“This is my favorite trophy,” said a young Naomi Kutin in her preteen bedroom. “It’s very big. I can barely lift it.”
The irony is in her modesty. Naomi received that trophy and many others since the age of 8 when she started powerlifting.
By 10, she broke the world record for lifting 215 pounds for her 97-pound weight class — beating a woman four times her age.
Naomi continues to grow up in the powerlifting community, as well as the modern Orthodox community in her hometown of Fair Lawn, N.J. Her journey will debut in a new documentary, Supergirl, which airs on PBS Dec. 18 at 10 p.m.
It’s a coming-of-age story unlike most: Naomi simultaneously prepares for her Bat Mitzvah — which includes shopping for a dress with her mother, who chose sequin numbers while Naomi opted for a solid orange ensemble — and attempts to break another powerlifting world record.
Naomi got into lifting after her father, also an experienced lifter, discovered her inherent talent for the sport. (Her younger brother later took on powerlifting, too, “to be strong like Naomi.”)
“My dad is really strong by nature, and so is my mom actually, so those coming together are definitely very helpful,” said Naomi, now 16, “but most of it is hard work and practicing.”
The film also touches on issues most other teens struggle with: cyberbullying, health risks, puberty and religious obligations.
As Naomi continues to grow — the film showed she spiked 6 inches but maintained 97 pounds over three years — she was faced with the fact that she will soon grow into a higher weight class.
But the way Naomi creates confidence throughout her adolescence — within and outside of the powerlifting world — shines in the documentary.
“I really love the confidence I have when I’m lifting a weight, and I go up in front of hundreds of thousands of people on the platform,” she said. “While I’m usually a more shy person, I can just go up and lift the weight with no problem.”
Naomi’s current records are a 321-pound squat, 125-pound bench press and 363-pound deadlift.
Jessie Auritt, director, producer and editor of the film, first read about Naomi’s accomplishments and was intrigued that this young Orthodox girl was participating in a male-dominated sport.
Auritt was further shocked that Naomi would even be able to participate in powerlifting based on traditional gender roles within the community.
She reached out to the family, and began filming shortly thereafter over the course of three years (from age 11 to 14).
“She’s a pretty slight, unassuming young woman. At the time I met her, she was 11, just this cute little girl who you would never expect could lift almost three times her bodyweight,” she laughed. “I tried to budge her warm-up weight and couldn’t.”
She knew Naomi was something special from that moment on, and hopes others are inspired to pursue their dreams, even if they’re not considered “normal in society.”
One of Auritt’s favorite moments from the film shows Naomi doing her routine training for a contest, but she had trouble lifting a deadlift that normally would be a breeze.
“You realize that the sport is so much about mental strength over physical strength. You have to be in the mindset to do it,” recalled Auritt, who remained a fly on the wall during Naomi’s struggle.
Naomi tried twice to lift it, and gave it a third shot after coaxing from her parents.
“You see this moment, her parents using a bit of reverse psychology on her, when they finally stop pushing her and say, ‘OK, it’s your lift.’ The cameras just focus on Naomi the whole time, and you see the shift in her eyes,” Auritt said. “And she just gets up and does it.”
Auritt, who is Jewish, was eager to show Naomi’s story and illustrate the lengths to which the Kutin family goes to accommodate her lifting.
She doesn’t lift on Shabbat, and most women’s competitions take place on Saturdays, so Naomi receives special permission to lift with the men on Sundays as a “guest lifter.”
To travel to contests, the family leaves at the crack of dawn Friday to buy groceries and set up a makeshift Shabbat dinner in a hotel room, ready for Naomi to lift by Sunday.
But one exception her parents made for her is her required uniform: a form-fitting spandex singlet.
“It is not modest by most standards,” Auritt said, “because it’s form-fitting and it has to be so the judges can see the shape of her body, and so because Naomi and her family are so passionate about powerlifting, that’s been the one issue that they’ve had to negotiate with.”
(Naomi wears a T-shirt underneath, too, and usually colorful knee-high socks, which close the gap between the mid-thigh singlet.)
“They figured out a way that they can make the rules of their religion and the rules of their sport work for them,” Auritt said.
Naomi has seen the film at least 20 times now, she admitted with a laugh, and it never gets “any less weird” seeing herself on the screen.
“Just cause I’m Jewish doesn’t mean I can’t participate in sports and do things. I feel like a lot of people have an image of what a Jew is and a Jew isn’t,” she said.
The high school junior at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, N.J., said her friends are supportive of her aspirations. She intends to continue powerlifting and become an athletic trainer, coach or physical therapist.
“I would like to keep powerlifting a part of my life for as long as possible,” Naomi said.