by Amanda Kulik
Stef is a hell of a competitor and we are so thankful she had time to answer a few questions and provide some awesome insight!
Name: Stefanie Tropea
Location: Norwalk, CT
Occupation: Owner of Punch Kettlebell Gym of Norwalk and The Punch Power Room, Performance Coach and Weight Loss Nutritionist
Sport: Strongman Competitor
2013 National Champion, Women’s Lightweight Division
Tell me a bit about your athletic background and how you got started in strongman.
I’ve been physically active ever since I can remember. I began with dance when I was five years old, and I continued with it through college. Along the way, I played every sport imaginable. I’ve always just wanted to move. In college, I was captain of the swim team. This was when I was introduced to the weight room as part of our team training. That was where it all started. I became fascinated with being strong – as strong as possible.
I soon discovered that lifting heavy weights was causing my body to change in a very positive way. I started to have that “toned” look that everyone was asking for — the look that I had never been able to achieve through cardiovascular exercise alone. In 2006, I began training with Rob Orlando, currently of Hybrid Athletics and CrossFit Strongman. At the time, he was competing in traditional Strongman. He told me, “You’re strong for a girl. You should try this.” Four months later, I did my first contest.
What are your best and worst lifts?
My best and favorite competition lift is the log press at 180lbs. My best gym lift is the front squat. I recently hit 250lbs at it. My worst lift is the deadlift. I haven’t been able to get comfortable with it, yet. An old hamstring injury has made it my weak spot, but I’ve improved with the help of ART. I was elated to pull 300lbs for a double.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in your lifting?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to overcome in my lifting happened in 2012. Six weeks before my first Nationals, I had a routine medical procedure done, after which I was instructed to take two full weeks off from lifting. As if I wasn’t already nervous about going to Nationals, now I had to miss two weeks of training! After my two-week rest, I was right back at it, but after another week, I found myself back at the doctor’s office. I had to have another procedure done and had to take another two weeks off from lifting. That left me no more time to train. I considered pulling out of the contest having hardly trained in these 6 weeks leading up to the contest, but I went and gave it my best shot. Even though I zeroed in two events, I placed third overall, and I won both pressing events!
How does kettlebell training compliment strongwoman?
Kettlebells are great tools to complement Strongman training. What I love about them is that you can get a short but kick-ass conditioning workout, as well as assistance work for your whole posterior chain. The kettlebell swing, in particular, gives you lots of bang for your buck. For a movement that’s done in place, it really does a lot, and you don’t need to do it for very long. The kettlebell snatch is also a great movement to build stamina, shoulder stability, and explosiveness.
Do you have a training partner?
For the most part, I’ve had to train by myself, but, I motivate myself by listening to my favorite songs on my iPod and by focusing on the task at hand and getting it done. Sometimes, I have the privilege of training with my boyfriend and coach, Mike Mastell. It’s great to have him around to watch my form and make any needed adjustments. He’s got a keen eye for small details and can tell if my foot position is off by one centimeter, or if I’m wearing the wrong shirt!
Who are your biggest inspirations in the sport?
Kristyn Whisman and Kristin Rhodes are my biggest inspirations. They each have been involved in the sport for a long time, and have won multiple National Championships, even while being busy moms with full-time jobs.
Any lucky charms/traditions/rituals?
My only contest ritual actually happens after the contest. I always have a pizza! It’s my favorite food in the whole wide world and my favorite way to celebrate a competition.
What was your most exciting competition? Why?
My most exciting competition was 2013 Nationals. I felt more prepared to compete than I ever had before, physically and mentally. I wasn’t too nervous, because I knew that I had done all I could to prepare. That left a lot of room for me instead to feel mostly excitement and eagerness. I was looking forward to seeing all the people I had met at Nats the previous year, and I was very excited to meet people I had only known from Facebook.
Winning Nationals in 2013, it was great to bring the title home to my gym members, but it’s funny — the best part wasn’t the actual winning. The last event of the competition was the Stone Carry and Load. We were to carry and load three stones – 150lbs, 180lbs, 200lbs. Before then, I couldn’t even crack a 200lb stone off the ground. That day, I was able to pick up that 200lb stone, carry it, and load it over the bar. I screamed with joy when that thing went over the bar. I was ecstatic that I hit a PR. At that point, I didn’t even know that I had won.
This year, I won’t be going to Nationals. Instead, I’ll be at home training. I’m going to bump myself up to the Middle Weight class!
Is it hard competing at the same venues as Mike?
Participating with Mike in the same competitions can be tricky. If we have events at or close to the same time, we can end up missing each other’s turns. It can also be hard if I need him as a coach — to ask him a question or ask for his advice — but he’s not around because he’s getting ready for his own event.
What is the best advice you could give to a beginner? What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned from competing?
The best advice I have for a beginner is to follow a strength-training program created by a reputable coach and to GET STRONG. You don’t get good at Strongman by doing events. You have to be strong. Work on your squats, front squats, overhead press, and deadlifts.
The most valuable thing I’ve learned is how to focus on my own process and not worry about results or what anyone else is doing. I can’t control what anyone else does. I can only control what I do — how hard I train and how smart I train.
What is the biggest nutrition myth you encounter women believing?
The most popular nutrition myth I hear from women is: “Carbs will make me fat!” Well, it depends. Too many carbs can make you fat. Too much protein can make you fat. Too much broccoli can make you fat! The point is that too many calories can make you fat. Especially for active people, carbs are an essential part of a healthy and productive diet. The key is to time them correctly. For example, most carbs should be eaten around your workout session and can include white potatoes or white rice. “White” carbs get a bad rap and are often overlooked for sweet potatoes or brown rice, so clients are pleasantly surprised when I prescribe them these foods.
During competitions, what do you have to have with you?
I see a lot of athletes come to competitions with bags full of junk – candy, cookies, chips, etc. You won’t find any of that in my bag. I usually pack a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, glucose tabs, granola bars, and a gallon of water. These are easy, quick foods that I can pop in my mouth between events that aren’t complete junk.
OWNING A GYM
What is your favorite part about owning a gym?
My favorite part of owning a gym is that I get to set rules that make sense. I’ve worked at many different gyms in the past where I was stifled by such rules as “No Chalk” and “No Deadlifting.” I would get in trouble all the time for having my clients do basic movements that the conventional fitness industry claimed to be “dangerous.” Now at my gym, I encourage the use of chalk and grunting, and deadlifting is required in our routines.
What are the downsides?
There are a few downsides to owning a gym. I have to cover the 5:15am classes if a trainer goes on vacation, and I am NOT a morning person! My schedule doesn’t always go as planned. Things come up, and I may have to miss a meal or a workout. It’s funny – sometimes people say, “I’m so jealous of your job. You get to work out all day,” or, “You get to hang out in a gym all day long.” Not even close! There are many hats I have to wear that keep me very busy: trainer, manager, accountant, marketer, membership consultant, janitor, just to name a few.
Do you find it hard training at your own facility?
I usually train at my own gym. I have the best equipment and access to one of the most highly sought-after coaches in the country. But sometimes, I need to get out for a change of scenery or so that I’m not tempted to sit down at the computer or answer the phone. Every once in a while, I’ll go to a local gym where I can I hop on an elliptical for a little while and not have to think too much.
BATTLE OF THE BELLES
Can you tell us a little bit about Battle of the Belles?
The first Battle of the Belles was held in October 2010. I decided to give my members a little taste of Strongman, so that they could experience for themselves what I do. We had 10 girls and five spectators. It was cute. The next year, we had 10 again, but the crowd was a little bigger, maybe 10. The third year, 15 girls participated. Last year was the first year the event was sanctioned by NAS and was open to non-members of Punch. We had 40 entries, and a couple of hundred people came to watch. It was awesome! This year, the contest will be held on Sunday, October 19th. We already had 70 entries within the first week of registration. This is the largest all-women’s Strongman contest there is, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.
100% of the proceeds from Battle of the Belles have always gone to The Bennett Cancer Center of Stamford. It provides breast cancer care to women who can’t afford treatment, and it has taken care of many people at Punch we know personally. We wanted to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month in a unique way, and putting on a women’s-only strength competition seemed to be very fitting.
What is the hardest thing about being a promoter? What is the most rewarding?
The hardest thing about being a contest promoter is having to choose events that are fun and exciting but also efficient and not time-consuming, especially with 70 competitors! Our events are easy to set up, easy to run, don’t take a long time, but are also crowd-pleasing.
There are many rewarding things about being a promoter. First off, donating money to a great cause. Second, helping to grow the sport of Strongman, especially for women. When I first started out in Strongman, there were only three or four women competing at a time in contests. Today, there are dozens! Third, providing an opportunity for people to participate in something that they never even dreamed of. Watching them achieve PR’s and watching their friends and family be in awe of them. he list goes on and on.
What are your future plans in the sport?
My plan for the future is to continue to train and get stronger. My next competition will be the Couples Contest at Lightning Fitness on December 6th, where I’ll be paired up with Lightweight Pro, Rob Kearney. We’ll be competing in the Heavyweight class. If I qualify for Nationals, I’ll begin my preparation after that. Another goal of mine is to qualify for The Arnold for the third time and make it to the main stage.
Anyone you’d like to thank? Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m surrounded by all the right people. I have tremendous support – my mom and brother who also compete in Strongman, Mike, my close friends, and my gym members.
When asked why I train and compete, my answer is to inspire others: from beginners struggling to get healthy, to advanced athletes who want to do more, to people on the outside watching and wondering what they’re capable of. If I can affect what others try to do and accomplish, than all my efforts are worthwhile.
Thank you so much to Stef for her time, and for kicking off our interview series! We look forward to bringing your more interviews from other great women in the strength community!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AMANDA KULIK is an avid lover of all things strength sports and the founder of Ladies Lift Here. She is mother to one beautiful baby boy (and one fur baby). You can catch her in her silver Honda Fit cruising the East Coast looking for strongman adventures.