Māori-Tongan powerlifter Karlina Tongotea to compete on world stage at SBD Sheffield

Karlina Tongotea mid-workout at the Olympic Weightlifting Association gym in Newmarket

Coming up on the 25th of March is the SBD Sheffield 2023 powerlifting competition and New Zealand’s own Māori-Tongan Karlina Tongotea will be taking the stage as one of the event’s wildcard entries.

In powerlifting a competitor’s total is comprised of three lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift. There is a £25,000 prize for first place and a £5,000 prize for each record broken for the three lifts.

A first of its kind, competitors are judged not on the absolute total they can lift but by how much they can exceed the current International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) world record for their weight class.  This means that lifters from all weight classes can compete with each other and walk away the clear winner of the entire competition.

For example, if lifter A totals 550kg in the 63kg class, with a world record total of 548kg, they will receive a score of 100.4%. If lifter B totals 640kg in the 84kg class, with a world record total of 636.5kg, they will receive a score of 100.5%, and will be ranked higher than lifter A.

A practicing GP in South Auckland, Karlina holds currently holds two world records in the Women’s Open 76kg class: a 223kg squat and a 600kg three-lift total.

She invited us along to the Olympic Weightlifting Association gym in Newmarket, Tāmaki Makaurau to grab some photos and chat. Humble but radiating a quiet confidence, Karlina spoke between training sets about her involvement in powerlifting and the run up to Sheffield.

Congrats on getting a spot for Sheffield, how does it feel?

Thank you so much! You know, my coach and I made very calculated moves to earn this spot and had every intention of succeeding but I still have ‘pinch me moments’ every day. I feel so honoured to have been chosen and so proud to put Aotearoa on such an international stage.”

What’s your plan leading up to the competition?

“I have spent the last 14 weeks training to win this competition, but I know that five years of hard work brought me this far. I’ll be flying to the UK 1 week early to give myself lots of time to combat any jetlag and be 100% on the day.”

How do you stay motivated now that you hold two world records? That’s huge, well done!

“Thank you! There are two parts. I know I have more in me, I am obsessed with seeing how much further I can push the world record and I took that record from someone which means someone can take it from me – an easy source of motivation.”

 How has your training changed as you’ve become more experienced?

“The most obvious way is the increase in the weights I lift and the intensity. A major key to longevity in this sport is consistency, so I don’t think there has been a lot of change and part of that is due to having the same coach for the last 5 years. Increased experience has taught me to put more and more work into those ‘non-gym’ things – eating well, getting enough sleep, and focusing on recovery in between training.”

Karlina resting between sets with coach Dominique Basabas in the back

Has your medical training had any impact on how you approach training and failure?

“My medical background has had a huge impact. In general practice there are many highs and lows, a lot of problem solving and times where you feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Something that has helped me navigate that is mindfulness which to me means being able to take a step back from a situation, observe it, and decide how to respond in a way that keeps my cup full. It’s been a major key to prevent burnout in my work and helps me approach the highs and lows of training without impulse.

I’m privileged to be a GP and get a glimpse of so many different aspects of people’s lives. It serves as a daily reminder that my ability to train at this level is a gift.”

Do you have a specific routine on competition days or when you approach the bar?

“On competition days I like to keep calm, play some upbeat music – maybe some J.Lo [laughs]. I spend some time stretching and then do my compulsory game day hair braids.

Before I approach the bar I like to be as calm as possible but now I have some hype music. I remind myself of the work I have put in, affirm the ability I have, take slow deep breaths then look at the bar and tell it ‘You’re mine’.”

What’s next for you after Sheffield?

“I don’t get any break after Sheffield because 11 weeks later is the World Championship in Malta. So, I will be right back to work and training towards securing the official World Championship title for my class in early June.”

Powerlifting is one of the fastest growing sports in the Pacific, what kind of support are you getting from the Pacific community?

“In true kiwi nature I have been keeping my head down, focusing on this competition and training hard but also keeping quiet about it – whoops [laughs]. So, I don’t think the wider community is aware, but of course my immediate Tongan and Māori family are a relentless and amazing source of support for me. For that I am forever grateful, I am only as strong as the love and support they give me and lucky for me that is endless!”

Karlina is set to take the stage March 25th and we can’t wait to see how she performs against other world class athletes. Check out her Instagram to follow along and watch her show the world what she can do!