Sha’la McMillan’s first time meeting LeeAnn Hewitt caught her off guard. It was during December 2015 and the two were at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado for an elite youth training camp. More than 1,800 miles away from their Florida homes, two of the best junior girls weightlifters in the country were united.
And Hewitt knew plenty about McMillan, who by that time had already competed in the youth division at the World Weightlifting Championships. Hewitt had seen the Palmetto native compete at the national championships to punch her ticket to the World Championships. She had been impressed.
“I’ve seen you lifting at youth nationals,” McMillan remembers Hewitt telling her in Colorado Springs. “I love you.”
“I was like, Wait, what? People like me?” the Palmetto senior said Tuesday. “That was really weird, but we actually started talking and we became friends. I actually got along with her a lot.”
The unlimited weight class at the Class 2A championship Thursday will provide a rare level of competition. McMillan, a national record-holding weightlifter with Olympic aspirations, will have a major uphill battle to win the 2A championship because Hewitt, a Wellington senior, is a national-record holder in her own right.
The two friends will compete for the first time this week in Belleview and in all likelihood one will leave Belleview High School with a gold medal.
“She’s doing her best lift and I’m doing my best lift,” McMillan said. “We’re just kind of battling it out.”
In the year-plus since their first meeting, McMillan and Hewitt actually haven’t reunited in person. Instead they’ve built a relationship from afar, sending each other photos through Snapchat and discussing lifting techniques through text messages.
McMillan’s future is in Olympic-style weightlifting, which focuses on technique with snatch, and clean and jerk. Hewitt is a powerlifter with a sheer strength that suits her better during the high school season, which replaces snatch with bench press. When the two were together in Colorado, McMillan remembers Hewitt squatting nearly as much as some of the boys with five plates on each side and the bar bending so far she thought it’d break.
“She’ll probably destroy me in bench press,” McMillan said. “Nine times out of 10 — actually 10 times out of 10 — she’ll beat me in bench press.”
Still, McMillan is Manatee County’s best hope for a state championship during the two days of competition. She’s one of only two lifters from the county who won a region championship and is seeded No. 2 behind Hewitt in her weight class. Braden River’s Sierra Rawley, the area’s only other region champion, is seeded seventh, which would place her one spot out of earning a medal.
Manatee County state qualifiers Class 2A 101: Jenna Sypula, sr., Manatee 119: Maryah Collins, soph., Palmetto 129: Tessa Marquette, fr., Manatee 183: Elizabeth Atkinson, sr., Palmetto 199: Sierra Rawley, sr., Braden River Unlimited: Sha’la McMillan, sr., Palmetto; Fayth Walker, soph., Braden River Class 1A 139: Julianna Borkus, jr., Bayshore 183: Elisabelle Polynice, sr., Bayshore 199: Rachel Lopez, jr., Bayshore Unlimited: Alyssa Page, sr., Bayshore
With McMillan’s help, the Tigers are also in the midst of their best season in recent history. This is only Chris Atkinson’s first season as head coach, but he’s been a strength and conditioning assistant, and throws coach for the track and field program, for eight years. Palmetto’s three lifters reaching the state meet are the most he can remember.
Add in a rare preseason turnout — 27 lifters began the season for the Tigers — and the influence of athletes like McMillan and fellow state finalist Maryah Collins, who also identifies lifting as her primary sport, is evident. Atkinson doesn’t have an assistant coach, so McMillan and Collins are the de facto occupants of that vacant role. The result is Palmetto finishing the year with the county’s most 2A state qualifiers and second most overall behind Bayshore.
“If I have any questions about my technique, if I can’t do something, if I have a problem or any questions,” said Elizabeth Atkinson, Palmetto’s third state finalist and a team captain, “I usually ask them.”
Even if McMillan falls short of a state title, she’ll still have a chance to insert her name into the Florida High School Athletic Association’s history. McMillan has set her sights on a 270-pound clean and jerk, which would set the state record.
In the grand scheme of her international success, high school performance can seem dwarfed. The weight room at Palmetto High School, though, is where this burgeoning career began for McMillan as a freshman with no lifting experience, and the state clean and jerk record was one of the first goals she set. Thursday is a chance to bring her career full circle, even if it’s only with a silver medal.
“She’s been working very faithfully for the last four years,” Chris Atkinson said, “trying to get to this point.”
Girls weightlifting state championship schedule
Class 2A championship at Belleview High School, 10 a.m.
Class 1A championship at Belleview High School, 10 a.m.