How impressive were the three area high school students who competed in the USA Powerlifting Raw National Championships in Aurora, Colorado, from July 17 to Sunday?
Even the athlete who said he had his worst performance at a meet, ever, still won his age group and weight classification in the competition, which is called “raw” because athletes cannot use aids, like squat suits, to improve their lifts.
The most impressive performance belonged to Cipriana Castellano, who will be a junior this school year at Kenai Central High School.
Competing in the 16 to 17 age group in under 184 pounds, Castellano set American records with her opening lift in each of the three lifts contested — squat, bench press and deadlift.
By being the top teen in her weight class, she also qualified to represent the United States at the International Powerlifting Association Raw Classics Championships in Finland in June 2015.
Finally, she was one of just two teen girls to qualify for the Arnold Sports Festival in March 2015 in Columbus, Ohio. Castellano qualified due to her high Wilks total, which is a formula used to compare powerlifters of different weights.
Robin Johnson, who will be a sophomore this school year at Soldotna High School after attending Kenai Central as a freshman, was not far off Castellano’s standard.
Johnson, competing in the 14 to 15 age group at under 158 pounds, set new American records in the squat, bench and overall total. Even at her young age, she was the top teen in her weight class, meaning she also will represent the United States at international competition in June.
The one area where Johnson could not overcome her young age was in the Wilks total, where she did not tally enough to make the Arnolds.
The final competitor from the area was Zach Hallford, who is entering his senior year at SoHi. Hallford hit just three of his nine lifts, but still won the 16 to 17, under-183 pounds division.
He holds the American record for the squat at his age and weight at 475 pounds, but his hopes of qualifying for worlds were hurt when he squatted 457 in Denver.
Hallford said he had squatted 490 about three weeks before the meet. He did not know whether the travel, altitude or cutting weight had affected his strength.
In the bench press, Hallford maxed out at 264, while he hit 463 in the deadlift.
Hallford normally weighs 190 or 195, but lifted at 178. He also arrived in Colorado on Wednesday and competed Friday.
“For whatever reason, my squat at this meet just wasn’t there,” Hallford said.
It was the first national competition for all three lifters. While Hallford was off a bit, Castellano and Johnson were firing on all cylinders.
Johnson said it probably helped that she competed on Saturday and Castellano competed on Sunday, giving them a few more days to get used to the big stage of national competition and the altitude.
“The second I got off the airplane, I was walking through the airport with my bags, and it was so much harder to breathe,” Johnson said.
Castellano came into the meet with the American record in the squat at 308. She hit 315 on her first lift and 331 on her second before missing at 347.
She said the world record is 363, and she is going for that at the Arnolds.
“I think I can nail that in under a year,” she said.
Castellano made a big improvement in her bench press after coming in with a competition-best of 137.5 pounds. She hit 161 and 176 before missing on 181.
“I was really mad,” she said. “I got it up there but it didn’t count because my right hand dipped.”
Castellano’s most clutch moment came in the deadlift. The missed squat and bench press meant her Wilks total would not be high enough to qualify for the Arnolds if she went through with her planned program in the deadlift.
She started with 303 and hoisted that, putting her on the worlds team. Next came a successful 330, then she went up to 341, with her previous best being 331.
“I had a platform coach, Ross (Lepalla), right at my forehead looking me in the eye and getting me fired up and telling me I was going to do it,” she said. “When the bar was loaded up, he told me to go do it.”
Castellano nailed the deadlift for a Wilks total of 371.6, with 370 being the qualifying mark for the Arnolds.
Being in the gym five times a week, for two to three hours a day, had paid off as she finished seventh among all ages in her weight class.
And, improbably, she will be at worlds with somebody from her own community.
“I just think it shows how cool Alaska is, and how much harder we can work,” she said.
Johnson went into the competition knowing there was a competitor near her maxes that she would have to beat to make worlds.
“Everything I’ve ever wanted physically I’ve always gotten,” she said. “I had this confidence that I would make it, even though there was some doubt.
“There’s always girls that can show up out of nowhere, or a chance you could screw up and miss a lift.”
Johnson got her meet off to a great start in the squat, hitting 253, 270 and 286.5 to blow past her previous American record of 259.
Johnson’s lone slip came in the bench. She made 143, but then missed on 149.
“I just missed it by chance,” she said. “I didn’t listen to the command. I had it pressed out, but racked it too soon.”
She came back to nail 149 on her third try for a new American record, but the miss on the second lift kept her from approaching her personal record of 160 in the bench.
Johnson made up for that on the deadlift, where she hit 276, 292 and 308.5. Her previous competition-best in the deadlift was 275 pounds.
“I have a hard time remembering anything from the lifts I did,” Johnson said. “I just remember walking to the platform, then zoning out, then looking to see if I had all three white lights for a successful lift.
“Then running and hugging my coach. That’s all I remember.”
Which makes the fact that Johnson and Castellano made worlds all the more tough to process.
“Every time I think about it I get chills,” Johnson said. “I can’t comprehend how that happened. I can’t wrap my mind around it at this time.
“When does that ever happen?”
She thanked Jeff Baker, the physical education teacher at Kenai who introduced Castellano and Johnson to powerlifting, as well as coaches Lepalla and Rob Schmidt and Brennan Jackson, the partial owner at The Fitness Place.
Johnson had been working on powerlifting twice a week due to commitments to other sports, but says she will go to a workout plan similar to Castellano’s to get ready for worlds.
The next meet for all three Peninsula athletes will be Aug. 23 at the Alaska State Fair Powerlifting Challenge.
While Johnson and Castellano are clearly committed to powerlifting, Hallford still is split between powerlifting and bodybuilding. He will compete at a show Oct. 11 in Anchorage at the Alaska Fitness Expo, then compete at a national bodybuilding competition in July 2015.
“I don’t know what’s coming up in the future for me (in powerlifting),” Hallford said. “We’ll see how everything goes and how I feel.”