Challenger powerlifting program sharing burdens, building community

Photo: Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com

Challenger powerlifting program sharing burdens, building community

High School Sports

Challenger powerlifting program sharing burdens, building community

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ROCKAWAY – Michael Puzio has a goal. He wants to defend his first-place finish in the Lift It Up competition in May.

Puzio, a blind 25-year-old from Rockaway Township, also wants to improve his personal best. He bench-pressed 205 pounds at a recent Lift It Up training session at Morris Hills.

The key to success is practice, both at the Challenger powerlifting program and with his father, Rockaway Township Mayor Michael Puzio.

“Lift it Up is awesome. I’ve come a long way,” said the younger Puzio, an accomplished pianist.

“I’m going to tell my dad to take me to work out more. It’ll be easier to get stronger. Hopefully, I’ll turn into the Incredible Hulk at Lift It Up, so I can be strong all the time.”

Thomas Leonardis practices a chest press as his brother Joe Leonardis spots him during Lift it Up, a weightlifting program that pairs Challenger athletes with neurotypical buddies at Morris Hills High School on Saturday, April 20, 2019. (Photo: Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com)

Tony Lusardi launched what would become Lift It Up at his Rockaway gym in 1983, after working with students with special needs while in college in Vermont. He became an Area 3 Special Olympics director, with five athletes competing at Mendham High School.

Lusardi began closing the gym at 4 p.m. on Saturdays, and a van would bring Morris County Adaptive Recreation Program (McARP) athletes over for training. Over the years, the Park Lake School in Rockaway and Morris County Challenger League also got involved.

“Otherwise, he would be home,” Marialena Kearns said of her 19-year-old son, James, who also participates in Special Olympics Unified bowling, basketball and soccer.

“He’s a sports guy. It definitely helps him a lot, keeps him in shape. He loves doing exercise. The kids are fantastic.”

Willie Fischer lifts weights as Tony Lusardi gives instructions during Lift it Up, a weightlifting program that pairs Challenger athletes with neurotypical buddies at Morris Hills High School on Saturday, April 20, 2019. (Photo: Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com)

Lift It Up eventually outgrew Lusardi’s Health & Training Center.  The program moved to Morris Hills High School, where Lusardi was an assistant football coach focusing on strength and conditioning. It has been “adopted” by the Rockaway Township Police Athletic League, according to Morris Hills physics and astronomy teacher Frank Cappuccio.

“We don’t care where you’re from, what disability you have, what age you are,” Cappuccio said. “It’s one big family. Everybody supports each other. … The parents win. The athletes win. The volunteers win. It’s a winning situation for everyone.”

One of the smallest Lift It Up athletes, 23-year-old Devin Heymach of Budd Lake, is among the strongest. Heymach took the total weight title last spring, bench pressing 205 pounds and dead lifting 295.

Heymach, whose scraggly red beard makes him self-identify as a leprechaun, weighs just 130 pounds.

“I grew to that level,” he said. “I’m gifted, a once in a lifetime find.”

Devin Heymach practices as Patrick Narcise looks on during Lift it Up, a weightlifting program that pairs Challenger athletes with neurotypical buddies at Morris Hills High School on Saturday, April 20, 2019. (Photo: Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com)

Lusardi has “a dream of a 100-lifter event.”  He’s a quarter of the way there, with an almost one-to-one volunteer ratio.

“I’m making a difference. I get a sense of purpose,” said long-time volunteer Patrick Narcise, a Morris Hills alumnus currently earning a degree in exercise science and a personal-training certification at County College of Morris.

“(I’ve learned) what it really means to have heart. I think I have a crappy day, and I see the hardships these kids are going through. There’s kids I start to build a bond with. It’s really cool to see them develop.”

Staff Writer Jane Havsy: 973-428-6682; jhavsy@gannettnj.com; http://www.dailyrecord.com/writerjane/

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