CHESHIRE — Back in 2018, Cheshire’s Kierstyn Bourdeau found herself at a crossroads with her health.
After finishing her softball career at College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York, Bourdeau didn’t have an outlet to help her stay in shape for the next year and felt that she needed to find motivation elsewhere.
“I was ready to make a change,” recalled Bourdeau, a 2013 Cheshire High School graduate. “When I came home, I didn’t feel good and lost the battle with my weight. I weighed 400 pounds at one point.”
At the suggestion of her mom Jane, she started working on her nutrition with Nikki Dorval at a Cheshire gym, Strength Academy, LLC (now named Connecticut Strength, LLC).
“I owe a lot to my mom and this gym,” stated Bourdeau. “Along with helping me with my diet, Nikki saw that I could lift weights and she introduced me to a whole new world.”
To her surprise, Bourdeau’s rise has been nothing short of historic. In the process of losing 180 pounds in four years, she has become a record-setting power lifter.
“It is hard to put into words,” said Bourdeau, who currently weights 217 pounds. “Before I came to the gym, I didn’t think that I would feel strong again.”
On Feb. 20, she accomplished a feat never recorded by a drug-free female athlete. In the Third Connecticut State Championships, Bourdeau set the world open record (116.8 pounds) for strict curl in the 198 pounds and over weight class. Six years ago, Nicole Jones set the previous mark (115.7) in Texas.
“I went in with the mindset of wanting to do as well as I could. I was thankful that setting the record was my best lift that day,” said Bourdeau.
The record list is kept by the 100% RAW Powerlifting Federation. Connecticut Strength, LLC owner and coach Pat Russo works with the organization because they test athletes for performance-enhancing drugs before competitions.
“I’m so proud of her (Bourdeau) for making the world list,” stated Russo. “Setting an open record is very special. When you think about lifting more weight than any female athlete has ever done, I don’t know what else you’d like to put on your resume.”
Bourdeau hadn’t tried strict curl until joining her gym in 2018. In the exercise, people lift weight with their head, back, and butt in the same position against a wall.
“You are always tweaking things,” said Russo. “From my experience, it takes about six months to get the bar path [the imaginary line the bar traces on ascent and descent] on the platform. From there, it comes down to how the athlete responds to our program.”
Bourdeau said that the world record has been on her radar for a while, but she didn’t set it as a goal until last year. Her training was difficult early on, as the coronavirus pandemic kept her out of the gym throughout the spring.
“With the restrictions, Coach Russo gave us workouts to do at home,” recalled Bourdeau. “Coach Nikki gave us ideas like using soup cans and weight bands as alternatives to dumbbells. I was able to use old dumbbells for shoulder presses.”
Bourdeau was happy when her gym reopened last summer.
“We tried to stick to the schedule of working out three days a week. When the weather cooperated, I went outside to the track (at Cheshire High School) or the (Linear) Trail,” stated Bourdeau. “I had great teammates to keep me motivated. We all had goals going into this year and we weren’t going to let the pandemic stop us.”
Bourdeau felt pressure going into the state championship this year, but thought those emotions were a good thing.
“You do all of this work for 12 months and then have the privilege of going for a record. I was excited to go and attack it,” Bourdeau explained. “I always look forward to competition days. You can’t make up the energy in the room.”
For the strict curl event, competitors get three lifts at states. Due to COVID concerns, participants had to wear face masks this year.
“On the platform, you could lower the mask to get a breath,” stated Bourdeau.
On her third attempt, Bourdeau went for 116.8 pounds and completed the lift to set the world record.
“It was very heavy,” reflected Bourdeau. “When I put the bar down, I was a little in disbelief. I looked at everyone and asked myself, ‘Did this just happen?’”
Bourdeau’s friends celebrated after watching her make history.
“For me, it was one of those moments where 12 months of work comes down to a three-second performance,” explained Russo. “When she put the bar down, it was amazing to see the look on her face. That (image) will be something I’ll have engraved in my mind for a long time.”
Bourdeau is thankful for how lifting has helped change her lifestyle. Prior to coming to her gym in 2018, she didn’t have much experience except for doing squat workouts in college.
“From the beginning, all the people were so welcoming,” recalled Bourdeau. “They wanted to help me build strength and lose weight as much as they wanted to help themselves.”
In changing her diet and trying new exercises, Bourdeau saw her body and confidence level change quickly.
“You love to get a personal-best lift or hit a weight goal, but it means so much to see the little exercises get easier,” stated Bourdeau. “When I started doing power pull-ups, I could maybe do two or three, but now I can do 20.”
She feels that execution of fundamental skills has been key to her growth.
“Without technique, you aren’t going to get to where you want to be,” said Bourdeau.
Back in 2019, Bourdeau was surprised to be invited to join the competitive lifting team at Connecticut Strength, LLC.
“At first, going to practices was intimidating because everyone was moving so much weight, but the team made me feel comfortable,” Bourdeau recalled.
“She has been one of the most supportive athletes we have,” stated Russo. “Kierstyn has a heart of gold and holds her energy on her sleeves. If you need something from her, she won’t let you down.”
Starting back in 2016, Connecticut Strength, LLC quickly made history on a big stage. From 2017-19, the squad won three straight strict curl titles in the 100% RAW Powerlifting Federation World Championships in Virginia Beacha. The team also captured the deadlift and bench press crowns in 2018.
“It doesn’t feel real sometimes,” stated Bourdeau. “There are so many amazing people on my team. We are so dedicated and want to be the best we can be, but there is also a push to help each other more than ourselves.”
In her world debut two years ago, Bourdeau set records for bench press and strict curl.
“It was incredible to be able to go to the World Championships for the first time,” reflected Bourdeau. “I was so honored to represent our gym and Connecticut.”
Bourdeau takes pride in being an all-around lifter. Along with her state and world records in strict curl, she holds Connecticut marks for bench press (215 pounds), deadlift (350 pounds), and squat (300 pounds).
“It is such a powerful feeling to lift big weights,” explained Bourdeau. “You feel unstoppable.”
“Her numbers are insane,” added Russo. “In the town of Cheshire, there are a lot of young power lifters who can now use her as their standard for what hard work can do for you.”
As a member of Team USA for bench press and strict curl, Bourdeau will have the opportunity to represent her country abroad. The squad planned to compete in India last year, but due to the pandemic, the trip was postponed.
In a revised schedule, Team USA will take trips to Australia (2022), Italy (2023) and India (2024).
“When I think about it, it leaves me speechless,” stated Bourdeau. “How many people can say that they get to explore the world and do something they love? It is remarkable.”
Out of 42 spots on the national squad, 13 athletes have been selected from Connecticut Strength, LLC. Russo will coach the bench press and strict curl teams.
“It is an honor for me to coach these kinds of athletes,” said Russo.
Bourdeau is currently trying to get stronger, so that she can lift her body weight on bench press.
“I hope to continue to drop weight in case my team needs me to compete in a lower class,” explained Bourdeau.
She credits teammates for pushing her every day.
“Amy Traver has taught me so much in deadlift. Lesley DeAngelo has such great technique in strict curl,” said Bourdeau. “We also have guys moving massive amounts of weight. It is truly incredible.”
While she competes with teammates, Bourdeau also enjoys working out with her family. Her older brother Pat co-captained the Cheshire football team in 2016, while younger brother Dan is a senior football and lacrosse player for the Rams.
Bourdeau’s father Randy also played football at the University of Rochester in New York.
“My brothers are both lifters. I was close to Dan on the bench press, but he has passed me now,” stated Bourdeau. “My dad has gotten back in the gym. I can lift more than him right now, but we’ll see how long that lasts.”
Bourdeau balances her workouts with working full time as a job coach at Transition CT.
“It is an organization that helps adults with disabilities,” said Bourdeau. “Everyone is so supportive of my lifting and lifestyle, as well.”