At the end of the Braden River High girls weightlifting team’s Class 2A District Meet on Jan. 25 in Port Charlotte, Head Coach Jordan Borges’ face was red.
Not with anger or embarrassment, but with icing.
The Pirates had won the district title, and to celebrate, they smashed a cake in Borges’ face. Rarely had victory tasted so sweet.
Braden River would follow up its district victory with a regional title on Feb. 2 in New Port Richey. It was the first in program history.
The Pirates took home the title despite none of its weightlifters finishing in first place as an individual. Sophomore Ashlyn Henry finished second in the traditional 129-pound class with a 150-pound clean and a 130-pound bench; Senior Jada Phillips finished second in the Olympic 139-pound class with a 155-pound snatch and a 190-pound clean; and sophomore Payton Mangay-Ayam finished second in the Olympic 154-pound class with a 140-pound snatch and a 190-pound clean.
The Pirates will now compete at the state meet Feb. 17 at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
Borges, in his second year as the program’s head coach, wants to make weightlifting as legitimate an option as any other sport. They might begin weightlifting to stay in shape for other sports, Borges said, but they will find that lifting is as competitive as anything else they might play.
For athletes willing to commit to it, weightlifting can become something of an obsession, he said. The team practices five days a week, and Borges will often send his athletes “homework,” which includes a new video about technique, or written tips on how they can further improve. Henry said Borges often loses his voice — not from being critical, but being a cheerleader, motivating his athletes to do their best.
It has resulted in a program where enthusiasm for the sport is spreading. That enthusiasm, in kind, convinces more people to join. This year, the program had 45 lifters, and 13 of those lifters qualified for the state meet.
The sport's athletes all have different reasons for joining. Henry started lifting as a way to stay in shape for volleyball. Senior Ivy Nguyen joined the program before Borges became the head coach, when former coach Richard Lansky told her about it during a class. Nguyen was intrigued by the conditioning she could get. Nguyen said did not know at the time how much she would grow to love it.
Sophomore Chloe Pogoda joined because her older sister, 2021 graduate Morgan Pogoda, was a lifter. Chloe said she wants to be better than her.
Like in wrestling, weightlifters compete in various weight classes, which means participants must have precise control of their diet to keep their weight within their class’s limits. Phillips, who will play softball for Louisiana State University upon graduation, said she sticks to a diet mainly consisting of protein and vegetables, with carbs consumed before she lifts. Overnight oats are a breakfast favorite, Phillips said, as they provide enough protein to keep her full, and enough carbs to give her energy at practice.
There's a lot of food lifters don't get to have. Mangay-Ayam said she especially misses going to Jeremiah's Italian Ice because that is one of her favorite spots. Giving up certain foods is one of many sacrifices lifters have to make. Another is free time. Lifters practice five days a week with the team. Between those sessions and their traditional high school workload, plus the occasional extra assignment from Borges, their schedule is full.
The results are worth the work.
"We are hitting PRs (personal records) every meet," Phillips said. "We just won regionals. Those things are the reward."
The growth Pirates lifters have made through the program is not limited to how much weight they can lift. For some, the improvements have been internal. It is seen in lifters like Henry, whom Nguyen said was timid as a freshman last season. Henry said she had a hard time getting into the sport's necessary mindset. As a result, she was not pushing herself as much as she could. But as time passed, and Henry started her sophomore training, she pushed past that mental barrier, Nguyen said.
"Just look at her now," Nguyen said.
Henry blushed at the comment, then gave Nguyen a hug. The support the athletes show each other is a credit to the program's atmosphere, Henry said. It's easy to bloom as an athlete and as a person when you know everyone has your back, she said.
Borges gives the credit to his athletes when it comes to fostering that atmosphere. He said he doesn't say they 'buy in' to the culture because that is too conservative of a term. He likes to say they believe in it, because belief is a powerful force, and one that allows people to do amazing things.
Whatever these athletes' initial reason for joining the team, they are all glad they joined. Phillips said she still gets the occasional question from non-athletic classmates about why she wanted to join, but the perception of the sport is changing.
People have seen the results, and they want to be part of the success, Phillips said.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.