Rise Athletics: How competition and community forged a winning culture at Winter Garden gym

Rise Athletics finished first, second and third in three different team categories at the Florida Weightlifting State Championships.

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As a former rugby player, Rise Athletics owner and coach Mark Roberts always will view himself as an athlete. Because of his background, Roberts knows the impact a team sports environment can have on the people involved. 

So, when he and his wife and co-founder Jaimee Linehan opened their gym, they knew bringing the positive impact of team sports to an often-isolated sport in weightlifting would make the experience at their gym unique. 

That’s why they encourage the athletes who lift at Rise Athletics to compete in weightlifting as part of the Rise team. 

And it’s paying off.

Roberts and a gym-record 29 athletes from the Rise team competed in the Florida Weightlifting State Championships over Mother’s Day weekend and brought home 19 total medals, including seven golds.

In the overall team competitions, Rise Athletics’ youth men’s team (13- to 17-year-olds) finished in first place; the junior men’s team (18- to 20-year-olds) finished in second place in its class; and the senior women’s team (20- to 35-year-olds) finished in third. 

Alexander Trusi, one of Rise Athletics’ individual state champions, has seen firsthand how the combination of community and competition has forged this special environment. 

“The type of culture at this gym has been really helpful to my growth,” Trusi said. “At the same time that we’re helping (one another), I’ll see somebody hit a great lift and … immediately feel like I have to go and hit something good, too. So, it’s a cool balance that helps us push each other and support each other at the same time and that’s really beneficial.”

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Creating culture

“When (individuals are) all pushing themselves to get better and healthier, there’s almost like a cap on how hard individual people are going to push themselves,” Roberts said. “But when you look at people in a sports team context, it’s slightly different, because what you see is a group of people that usually tend to be very driven to a singular goal.

“To me, one of the big reasons that happens is that the people in that environment tend to see a competitive mindset in other people, and it draws out a level of competitiveness (in them),” he said. “In our gym, you see the impact the sports club here actually has on the people who aren’t in that weightlifting club. Just being near that competitive spirit in here pushes them to another level.” 

The competitiveness that comes from the team environment brings out another element those who have competed in team sports often cite as the thing they miss the most from the experience: the camaraderie and community.

“Most people who go to the gym to get their training in — they are doing it for themselves,” Roberts said. “But I think when you’re part of a sports team, you feel a sense of belonging that you might not get in regular gyms. That sense of belonging is about understanding your role in something bigger than just yourself. Like when your teammate is having a bad day, as a teammate, your role is about knowing that you can impact them and help them have a better day than they’re currently having. 

“That sort of responsibility within a team means that we all know that when one of us is having a bad day, there’s always going to be a teammate there that’s going to come and lift you back up,” he said. “That idea of a team takes the emphasis away from the individual and I think it brings it back to the collective momentum of the team and the collective culture of the team is what really makes community-based fitness great in the first place and takes what we’re doing to the next level.”

Rise together

Although Roberts and his team of coaches understand the value that team sports and competition bring to their environment, the gym doesn’t allow the competitiveness to turn toxic. 

Instead, they use competition to breed the camaraderie that has made it a special place. 

“This place is like a home away from home for me,” Trusi said. “It’s the only ... place other than my own home that I can go to where I know I’ll feel comfortable and welcomed and that I’m able to do what I enjoy.”

That sort of description of what Rise Athletics is like is evident among its clientele — from children as young as 8 years old and high school students to college-age adults such as Trusi to a group of lifters who are 50 years and older. 

Roberts knows his formula works because he insists on trying to make the gym a place where anyone, regardless of skill or fitness level, can thrive.

“What makes us really unique — and is also the hardest thing that we have to balance — is knowing who you’re coaching in that moment, because you can’t just approach everybody the same way,” Roberts said. “I’m very blessed to be leading a team of great coaches who also understand the need to coach the person in front of them. We all know how to switch hats when we need to and apply different coaching tactics to different people. 

“But I think, in the same way that we’re able to be flexible with the way we coach people, that mindset is also reflected in the way that people come in here, they understand the different levels that we offer and because of the variety of expertise we have, we’re able to meet them where they are and take them where they want to be.” he said.

Sam Albuquerque is the Sports Editor for the Orange Observer. Please contact him with story ideas, results and statistics.

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Sam Albuquerque

A native of João Pessoa, Brazil, Sam Albuquerque moved in 1997 to Central Florida as a kid. After earning a communications degree in 2016 from the University of Central Florida, he started his career covering sports as a producer for a local radio station, ESPN 580 Orlando. He went on to earn a master’s degree in editorial journalism from Northwestern University, before moving to South Carolina to cover local sports for the USA Today Network’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal. When he’s not working, you can find him spending time with his lovely wife, Sarah, newborn son, Noah, and dog named Skulí.

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