Weightlifting phenom Mahailya Reeves, 15, is raising the bar

Eric Adelson

Union County High School freshman Mahailya Reeves wants to become the strongest woman in the world.

UNION COUNTY, Fla. -- Bryan Griffis will never forget that Friday. A grinning girl with her thick hair pulled into a pretty ponytail strode up to him in her T-shirt and jeans and politely asked whether she could come to weightlifting practice. The sport is still relatively new on the women's side, but Griffis had trained girls plenty, so he said sure. He invited the girl to come to the weightlifting room the next day, and he asked her to start with some back squats using an empty, 45-pound bar. This is where most novices begin and where they struggle, as the bar is heavier than first-timers expect and it can be unwieldy.

Mahailya Reeves handled it fine; she was balanced and poised, heels stapled to the floor, eyes straight ahead. Griffis was a little taken aback. He added some light weight. The girl squatted again, and she wasn't winded or anything. Mahailya's older sister, Mia, had competed for Griffis, but this was striking. The coach added more weight: 90, 100, more.

Before the end of that first session, Mahailya squatted 125 pounds.

She was 10 years old.

Five years later, Mahailya is still stunning her coach. On a chilly day in late January, she gathered in a coach's office with Griffis, who has a ZZ Top beard and a Monster-energy-drink vibe. Then there's the Union County High School football coach and athletic director, Ronny Pruitt, who has begged her to join the varsity football team. And there's Gerard Warren, her second cousin and former third overall NFL draft pick, who is arguably the most famous athlete to come from this part of Florida ... for now.

Mahailya has her hair pulled up, in a bun tinted pink. She has an expressive face, softening into a smile or narrowing into a skeptical side-eye glance.

"I want to become the strongest woman in the world," she says.

It's the kind of silly thing kids say, except that it's already teetering on the possible.

On Saturday, Mahailya (pronounced ma-HAIL-yah, though some of her friends say "ma-HELL-yeah") will compete at the Florida High School Girls Weightlifting State Championships for the first time, at age 15. She has a plan: to bench-press 370 pounds and to clean and jerk 250. The people in this room expect her to do it, and just recently she benched 355 in a video that caromed around social media. If she succeeds in the highest weight class, her total weight for the meet will be 620 pounds. That would eclipse the state record by nearly 100 pounds. And if she does clean and jerk 250, "Big Ru" -- as she is known to her family -- will be within six pounds of the mark that won the National Youth Championships last year. That girl, who won with 255.7 pounds, was 17 years old.

So the conversation in this coach's room is lively and fun, full of what-ifs and imagine-thats. A top executive from USA Weightlifting called the school recently as part of its Transitional Athlete Program (TAP), and although 15-year-old girls chase Olympic medals in figure skating, it's much rarer in weightlifting.

According to USA Weightlifting, any athlete identified in its TAP who wants to pursue a competitive career in Olympic weightlifting would, with his or her coach, link up with a USA Weightlifting-certified coach at a USA Weightlifting-sanctioned club. There the athlete could refine his or her Olympic weightlifting movements.

"We are constantly on the lookout, both online and in person across the country, for strong athletes and those we think would be very successful in our sport," USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews.

Mahailya is interested in the Olympics but wants to focus on academics in the short term.

"I'd love for her to bench 400 this year, in the ninth grade," Griffis says.

"She's gonna pass me," Warren says, and that's just crazy coming from a 6-foot-4, 300-plus-pound former New England Patriots starter.

But there's another part of the conversation, too, and it's part of why the former football star is here.

Mahailya will tell you all about the joys of weightlifting. When you ask her what she likes to do when she's not weightlifting, she'll say, "Weightlifting!" She'll tell you about how she "blacks out" when she lifts, so zoned into the effort that she doesn't remember it until the bar is back on the rack. Then she'll look at it and think, "I actually just did that! Did I just do that?!" It's an otherworldly power, and it's growing almost by the day.

And yet the impossible things she does will probably be the easiest part.

"Growing up fast, having the responsibility of being the best," Warren says. "All eyes are on you, good and bad. And just as many people want you to succeed as want you to fail."

Mahailya has learned that even before she's learned to take her mom's car out on the highway.

Once, when she was 2 years old, little Mahailya was thirsty. She opened the refrigerator in her mom's house and saw a carafe of fruit punch mixed with ginger ale. She reached in, lifted the jug, and waddled over to the kitchen table with it. Before she got there, and before her mom could stop her, Mahailya had spilled the juice everywhere.

"How did she even make it that far?" her mom marveled. That was the first time Michelle Reeves realized just how strong her baby was.

Michelle named her youngest after the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The girl shared some of the flair of the artist, volunteering to sing a gospel song at the high school at age 3. (The local newspaper wrote about it.) But Mahailya, like her mom, is somewhat shy at heart. She loves to hang out with her cousins in her spare time.

"I've never been a spotlight person," Michelle says, acknowledging she was nervous doing an interview with a reporter.

Mahailya was similar in that way, but she would prove too talented to stay in the shadows.

Eric Adelson

Reeves' second cousin, former New England Patriots starter Gerard Warren, was brought in to protect Mahailya from the added attention.

Lots of parts of Florida are picturesque, but this part is uniquely so. The hills roll more than most parts of the state, allowing small vistas from the ribbons of roads. Lake Butler can be placid like a marina or it can whip into a frenzy, depending on the day. This is a part of Florida with lots of space and not a lot of people, and those who live here speak of Jesus and family with a ready nod.

But it's hard here, too. Union County is among the state's poorest. The main industry is the state prison only 15 minutes from the high school. Death row is up there, along with a medical center, and it skews the statistics to make the county's mortality rate the nation's highest. As if to punctuate the point, there's a cemetery right next to the school, right across a narrow roadway from the athletic fields. Even Pruitt, the football coach, is a walking testament to life's fragility. In 2016, he contracted the H1N1 virus and spent one month in a coma.

So with everything there's a fresh hope and a tinge of angst. That's the case with Mahailya, too. When asked what she loves about weightlifting, one of the first things she says is, "It's my way out."

It's also the world's way in. When video of Mahailya benching 355 hit social media a few weeks ago, there was a deluge of reaction. A lot of it was effusive, overjoyed. Some of it was mean and worse. Mahailya saw it all.

"When I started looking at the comments," she says, "it was a whole bunch of people talking nasty."

She is so strong, so sure, that it can be easy to forget how sweet and sensitive she is. She calls the attention "overwhelming." Almost immediately after being greeted by the kind of public praise rarely bestowed on a teenager, Mahailya decided to pass her social media account to her sister to handle.

"The love is the best part," Mahailya says. "The hate ... when you start reading the hate, you question yourself sometimes. 'Why am I doing this?'"

The coaches called a meeting with Mahailya and her mom, and told them that parts of this chase would be rough. The expected parts -- athletic greatness -- would be a rush. The unexpected parts might be confusing and painful.

"I just wanted them to be aware," Pruitt says. "There's a lot of attention coming -- faster than I think they thought. And it has."

Mahailya says her dad recently reached out after years of little interaction.

"Why weren't you in my life before any of this happened?" she recalls thinking. "I tried to contact him and saw him once, that was five years ago. I don't try to contact him anymore."

This is part of why Mahailya's mom brought in Warren. Her daughter needed an extra layer of support, especially after the unexpected death of her aunt Dru last September. The two were very close, the aunt teaching her how to drive.

"She's ahead of that [learning] curve because of who she is," Warren says. "But it's good and bad. You have to block a lot out. When she set on this mission, she was not a social media star, so we're not going to let that affect anything. That's the reason why I'm here now. That's why her mother called me. This thing is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. My main thing is protecting Mahailya."

In some ways, she can't be protected. And in some ways, she doesn't want to be. She doesn't want to miss a chance to raise more than just barbells and plates. "She has gotten me through heartaches," close friend Lorina Kelley says. "She will stop everything and be there for you."

A few weeks ago, Mahailya decided she wanted to post something on her social media: a call for help for Griffis' son, Dustin, who is in need of a new kidney. Within days, several people in the community went to get tested to see if they were a match. Mahailya wants to do good, not just do well. She knows this is her chance.

"Sometimes people say, 'Oh! You Mahailya! Oh you the girl that lifts!'" she says. "I'm always like, 'Thank you.' I don't know what to say sometimes. So I just give them a hug and go on about my day."

"Sometimes I don't want to be bothered," she says, "but I have to put on a smile."

Then she smiles, ready to put a little more onto her shoulders for the next lift.

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