GREEN COVE SPRINGS, Fla. — The clanking and slamming of weights you hear coming from the fieldhouse behind Clay High School? That's not the football team.
It's the up-and-coming girls' weightlifting team.
"I think people are starting to get past the stigma and stereotype of 'weightlifting makes you muscle-bound and less athletic," explained head coach Rodney Keller.
At least in Clay County they are.
The Lady Blue Devils have placed in the top-four at the State Championship meet each of the past two seasons. They've had seven State Champs / place-winners over the course of the last four years.
Perhaps the craziest part: most of these weightlifters didn't start until their sophomore year.
"I was walking down the hallway at the end of my freshman year... and [Coach Keller] comes up to me and he says 'you're a weightlifter," senior weightlifter Brooke Berger recalled.
Fellow senior Katie James was required to lift in the summers for volleyball training. Having moved to Clay from Washington, she had "no idea" weightlifting was even a sport until Keller encouraged her to further her training by joining the team. "The first meet, I remember standing there and he said 'okay, everybody who's competing, come stand over here.' I walked off in the opposite direction, and he grabbed me by the back of the shirt and said, 'you're competing today.'
James placed fifth in last year's State Championship. Berger was the runner-up at 129 lbs. and is expected to contend for a State title this weekend.
Keller knows 'em when he see's 'em.
"Most of my classes are 10th graders, so that's typically the age I get girls to come into the weight room," the AP History teacher-by-day explained. "A lot of the girls I teach and coach are multi-sport athletes .... and once they walk into the weight room and they start to embrace the process -- and they see it carry over into other things that they're doing -- it really starts to take a hold of their life. And they really gravitate to it."
"Not only has it made me stronger physically, but it's made me stronger mentally," senior and second-year weightlifter Abby Hawkins said. "The lessons instilled into me here carry over into every other sport that I play."
Berger takes it one step further.
"This sport has taught me literally everything I know. This coach and this program has taught me everything I know," she said.
And now, Berger and her fellow seniors will have one last chance to leave their mark at the State Meet. But Keller's message to the team is not to push harder, to fixate on winning.
It's to have fun.
"Look, you have worked so hard to this point, it is time you just go stand on a platform and let it rip," he said.
Berger, a former cheerleader, is prepared for the tears that may flow following her final lift. The college-bound weightlifter wouldn't change her path for anything; as someone "known as a weightlifter" around school, she's single-handily changed the narrative around the "weight room."
"To all the people telling me to just stick to being a cheerleader, weightlifting shouldn't be your thing -- 'you're too pretty for that!' -- it's just my time to prove 'em wrong."
Clay High School will compete in the Class 1A Championship on Saturday, February 9 in Panama City.
In addition to Berger and James, place-winners at State over the last few years include:
The Lady Blue Devils look forward to continuing to build the tradition of women's weightlifting at Clay and in the state of Florida.