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'Strong is beautiful': Former ballerina Caitlin Matthews breaking powerlifting records

Caitlin Matthews
Posted at 3:12 PM, Feb 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-15 22:38:00-05

MISSOULA — Caitlin Matthews has a simple philosophy.

“Strong is beautiful and muscles are beautiful, so might as well make them bigger,” she said.

Matthews, a 2022 Helena High School graduate now studying criminology at the University of Montana, has taken her own advice to heart.

“I was actually a ballerina for 11 years and I was kind of tapering out of that, and I was in a weight training class at Helena High and I loved it,” Matthews said. “And I was really good at squat just because the strength in ballet to powerlifting kind of converted.”

Thanks to coaching from Stacy Purdom and Scott Evans in Helena, Matthews has been powerlifting for almost five years. Now she works out on her own, usually about six days per week.

And earlier this month at a meet in Kalispell she set the United States records in the squat, bench press and dead lift. Powerlifting competitions are categorized by weight and age, so Matthews competes only against women in the 18-19 75-kilogram division.

“Caitlin in that meet doubled her body weight in squat and in deadlift, and that's huge,” said Scott Sciaretta, the United States Powerlifting Association (USPA) state chair and meet director for Montana. “That’s huge when you get a female who’s 140, 160 pounds, and they can go and they can squat 300 pounds.”

Matthews, who previously set the Montana state records in the squat and deadlift last June, set the new national records for her age and weight by squatting 330 pounds, deadlifting 320 and benching 154 — more than doubling the 70 pounds she could bench when she first started.

“I spent almost eight months of intense training. I didn't compete at all just to try to get those numbers up,” said Matthews, who has gym personal-best lifts of 350 pounds in the squat and 175 pounds in the bench. The 320-pound deadlift in Kalispell was an all-time personal record.

“It's just truly a mental game. You can do a lot more than you think,” Matthews continued. “You just got to get under the bar and do it.”

With the national records in hand, Matthews hopes to next compete at the national meet in June in Las Vegas. Sciaretta will be there, too — both as a competitor and a judge.

Sciaretta himself is a world record holder. He broke the records in all three lifts at the International Powerlifting World Championships in England last October, finishing with a 442-pound squat, 297-pound bench and 534-pound deadlift.

“That was my third world competition. The other two world competitions that I went to, one was in Vegas and one was in California, so yeah, (the 2023 championship in England) was different,” Sciaretta said. “I don’t regret going. I won the world. I don’t regret the trip. But yeah, it was definitely different. I’ve never left this continent, so to go to another country and experience their culture and their food and things like that was definitely different.”

Sciaretta, a detective with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, suffered a heart attack in 2012, which prompted him to make healthier lifestyle choices. That led him to powerlifting. He’s been hooked ever since and has worked to help grow the sport in Montana.

With the USPA, he schedules meets — which feature athletes as young as 13 — across Montana. There are seven scheduled this year, including the USPA Montana high school state championships March 9 at East Helena.

“It’s growing,” Sciaretta said. “It’s a social thing where a lot of people love to go to the gym, they love to socialize, so it’s growing and it’s growing fast.”

“Whenever I’m at a meet, I always feel like everybody’s there to support me,” Matthews said. “And even though we’re competing technically against each other, it’s always congratulatory if you hit a good lift.”

Matthews has been hitting plenty of good lifts during her short powerlifting career, but she and Sciaretta say lifting isn’t just for over-muscled people.

“It's not a matter of the body structure as much as the training and the motivation and the technique behind the lifts,” Sciaretta said.

“You got to show up and you got to work for yourself every day because most of the time you might not be competing with somebody,” Matthews said. “So, it’s just like to better yourself, truthfully, is you just got to keep trucking. And some days you don't want to get in the gym, but you really got to do it for the end goal.”