Stefanie Tropea: Evolution of a Strongwoman
Article By Julia Holthaus
Strongman can be an unforgiving sport. Contests are won and lost by fractions of seconds or mere inches. It is physically taxing on the body, demanding of time and often, above all else, mentally draining. To survive in the sport, an individual has to find that special something, something most don’t possess, something most average people don’t even know exists. An intangible quality. An iron will.
When it seems as though the odds are stacked against them, strongmen (and women) tap into that something special. They crush weights they never dreamed they could lift in training. Move faster than they ever have before. Go harder than they ever imagined. Sometimes, they end up on top. Sometimes they don’t.
After 8 years in the sport, Stefanie Tropea has seen both ends of the spectrum. From finishing last in her first contest in 2007, to earning the title of America’s Strongest Woman, Lightweight Division, in 2013, to hobbling to finish the Arnold Classic with a torn calf muscle in 2014, Tropea’s experience in the sport is vast. One might say she’s seen it all.
“I’ve just competed for the first time in 15 months,” Tropea says. “I won first place! But by a hair.”
Despite the first place finish, which carries with it a spot at NAS Nationals in October, the win was hard-earned and has left Tropea with many unanswered questions.
“I started off strong, winning the first two events,” explains Tropea. “After that, I made mistakes. I didn’t get a good handle on the Husafelt, and I dropped it. I zeroed the deadlift, and I fumbled with the 200-pound stone, missing the load, even though I had done the event many times before.”
Tropea’s contest-day miscues have left her wondering not only about her preparation leading to the Capital Classic, but about her future in the sport. Where she previously competed as a lightweight, Tropea has now moved up into the middleweight division.
“I felt rusty,” she says. “I found myself asking, ‘Do I remember how to do this?’ My friends and family have been telling me that a win is a win, but I can’t help being a little disappointed and reflecting on the mistakes that I made. I guess it’s a good thing that I always want to improve.”
Improvement is going to be Tropea’s main focus for the time being, as she has decided against competing in Nationals in Iowa.
“Right now, I’m not strong enough to compete with the top middleweights at Nationals,” says Tropea. “Four months of training between now and then isn’t nearly enough to get prepared mentally and physically for the level of competition that I expect to be there. I don’t want to go and spend the time and money, just to zero the events. At the same time, I don’t want to go to Nationals merely NOT to zero events. I’ve never agreed with the mentality of that motive.
“For now, I’ll continue to train to get stronger,” she continues, “so that I’ll be ready for when the time comes to compete at the highest level.”
The Business of Strength
Getting stronger is the name of the game with strongman, and Tropea has even made it her business to help others get strong. She runs Punch Kettlebell Gym in Norwalk, Conn., which offers classes in the basic lifts of strength training, kettlebells, battling ropes, and of course, a Sunday morning class dedicated to strongman. She says people are often hesitant to try Strongman because it seems so intimidating.
“I constantly hear, ‘I could never do that!’” Tropea says. “People don’t believe they can do it. But when I know that they can, I let them know about the Novice class now in most contests.”
Tropea suggests people spend a solid year strength training before entering any competition, focusing mainly on the squat, deadlift and overhead press to build the necessary foundation for strongman. Strength aside, though, Tropea says one of the biggest issues she finds with clients, competitors, and even herself, is that people tend to compare themselves to others.
“This is a big mistake for any competitor,” she explains. “I know, because I used to do it all the time. Worry instead only about what you can do and about setting your own PRs. Spending time worrying about what others are doing is a waste and does you no good!”
The Mentality of Strength
For Tropea, the mental side of the game can often be the most challenging to prepare for. Hearkening back to the 2014 Arnold, she says finishing the first day of competition is her biggest accomplishment. Tropea tore her calf on the second event of the day, yet continued on with the contest.
“Not only did I finish—hobbling, taped up and in pain—but I did it with a smile on my face. That was big for me, because I had always had mental challenges in competition. I would let all kinds of things bother me. They would get to me and affect my performance. I’d be riddled with negative thoughts that would defeat me.”
In a field stacked with the likes of Maya Winters, Alanna Casey, Kim Baum and Sue Metcalf, just to name a few, Tropea needed any advantage she could get. Keeping a positive mental outlook was one big thing that has since worked for her.
“Once I changed that negative mindset,” she explains, “everything turned around for me. I started winning. I started having fun. I was able to remember why I do strongman. I do it for fun. After all, let’s face it—we’re just lifting rocks.”
Even when winning and having fun doing it, the toll that strongman takes on the body and the mind can be hard to overcome. Tropea says that with all the time she spent preparing for Nationals in 2013, and The Arnold in 2014, coupled with running her own business, she eventually became burned out.
“Training for strongman and running a business at the same time hasn’t been easy,” she says. “I had put everything I had into Nationals and The Arnold, and afterwards I had nothing left. Burnout did eventually get the best of me. For a while, I wanted nothing to do with strongman. I was sick of it. I had no interest in picking up any strongman implements, let alone competing.”
The Support of Strength
In the months leading up The 2014 Arnold, Tropea says she often trained at 9 p.m., alone in her gym, after a full day of teaching classes and tending to clients both in person and online.
“Even though I was alone, I wasn’t truly alone,” she explains. “I had my coach, my family and my gym members rooting for me to keep going. They wanted me to do well, and I wanted to be an inspiration to them and to make them proud.”
Surrounding yourself with a great support system can be a key to success in this sport. Tropea has found one of her greatest supporters in her coach, Mike Mastell, who also happens to be the head trainer at her gym and her boyfriend.
“He’s a highly sought-after strength coach, nutritionist, Pro-Strongman, and a writer for EliteFTS,” she explains. “His programming and guidance have made a champion out of me, and I can’t thank him enough.
“He’s at every single contest with me,” she continues, “making sure I’m well-fed and hydrated and that I have whatever I need. It’s like he knows me better than I do.”
Tropea says Mastell will get on her “for slacking or coming to training unprepared”—if she hasn’t eaten or is wearing the wrong clothes.
“But on the other hand,” she says, “if I get down on myself, he reminds me about my progress. He’s always positive and supportive and honest.”
The Future of Strength
With a firsthand perspective, Tropea has watched the sport of strongman grow tremendously. Her first contest in June of 2007 was the 2nd Annual Central Jersey’s Strongest Man. There, Tropea competed against just three other girls.
“For the first few years, we were lucky to get three girls at a time,” she explains. “Now, we have all-women shows with 70 competitors!”
One such show is Tropea’s own Battle of the Belles, which will be held Oct. 18, at Cranbury Park in Norwalk. The proceeds of the contest benefit a local cancer center.
While growth is good, Tropea hopes the sport of strongman doesn’t lose its sense of community.
“I’d like to see it continue to have the camaraderie it has always been known for,” she says. “During my first competition, I couldn’t believe how supportive the other competitors and staff were. They were cheering for me and helping me, giving me pointers and in some cases, even telling me exactly what to do!
“Strongman is a family,” Tropea goes on, “and we’re all there for each other. We need to continue to support each other and our promoters.”
Personally, Tropea’s future in the sport remains wide open. For now, she will not be heading to NAS Nationals in October, yet will perhaps compete locally within the next few months. But since The 2014 Arnold, some things have changed.
“I knew that I was done with strongman, as a lightweight, but not with Strongman forever,” Tropea says. “I wanted to get stronger and compete as a middleweight. No more weight cuts.
“It’s cool now,” she continues, “because in my new weight class, I feel like I’m #startingstrongman all over again. There is nowhere to go but up from here.”
About Stefanie: Stefanie is an Art of Strength certified trainer, has a Master’s degree in Human Nutrition from Bridgeport University and can often be found secretly blasting Gypsy Flamenco music during her own training sessions at her gym, Punch Kettlebell Gym in Norwalk, CT. Her favorite strongman event is anything overhead, and she detests the conventional deadlift. Her favorite post-workout meal is grilled chicken and white rice with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray. Her favorite post-contest meal, however, is pizza and cannoli nachos. EVERY TIME.
About Julia: Julia is a stay-at-home mother to three daughters, ages 6, 5 and 1. She holds a degree in Journalism from Fordham University, and in a past life was a NASM-certified personal trainer and Tae Bo fitness instructor. She first competed in strongman in 2012 in the Lightning Fitness Couples’ Challenge, and has since loved the challenge of the sport and sense of community that goes with it. Unlike Stefanie, Julia’s favorite lift is the conventional deadlift, favorite Strongman event is anything moving, and anything overhead has been like kryptonite to her Superman.