By SETH LAMAR
Gold Standard Sports Editor
There are many misconceptions about competitive weightlifting, but the young lifters at Fort Knox High School are proving many of them false.
When most folks think of weightlifting, they think of a sport comprised of nothing but hulking men. At Knox, this is not the case.
The FKHS power lifting team is comprised mostly of girls in what has become coach Conrad Garcia’s most talented squad since he arrived at Knox. Earlier this month, Knox made its presence felt on the national level at the Natural Athlete Strength Association’s biggest meet.
Led by seniors De’My’Ja Holmes and Ashlee Kohler, the FKHS lifters traveled to Oklahoma City April 6-7 for the 30th Annual High School Nationals, where the team took home eight team trophies.
For the third year in a row, Holmes took home top honors at the national meet and has now earned a place in NASA history as the only lifter to win four belts. The Knox senior has made an impact in the weight room, but is quick to point out the success of the entire team.
“Every girl from our team won at least one first place trophy in her division so we won in all eight of the weight classes,” Holmes said. “I won the Most Outstanding Lifter Award and our team won the Ultimate Team Award, All-Star Team Award and the Combined Unequipped Team Award.”
This year marked the third year Holmes traveled to the national meet and for the third year in a row, she took her place atop the first-place podium.
“I’ve won the same awards every year, so every year I’ve taken the whole meet,” she said.
Holmes competed in the 181-pound class this year and has always known she was strong, but was hesitant to join the team three years ago. The misconceptions surrounding the sport meant Garcia and others needed to convince her to give the sport a shot.
“Actually, Sgt. Garcia would stop me in the hallway and ask me each day, but I wasn’t very into it since it seemed like such a manly sport,” she said.
It wouldn’t be until her brother joined the team that she would give competitive weight lifting a shot.
“I gave it a shot and I found out I was a natural at it and I’ve stuck with it ever since,” Holmes said.
Holmes’ fellow senior Kohler, also made a splash at nationals by winning her class in the power lifting and power sports events while taking third in the bench press.
“The experience is always fun and a big eye-opener,” she said. “It was a good experience to have competition, knowing your competition, knowing you can beat people and that there’s the chance people can beat you. It drives you to do your best.”
This year marked Kohler’s second with the team, but she believes being a part of the team and finding success in the sport has changed her for the better.
“I think power lifting has made me a stronger athlete and a stronger person,” she said.
Garcia said the leadership of his senior lifters has had a profound and lasting impact on the Knox program as the younger team members now have an example to aspire to.
“We had some big-time leaders in Ashlee and De’My’Ja and they were a big part of why this is the best team Fort Knox has ever had,” Garcia said. “Lots of people would stop and watch Ashlee and De’My’Ja lift. I’m going to miss these girls and they probably taught the younger ones more than I did.”
While the loss of senior leadership will be felt, the team will return the likes of Christina Rice, Jayci Gomes, Fabiola Martinez along with Haley Fluharty to continue Knox’s success.
Holmes doesn’t think next year’s team will miss a beat despite her departure with a pair of solid returners.
“I think Fabiola (Martinez) and Christina (Rice) will be huge assets to the team next year because they are both natural athletes,” she said. “Christina is a very hard worker and you never see her going less than 100 percent. Fabiola is just like me. They call her mini-me because she possesses natural strength. She won’t work out a day, but she’ll go win a meet. They shouldn’t have any worries about me leaving.”
Fluharty is in her second year with the team, but can see the strides she has made as part of the team.
“I’ve gotten stronger and more confident in myself and my abilities,” she said. “It’s really helped me with other activities such as track, golf and cheer.”
While being involved with competitive lifting has improved her physically, Fluharty also makes note of how it has improved her as a person.
“It’s helped me improve my leadership skills and I’ve become closer with different people from school,” she said.
As far as her achievements, Fluharty has been pleased with what she has accomplished.
“I power cleaned my weight, which is a big deal for me and I hit my personal record is squat,” she said.
Fluharty took home first place in her division this year at nationals, but looks to continue her improvement in the future.
Vano Valdez was one of only two boys on the team, but still came away from the NASA national meet with accolades of his own.
Valdez took top honors in the 114-pound class and has finished each weight meet this season with at least a second place finish or better. The Knox freshman initially joined the team to get stronger for the upcoming football season, but eventually grew to love the competition of the sport.
“I started bringing home medals and started to feel proud and I actually committed myself to it more,” Valdez said.
Valdez admitted he surprised himself with his performance in Oklahoma City, but wasn’t fazed by the competition there.
“I exceeded my own expectations at Oklahoma because when I came out on top in the 114 class, I thought the competition would be tougher,” he said. “This is what we train for and every time you hit the weight room you have to train harder than everyone else.”
Being surrounded by girls didn’t deter Valdez from joining the team and says it shouldn’t discourage anyone else from doing so.
“If given the excuse that there’s nothing but girls or they can’t train with girls, I’d say look at me, I’m a national champion and I trained with these girls,” he said.
One thing that stood out to Garcia about this team was their desire to win from the beginning.
“They wanted to win from the very start,” Garcia said. “They wanted to show they could take it all and they did. Last year, they took three of the five team trophies and they weren’t satisfied. This year, they took five of five.”
The power lifting team featured enough girls throughout the season to compete in each weight class. Not only did this provide points for the team at meets, but also made the competition wary of going against them.
“There were a lot of teams that didn’t enter (nationals) because they would be going against us,” Garcia said. “I talked to several coaches that said there was no sense in going because we were going to dominate. I never say things about my team, but this team was together. We had every weight class and many teams couldn’t.”
The team’s success has meant a lot to Holmes and others since she and athletes at FKHS have struggled in other sports. Power lifting isn’t a sanctioned sport in Kentucky, but the team’s trophy still carries as much meaning.
“It means a lot since we come from a school that’s not very successful in athletics and despite the criticism we get from other sports that say we’re not a team or that it’s not a real sport, it feels good to know what we’ve accomplished,” Holmes said. “Hard work pays off in the end and the trophies prove we’re doing something right.”