With its small population base and remote location, the odds of the Kenai Peninsula having an athlete set an American powerlifting record are pretty small.
Two American records? That would verge on the impossible.
And three records? Three high school students from the Peninsula lifting more in an age group, weight class and style than previous American records? That’s just crazy talk.
Yet that is exactly what happened at the Alaska State Powerlifting Championship on Saturday at Southside Strength and Fitness in Anchorage.
“They did in fact set American records,” said Rob Schmidt, the state chairperson for U.S.A. Powerlifting, which has chairpersons in 44 states. “They are that strong. There are almost 7,000 members of U.S.A. Powerlifting.”
The record setters are Kenai Central freshman Robin Johnson, Kenai Central sophomore Cipriana Castellano and Soldotna junior Zach Hallford.
The three all set “raw” records, meaning no special equipment was used to aid the lifts.
Schmidt said equipment, such as squat suits, can add as much as 6 percent to lifts, so in 2008 a new “raw” category was created for lifting without aid.
Johnson set her record in the back squat in the 14-15 under 165 pounds division. Her squat of 259 pounds beat the old record of 242.5, set by Aimee Cowdery of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 2011.
Johnson also nearly set a new record in the bench press. The current record is 143.25, set by Nicole Hardy at a Pennsylvania meet in 2011.
According to Jeff Baker, a physical education instructor at Kenai Central, Johnson was about 2 inches from locking out 147.5 pounds for the new record.
Johnson also deadlifted 275 pounds. The American record is 400 pounds.
Hallford also set his record in the back squat. Competing in the 16-17 under 181 pounds division, he put up 475 pounds on his third lift to break the 473.75 set by Ashton Rouska of Texas in 2013.
Hallford’s lift is also better than the Sub-Junior record in his weight category for the International Powerlifting Federation, but those records must be set at international competition.
Hallford also deadlifted 501.5 pounds and benched 264. Rouska’s deadlift record is 622.75, while his bench press record is 315.25. Hallford went for a state-record bench press of 292, but couldn’t lock it out.
As impressive as American records are, Johnson and Hallford, amazingly, didn’t even have the most startling effort by a Peninsula athlete Saturday.
That performance belonged to Castellano.
“Cipriana is a Mozart in the making,” Schmidt said. “She’s a masterful powerlifter that I’m comparing to masterful composers.
“She’s one of the most naturally talented individuals I have ever met.”
Castellano, competing at 16-17 under 165 pounds, set new American records in the back squat, deadlift and overall. She also was inches from a bench press record.
Athletes get three attempts at each lift. In the squat, Castellano put up 280 pounds in her first lift to smash the 259-pound record of Georgia’s Monique Dudley, set in 2012.
Castellano didn’t stop there, hoisting 297.6, then 308, for a 49-pound improvement on the record.
“I have maybe five or six boys in the school that can do that,” Baker said of squatting 308 pounds.
The bench press record is 143.25 pounds, and Castellano just missed locking out 147.5 pounds. She settled for a lift of 137.5.
In the deadlift, Castellano finished at 319 pounds, breaking the record of 304 pounds set by Dudley.
Finally, Castellano’s three-lift total was 766.326 pounds, breaking the 688.75 set by Cowdery in 2011.
So how did lightning strike three times on the Peninsula?
The records are all age group and weight class records, so that narrows down the pool somewhat. Plus, the fact that “raw” records started being kept in 2008 helps.
And U.S.A. Powerlifting is not the only powerlifting association in the United States, though Schmidt said it is the biggest, has the most stringent drug testing and is the only powerlifting association that is a gateway to the international level.
But what those three Peninsula athletes did Saturday still is highly unusual.
“There’s 150 meets a year in 40 different states,” Schmidt said, noting some of the larger meets have over 300 athletes. “We’re still talking about thousands of athletes.”
The three didn’t even come through the same program. While Hallford achieved his success by basically living at The Fitness Place in Soldotna, Johnson and Castellano were discoveries of Baker at Kenai Central.
Last year, Castellano was doing shot put and discus for the track team, when she was sent upstairs to lift with Baker.
“I’ve been lifting with him ever since,” she said.
Powerlifting is now her sport. She did not go out for track this year.
“She is one of those kids that if you ever look at her, you’d immediately understand her genetics are bent toward doing whatever she wants to do strengthwise,” Baker said. “She’s incredibly gifted.”
Most strength athletes achieve personal records, then must back off a bit before going for a new high.
“She works out one time and she gets stronger,” Baker said of Castellano. “She sets PRs every time.”
Her first competition was February in Fairbanks.
“At the end of that meet in Fairbanks, I told her and her mom, ‘You can go the distance in this sport. I hope you stick with it. You are off the charts,’” said Schmidt, who has won a national age-class championship, and competed nationally or internationally five times.
After that meet, Schmidt, of Anchorage, started programming workouts for Castellano, and also uses video to critique her form.
Baker said that in 17 years of working with high school athletes, he had never had an athlete with the talent of Castellano.
Imagine his surprise when Johnson showed up in his room this year.
“I’ve never had one,” he said. “Now I have two.”
In fact, having two talents nearly kept Baker from figuring out how talented the two are.
“With what they are doing in the back squat, I never realized it is unheard of,” Baker said. “I started talking around to my connections in the CrossFit community, and I realized, ‘Holy cow. Girls don’t do that.’”
That also is the reason both girls barely missed bench press records. Baker said bench press is not commonly done in CrossFit because it is not a really functional lift.
“I never really taught them how to do it until the last couple of months,” Baker said.
Johnson started CrossFit five months ago, and was talked into doing the Saturday competition by Castellano just a week or so before the event.
“I honestly can’t believe I did that,” she said of setting the squat record. “It still hasn’t set in that I did that.”
Johnson has been doing competitive cheerleading for four years. She said she is sticking with that, as well as CrossFit. But she notes those two sports roll in well with powerlifting.
“Each sport will make me a more well-rounded athlete,” she said.
Hallford started working out when he was 12 or 13 years old. He said he always did it for a hobby, but then he took it to the next level and started competing against others.
He did a bodybuilding show in October 2013, and from there was talked into doing the powerlifting meet.
Schmidt has served as his coach, programming his workouts and reviewing his lifts via video. Hallford said he is at The Fitness Place for two or three hours seven days a week.
“Zach is the real deal,” Schmidt said. “That squat was the real deal. He put a lot of hard work into that.”
Schmidt said that Hallford can powerlift at the international level, but for now Hallford will do bodybuilding and powerlifting.
“I like having a lot of strength, but I also like having abs and muscle definition and all that,” Hallford said.
The next step for all three is the USAPL Raw Nationals from July 17 to 20 in Colorado.
Schmidt also said he would like to grow powerlifting at the high school level in Alaska. Next year, he would like to hold a state championship, and due to the talent on the Peninsula, he could even see that meet being held on the Peninsula.
“This shows what happens when you set your standards high and don’t stop trying until you get your goal,” Johnson said. “A way to stay humble is you are never the best.
“None of us is by far the best. We have a cool label we hold, but we can always strive to be better.”