For Palomar High School government teacher Stephanie Pio, the typical school day looks much like any other successful educator’s workday: filled with student interaction and discussion, grading assignments, prepping for the next lesson, and all the rest.
That’s where the similarities end, however. When the final bell rings, Pio, a member of Sweetwater Education Association, sets down the textbooks and heads to her local gym’s squat rack to pick up and press literally thousands of pounds — a typical amount during a powerlifting training session. If training and competing as an elite powerlifter were not enough, Pio also is an award-winning bodybuilder who participates in drug-tested, steroid-free competitions.
Pio’s triple passions of bodybuilding, powerlifting and educating young people nearly always exist in a comfortable space together, but sometimes they do collide. Like the time last spring when her volunteer Grad Nite chaperoning responsibilities took her overnight to Six Flags Magic Mountain — the night before a powerlifting competition to which she had committed months of training. While she readily admits she was “enjoying rollercoasters” well past 3 a.m., she will also tell you it led to a series of unfortunate events that barely got her to the competition before her first required lifts.
Fortunately, you can read about what happened and her latest competitions on her blog, SquatRackShenanigans.com.
Pio trains for aesthetics and strength and finds that pushing her limits gives her a stronger sense of the depth of her capabilities.
“I’m no longer focused on being small in any aspect of my life. I’m not afraid to be seen, or heard, or noticed, and to demand my space.”—Stephanie Pio, Sweetwater Education Association
“I love what I do on the stage, on the platform, in the gym, and in the kitchen,” she says. “I love being strong. Testing my physical and mental limits is very important to me in many aspects of my life. These tests make me feel powerful, make me feel alive and capable, sometimes almost superhuman. My sports allow me to challenge myself in ways that I haven’t found elsewhere.”
Her experiences training and competing inform her teaching.
“My training and dedication to my sports influence my classroom practice,” Pio says. “They help me recognize that progress is never linear, and it’s not always predictable. Sometimes it comes faster than expected, and there are periods where progress is slower — you need more practice, more scaffolding, to perfect a movement, or understand a concept, before you can move forward. This is true of strength gain and in teaching. Both require a lot of patience.”
Pio, who has a master’s degree in teaching, is devoted to her work as an educator and to her students, saying, “I don’t know anyone who loves their job more than I do.” Students and colleagues are “overwhelmingly positive” about her passions as well.
“Every year during the school health fair, I present on the topic of nutrition. I bring all my trophies and medals, and some of my powerlifting gear and bodybuilding contest gear to show the students. They’re pretty proud that their teacher is a professional athlete.
“My colleagues have always been very supportive as well, including administrators. I have been told on many occasions how cool it is that girls on campus have someone like me as a model. Strong women — women who can lift two-and-a-half times their body weight and are professional athletes — aren’t exactly the norm.”
Pio takes her responsibilities as a role model seriously and uses her experience to show others how to tap into their worth and power. “The smallest version of you is not the best version of you,” she said in a Women’s Strength Coalition profile last year. “I spent so much of my life just trying to fit into that, to be ever smaller.
“I spent so many years feeling too … something. Too fat. Too broad shouldered. Too muscular. I spoke too much. I laughed too loudly. I argued too passionately. It was a constant fixation that manifested in just never being good enough.
“Getting away from that mentality, and learning to take up space — physically, mentally, academically, socially — has been really freeing. I’m no longer focused on being small in any aspect of my life. I’m not afraid to be seen or heard or noticed, and to demand my space.”