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Lifting spirits

Joaquin Armijo, 18, an athlete at St. Michael’s High School, practices his clean and jerk moves at Miller’s Gym in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal )

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

For St. Michael’s senior Joaquin Armijo, a Christmas gift last December inadvertently helped prepare him for the impending COVID-19 crisis.

Armijo, a football and baseball player for the Horsemen with aspirations of playing college ball, did his strength training in a rather haphazard way.

“Originally, I was just weightlifting by myself at whatever gym I could find,” he said.

That meant at the school or at various gyms around town.

But his uncle, who trains at the Miller Gym in Santa Fe, thought more a structured program would help his progress in both football and baseball.

“He thought that this specific type of weightlifting would help me excel more,” Armijo said. “He got me a membership as a Christmas present and I’ve been with it ever since. Originally, I was going to be weightlifting for my sports. But with everything now, I’m going to partake in a competition.”

Shane Miller said Armijo’s story is not unusual as there has been quite a surge in weightlifting since his heyday in the sport in the 1990s. Less than 4,000 people were registered members of USA Weightlifting then, but now that number has grown to more than 30,000, with the largest growth over the past 10 years.

“People have seen what it is through cross fit and have become interested, and allowed our sport to really grow,” he said. “We get a lot more kids who are interested. More than there used to be.”

And now with COVID health restrictions, weightlifting becomes a perfect outlet for athletes of all ages and abilities.

“The way that our gym is set up, we did not have to make a lot of changes in order for it to work under COVID rules,” he said. “It’s not like some other gyms where people are packed together. They are already spaced apart, so it was easy to adhere to social distancing.”

Even the mandatory mask regulation is not too difficult as it might be for more aerobic endeavors.

“They’re not comfortable, we don’t love them,” he said. “But you can continue to train. It’s not a big hindrance to what we’re doing.”

And train they do at the Miller Gym.

Over the years, the gym has trained 13 master lifters who have held national records, eight who have held Pan-American records and five who have held world records.

“It’s an activity for people who have lost the ability to do other activities,” Miller said. “I’m thinking kids here, but also adults; this is something they can do that helps them for their sports and, if you’re competitive, this gives you an avenue to compete right now.”

Just this week, a new athlete joined the gym.

“I just started a 13-year-old volleyball player,” he said. “She has a friend that lifts with us. When they declared fall sports off the table, she wanted to come in and do weightlifting that has not shut down.”

Weightlifting is the perfect sport for a volleyball player to take up while other sports are shut down, Miller said.

“For her, in particular, it’s really beneficial for her volleyball. It’s a great cross-training tool to improve performance in other sports.”

In-person competitions, of course, cannot happen, but virtual competitions have been quite successful, Miller said.

“They have switched to an online format so the national events that they are doing right now, it takes place in your own gym,” he said. “They can compete up to the national level. They do it Zoom style.”

This year, five Miller students have qualified for the upcoming youth nationals after four in 2019 and three in 2018.

“And we have started running weightlifting events in our gym, running real meets so kids and adults have a chance to compete during this time,” he said. “And with so many other sports shut down, we have the ability to go.”

Further, the sport of weightlifting does wonders for youth athletes, Miller said.

“The ability to build strength absolutely is a draw or a benefit,” he said. “When you get stronger, it increases your confidence, confidence in your own abilities. That’s true at any age. Strength can be built at any age. It’s scientifically proven. People in their 90s, put them on a weight-training program, still at that stage of life, these people do build muscle and strength.”

But more than that, rather than the stiff, muscle-bound Olympics lifters that people may remember, weightlifters today are true athletes.

“The movements themselves, when taught properly, are athletic in nature,” Miller said. “We improve mobility, we improve balance and we improve coordination. Those are all pretty much things people want even if they don’t know they want it.”

Armijo said he definitely saw those results when he was doing the summer, small-pod football workouts. His 40-yard speed dropped significantly – so much so that the coaches remarked on it.

“As the month progressed, my flexibility has gone through the roof,” he said. “My speed has gone up. I move better. It’s really fun to learn all the different types of weightlifting that I had never been exposed to before.”