By Don Trello
The Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
Sunlake senior girls weightlifter Alex Ruiz is on the brink of accomplishing her goal of setting a state record.
Ruiz, 17, tied a Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) record for a 119-pound competitor by bench pressing 175 pounds in a 12-team meet at River Ridge. The mark to beat was set in 2009 by Osceola’s Zanquina Ellison.
“I just focused on my technique and imagined it in my head,” Ruiz said about her record-tying effort. “I inhaled deeply then exhaled when the spotter let go. It was easy. I have 180 (pounds) in me.”
Sunlake coach Denise Garcia credits work ethic and dedication as reasons for the success Ruiz has as a lifter.
“Alex has lifted since she was a sophomore, and she loves it,” said Garcia, who is in her fifth season as coach. “She has the right body and mind-set and is technically very sound. … She caught my attention when she first came out her sophomore year. I could see it in her face. She has an outstanding work ethic.”
Ruiz became interested in lifting when a friend suggested she give it a try.
“At first I didn’t see it as a competition; I saw it as a hobby,” Ruiz said. “I started winning and started taking it seriously.”
Ruiz has compiled an impressive list of wins, going 18-4 in meets since her sophomore year.
She set a Sunshine Athletic Conference (SAC) record as a junior with a bench press of 160 pounds, but was disqualified a few weeks later in the first round of the state meet.
“I lost my temper and cussed on my second lift,” Garcia said about being disqualified. “It was mostly out of frustration. I had other things on my mind. … I found out after the meet my grandmother passed away. It was all a bad day.”
Ruiz stepped away from lifting following her disqualification, but returned to the sport after a two-month absence.
“I didn’t want to lift, but I convinced myself I had to come back stronger,” Ruiz said. “My coach was there from the start, and that was very important.”
Ruiz’s best lift in the clean and jerk is 160 pounds, just 10 off the state record. The overall state record at 119 for total weight, which includes the bench plus clean and jerk, is 340.
“(Alex) has a very good possibility to win the (state) overall,” Garcia said. “Nobody touches Alex. I think she can get a state record if she has a very clear head.”
Senior Natalia Valdes draws strength and confidence from Ruiz as a teammate and friend.
“I’ve known her for three years, and she is a really good friend,” said Valdes, who also competes at 119 pounds. “She’s inspirational and a nice person, but she works very hard and don’t like to lose. She doesn’t lose much.”
Up and coming sophomore teammate Jordan Travis, who lifts at 101 pounds, credits Ruiz with helping her improve.
“Alex gives pointers and encouragement,” Travis said. “She helps with technique, and I kind of look up to her.”
Ruiz said her workout regimen includes lifting at home and eating right.
“I eat clean,” Ruiz said. “I eat a lot of vegetables, peanut butter and honey, and I substitute soda with water. But I have a cheat day once in awhile depending on what I crave.”
The 5-foot-1, 116-pound Ruiz, who ran the 400-meter hurdles in middle school, doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a weightlifter.
“Boys look at me and ask if I’m a gymnast,” said Ruiz, who plans to compete in the shot put this track and field season. “I tell them I’m a weightlifter and they say, ‘No way.’ I get teased about having big muscles, but I’m just toned.”
Garcia said girls who participate in weightlifting are not muscle-bound individuals and are well-rounded away from lifting.
“This is now,” Garcia said. “I had six kids out my first year, now there are 20 to 25 girls in the program. They are girly girls, balanced between the physical and being girls.”
Ruiz’s plans after graduating include attending college and continuing to lift.
“Weightlifting has tremendously changed my life,” Ruiz said. “Older women look up to me. Lifting helps me build confidence.”
Ruiz and the Seahawks will look to defend their district championship Jan. 23 at River Ridge starting at 12:30 p.m. The state meet is Feb. 9 at the Kissimmee Civic Center.