‘Supergirl’ rising

‘Supergirl’ rising

PBS to air story of 16-year-old Orthodox student who’s a world-class power lifter

Naomi Kutin is a study in concentration as she prepares for a lift. (Photos by Carmen Delaney/Supergirl Film LLC)
Naomi Kutin is a study in concentration as she prepares for a lift. (Photos by Carmen Delaney/Supergirl Film LLC)

In many ways, Naomi Kutin is your typical high school junior.

The 16-year-old’s thoughts increasingly are devoted to making college decisions, As of right now, she’s leaning toward Rutgers University and a major in psychology. She does not have a boyfriend, though she’s not opposed to the idea. The problem is she’s very busy.

That because in addition to her school work, Naomi is a world class power lifter.

That’s right. World class, as in she is someone who’s set records and mouths agape in every weight class she’s competed in. Most recently, Naomi, who now weighs about 130 pounds, squat lifted 321 pounds and dead lifted 365 pounds.

Although this is not yet scientifically proven, I believe it possible to get a hernia just watching her.

What makes this all a bit more unusual is that Naomi, who lives in Fair Lawn, is modern Orthodox and attends Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck.

She’s the subject of a 2015 documentary, “Supergirl,” which airs on PBS on December 18 as part of the Independent Lens series.

The documentary begins when Naomi is around 11 years old and is about to outgrow the 99-pound class she’d been competing in. She weighed 88 pounds and she squatted 215 pounds. That broke a world mark set by a 44-year-old.

For those unfamiliar with the sport, in squatting, an athlete places a weight on his or her shoulder, and must then bend down until the tuches is below the knees and then stand up straight. In dead weights, the competitor starts from a standing position, bends to pick up a weight from the floor, and then returns to the standing position.

Among the lighter scenes in the documentary is Naomi’s pre-lift psyche job, when she walks around, addressing the bar with grunts that sound a lot like an old Jew in the Catskills clearing his throat.

There are other such moments as well: When one older female competitor discovers how little Naomi weighs, she points to a heavyweight male and says, “That’s less than one of his legs.”

Naomi and a fellow competitor talk during a meet.

Despite the attention she receives in the media, Naomi seems to be an intelligent teen who has not let the noise impact her. We see her in class, shopping for a bat mitzvah dress, with her friends. Her success, she said in a telephone interview, “is not something that’s talked about at school. It’s not a concern.”

What may strike viewers as more of a concern is whether her parents push her too hard to compete. To its credit, the film addresses the issue of whether dad — that’s Ed, a power lifter — is living his dream through his daughter.

It’s dad, though, who arranges a Supergirl Facebook page and Instagram account and posts photos of her competitions on YouTube.

Ed, of course, denies it’s about him, and Naomi agrees. “I love being strong,” she said. “I love Supergirl. She’s so cool. I’m not cool She’s cool.”

Dad said that he had noticed that Naomi was much stronger than the boys in her karate class, so when she was about 8 he asked her if she wanted to work out with him. And, he says, she jumped at the idea. “I thought it would be fun to be with my dad,” Naomi says in the film.

But there was another hurdle to overcome: the idea of an Orthodox girl competing in sports at this level. In the film, her mom, Neshama, says: “It could be controversial. In some circles we could be shunned. But I want her to be able to do things she’s remarkable at.”

In a separate interview, Neshama says, “Our community is just fine with it.”

Naomi’s abilities, she tells me, are partly a function of genetics, “and I think Hashem just gave her a gift.”

Neshama, who was born a Pentecostal Christian and suffered through childhood sexual abuse, added, “We just want to be sure she’s happy.”

Still, there are emotional scenes in the film that can be painful to watch. Naomi starts to suffer from migraines so painful she must skip school. Doctors are unable to figure out what’s causing them, but assume it’s related to her lifting. They urge a three-month hiatus. But her parents allow her to continue on a reduced schedule, until Neshama figures out the problem and comes up with a cure.

Still, Naomi claims she’s with the program. Yes, there were times she wanted to quit, she tells me. “When I was nine or 10,” she said. “It was a lot of work, and I was not used to putting in a lot of work. So I did a lot of times think I should just stop doing it. But not now. I don’t think much like that now.”

Right now, she lifts three times a week, Sundays for two or three hours and Tuesdays and Wednesdays for an hour each. When she’s not lifting, she’s at the gym working on cardio and leg presses. “I don’t have a lot of time during my week,” she said.

Yes, she added, sometimes it’s difficult. She’s missed parties and school events “when I have a competition,” she said. “But it’s give and take. This is something I like to be doing. For me, it’s 100 percent worth it.”

Supergirl airs on PBS at 10 p.m. on December 18.

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