Small, but mighty!

23 February 2021

If you thought all powerlifters were giant human specimens, with bulging muscles and the capacity to eat boiled chicken by the kilo, Karlina Tongotea (pictured right) is here to surprise you.

Standing at just 155cm  and weighing less than 72 kilos, she’s a pocket-sized New Zealand powerlifting champion – and also took out the Oceania title for her weight category just two weeks ago. Although it has to be said that she does eat a lot of chicken and steamed broccoli.

“Yes, people are surprised when I tell them what I do for fun,” the 28-year-old laughs. “But when I discovered I had a natural talent for lifting weights, I also found a real passion for the sport.”

Powerlifting ranks competitors according to the total weight they lift in three different ways  - squat, bench and deadlift. Karlina beat other Oceania competitors with a total of 533kg – 190kg in the squat, 115kg in the bench and a mighty 228kg in the deadlift. This result means that she is ranked fifth in the world for her category.

“So general practice just seemed to be the right place for me. This specialty also offers up so many different opportunities to get involved in some interesting areas of medicine too – I am particularly interested in mental health and women’s health at the moment.”

Karlina is a second-year GPEP registrar at the Waiuku Health Centre in South Auckland,  not too far from where she was born and raised.

The second eldest of five children in a Tongan/Māori family, she grew up idolising her Grandad, who was a doctor in Tonga before he retired.

“I looked up to Grandad because I knew how much he helped people as an anaesthetist and in the public health system, so becoming a doctor myself always seemed to be the goal,” she says.

Karlina chose to specialise in general practice after her hospital placement because  she felt she could maybe help stop people ending up in hospital.

“While I enjoyed my training, I did feel that we were seeing people, fixing a problem and then sending them on their way and that was it,” she says. “I wanted to know how they were, if the treatment had helped them, and what else could be done to help them have better, healthier lives.

“So general practice just seemed to be the right place for me. This specialty also offers up so many different opportunities to get involved in some interesting areas of medicine too – I am particularly interested in mental health and women’s health at the moment.”

Karlina seems to have a knack of finding where she belongs because her entry into the sport of power-lifting also seemed to be a natural process.

“I was always playing sport when I was at school and college, mostly team sports like netball, but when I began medical training it was pretty difficult to commit to practices and games while juggling heavy workloads.

“So I just started going to the gym and that’s where I discovered I was good at lifting weights.”

Three years ago Karlina decided she wanted lift weights competitively, and tracked down power-lifting coach Dominique Basabas.

“Things got very serious, very quickly,” she says with a laugh “I do three or four training sessions a week, with each of those lasting up to four hours. 

“I began to be very disciplined about my diet – and yes, chicken breast does factor highly – and took a year out of full-time work in 2019 so I could totally focus on being competition-ready.”

“I looked up to Grandad because I knew how much he helped people as an anaesthetist and in the public health system, so becoming a doctor myself always seemed to be the goal.”

Her training sessions focus solely on strengthening muscle - which means no cardio -  with at least 30 minutes of stretching at the beginning and end of each workout.

She competes around four times a year, with each competition taking 12 weeks to prepare for, and is currently keeping her fingers crossed that the North Island Championships due to take place  in June will take place.

“You always feel nervous before any competition but once you do that first lift, you’re just in the zone and you’re ready to perform,” she says. “I’m lucky that I have a big family because wherever I compete I am guaranteed to have at least 10 supporters cheering me on.

“I love my sport. It’s an escape from the everyday and keeps me sane, so I can see me doing it for many years to come yet!”