Flight, super-strength, invulnerability—you name it. Those are just some of the powers owned by Supergirl, a superhero created by DC Comics. To most people, she is just a comic book icon. But one girl in New Jersey has recreated the meaning of that nickname.
Naomi Kutin, a 16-year-old orthodox Jewish powerlifter, took the title of Supergirl when her dad decided to create a Facebook account for her. She’s the subject of a documentary by that name, which airs Monday, December 18, on PBS as part of the network’s series Independent Lens.
At the age of 10, Kutin broke the world record for the 97-pound weight class for women by squatting 214.9 pounds. The previous record-holder was 44 years old.
Kutin says that she views the record differently now than she did then. “I mostly thought, ‘Wow! I have a trophy now!’” she recalls.
Additionally, Kutin says that when she first started lifting, she felt like she was just doing it for herself. “Now, I really view it as…my powerlifting also inspires others. A lot of people look up to me, [and] I take that really seriously,” she says. “I use [my] success, and I think about how it impacts others.”
Among many of Kutin’s accomplishments, one stands out. “Probably [one of the highlights of my career] was when I got to compete with Team USA in an international competition,” she says. She was invited to join the team for the North American Regional Powerlifting Championships in July 2017.
In addition to having a documentary about her life, Kutin has been on many shows (she was on Nickelodeon’s game show Figure it Out when she was 10), and has been profiled in several publications, including The New York Times.
“When they first started to film me, I thought it was really crazy that there was going to be an actual movie about me,” says Kutin. “When the movie was [completed], it was really crazy to actually see myself on screen.”
The documentary tracks Kutin through her weightlifting career, showing her careful balance of the religious, social, academic, and athletic parts of her life.
The religious part of her life is particularly tricky. Jews must keep the Sabbath, which happens once a week on Saturday. This means that on Saturday, Kutin can’t use electricity, drive, or practice her lifting. Unluckily, almost all competitions are on Saturday.
“Sometimes it’s a little tricky to navigate that, but people usually make accommodations for me once I explain [my situation],” says Kutin.
But her religion is one of the lesser problems she faces. “I’ve had some physical injuries, like when I pulled my hamstring in one of my competitions. It set me back about five months of training. That was really hard because I just wanted to get out and lift,” she says.
Another tough obstacle Kutin faces is cyber-bullying, but she has learned how to deal with it. Many of her articles and videos are online, and people feel the need to criticize her. “With my parents’ help, I have learned how to deal with that by understanding that people saying those things online don’t care about me, are not my friends, and are not people whose opinions should be important to me,” she explains. “Sometimes my dad responds [to the cyber-bullies], but I try not to because then it starts a whole thing, and I don’t feel the need to prove anything to those kinds of people,” she adds.
In the weight room, though, Kutin feels that everyone is a team, even when they are competing against one another. “Really, in that moment, it feels like me and my opponents are there for the same purpose. We’re there to see how much we can lift, we’re there for the same competition. There are few differences between us right then and there.”
Additionally, Kutin has another team on her side—her family. Her father, Ed, has lifted competitively for a very long time, and her younger brother, Ari, has also joined in on the fun. Additionally, her mom, Neshama, has always been supportive, caring, and watchful. Team Kutin even wears matching shirts at most competitions.
Supergirl airs Monday, December 18, on PBS at 10 p.m. ET. Check your local listings. The film will also be available for free streaming at pbs.org until January 1.
Photographs by Carmen Delaney/Supergirl Film LLC (2)