Sunday, January 21, 2018

Meet 'Super girl,' the world's strongest teenager

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Most days, Naomi Kutin, a high school junior from New Jersey, is a mere teenage mortal."Normally, my mind is on school, friends, my phone, social media, stuff like that," she said. "But when I lift, I put it all to the side, and all I care about is that bar in front of me."

During weekend power lifting competitions, when the crowd is revved up and that bar is loaded with hundreds of pounds - Naomi squats 321 pounds and dead lifts 365 pounds - she turns into Super girl.It was Super girl who stalked up to a heavily laden bar on a recent Sunday morning during a power lifting competition in New Jersey.

"This is Naomi Kutin, the strongest teenager in the world in both the squat and the dead lift," said the announcer, Geno Biancheri, the charismatic tournament M.C. known as the Pirate of Power lifting for his heavy metal ringmaster style.Naomi squatted more than 300 pounds in a preliminary lift. "That's twice her body weight, as her opener," Mr. Biancheri said.

Naomi started lifting competitively when she was 8 and quickly began setting national and world records in adult power lifting categories. By 9, as a wispy 88-pounder competing in the 97-pound weight class, she squatted 215 pounds to break a world record held by a 44-year-old German woman.

Naomi is now 16, but her slim build makes her heavy lifts look even more incredible, and early on she gained the Super girl nickname as a sweet description for a diminutive athlete. But the name has expanded into an intensely competitive alter ego for an otherwise shy and unassuming teenager.

"In school plays, I get stage fright, but I don't have stage fright in power lifting, even if I'm in front of hundreds of people," said Naomi, whose modern Orthodox Jewish family follows strict religious rules.While she must wear modest attire at her all-girls Yeshiva in Teaneck, her power lifting outfit includes a singlet and T-shirt, as well as colorfully striped knee socks, always mismatched, and bright red high-tops.

To work herself into an adrenaline-fueled zone of concentration at the recent Sunday competition, she paced behind the lifting area, with heavy metal blasting on her headphones."I hate it - I only listen to it before I lift," said Naomi, who approaches the bar with yells, growls, staccato breathing and pumping arms. It is an unexpected preparatory ritual from a teenage girl who spends her weekdays studying the Talmud.

Naomi often competes alongside her 14-year-old brother, Ari, and their father, Ed Kutin, both of whom are also accomplished lifters. Her mother, Neshama, assumes the role of manager. During the recent competition, Ms. Kutin cheered on her family and joked about her super strong children shirking chores.

"They're lifting in the 300- to 350-pound range, but you should be there when I ask them to carry in the packages," she said.In truth, she said, they are helpful. Years ago, Naomi helped with the groceries by carrying a 60-pound bag of dog food out of the supermarket. A bystander called it too heavy a load for a child.

"I told him, 'we're fine, you have no idea who she is,'" Ms. Kutin recalled.As a child, Naomi was a standout in karate and could beat the local boys at push-ups and other strength exercises. Her father, a longtime power lifter, asked her to join his lifting workouts."She said, 'I thought you'd never ask me,'" Ms. Kutin recalled.

The family ran it by their rabbi, since it is an unconventional activity for Orthodox girls. And then Naomi was off and lifting.Too young for a gym membership, Naomi worked out with Mr. Kutin's weights in the basement next to the washer and dryer.Mr. Kutin taught Naomi basic techniques and grounded her in the rudiments of athletic motivation: the first three "Rocky" movies.

"We thought when she first started that it'd be a kid fad, that she'd quit within three months," Ms. Kutin said recently as the family trained in their cramped basement.On the wall was her hand-scrawled sign - "No Fear" - next to a Jewish calendar.Naomi is the subject of a documentary "Super girl," to be broadcast Dec. 18 as part of the Independent Lens series on PBS.

The writer is a staff reporter on the Metro desk.

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