Girl, Power

By Patrick Cummings

THE BASEMENT ISN'T VERY BIG, but Ed has managed to wedge in every piece of equipment a person would need if that person wanted to squat, bench, and deadlift. Metals plates, pulling boxes, bands. A few medals slung over the corner of a shelf. A dip station tucked beside the washing machine. In the middle of it all, a fifteen pound training bar, abandoned like an old security blanket.

Naomi (pronounced Na'ami), ten years old, a few pounds shy of triple digits, has a cold. She had a sleep over last night that from the sounds of it was more over than sleep. But it's deadlift day and when I arrive, she's already bouncing around the house in her singlet and high socks. When we're introduced, the first thing I notice is she makes eye contact and holds it while she shakes your hand or when you ask her a question.

One gets the sense she's used to this--strangers coming in and out, asking all the same questions, taking all the same pictures. After all, it must just come with the territory when you set a world record before you reach junior high.

I'm here in the basement gym of the Kutin family five months after little Naomi--Supergirl, as her mother calls her--went down and stood back up with 214.9# on her back. It was the second time she set the record, stealing it back from 44-year-old Ana Geitner, a European lifter who squatted 209# the previous September.

AS A SPORT, powerlifting has primarily lived in the shadows of the American consciousness, resting in the minds of most somewhere between World's Strongest Man competitions, Arnold Schwarzenegger and what you see in the Olympics every four years.

But the world has a funny way of perking up when the words "10 year old" and "world record" start showing up in news feeds.

After the first meet Naomi ever competed in, during which she squatted 143#, she appeared on Fox's Good Day New York. When she stood up with 187# in April of 2011, the family was inundated with requests--from ABC to Comedy Central to a show in Britain hoping they might be able to film Naomi working out at home. (As of this writing, the video has almost 700k views on YouTube.)

Ed tells me the process has been "surreal," sounding somewhere between exhausted and bemused. When I speak to Neshama, Naomi's mother, I ask her if she worries about the attention. Here's what she says:

The day I'm there is a Tuesday, and Naomi is on a week long break for Passover, though I doubt it feels much like a break.

The day prior, Naomi and Ed appeared via satellite on German television. The day after, Naomi and Nashama travel into New York City to tape a segment for ABC's The Revolution, during which Naomi back squats 165#, much to the amusement of Ty Pennington and the studio audience--most of whom clap and cheer simply watching Naomi unrack the barbell.

Naomi tells me, "The first interview was kind of scary, but then it got smoother as time went on. It gets easier and easier to answer all the questions and be around the camera."

When I ask her how her brothers and sisters are taking it, she says, "Some of them are jealous and some of them are proud…and some of them are more jealous." She smiles in a way only a little sister can.

WHEN I TELL PEOPLE I'M HEADED TO NEW JERSEY to interview a ten year old powerlifter, response is mixed. Most are uniformly impressed with the accomplishment--especially if they CrossFit--but some question the safety of the whole matter. Others question the parents.

If you spend any time reading the YouTube comments below Naomi's videos--not something I recommend for anyone with an already tenuous faith in the civility of our fellow citizens--you'd likely get a similar reaction. Ed says of them, "You have to keep a careful watch of it to make sure they're sanitized for a ten year old. Those that are not appropriate disappear. I think sometimes people, I don't know if they think about it or just don't care, but she does see those comments."

A few weeks after my visit, on Naomi's Facebook fan page, this status: "Be aware, as Naomi's parents - we will NOT tolerate HATE on her page. We will delete and ban haters from this page. If you need to hate, you must go elsewhere to do it. No exceptions!"

If the interviews aren't overwhelming enough, the constant moderation must be exhausting, and it shouldn't come as a surprise the comments have been disabled on Naomi's most watched video.

ED KUTIN HAS BEEN POWERLIFTING SINCE THE EARLY 1980s, when he fell in with a small group of passionate athletes while studying computer science at MIT. In April of 2010, he took advantage of a day off from his job in New York City to watch Naomi and little brother Ari go through a session at the local Tiger Shulmann's martial arts studio. What he saw inspired an idea. "I really saw that Naomi stood out," he tells me. "She did pushups very well, better than other kids in the class, was able to run fast, jump high. They had these wheelbarrow races and she was quite good at that. Her strength all around was exceptional."

After a conversation with his wife, they asked Naomi if she might like to take a shot at lifting. As Neshama tells it, "It was the funniest reaction, and I don't think she remembers, but she grinned ear to ear. She said, 'Of course, I want to do this. I was waiting for somebody to ask me. I didn't think you'd let a girl do it.'"

I ask Ed how the process began and how he deals with programming for a ten year old. Here's what he tells me:

Ed tells me, at the start, his only real concern was in regard to Naomi's growth plates. After talking with more experienced coaches and investigating it on the internet, though, he says, "The biggest danger to growth plates that I've been able to find are breaks. When kids suffer bone break, that really causes significant distortions in growth."

In a March, 2011 video published by the CrossFit Journal, Dr. John Gary, presenting at a CrossFit Kids seminar, echoes Ed's findings, saying:

"What are growth plates? When kids are growing, at the ends of their long bones, your body lays down a loose architecture of bone before it fills it in with hard mineral material. And it turns out that the end of that bone is actually softer than the ligaments and tendons that are holding it together. So where adults might get an ACL or MCL tear, kids can get a fracture of the growth plate of their bone. It's an acute event, and maybe 30 years ago, surgical techniques weren't as good as they are today, but they're repairable, in general. It is not a cumulative thing. If you deadlift everyday, you're not going to have stunted growth. It's an acute thing, like breaking a bone or a ligament tear. It's not something that happens over the long haul.
   "I thought this was an old wives' tale, I thought this was something that's pretty much gone out of the generation...but this is out there, people really believe this, but there's absolutely no study, there's no evidence that just because you lift weights for a long time, it means that you're not going to grow."

While there are still some questions as to whether or not a young athlete should be regularly exposed to maximal effort lifts--the American Academy of Pediatrics argues against them, instead favoring caution due to risk of repeated injury to growth plates on a growing body--the overwhelming evidence provides a more realistic counterbalance to conventional wisdom that a kid shouldn't lift weights.

As reported by Dr. Gary in the previously mentioned video, the country's leading researcher on the subject, Avery D. Faigenbaum, has pointed out that 77% of all injuries occurred by children taking part in weightlifting activities have been accidental as opposed to exertional--fingers pinched, weights dropped on toes, etc. As Dr. Gary says of the figure, it's "the exact opposite of adults."

It should also be noted, as Neshama did during their segment on The Revolution, "She's grown three inches this year."

FOR THE TIME BEING, Naomi is enjoying the ride, as you would imagine anyone would, 10 years old or not. She says she likes "taking the bar and feeling strong," and calls the attention "icing on the cake."

It's clear to me, though, the truer risk here isn't growth plates or stage parents (meeting Ed and Neshama will dissuade anyone from that notion), but instead the unintended consequences of the world's fleeting attention, of which I freely admit to playing a part in.

Naomi tells me: "I’m sort of surprised because when I broke the record the first time there was literally nobody that wanted to talk to me. There was maybe one, like one interview, and then when I broke it the second time there was like fifty thousand billion people who wanted to interview me."

The problem is many of those interviewers have very little idea as to what it means to set a world record in the unassisted squat (meaning she doesn't use a squat suit). Their producers simply tell them they have five minutes with the girl who "powerlifts," and many fill that time with shallow accolades and uninformed questions. (Ty Pennington, after repeating how much Naomi could squat, asked her, "Basically you can lift Harley over your head?" Celebrity trainer and Ty's co-host, Harley Pasternak, clarified, saying, "Yup. Up and down.")

When people don't understand the nuances of an accomplishment, they inevitably revert to platitudes about "natural talent" or "special skills." For a ten year old--for anyone--it might become hard to continue appreciating the value of one's effort if the reward is seen to be more interviews, more television appearances, and more attention. They are things outside Naomi's control, and their illusive nature makes them difficult goalposts to run toward.

For their part, Naomi's parents are doing their best to keep things in perspective. Neshama tells me, "She's getting recognition and that's fabulous, but at the end of the day, those people--and I don't mean to slight you--but you're not here. She goes upstairs and she faces herself in the mirror, and she has to look at herself every day and say, 'Did I do my best today?' Just like we all do."

BEFORE EVERY LIFT, Noami paces. She grunts. She talks to herself. If she wasn't wearing a singlet and there wasn't a barbell nearby, one might think she's gone crazy.

Ed refers to this as 'psyching up,' and weeks after having spent time with the Kutin's, I've come to believe this to be one of the most valuable things Naomi is doing these days. (To see a good example, watch her set a new deadlift PR.)

In a world offering more distraction than has ever been available a young kid, Naomi is teaching herself how to concentrate. She's training her ability to focus.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, in his book Flow, argues: "The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distraction, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life."

He continues, saying that adolescents who never learn how to exert this control grow up lacking discipline. "They lack the complex skills that will help them survive in a competitive, information-intensive environment," he writes. "And what is even more important, they never learn how to enjoy living. They do not acquire the habit of finding challenges that bring out hidden potentials for growth."

If the media requests and satellite interviews present one side of the undevised repercussions of Naomi picking up a barbell, then maybe this "control" will prove its developmental equal.

As Dr. Gary points out, "Kids do not get stronger, in general, the same way adults get stronger. We get stronger through our hypertrophic growth of our muscles. Kids get stronger because they learn how to use their muscles. They get stronger just on a neurological level. It has nothing to do with muscle growth, [or] muscle hypertrophy."

Perhaps while all the adults in the studio audience sit slackjawed and clapping, perhaps while Naomi paces and grunts, perhaps while we all hover and watch and ask our silly questions, something bigger and more important is happening. Perhaps little Naomi Kutin is learning what takes most of us a lifetime to figure out:

Patrick Cummings is the Editor-in-Chief of Again Faster.