Winter Springs weightlifter raises money for toddler leukemia patient

A weighlifter's special burden

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  • | 1:26 p.m. November 14, 2014
Photo by: Tim Freed - Justin Prince reaches out to17-month-old Gavin Leiba after raising money for his leukemia treatments.
Photo by: Tim Freed - Justin Prince reaches out to17-month-old Gavin Leiba after raising money for his leukemia treatments.
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Most power lifters call it ‘the zone’ – the state of mind you have to reach to lift something almost three times your own body weight. It’s the place inside a lifter’s head where nothing else matters besides the steel barbell in front of them. Everything else gets pressed out: all the distractions, eyes watching, voices screaming.

Winter Springs resident Justin Prince calls it “going to heaven.”

Led Zepplin’s “Whole lot of Love” hums in the background through a row of small speakers at the Strong Life Training Facility in Melbourne as Justin prepares to soar above the clouds. At least 100 spectators whoop and holler from their seats as he steps up to a dark red squat rack, his hands and shoulders freshly caked in white chalk.

It’s the RAW United North American Championships, and there’s something greater at stake than personal glory here.

The 31-year-old stomps each foot firmly on the black rubber mat beneath his feet and ducks his head under the bar. His eyes close for a moment before gripping the bar, stretching himself as tall as he can and lifting the bar off the rack and onto his shoulders.

Justin’s world becomes 450 pounds heavier.

He keeps his knees locked under the enormous weight while his eyes stay fixed on judge Jack Stevens, sitting directly in front of him with his right hand raised in the air.

“Squat!” Stevens yells through gritted teeth clenching a toothpick, throwing his right hand down to his side.

Justin takes a deep breath, holds it in his diaphragm to tighten the muscles in his back, and squats down.

The man nicknamed “the Prince of Barbells” must have done the squat lift hundreds of times over the past 12 weeks at the Oviedo YMCA. Shaky, wobbling movements in Justin’s legs disappeared as he grew stronger and encoded muscle memory.

But today Justin carried more on his shoulders than the line of heavy plates to his right and left. He knew that every pound he carried brought a greater sense of relief for someone else.

The Winter Springs power lifter used his strength for a greater purpose on Oct. 18 as he led a campaign to raise money for the youngest spectator at the meet that day: 17-month old leukemia patient Gavin Leiba from Orlando.

Justin volunteered to lend his own strength to support Gavin and his family through Reps 4 Remission – a fundraiser he created where supporters can either donate money or pledge a set amount per pound that Justin lifts at the big meet.

For more information on how to support Gavin and his family, visit

All of the funds go toward Gavin’s treatment and supporting his family. And for every pound more that Justin lifts, more support goes to saving Gavin.

Up until this summer, power lifting had simply been Justin’s route to a healthier lifestyle. He lifted competitively growing up in Ohio – coming out to meets during his high school and early college years from 1998 to 2004 – but a jarring tackle during a friendly rugby match left the Wittenberg University alumnus with two slipped discs in his lower back.

Doctors told Justin he could never power lift again, and that’s when his weight started to climb.

Justin quickly gained 60 pounds as his eating habits were thrown off course by the new change in lifestyle.

It took a telling moment at the dinner table of his Winter Springs home in March of 2013 for Justin to realize something needed to change.

“I remember sitting down at the supper table and my size 38 pants no longer would accommodate my gut,” Justin said. “I had to unbutton my pants just to eat my supper – that was the end-all be-all.”

Justin chose to lift anyway, and over the next five months he saw his body transform, going from 230 pounds down to 197 pounds.

His back was mended as well – Justin used a series of exercises targeting the lower back and slowly built up muscle tissue for added support.

Justin was competing at meets again by July 2013.

But almost a year later, Justin heard a voice. It was a routine workout at the Orlando Downtown Recreation Complex when Justin realized his passion for lifting should benefit someone else.

The voice came from God, Justin said.

“I’m sitting there on a power elliptical getting warmed up and the Lord spoke to me,” Justin said. “I don’t claim to hear from him very often – only in a few times in my life have I ever had that type of experience.”

“Basically the message was ‘You wanted better health … I gave you everything you needed … I did this so you could serve others.’”

Justin didn’t know where to start at first, but it wasn’t long until he heard of Gavin’s story at the dinner table through Cara Santos, a family friend and a nurse at the Orlando Regional Medical Center.

He learned about the Leiba family and the struggles of chemotherapy treatment for their young son. He learned how Gavin was only 10 months old when he was diagnosed with leukemia and spent his first birthday inside the cold walls of a hospital.

Gavin also struggles with maintaining an appetite, and is given special medication to help him eat.

“It just tore me up,” Justin said.

“You’re talking about a kid that will be 2 years of age and never have a memory where he was feeling good…That almost made me break down thinking of that.”

Justin kick-started Reps 4 Remission and began spreading the word.

The response to the campaign exploded, with Justin receiving more than 50 donations and pledges leading up to the power lifting meet on Oct. 18.

The fundraiser has even seen support from national celebrities. Big fans of the San Francisco 49ers, the Prince family reached out to the team about their mission and sent them a Reps 4 Remission wristband.

Just a week later, the family received a photo of quarterback Colin Kaepernick sporting the orange band around his wrist.

Justin and his family managed to a get wristband to Larry the Cable Guy as well, who sent back a photo of his own.

The campaign has given the Leiba family a greater sense of hope while Gavin fights his leukemia, said Jason, Gavin’s father.

“To have someone that we didn’t know care so much for our son who we’ve never even met or seen in person was just overwhelming for us,” Jason said.

“I have permanent goose bumps…it’s amazing to know that someone could be so kind and so caring.”

But it’s also given the Leiba family the strength they need to press on, he said.

“Justin is probably motivated by watching Gavin push through it…We find ourselves inspired a lot by Justin’s strength,” Jason said. “It inspires us to be stronger parents. The night before last night I was dreaming I was at work and watching a PowerPoint presentation for a business plan and the word ‘leukemia’ kept popping up.”

“I woke up just crying. There are days where my wife and I say ‘Can we do it? Can we get out of bed?’…Things like what Justin is doing make us say ‘You know what? He’s going to the gym today to work out and to raise awareness of what our son is going through. The least we can do is push through, get up, make breakfast and be strong parents.’”

The Leiba family looked on with Justin’s wife and parents at the Strong Life Training Facility as 12 weeks of hard work came to a head for Justin.

He struggled with the bench press, failing to lift 300 pounds, but quickly refocused and barely pushed the weight up on his second attempt.

Justin’s final lift: the deadlift, an exercise that puts the most strain on any power lifter’s back, especially Justin’s.

But that doesn’t faze the Prince of Barbells. He’d be shooting for 500 pounds, a weight he’d only pulled up in his dreams – 10 pounds heavier than his max.

“I’ve told everybody ‘I don’t care if my arms fall off, I’m pulling up 500,’” Justin said before the meet. “’I don’t care if I pass out or if I bust every blood vessel in my eyeballs, 500 is coming up.’”

The moment when 500 pounds slowly rose from the ground came only as a blur for Justin. He remembered the crowd cheering, the relief of setting it down and the shrieking lead guitar lines of Aerosmith’s “One Way Street” in the background.

Justin had hit his personal mark of 1,250 total pounds, but more importantly it meant more than $6,000 would be given to the Leiba family.

“It’s real...,” Justin said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Justin describes powerlifting as something unique compared to other sports. You’re competing against yourself, not someone else, he said. It’s about facing your inner demons and striving to hit personal records and milestones.

He always found other power lifters were encouraging, helping him get fired up for his next lift.

The man nicknamed the Prince of Barbells approached the 17-month-old held in his father’s arms and saw someone carrying a weight far greater than he could ever imagine or hope to bear.

Gavin chases after personal records of his own, but in the form of doctor’s reports and successful treatments. One of his latest milestones: standing for the first time on his own at a Barnes and Noble, trying to reach a Thomas the Tank Engine train set.

Justin realizes that baby Gavin may not remember the day’s events, but that’s alright with him, he said. The power lifter from Winter Springs instead looks forward to the future, a future with a healthy Gavin.

He looks forward to watching Gavin grow. To see him blow out birthday candles year after year.

Justin plans to continue holding annual fundraisers for Gavin, and possibly recruit more lifters to aid more children in need.

In reality, Justin said, Gavin has done just as much for him in return.

“When I started powerlifting in general, I took the approach that this couldn’t be just a physical transformation, it had to be a spiritual transformation,” Justin said. “Powerlifting had to help me be a better father, a better husband, a better person, a better man.”

“God brought Gavin into my life to help develop that strength.”

Following his final lift, an emotionally and physically exhausted Justin holds out a chalky hand toward Gavin.

“High five?” he asks.

Baby Gavin extends his arm, wrapped in an orange wristband, and touches Justin’s palm with a tiny index finger. Gavin and Justin’s families surrounded them, and for just a brief moment, an overwhelming burden seemed a little easier to carry.


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