- to 17-year-old age class. In March, she crushed the competition at the prestigious Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio.
“That competition was a lot of fun and I set world records in the squat (347 pounds), deadlift (385 pounds), and the total (919 pounds) for the sub-junior, 158-pound weight class,” she said.
Castellano has also ramped up her training over the past year, to which she attributes her success. She always tries to keep her end goals in mind, she said.
“Training is insane. I’m in the gym four times a week for as long as five hours per training session. Sometimes it gets boring doing the same three lifts all the time, but I just have to remind myself that the end product is going to be worth it,” she said.
Castellano also keeps her diet in mind year-round and won’t have to change much for the World Championship.
“Going into Finland, I plan on being a very lightweight (less than 185-pound) lifter. I’m hoping to set one or more world records while there. For this, my diet won’t have to change much since my walking weight is about 158 pounds. If anything, I’ll have to eat more,” she said.
However, Castellano will have to be vigilant with what she eats in preparation for another event right afterward.
“Upon returning from Finland I have less than a month of a turnaround to lose 20-plus pounds for the North American Championships in Canada, where I plan to be in the 138-pound weight class and set one or more world records there, as well,” she said.
Castellano said it feels good to have found her niche.
“When it comes to lifting I think I do it because it’s really the only thing I’ve ever been able to excel at. Not to mention it gives me something to work toward and focus on. Nothing feels better than coming home with a new personal record that I worked so hard for,” she said.
Schmidt expects her to come on strong in Finland.
“She always puts on a phenomenal performance,” he said.
Of course, having talent is one thing, having the means to compete is another. Both teens are raising funds to pay the $8,000 each for their international airfare, hotel, food, transportation and competition registration.
Johnson has a GoFundMe account under Robin Goes to World Championship.
“I’ve been doing my fundraising the old-fashion way, by writing my own donation letters and taking it around to businesses and friends and family,” said Castellano.