Mike Powers | News-Bulletin photos
Belen’s Adam Aguilar is the second ranked 4A powerlifter in New Mexico.

Along with the clanging of barbells and the grunts and groans in the weight rooms at Belen and Valencia high school are more noises — the sounds of high fives and laughter.

This is powerlifting, soon to be the newest sport sanctioned by the New Mexico Activities Association.

Powerlifting emerged when COVID-19 first arrived “as a way to keep kids involved during the pandemic since meets could be held virtually with athletes only participating from their own gyms and campuses,” said Dillon Metzger, Powerlifting coordinator for the NMAA.

Thanks to an overwhelming response, powerlifting has gone from a temporary NMAA activity to an official activity and finally to a sanctioned sport starting in 2023-24. All this within a span of three years.

According to the NMAA, participation has grown from 268 to nearly 1,000 athletes and from 21 to 56 schools. The list includes Belen and Valencia, but not yet Los Lunas.

“It’s been going great,” said Valencia coach Jon Clafton of the program at VHS. “We’ve had a massive turnout. Probably about 20 kids have shown up daily.”

It’s a similar story at Belen High School.

“What I have here is a collection of athletes that do multi-sports,” said Eagles’ coach Ryan Tafoya. “Powerlifting is something that can positively benefit them and have an impact in what they do.”

And it’s not just traditional athletes.

“Just about anybody can do it,” Clafton pointed out. “We’ve had band kids; kids who have never done sports before. We have a very diverse population.”

Valencia High School’s Isabella Vigil has qualified for state in her first year powerlifting.

The Jaguars’ Isabella Vigil will compete at the state meet this weekend at Rio Rancho High School as the No. 2 ranked powerlifter at 132 pounds.

“I didn’t actually know that it was a sport or anything until my teacher said, ‘You’re like kind of strong. You should join the team,’” Vigil recalled. “OK, why not?”

Vigil’s eyes light up as she described the experience.

“I really liked it,” she said. “Dang, this is my sport. I am actually good at it.”

Barrel-chested, 220-pound Adam Aguilar, of Belen, is second ranked in 4A, and has a more traditional profile.

“I was already into weightlifting since I was in eighth grade,” Aguilar said. “I kind of hopped on it right away.”

And Aguilar’s initial reaction when the word got out?

“Wow, powerlifting at Belen? It shocked me at first.”

In some circles, weightlifting has a negative image, but not here.

“Once you get into competition it’s very positive. Everybody is cheering for everybody,” Clafton notes.

“Other students are seeing the fun that we’re having, just the enjoyment of getting a good healthy lift in and doing it properly to avoid injury,” adds Tafoya.

As a female powerlifter, Vigil has had plenty of encouragement.

“My dad thought it was like the coolest thing,” she said. “He’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.’”

“I don’t like to lose,” Vigil said of competing. “It just pushes me to do my best and to work hard.”

Aguilar emphasizes the focus needed.

The state powerlifting meet is Friday and Saturday at Rio Rancho High School

“It’s like you blank out. It’s just you and the bar,” he said. “It’s either staying down or moving all the way up.”

There are three events in powerlifting — squat, dead lift and bench press. The total weight lifted in all three is added together to determine placement.

At the state meet, boys compete in three classes — 5A, 4A and A-3A. Girls’ numbers are rapidly increasing, but for now there is just one class.

Valencia has qualified six athletes for state, Vigil, Nizhoni Apodaca, Elijah Duran, Cody DeBaun, Taedon Gibson and Ethan Alderete, who is No. 1 at 165 pounds.

In addition to Aguilar, the Belen Eagles going to state are Daniel Chilimidos and Ivander Wilson, who is No. 1 at 181 pounds.

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Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.