Sha’la McMillan completes rapid rise with national lifting records

Sha’la McMillan, a record-setting youth lifter, pauses during a training session Friday at City Fitness in Bradenton.
Sha’la McMillan, a record-setting youth lifter, pauses during a training session Friday at City Fitness in Bradenton.

Sha’la McMillan’s record-breaking performance wasn’t the end of a thrilling weekend for Tyler Peacock. The head coach at Full Circle Performance checked his phone while he and his youth lifters stood inside Tampa International Airport after a weekend at the USA Weightlifting National Youth Championship in Texas. Across the world at the junior national championship, a hallmark day for American weightlifting had just concluded.

While McMillan broke two more youth records, her friend C.J. Cummings had set some of his own on the world stage. “Hey,” Peacock said, trying to get McMillan’s attention, “did you see what C.J. did?” She hadn’t.

“He broke the world record,” he told her, “and became world champ.”

McMillan simply shrugged and walked away. “OK,” she said, as if it wasn’t anything because she really didn’t think it was.

“I’ve met very, very few athletes — even some of the people that have done great things — that have almost an insane expectation of results,” Peacock said later in the week from inside City Fitness gym in Bradenton. “That almost insane belief for what a human can do is very, very important, and she has that.”

Reasonable expectations haven’t applied to McMillan during her three years as a competitive weightlifter. She qualified for the youth nationals after less than a year of lifting and knocked off a reigning champion to win an improbable national title and qualify for the United States’ world team. By the time she made her third trip to the youth national championships in June she had claimed a pair of American records, and with a dominant performance in Austin she now holds all four in her division.

If all goes according to plan, her upcoming season could bring even more accolades. She’s in a position to qualify for the National Junior Championships and will be an overwhelming favorite to claim a Class 2A state championship for Palmetto as a senior after missing her junior year with an elbow injury.

“When I first started I had the goal to break the state record,” McMillan said. Her numbers right now would shatter it.

The local stage

McMillan slapped the number on her bedroom wall. Two hundred and forty. Two hundred and forty pounds. The Florida high school clean and jerk record. She didn’t have any experience lifting weights before joining the Tigers as a freshman in 2013. She didn’t care.

“I had it on my wall,” McMillan said, “because I wrote my goals on my wall.”

McMillan went to PHS hoping she would finally get a chance to play football. She grew up playing tackle football with her older brother, James, even though her mother never would let her play competitively. When McMillan reached high school her mother finally relented. The eventual national champion joined the Palmetto freshman team.

Her raw strength and athleticism made her more than just a contributor along both lines, she logged a handful of starts on defense.

Her football career, however, didn’t last long. Just as quickly as her mother gave her the OK she reneged. McMillan left the team after the season with uncertainty. She didn’t have a plan for the winter or spring seasons, until girls weightlifting head coach Jennifer Stevens approached her about joining the team.

Her earliest lifts, she remembers, were shaky. Her clean and jerk hovered around 165 pounds. Two hundred and forty seemed a distant dream.

But Peacock, a former Tiger weightlifter who was volunteering with the girls team at his alma mater, watched and saw a path. He had heard she was a football player in the fall, but tried to go into the season without any sort of expectation. After a few lifts, he formed one.

“There are a lot of kids in high school that are better than her just because their bigger, but she’s not just bigger. She’s also fast, also explosive,” Peacock said. “It was an educated guess, but when I saw her move I thought, Man, she could be great.”

The national stage

Before his homecoming, Peacock was a cog in Florida State’s track and field machine. He spent three years as the strength and conditioning coach for the Seminoles, coaching national champions during all three of his years in Tallahassee.

He learned from watching the FSU coaches, too. Their recruiting strategies, in particular, still stand out. Talent evaluation is simple in some cases — you take the athletes with the best numbers and best highlight reel.

There are always extenuating circumstances, though. Sometimes someone is excelling with poor technique and there’s room to grow. Sometimes the body structure and control is there even if the results aren’t. There’s a bare canvas to work with.

“Sometimes the person with the best highlight reel doesn’t necessarily have the intangibles of someone great,” Peacock said. “With Sha’la, when I saw her the first time move around with the bar, she definitely had those intangibles.”

He took on McMillan’s development as a personal project. He built her up with more and more advanced techniques. She won every meet she competed in during the regular season.

A breaking point came at the district championship. Peacock’s demands became too complex. McMillan was finally stumped and posted one of her worst lifts of the season, bowing out during the first round of the postseason in January 2014.

“She’s not surprised when she lifts a new record. She’s disappointed when she doesn’t,” Peacock said. “The hard part almost becomes dealing with the fact that she gets frustrated over things that she shouldn’t be.”

Peacock worried he’d lost McMillan’s trust. Still, he insisted they start training for youth nationals. McMillan obliged.

Weightlifting at the high school level and international level are different sports. Both include the clean and jerk, but the second lift differs. In high school it’s a bench press. In international lifting it’s the snatch.

She trained for about six months at Full Circle, learning a snatch from scratch and preparing for the youth national championship in June. She was the second overall lifter in her age group. She was off to the World Youth Championships

The world stage

The news was a shock to McMillan’s mother.

“Uh, she needs a passport,” Peacock said. Sandra Washington asked why. McMillan had only been lifting for a few months. Her rise was stunning.

“She’s going to do big things,” Peacock told her. “She needs a passport.”

McMillan, in typical fashion, was lackadaisical. A month later, McMillan if she had gotten her passport yet. She hadn’t.

“Are you serious?” she remembers Peacock growling at her. “We have three weeks!”

She did eventually get the documentation and set off for Peru, where she finished ninth while setting a personal record.

She’ll compete at the world championship for a second time in October and should also secure a spot at the National Junior Championships during the fall.

Through it all, though, her first goal — the state record — remains elusive, only now it’s inevitable. Her clean and jerk youth record sits at 117 kilograms — more than 257 pounds.

“I thought it was hard,” McMillan said, “and now I’m like at 257, so I’m like, What the heck?”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2