Dan PearsonBy: J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola

Harmony weightlifter Harold Pineda may never be a state or conference champion. In fact, he most likely will never score a single point in official high school competition, but because of his courage, his determination and his willingness to step out of his comfort zone, Pineda is a valuable member of the Longhorns weightlifting team and will always be a champion in the eyes of his classmates, teammates and opponents.

Pinada was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect that results in the spinal cord not being covered by the bones of the vertebral column. Because of this, he has been confined to a wheel chair and has no functional use of his legs.

Still, the happy-go-lucky Pineda has adapted well to high school life. Making friends easily, he has served as a student manager on Harmony’s volleyball and basketball teams. But last fall, he wondered into the Longhorn weight room and asked Isaac Balado, a varsity lifter for the Longhorns, if he could help teach him some weight lifting techniques.

“I didn’t really know him, but I always saw him around school,” Balado said. “He shows up at the weight room one day and I introduced myself. He asked if I could help him and the next thing I know he’s showing up a lot. We became pretty good friends and he was really serious about learning. He was working really hard and I suggested he should go out for the weight lifting team.”

When school started, Pineda approached Head Coach Nick Lippert about trying out. “I would never, ever turn any kid away, so my immediate reaction was ‘yes, sure come on out’,” Lippert said. “But to be honest I was a little worried. Weightlifting is a sport where use of your legs is absolutely paramount. I’m thinking in my mind, if a kid in a wheel chair wants to participate in weightlifting, how in the world can we make this work?”

Lippert did not hear a word in months from Pineda and thought the subject was closed, until the first day of practice when Pineda wheeled his chair in the weight room and announced “Basketball is over Coach… I am ready to go.”

“Because I had not heard from him since August, I just assumed he was no longer interested and I scratched him off the list,” Lippert said with a laugh. “Turns out he is just a focused young man that had turned all his attention to his duties in volleyball in the fall and basketball in the winter.”

Still the veteran coach was worried about keeping Pineda safe.

The snatch and the clean and jerk disciplines in weight lifting require a technique where the legs play a major role in not only the motion but providing a stable foundation for the lift. Pineda would be required to use all arms and shoulders while bending over from an unnatural position to begin those two lifts.

Add to that, Pineda has to do these things from a wheel chair not specifically designed for sports. “As a coach, you’re always worried whether his chair is going to break or if wheel locks are going to fail. You want him to be as safe as possible.” Lippert said.

Even the bench press presented a challenge because unlike other lifters, Pineda could not keep his feet flat on the floor for a stable base. “Usually you have one spotter on the bench, we have to use three for Harold, with one additional man on either side to brace his hips so he doesn’t slide off the bench,” Lippert says. “This is a tough sport without being disabled, the fact that he is competing in all three phases is simply remarkable.”

On top of just competing, Pineda continues to improve. When he started, his top bench press was 110. He lifted 155 in last week’s junior varsity Orange Belt Conference meet and has cleared 160 in an earlier meet. For reference, the winning lift in his weight class was 205, while third place was 160. He also hit personal bests of 70 in clean and jerk and 60 in the snatch in the meet.

Although the numbers in the clean and jerk and snatch would most likely never place in a varsity meet, it is the not even a consideration for Pineda, his coaches and his teammates.

“Frankly, he is not only my friend, but Harold is my hero,” Balado – who is expected to challenge for a Conference championship and advance in state competition this year – says. “He is doing something that he physically should not be able to do and that by definition is the ‘No Excuses’ attitude of a great athlete. But the main thing is he works like crazy to get better every day and that is what inspires me and the rest of the team.”

“He’s an incredible inspiration to not only his teammates but the entire student body,” Lippert added. “How easy would it be for anyone in that situation just to sit around, do nothing and feel sorry for themselves? Instead he’s always involved in something at school. He sets an example that if you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything.”

For Pineda being part of a team is fun, but he understands he can also serve as a role model. “I love helping out the volleyball and basketball teams, but this is way better. I have an opportunity to get out there and compete,” he said. “But if I can also provide a message to others with disabilities, I know it’s important. Too often disabled people do not try things because someone is telling them they can’t do it or they even feel themselves like they can’t do it. Whether barriers come from others or within, disabled people need to be shown you can do anything you want to.”

Pineda, who says he would like to pursue a career in medicine after college, has one goal in weightlifting before he graduates. “Before I finish, I’m going to hit 200 on the bench press,” he says.

Once you meet him, you would probably be safe not to bet against him.