By Joseph Robertia
Competition can push a person to do their best, and while two local powerlifters upped their game by traveling to Scandinavia to compete this summer, it was their personal growth from the experience abroad, as much as their wins, that they cherished from the journey.
“Being a good athlete really wasn’t the only thing I got out of these trips. It gave me a better idea of myself,” said Cipriana Castellano, a senior at Kenai Central High School. She and Robin Johnson, a junior at Soldotna High School, traveled in June to Salo, Finland, competing in the International Powerlifting Federation RAW Classic Powerlifting World Championships.
They crushed the opposition in their respective weight classes for teens 18 and under. Castellano — competing in the 159- to 189-pound weight class — amassed a three-lift total of 898 pounds, squat lifting 336 pounds, bench pressing 181 pounds and deadlifting 380 pounds. Johnson — competing in the 138- to 158-pound weight class — put up a three-lift total of 865 pounds, squat lifting 341 pounds, bench pressing 176 pounds and deadlifting 347 pounds.
“It was a perfect day and I’d live it forever if I could. I learned I’m capable of anything and that I’m not a quitter, I won’t ever quit,” Johnson said.
Coming home with the win doesn’t mean she didn’t feel the butterflies of anxiety from competing so far from Alaska, and American soil in general.
“Finland was like going back in history and I got to see what I learned in my sophomore history class. The cathedrals were giant and so detailed. The ground was made from little stones fit together perfectly to make a road. Everything was different.
“The grass was greener, all the native people to Finland all looked similar — blond hair, blue eyes, thin and quiet. The roads were smaller and the sidewalks were bigger. They served in such smaller portions and I’m used to stuffing my face,” Johnson said, but joked that she made up for it by stopping for gelatos nearly everywhere she went on her downtime.
Travel was also different. Johnson took buses or taxi for just a few Euros, and walked frequently. When she did see cars, they were different than the vehicles of the U.S.
“(They had) smaller cars, too. I only saw one truck while I was there and it was a Ford F-150. Living in Alaska, we see trucks more than any other vehicle,” she said.
The competition was also a little different, and not quite as friendly as Johnson was used to, particularly her Russian counterpart, who ended up finishing in second place among the eight teens in their division. Johnson said that the girl cooled to her after her win and would purposefully avoid sitting near her on the shuttle to and from events. But again, Johnson said it was an opportunity from which to grow.
“I learned that you can only focus on yourself, because you only have control over one person, which is you. I learned not to worry about anything but what I was doing. When I was competing, I did that,” she said.
After returning home Johnson began transitioning out of specifically training for powerlifting to focus more on CrossFit and weightlifting.
“It was what I was doing before powerlifting seriously and I love it, and all the people involved with it, so I’m going to see where it takes me. Ultimately, I want to be going to the CrossFit Games,” she said.
Johnson also has a few more years of high school left and wants to start narrowing her academic focus.
“I want to either be a sports psychologist or specialize in sports nutrition, but I’m going to see where life takes me. It’s what I’ve always done and I’m so happy with the path it’s led me. I’m going to trust in the process,” she said.
While Castellano also brought home a win, she has mixed feelings about her overall performance, since her personal goal was to not just achieve victory, but set a new world record while in Salo.
“In regards to Finland, I feel like I didn’t do so good. I mean, I took gold, but I was having a bad day,” she said.
Part of the problem was a strict diet to which Castellano had adhered to gain weight. It took a bit of a toll on her.
“Going into the competition I was trying to bulk up to make weight and I definitely feel like the empty-calorie foods I was eating to put on weight did not aid my performance,” she said. Two week later she competed again in the North American Powerlifting Championships in Saskatchewan, Canada, and had to drop all the weight she put on to compete in a lighter class.
“I did somehow manage to drop 20 pounds in four weeks, but it was not easy,” she said.
Like Johnson, Castellano said that spending so much time outside the U.S. taught her a lot about the world and herself.
“After two trips out of the country, I can really appreciate other cultures and the kinds of people who live there,” she said. “It helped me to not be so close-minded, and I learned that what is different to me might be normal to someone else. This really helped me appreciate all the people I got to meet from all over the world, especially in Finland. There were people from countries I had never even heard of, and that was pretty awesome.”
Castellano also struggled with the traditional fare.
“Although I was in Finland for around 10 days, I never was quite able to appreciate what they ate at breakfast. I’m not a big pickled-fish person,” she said.
Castellano had a better experience with her competitors than did Johnson, saying that the four teens she beat were gracious in defeat.
“This sport becomes very competitive at an international level, but even though I won I did not notice any prejudice against me because of my nationality, or simply coming in as a noob and beating girls who have been lifting for numerous years. More than anything I got ‘Congratulations,’ ‘Awesome job’ and, ‘You deserved it,’” she said.
Castellano turned 18 this month, so now will move from a Teen II to a Teen III competitor in the girls 18-19 division. She hopes to achieve the same success with setting multiple world records, such as she did at Arnold Sports Festival in Ohio in March.
“I’ve looked at the records in this age class and have big intentions of stealing those records away, too — state, national, and international,” she said.
Outside of lifting, Castellano is dabbling in other strength-based sports and thinking about life after high school.
“I’m actually trying out high school wrestling, and so far I really like it. I figured as a senior this year, I better try something new now that I won’t be able to do later,” she said. “I was also just accepted into the CNA program at Kenai Peninsula College, and I am very proud to have made it in so that I can graduate from high school and be able to start working right away.”