Gym owner named America’s Strongest Woman
Stefanie Tropea, America’s Strongest Woman, doesn’t eat egg whites, oatmeal, protein bars or anything marked “low fat.” She said she is suspicious of any diet with a name and questions most meals considered “healthy.”
Tropea, the owner of Norwalk’s Punch Kettlebell Gym, doesn’t mind a salad depending on the dressing and so long as it’s served with fish, chicken or beef on top. Sometimes, when she’s working out — lifting Atlas stones or flipping tires — she wears bright red socks, each with the word “bacon” on it.
“I love bacon and it gets a bad rap,” she said. “Saturated fat and meat has this bad reputation that if you eat it you’re going to die or you’re going to have a heart attack.”
Organic, grass-fed red meat is a staple of her diet and she said she eats two or three strips of bacon almost every day. She isn’t part of the juice craze and avoids processed food, refined carbohydrates and hates mayonnaise. The no-mayonnaise stance isn’t only a health consideration.
“I love eggs, I love oil, I love vinegar,” she said. “When you put those things together why does it make such a disgusting thing?”
Tropea, 34, has established herself as a pioneer in the growing Strongman and strength sports field. Last month, she won her weight class at the America’s Strongest Woman competition in Denison, Ohio. In March 2014, she’ll return to Ohio to compete with women from all over the world for title of “World’s Strongest Woman.”
She participated in her first strongman competition five years ago, after a trainer she was working with told her she was “strong for a girl.” She finished last in that first competition. Those early days often saw competitions with only two or three women attending. On Oct. 27 of this year, Tropea hosted a “Battle of the Belles” tournament at her gym that drew 40 participants.
Interest is growing in gyms like Punch Kettlebell, where there are no treadmills or machines, as strongman sports gain popularity. And the stigma that strength training isn’t feminine is being curbed, albeit slowly. Some women still fear building strength because they think it will make them too muscular, which Tropea scoffs at. “Impossible,” she tells them. “You don’t have the testosterone to get too muscular.”
Tropea, for her part, trains for an hour three or four times a week and like everybody else she says it takes discipline to make time and stay on track. “Some people think you own a gym so you must work out all day long, but that’s not the case,” she said.
It wasn’t a life goal to become America’s Strongest Woman. Tropea grew up in Connecticut, the daughter of Italian immigrants who used olive oil, not mayonnaise, in potato and tuna salads. (When she first tasted the condiment at a friend’s house, she was “traumatized for life.”)
Tropea was a dancer growing up, staying active and fit until starting at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. There she put on not just “The Freshman 15” but a “Freshman 30” pounds. She took the weight back off before her sophomore year and joined the swim team to keep herself accountable. She took a job at the school gym and started going to the weight room three times a week.
“I loved seeing the numbers go up, how much I could lift,” she said. “That’s why I like strongman so much, it’s based on your performance, not your looks. You either lift the weight or don’t. It’s about the number that’s on the bar, not the number that’s on the scale.”
Tropea graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance and out of college she was working as a junior accountant for a company that manufactured components of blinds.
“I was basically bored out of my mind,” she said. “It just wasn’t me. I wanted to be in the gym and share my passion.”
She continued to train on the side — after work, at night, on weekends and even 6 o’clock in the morning before the accountant job.
Tropea, who also has a Master of Science degree in nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, opened Punch Kettlebell in January 2009. The original Main Avenue space was a 1,100-square-foot kettlebell space on the second floor. The gym was recently expanded to the first floor, with a 2,500-square foot strength training space. Tropea said the gym now employs five trainers and has about 100 members between 12 and 70 years old. Tropea’s mother, who is 64 years old, comes to train two times a week.
Many people who come say they have grown bored with traditional gyms and the routine of a standard workout with machines. Some though are intimidated, Tropea said, perhaps because newcomers view the exercise as quite difficult. “To change your body, you have to challenge yourself,” Tropea said.
Punch offers a free orientation, where trainers assess the level of potential members.
“We’re not going to make you lift 300 pounds on your first day,” she said. “They can come in do the free orientation, no pressure and we’ll show you what we do, what your goals are and if this is going to be a good fit.”