Four years ago, Nature Coast Technical freshman Kiana Lissette Espinal was like every other 14-year-old in high school – attempting to find her niche and just fit in.
A year later in math class she caved into one of her teacher’s pleas.
Her instructor, NCT’s girls weightlifting coach Sharon Elliott, was searching new lifters and simply asked Espinal, “We need more girls to come out. Why don’t you come out?”
It wasn’t like Coach Elliott had inside trader information. The Newwark, N.J.-born Espinal had never gotten under a bar. For that matter, when Espinal was at Powell Middle School, she didn’t participate in one sport.
Guided mostly by curiosity, Espinal and a friend named Emily checked out the Shark weight room one day.
According to Espinal, “Emily stunk,” she recalled. “Then when I did it, I benched 120 pounds with no form, no nothing. Suddenly people were cheering me on.
“At that point, I didn’t know how strong I was. I remember in my cleans, I could hardly do 80 pounds.”
But that one visit turned the needle of Espinal’s athletic compass, leading her to the selection as Hernando Today’s 2012-13 Lifter of the Year.
“It turned out that weightlifting was fun,” added Espinal. “I hit it off right from the start because I did so well. Suddenly I started getting attention and weightlifting became a cool concept.
“It’s funny, but looking back at it, I found something that I was good at – and that’s not always easy to do.”
From those humble beginnings emerged one of Hernando County’s fiercest competitors.
Espinal, who resides in Spring Hill with her father James Rowson and mother Maria, was one of the main cogs in the rise of the Lady Sharks’ program over the next three seasons.
According to Espinal, the biggest obstacle in her path was the proper technique in the clean-and-jerk.
“With the bench press, I knew I just needed to get under the bar,” recalled Espinal. “But with my cleans, I had to work to get the form down.”
Once she firmed up her technique, her ROI (return on investment) began to mount.
As a junior in 2011-12, Espinal competed in eight meets and captured first place seven times (Lecanto and The Villages dual meets; NCT and Springstead tri-meets; the Disparti Invitational, Hernando County Championship and District 5 Championship at Mitchell).
As a second-year lifter she paced the Lady Sharks with the highest total weight lifted at either 169 or 183 pounds.
Besides earning individual titles at Disparti, the Hernando County and District 5 meets, she qualified for the sport’s elite stage – the ninth annual FHSAA Finals at the Kissimmee Civic Center.
She departed Osceola County salivating for more following a 10th-place finish. Only the top six return home with a shiny medal.
On what motivated her, “Hard work beats talent. Once I started getting my form down, things began to click,” said Espinal. “I can’t lie; I loved the feeling of getting first place.”
On her initial state meet, “I walked in there the first time looking to get experience,” she said. “When I got there I realized I got to work harder. I didn’t expect a medal.”
In the summer between her junior and senior years, “I practiced every day in the room. I hardly took any time off before the season,” she said. “No one told me I had to be anywhere at a certain time or place; I was self-motivated.”
Going into her senior year this past winter, “I wanted be county champ again and I wanted our team to win it. It was about time,” she recalled. “As far as other goals, I wanted so much to win districts again and definitely place at states.”
This past winter, Espinal competed in a school-record nine meets. She concluded her third varsity season with stellar results notching a school-record eight wins (South Sumter, Hernando and Springstead duals; Citrus tri-meet, Central quad meet, Disparti, 12th Hernando County Championship at Central and District 5 at River Ridge).
For the second straight campaign, she led NCT lifters with the highest total weight hoisted at 169 and 183.
In her second state meet she just missed out on earning a medal at the FHSAA Finals by placing seventh at 169.
After Weeki Wachee’s Amber Lake’s 340-pound total, Espinal’s 325 ranked second-best this past season.
All told, Espinal participated in 24 career meets, notching a school-record 15 wins – all within the past two seasons.
Lifters marveled at her consistency.
Along her journey, the two-time Disparti champion, two-time Hernando County champion and two-time District 5 champion was voted All-County for the second time.
Area coaches overwhelmingly agreed the Espinal was the slam-dunk choice as Lifter of the Year.
“Kiana is the face of Nature Coast weightlifting. The other girls are striving to be like her,” described Elliott, who was feted as Coach of the Year. “It’s funny, but she didn’t lift as a freshman and she wasn’t satisfied after her sophomore season. …She kept pushing herself as a junior; I’m so proud of what she’s accomplished since (15 wins in her last 17 meets).
“Of all the people (this year), I figured she’d be the one to place at states. We all felt like she ended up on the toughest platform. It’s a shame when you get to states that all the judges aren’t the same. To me, she deserved a medal.”
“She worked so hard on her craft, it shows,” noted Springstead head coach Mike Garofano “She always had a great attitude and was always smiling.
“Outside of lifting, she’s just as good a person as she is a lifter.”
“Hands down the best lifter in the county. … She worked extremely hard to get there,” shared Hernando skipper Casey Ellis. “As a coach, she was always polite to the other girls and coaches; no one ever had a harsh word to say about her.
“I loved the relationship between Kiana and (Hernando senior) Victoria (Alderman). They were friends until the gym lights went on; then they were friendly rivals. After the meet, they were friends again. I loved to watch the two of them battle; I’m going to miss that.”
“I liked her intensity,” declared Weeki Wachee mentor Mike Fye. “She brought it with her in every meet she competed in. You only get to see someone like her every few years.”
“In my book, Victoria Alderman is a great lifter,” compared Central mentor Mike Einspahr. “But she couldn’t beat Kiana. Kiana’s track record speaks volumes for her.”
“It’s cool to be named Lifter of the Year,” said Espinal. “I feel like I’ve earned this. Going in, I thought it would be neck and neck with Victoria. Getting this kind of eases the sting of not getting a medal at states. I still can’t believe that ever happened.”
“Oh my gosh, I was so excited when we won at Central,” recalled the 18-year-old Espinal. “Really I was ecstatic. We knew how tough Springstead was. We all had our game faces on. We were not going to settle on being county runners-up again.”
On describing her relationship with Alderman, “In the beginning of the season I wasn’t thinking straight. I was literally shaking when she almost beat me,” recalled Espinal. “I knew when Victoria was there she was coming strong; I had to come stronger. I look at her as a teammate until the competition begins.”
On not placing at states as a senior, “Sure, it was disappointing,” she acknowledged. “I thought I could’ve placed as high as fourth, but I only got my first lift in.
“When I saw Victoria scratch out, I had to fight to control myself,” she recalled. “I went into states really confident. I was wondering why, according to the judges on our platform, why I couldn’t do it?
“It was ruled that I rolled my last lift. So I actually tied for fifth, but because of tiebreakers, I finished seventh overall,” remarked Espinal.
“It was crushing not to medal,” added Espinal. “I was really, really upset. Thank goodness I didn’t lose it with all those people there. Yeah, there was a lot of pressure. I prayed that I had worked for this, that I could not let myself down. For three years, this (medaling at states) is what I worked for.”
On whether she had any regrets, “I feel like the scoring wasn’t fair due to the judges on that platform,” noted Espinal. “A lot of coaches came up to me and congratulated me for not losing it.”
Espinal, who carries a 3.2 grade point average in the law cluster, aspires to work in forensics.
She’d like to begin her studies at Valencia Community College before transferring to the University of Central Florida.
Before departing the California Street campus, Espinal wanted to thank, “My coaches especially (assistant) Coach (Rudy) Story, who kept me sane, and my parents, who were so supportive.”
Espinal, who was named Class Clown, said, “I want to be remembered as not only someone who helped her teammates out, but someone who tried to make everyone laugh. Even in the worst of situations, I tried to find some humor.”
On what advice she would dole out to any potential lifter, “Don’t let whatever you max out at the first time discourage you,” stressed Espinal. “Always stay on your ‘A’ game. Weightlifting is something you can’t quit.”
By the Numbers: NCT’s Kiana Espinal in 2012-13
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
WGT OPPONENT BEN C&J TOT PL
169 South Sumter 140 150 290 1st
169 Hernando 140 155 295 1st
183 Central quad 140 160 300 1st
169 Disparti Invitational = 150 165 315 1st
169 Springstead 140 165 305 1st
169 Citrus tri-meet 170 155 325 1st
169 County Meet * 155 165 320 1st
169 District 5 Meet ^ 160 165 325 1st
169 State Finals $ 155 170 325 7th
= Denotes repeat Disparti Invitational champion.
* Denotes repeat county champion.
^ Denotes repeat district champion.
$ Denotes repeat state qualifier.