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Powerlifting champ Karlina Tongotea combines medicine with might

At just 28 years old, ‘Beauty and Brains’ is being re-invented by GP and New Zealand Powerlifting Champion Karlina Tongotea.

“I guess most girls in New Zealand played netball, and I played from as soon as I could. It was good for physical health but… I came into powerlifting because I couldn’t really keep up with (netball) team trainings. So I needed to find a new sport where I could just blame myself for not turning up on time,” she says.

Karlina discovered she had a talent for pushing heavy weights at her local gym, so in 2017 she ventured into the world of powerlifting to gain experience.

“I was quite strong for being at a normal gym and decided to find a coach, and around that time we were doing… what they call ‘max out sessions’, where you lift as heavy as you can, and that’s where I sort of just decided ‘ok – I want to do this for real,'” Tongotea says.

Powerlifting Champion Karlina Tongotea. Photo: Tagata Pasifika.

Karlina proved to be so good that in 2019 she represented New Zealand in the under 72kg weight class of the World Championships, where she won gold. She was able to do all this while studying to become a doctor, and is now a registered GP – realising a dream to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps.

“My grandad was a doctor in Tonga, and I think from a very young age I always idolised him and looked up to him and knew he was doing something that was helping people (or) making our people’s lives better.

“I knew that he helped people, and I wanted to be like him,” she says proudly.

“It’s good for my wellbeing. I can take a step out of GP life to train really hard and sort of unload and then come back refreshed to serve people, so that works really well for me.”

Karlina Tongotea is a world powerlifting champion
Photo: Hanalei Temese, Tagata Pasifika

The current New Zealand Champion in her weight class, she recently added the Oceania Championship title to her list of achievements. While she puts a great deal of her success down to hard work, she believes her heritage has a big part to play.

“I feel really privileged to be such a cool mix – Kiwi, Maori, Tongan – and to represent all three when I step on the platform.

“Growing up in New Zealand, we’re always wanting to wear that silver fern, so when I got to do that for New Zealand, that was amazing. But (I’m) never forgetting that probably my genetics from Tongan and Māori side of things plays a huge part in what I’m capable of, so never forget my roots and where I come from,” she says.

By Hanalei Temese

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