Weightlifting state championship draws big crowd, praise for Arnold

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - "The Forgotten Coast" is a registered trademark for the coastline stretching from Mexico Beach to Shell Point. When it comes to sports though, sometimes the panhandle feels like "the forgotten region."

Big schools are mostly south and east, so too are most state champions and most state championship sites...most.

Not all.

For the second year in a row, the state weightlifting series calls Panama City Beach and Arnold High School home, with boys battling in April and girls champions crowned last weekend.

It's a huge deal for area lifters. Mosley, Port St. Joe, Altha, Rocky Bayou and Holmes placed lifters in the top six.

Niceville (Melaina Bryant) and Arnold Emily Bennett and Sana Habib) had class champs and Arnold won the 1A team title by a single point.

It's also a big deal for the area in a broader sense.

Marlins coach Josh Flaig estimates more than a thousand spectators entered the gym each day. Tickets sold for $9 online and $12 at the gate. Lodging and dining off-site obviously benefit nearby businesses.

For the athletes, competing in your own back yard backed by the community's support at a time like this...that's priceless.

"The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) contacted me and said, 'Coach, do we need to give you a break from this since y'all have had this devastating disaster here?' And I said 'absolutely not," Arnold athletic director Rick Green said. "Panama City Beach needs this to kind of help renew and go back to what we used to be, a tourist attraction.'"

The effort twice a year for two years is worth it.

"It has been excellent. They love having it here."

That's largely true for competitors, the community, and the sanctioning body. FHSAA athletic director Frank Beasley praised Green and said the organization will meet with him to discuss potential for the event beyond 2019.

Things are looking up for the sport as well. Coaches surveyed agreed this was one of the toughest fields yet.

"Girls weightlifting has made tremendous gains," FHSAA official and Wewahitchka athletic director Bobby Johns said. "I was coaching when it was a recognized sport, before it was even official, and now it has actually surpassed the boys in the number of participants and the number of schools that are participating in it. These female athletes are amazing."

They are, perhaps none more so than Union County's entrant in the unlimited division.

15 year old Mahailya Reeves benched 360 pounds, smashing the state record by 55 and sending the full house in to a frenzy en route to a state title.

It was just one of many memorable moments over the weekend for lifters, their coaches, and Arnold High School.

Panhandle Placers:
101 lbs.
3rd Emily Oliver (Arnold)

119 lbs.
1st Sana Habib (Arnold)
2nd Nikki Richards (Altha)

129 lbs.
5th Yelena Nielsen (Mosley)

139 lbs.
1st Emily Bennett (Arnold)

154 lbs.
3rd Alicyn Grete (Rocky Bayou)
4th Victoria Fountain (Port St. Joe)
6th Gabriella Murley (Holmes)

169 lbs.
2nd Amerie Daniels (Arnold)

Unlimited Division
3rd Keyana Phillips (Mosley)