Sunlake girls weightlifting coach earns statewide honor

In her decade-plus long tenure as the Sunlake High girls weightlifting coach, Denise Garcia has racked up her fair share of achievements.

Some of the biggest came this year alone.

Back in February, Garcia guided the Seahawks to the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Class 2A state championship — marking the program’s first-ever team weightlifting title.

Sunlake High girls weightlifting head coach Denise Garcia hoists the Class 2A state championship trophy at the 2019 Florida High School Athletic Association state meet in Panama City. Garcia has coached the school’s girls weightlifting program for 11 years. (Courtesy of Denise Garcia)

The veteran coach groomed eight lifters who competed in this year’s state meet. Six earned state medalist honors by placing among the top six individual finishes. The awards came across various weight classifications.

All told, the Seahawks registered 22 points collectively to defeat second-place Vero Beach High, which finished with 19 points.

Sunlake’s title also marked the end of the sport’s longest active streak of consecutive team state championships, which had been held by Navarre High School. Navarre had claimed four titles, from 2015 through 2018. This year, Navarre tied for seventh place.

Garcia’s efforts earned her the distinction of being named Florida Dairy Farmers Girls Weightlifting Coach of the Year. The award was announced last month.

Despite her program’s memorable 2019 campaign, Garcia remains taken aback by the designation as the state’s top girls weightlifting coach.

“As far as me getting this award, it’s a total surprise. It’s amazing, because there’s so many great coaches out there,” said Garcia, who wrapped up her 11th year as Sunlake girls weightlifting coach.

The recognition is always nice, of course.

But, for Garcia, it’s more important to see her high school lifters reach their potential and succeed in competition.

The coach put it this way: “All the awards you get, it all means a lot, (but) you don’t do it for getting an award, you do it for your team and to make them better. You do what you’re supposed to do for the team.”

Garcia praised her athletes — past and present — for being coachable and working hard along the way.

“I’ve just been blessed and I’m lucky enough to have girls with a good work ethic that want to learn, that want to buy into my program, and you see what happens,” Garcia said.

Under head coach Denise Garcia, the Sunlake varsity girls weightlifting team won its first-ever state crown. The Seahawks took eight lifters to the state meet, six of whom earned medalist honors on the way to the Florida High School Athletic Association’s Class 2A state title.

The coach outlined the recipe for success in the sport: “It’s a balance. It’s a balance of good work ethics, your program, being coachable. It’s just an everyday thing. They need to listen. It’s this formula they have to have. It’s got to be the whole, total package.”

Garcia said most of the girls she coaches initially begin with little background in weightlifting. Often, they discover a passion for the sport.

In Florida, high school weightlifters compete in the bench press and clean-and-jerk.

“It’s just teaching from the bottom up, and they absolutely fall in love with weightlifting,” Garcia said. “It’s something about weightlifting, and once they get hooked, that’s it.”

Garcia herself got her first taste of weightlifting as a student at Leto High School in Tampa. A softball and volleyball player, she learned “old-school” weight training techniques from the likes of FHSAA Hall of Fame coach and athletic director Vernon Korhn, and others.

“It’s just old-time coaches that would let me go in the weight room and work out, and I just fell in love with it,” she said.

Garcia figured she could take her knowledge of pumping iron and develop a program for girls when she was hired to work at Sunlake.

“I was like, ‘My god, I can do something with this program.’ I love weightlifting, so I put something together and there it is, it worked out,” said Garcia.

Garcia said she will be coaching the team again next year.

It’s frankly a no-brainer, with a roster that expects to return all but two of its individual state qualifiers from last year.

That includes rising junior Madison Guincho and rising seniors Gianna Levy, Juliette Pacheco, Abigail Schmook, Antoinette Farmer and Brianna Caban.

There’s also other up-and-coming lifters in the program, Garcia said, that could help Sunlake repeat as state champs.

“We have a lot of talent on this team,” the coach said.

And, besides the possibility of securing another state crown, Garcia hopes to witness one of her own lifters be named Florida Dairy Farmers Miss Weightlifting. Vero Beach senior Jayda Jenkins earned that honor this year after claiming the Class 2A individual state title at 119 pounds.

“That would be awesome. Oh my gosh, that would be awesome,” Garcia said.

The Florida Dairy Farmers High School Sports Awards program annually honors the state’s top athletes and coaches in all 30 FHSAA sanctioned and recognized sports. The program is in its 27th year.

Published May 22, 2019

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