MANILA, Philippines ? While other children were busy stacking up alphabet building blocks, this then four-year-old little girl was busy stacking up weight plates.
That?s right, weight plates, the kind you see in gyms loaded by hardcore bodybuilders at both ends of a bar.
At four years old, Patricia Llena could deadlift up to 20 k in a single breath; at eight, up to 95 k in school exhibitions. Recently, at 15, she just broke all records in the Philippine women?s 60-kg sub-junior, junior, open and unofficial Asian sub-junior categories at the National Open Championship by deadlifting 175.5 k (her partial deadlift record is at a staggering 350 k).
This 5?4? fourth-year high school student at San Antonio Montessori School, Nueva Ecija, also set a new record in squat (170.5 k) in the sub-junior, junior, open and unofficial Asian sub-junior categories; and benchpress (77.5 k) in the sub-junior and junior categories.
Llena also surpassed the 13-year-old Open record in squat (160 k) and deadlift (170 k), set by now veteran powerlifter Lily Pecante when she was 32 years old. That included breaking Pecante?s total lift of 400 k in the same category. Llena?s record so far is 423.5 k.
The National Open Championship of the Powerlifting Association of the Philippines (PAP) had three events: squat, benchpress and deadlift. Each competitor was allowed three attempts in each event. The best lifts in each of the three events were added to arrive at the total score.
?We haven?t seen anything like this in years...She?s breaking records set by more experienced powerlifters in their 20s and 30s,? says Elvira Lorenzo, PAP secretary general.
Llena is also a weightlifter (77 kg, snatch; 100 kg, clean and press), competing professionally since she was 11, and a brown-belt holder in mixed martial arts (combat judo and karate).
While the sport has taken her places here and abroad, and while she?s enjoying her share of media attention, Llena was?still is, to a degree?perceived by classmates as strange. After all, hers is no sport young girls would normally pursue.
When a TV show featured her extraordinary strength at age eight, for instance, it shocked her classmates so much it prompted weeks of being taunted in school as ?Captain Barbell,? then a popular movie.
Llena recalls with a hearty laugh how she?d cry her eyes out to her dad, Leonard, a Baptist pastor and her trainer.
?I almost gave up on my training, but my dad said I shouldn?t pay attention to my classmates, that I would someday reap the rewards of what I was doing. I?m glad I listened to him,? she says.
It was her dad, a weightlifter, who influenced Llena to pursue the sport. Leonard said his daughter was such a hyperactive child that he thought introducing her to weightlifting one evening would sap out her energy, and he could finally take a break. He was wrong.
?The next day she came up to me, tugged at my shirt and said, ?Let?s do that again.??
There was no turning back since for them.
Each morning, Llena wakes up at 5 a.m. to train for one to one and a half hours, then goes to school at 7 a.m.. Arriving home at 4 p.m., she?d have a snack before training for another one to one and a half hours. After that it?s dinnertime, and then study period (she is on academic scholarship).
By 9 p.m., she?s sound asleep. She trains six times a week, in intervals of intense and light training. Sunday is her rest day.
It is a disciplined routine she has followed since she was 11. Her dad says Llena also holds the new Philippine record in the youth 63-kg category, and has recently qualified for the first Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in August next year.
The most challenging part, though, is not the training or lifting, but the need to constantly shift her weight, says Llena.
Weight categories differ in weightlifting and powerlifting. If Llena overshoots in one sport, that would mean competing against more experienced lifters and lifting much heavier loads.
?My goal is to be a champion in the Olympics someday, and win a gold in the world record for powerlifting, too. I always aim high,? she says. Llena began her competitive powerlifting only last year, at age 14.
Llena has already made sacrifices to stay in top shape for each competition. She keeps a schedule to stick to her training routine, so while her classmates can be carefree with their time, she has to plot out her schedule to give her body the adequate rest it needs.
On Sundays, her only break from a week?s training, Llena teaches Sunday school in church. Then she goes home to wash her clothes?by choice. She wants her clothes to smell the exact way she wants them to. Then she goes off to do her favorite thing in the world?sleep for hours.
Her suitors are not spared wisecrack remarks, too, such as, ?Oh, you better watch your step or she?ll throw you out the window.?
Llena just shrugs off the teasing remarks. Potential boyfriends, however, will be seriously considered only when she turns 25, she says.
For now, nothing will get in the way of her dreams of getting an Olympic gold, powerlifting, and earning Nursing and Nutrition degrees.
?My dad said I should leave all my cares to God. I pray when I wake up, before I sleep, and especially before a competition. Praying has helped me handle the pressures of the sport,? she says.
Llena is preparing for her first international competition in the Sub-Junior World Powerlifting Championships this September at Ribeirão Preto, Brazil.